Friday, March 12, 2010

Match-making in the Regency: The Outinian (Matrimonial) Society

If you thought that dating agencies were a 20th century innovation, think again. In 1818, the Outinian Society—originally called the Matrimonial Society—was actively involved in promoting successful marriages between select and approved parties.

This medallion bears a Greek motto on one side and a picture of the grandfather of Society's founder (William Penn) on the other.

It all began in 1815. A poem entitled “Marriage”—extolling the virtues of early and happy nuptials—was published. The author was anonymous. The poem was embraced by the public as being full of proper sentiment, “at once a moral and elegant production”. I have been unable to locate a copy of the work itself, but it apparently referenced John Milton’s views of marriage from Paradise Lost in its opening lines, and I imagine it built on those fulsome views.

We might today find those thoughts a little grandiloquent and overblown, and it seems that a group of gentlemen in 1817 did also. They proceeded to lampoon the poem, and the institution of marriage, to such an extent that John Penn, a bachelor of fifty-eight at the time, was moved to form a “matrimonial society”. He issued a prospectus for the organization and actively solicited applicants for membership. Penn was a grandson of William Penn and spent considerable time in America before settling permanently in Britain. He quickly garnered a groundswell of support for his new venture from his wide acquaintance.

The group was patriarchal in nature, formed of like-minded gentlemen who hoped for the “final discontinuance ...of those hasty, unpremeditated marriages which (cause) unhappiness.” They had the audacity--to modern eyes--even to prepare a “Table Shewing the Exact Situation in Life and personal Qualities of Known Marriageable Ladies.” They then invited these ladies to their lectures, with a view to “turning the discourse upon topics relative to their common object”. In 1818 the name of the society was changed to the “Utinian” or “Outinian Society”, a name taken from the Greek motto of the group and from some references to a quotation from Homer’s Odyssey. The change was made I think partly to deflect criticism of its aims, for at the same time, they spoke a little less about their original matrimonial endeavours. From its first six lectures in London in 1818 the Society went on for the next four years to hold lectures across England from Bath to Windsor and Cheltenham to Weymouth.

The caption under this picture (from the Records and Proceedings of the Outinian Society) reads:  The Portico, Spring Gardens.
No. 10, New Street, the only Portico belonging to J. Penn Esq. with the Company assembled as it appears during the delivery of the Outinian Lectures, every Saturday throughout the season.

Despite an avowed change in outlook, the lectures were held with an extensive tea break during which attendees were encouraged to meet and mingle with a view to becoming acquainted and possibly building relationships which might lead to marriage. The topics of the lectures would curdle the blood of any right-thinking feminist including as they did, an ‘Estimate of the female character’, and ‘remarks on the education of females as connected with marriage’. It occurs to me to wonder what the women attending the Society meetings thought of the subject matter of the discussions.

There are no records accounting the number of successful marriages promoted by the Outinian Society. By 1822 the group was well enough known to publish its “Records of the Origin and Proceedings of the Outinian Society”. But it was not long lived and John Penn outlived his creation by only ten years—dying, as he had lived, a bachelor.

I learned of the existence of the Outinian Society from a brief comment in another blog; I am sorry, I am not certain which one. But I do thank the person who mentioned it; there is wonderful material here for fiction...

Till next time,


All quotes are taken from the “Records of the Origin and Proceedings of the Outinian Society” available for download from Google Books.


Janet said...

Fascinating topic and research, Lesley-Anne. And, yes, I could see this being a boon for future stories (I'm reminded of Ann's guest post with the lead, wine, and walnuts). Can't wait to see what you do with the info.

Thanks for sharing the little bit of history with us.

Lesley-Anne McLeod said...

Intriguing bits like this make life worthwhile! Thanks for visiting, Janet.

Shannon said...

That is an amazing piece of research. It makes me wonder what other attempts at 'dating agencies' occurred during this period, if any.