Asides: marrying upwards

Some years ago I read Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber, 2004). His argument was that ‘small talk’ or gossip plays a similarly important role in human social groups as grooming does in those of primates: it facilitates social cohesion and mitigates conflict.

Because we came to live in larger groups – up to 150 – than apes and monkeys, grooming became an impossibly time-consuming task for that social function. For this reason social talk evolved. Far from being trivial, it therefore fulfils a vital role in human interaction; it’s what linguists call phatic talk. People who are no good at it are often seen as outcast or sociopathic.

While leafing through Dunbar’s book again recently I came across a word I’d highlighted: HYPERGAMY. Here’s the OED online definition:

Cultural Anthropol.

 A term first used by W. Coldstream, to denote the custom which forbids the marriage of a woman into a group of lower standing than her own; also transf., of any marriage with a partner of higher social standing.

It derives from the Greek elements ‘hyper-‘ (over, beyond or above) + ‘gamy’ – pertaining to marriage. In Byzantine Greek the word signified ‘a late marriage’.

In social groups it’s therefore a key concept. Novels, especially from the 18th and 19th centuries, are full of marriages of this kind; the first that I recall is one I wrote about here last summer: George Gissing’s New Grub Street. Emma Bovary is maybe another case, although she is perhaps more of an aspiring or thwarted hypergamist.

Much of the plot element in Jane Austen’s work involves the pressure on women to marry in an upwardly social sense.

A related term is ISOGAMY: marrying one’s social equal.

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode

Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode, scene 1: Settlement

William Hogarth’s celebrated sequence of six paintings made 1743-45, ‘Marriage à la Mode’, satirically represents the disastrous arranged marriage between the bankrupt Earl of Squanderfield’s son and the daughter of a wealthy but miserly city merchant. Here’s the Wikipedia account of the narrative in this first scene:

 

Construction on the Earl’s new mansion, visible through the window, has stopped and a usurer negotiates payment for further construction at the center table. The gouty Earl proudly points to a picture of his family tree, rising from William, Duke of Normandy. The son views himself in the mirror, showing where his interests in the matter lie. The distraught merchant’s daughter is consoled by the lawyer Silvertongue while polishing her wedding ring. Even the faces on the walls appear to have misgivings. Two dogs chained to each other in the corner mirror the situation of the young couple.

Not surprisingly, the marriage fails from the start. The young husband is serially adulterous and catches syphilis from his consorting with prostitutes. His wife is as disenchanted with him as he is with her, and has affairs of her own. After the Earl’s death this son, the new Earl, catches his wife in flagrante, and is fatally wounded by her lover, the lawyer. The husband dies, the lawyer is hanged for his murder, and the wife poisons herself.

That’s hypergamy for you.

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4 thoughts on “Asides: marrying upwards

    • When I was thinking of which characters in fiction this term applied to I felt overwhelmed – it’s hard to think of novels from 18-19C in which hypergamy does NOT apply! You’re right about EW though: a prime candidate. and maybe her friend H. James, too, in some tales (though his heroines tend to have subtler motives, like I. Archer).

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