Initially my search for items/practices present during the time in which Austen wrote was situated around marriage. Soon, I discovered a practice that made me laugh out loud: the bundling board. Essentially, when the parents of a courting couple during the eighteenth century wanted to test the compatibility of their children’s relationship, the couple was allowed to sleep in the same bed together. The catch: they had to share the women’s bed in her parents’ house, and often, they were separated by a wooden board in the center of the bed and/or a bundling sack (similar to modern day sleeping bags, except they accommodated two people with a seam running through the center in order to separate the two people inside). Additionally, underclothes had to remain on and, in some instances, a girl shared sleeping quarters with the rest of her family, so her parents remained in the room all night, in earshot of the lovers.
Many trace the practice back to the biblical story of Ruth and Boaz, who slept a night on a threshing room floor together and later were married. A popular practice in colonial America, bundling can be traced back across the Atlantic Ocean by way of European immigrants. It both tested a courting couple’s relationship (in order to avoid broken, unhappy marriages during a period when divorce seldom occurred) as well as responded to a harsh, cold, and wet climate, interestingly enough. An eighteenth century Scottish ballad depicts this in its lines, “Since in bed a man and maid/may bundle and be chaste/it does no good to burn out wood/it is needless waste.” Bundling also indisputably ensured the patrilineal connection should the woman become pregnant afterwards, resulting in marriage between the two involved so that their child would not be born out of wedlock.
While both men and women actively participated in the practice of bundling and whatsoever ensued during their night spent together, premarital sex and/or an unwed pregnancy much more drastically affected women. Engaging in sexual activity before marriage could damage a women’s matrimonial chances, were the man with whom she had sex not marry her or refuse he had participated should the woman have no evidence he did so. She would been considered damaged, and, without a husband, would likely have little means to support herself. In Sense and Sensibility, there is one such example presented in Colonel Brandon’s past love Eliza, who died in debtor’s prison of consumption after becoming pregnant and giving birth outside of a marriage.
- Gardner, Andrew G. “Courtship, Sex, and the Single Colonist.” The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.
- “Bundling.” Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. Encyclopedia.com. Web. Accessed 13 Feb. 2017