|The Unequal Marriage, by Vasili Pukirev, 1862|
Wikipedia claims that average age at first marriage in the UK, as of 2005, was 31 for men and 29 for women, and in the Netherlands, as of some year later than 2000, also 31 for men but 28 for women. However, in 1963 the UK’s averages were 22 for women and 23 for men – so perhaps Betty’s heroines weren’t completely bonkers when they started getting nervous about being single at 27.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics reports that 26% of 1995 brides married younger men (7% married men more than six years younger), a significant increase from 15% in 1963. Germany’s Max Planck Institute, studying Danish marriages, found that a man married to a woman seven to nine years younger than he is 11% less likely to die prematurely than a man married to a woman his own age; a man whose wife is 15 to 17 years younger has a 20% lower chance of premature death. However, the younger wife is more likely to die young – and women married to younger men (seven to nine years younger) have even higher odds of premature death. Final serious-science note: University of Colorado researchers found that in most marriages where husband and wife are significantly different ages, in either direction, both spouses are likely to have lower earnings – though the women make up for that by working more hours.
Does any of this sound conclusive to you?
We certainly know how Betty felt on age difference in marriage: husbands should be at least seven years older than their wives. That’s the age difference for four of her marriages; the widest gap is the 18 years between Mary Jane’s 22 and Fabian’s 40 in Winter of Change (1975), and the most common is in the ten to thirteen-year range.
Betty specified the exact ages of 92% (124) of her heroines, from Polly Talbot’s 20 (Polly, 1984) to Julia Mitchell’s 30 (At the End of the Day, 1985). Just over 80% of them range from 23 to 27, with the greatest number, 25, clocking in at the high end of the range, at 27 years young, and the second-largest number, 22, coming in at the low end, having recently celebrated birthday 23.
On the men’s side, the youngster is 29-year old Ivo of The Fifth Day of Christmas (1971). Thirteen of them claim 40 years in their dishes, but most – 37, or 36% of the 103 men with specified ages – are 35 or 36, with another 36 heroes aged 37, 38 or 39. They’re all too young for me, according to the Planck people – or at least, they would be if I were Danish. Certainly some heroes have prior marriages behind them, but on the whole Betty seems to believe that an ideal husband is mid- to late-thirties, and he should marry a woman in her mid-twenties. May I confess I think 20 year-old Polly awfully young to be marrying?
Of those 102 marriages where I can arrive at an exact figure, because she gives the hero’s age instead of waffling about with a “well into his thirties”, the median age difference is 12 years. (The one marriage where we get the hero’s age (34) but not the heroine’s is Amabel’s and Oliver’s in Always and Forever (2001).) The majority, 56%, are in the 10-13 years-difference segment of the canon’s 7-18 year range
On a personal note, Melville was just over six years older than I, vindicating the Planck people's belief in a narrower margin. I've suggested to e-Harmony that they aim from two years younger to 11 years older – here's hoping Betty’s recipe is right.