Sunday, June 22, 2014

Betty by the Numbers: Ages Redux

As many of you know, I once lived happily ever after with a Jonkheer.  Sadly, last spring he surrendered his title, and his honor, as he sundered our union.  He is now known, on the rare occasions on which he is discussed in polite company, as Melville.  Having traveled the country solo, safaried a bit in Namibia and found myself a pretty little new home close to family, I am taking a look at candidates for fictional baronetcy via e-Harmony.  From time to time, the program offers me a look at a gentleman maybe four or five years younger than I, and each time I think, "No way would he be interested in me."  And almost each time, I further think, "Wow, he seems potentially nice."  Fortunately, almost no one who seems potentially nice ever comes up as actually a good fit, so I have little regret as I refrain from "smiling" at the youngsters.  Wish me luck -- I signed on for six months of matchmaking -- and let us all know what you think about age in love.  Here's a recap of what Betty seems to have thought:

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.


  1. Betty Barbara here--
    Good luck to you in your dating efforts, Betty van den Betsy!
    I am 6 years younger than Mijnheer van der Tarheelin-- we married right before my 24th and his 30th birthdays. We must have done something right as we just passed our 42nd anniversary.

  2. I agree that most of the heroines were awfully young. Perhaps it made the virgin state more believable. And perhaps it was desirable in her generation that the bride be 'pure' and the husband experienced, as in the marriage of Princess Diana at just 20 years old to Charles at 33. I cases were the heroines were older, they came from restrictive households where being free with affection would be emotionally and opportunistically unlikely: vicar's daughters, raised by grandparents, acting parent of orphaned siblings, dogsbody for selfish sisters and stepmothers, and so on. In all cases that I can think of, the heroines also wanted to be married and raising children. That was much more likely to happen if their potential partner had achieved career success. The heroes weren't interested in their wives working to help buy a house or put them through medical school.

    In the case of the older men, they had been waiting for the 'right' companion in a wasteland of selfish, idle, stick-insect women. Having given up on finding Miss Right, they committed themselves to their career and communities. Abruptly, they are thrust in the company of charming, honest, caring, and well-educated young women who were great candidates to make their lives complete.

    What's not to be attracted to--an eligible, sexy, rich, caring man who isn't being loved as he should be. You can just see lightning sizzle between them when they first meet. Magnetic poles that flip and adhere together because they are the missing halves of the other.

    My thoughts...

    Catherine (a Betty van den Wasatch)

  3. My parents married two days after my mom's 21st birthday, a few months before my dad's 28th birthday. They have been married for 57 years. My mom keeps quoting Tante Sammann (no relation) who said it wasn't good if the husband was a lot older than the wife...
    Betty Anonymous

  4. One of the "girls" from my class had been left by her husband when she was 44/45 for a younger woman who was not his secretary but a secretary working at his company and he had been with this woman FOR A YEAR before he telling his wife he was going to leave her. The poor dear had never had the slightest inkling that he was a double-dealing dastard. Five years later, the year she turned 50, we had our next class reunion and she was all smiles again. She had found a new love, a little older than herself, a real sweetie, with grown children and if memory serves there were grandchildren too.

    A friend of our family lost his wife when he was 72. And guess what, there is a new lady in his life. We are very happy for him.

    So you see, age has nothing to do with it...

    Wait, I just remembered a fitting quotation from The Final Touch

    'My love, my very dear love, I am almost seventeen years older than you and there was young van Kamp.'
    'I've always been interested in you,' she added recklessly, 'and I've been in love with you for weeks and even if you were ninety and on crutches it wouldn't make any difference. But I'm glad you're only forty.' He wrapped his great arms around her and drew her close. 'I'm glad too.'

    Betty Anonymous

  5. One More Comment

    June 13, 2014
    Caroline’s Waterloo
    Del Norris
    This has always been my favourite Betty Book!!! Have always loved it from the first time I opened it. It has everything that is the best of Betty.

  6. Oh, we have a new member: Welcome, Betty Leigh!

  7. Welcome, Betty Leigh!! Every time I visit this blog, my TBRR (to be re-read) pile gets high again!

  8. Oh, I meant to mention. My mom died just over three years ago. My father met a widow at church, and in short order they decided to get married at 85 and 80. They didn't want to waste a moment of the uncertain time they have left. We love Barbara and her whole family, and my mom would have loved Barbara too. Love knows no age boundaries.
    I married at 21. 38 years later, husband newly retired, we are excited about our new adventure.