William Cobbett (1763 - 1835), the great English radical, was a dreamer who believed in happy, rural domestic life; but his own life betrayed the difficulty of it. In 1829, Cobbett set out his views on love and marriage in Advice to Young Men (divided into six letters: to a youth, young man, lover, husband, father and citizen), but the ideal he set up was far removed from his own situation. Towards the end of his life he was struggling with bitter family disputes -- from 1827, he lived mostly alone and only allowed his oldest son to visit him. Luckily, his yearning for a happy marriage was tainted by fine observations ("Women are all patriots of the soil") and he realized what a gamble marriage was ("when we consider in how great a degree the happiness of all the remainder of a man’s life depends, and always must depend, on his taste and judgment in the character of a lover, this may well be considered as the most important period of the whole term of his existence.").

Most notable is his extreme sympathy with fathers, who were, back then already, charged with deserting their families. He believed English workers and fathers were kind "to a fault" and that they were unfairly prosecuted; many led themselves be "compelled to lead a life of celibacy, for fear of having children to be starved". His famous and impassioned defense of fathers roused many:

“PUBLIC NOTICE.–United Parishes of Saint Andrew Holborn—above Bar, and St. George the Martyr, Queen’s Square. At a Meeting of the Overseers held this day in consequence of MANY PERSONS DESERTING THEIR FAMILIES–it was resolved, That, in future, all persons, who desert their Families, whereby they become chargeable to these Parishes, or when the reputed Parents of an illegitimate child abscond, such persons shall be advertised in the public papers or in posting bills, with a full description of their persons, residence, and calling, and other particulars, and a Reward offered for their apprehension. And all Inhabitants harbouring persons for the night, for the like purpose; will be prosecuted accordingly.”

To what are we come at last! And this is the age of our glory, is it? This is the situation we are in, when immense sums are voted for the erection of monuments to commemorate the deeds of the last twenty-five years! This is the state which not to be proud of Mr. VANSITTART said was a proof of baseness in an Englishman! It is in this situation of the country, that PITT CLUBS have the insolence to hold their triumphal carousals!—Shall we never see those men in sackcloth? These insolent men, while wallowing in wealth, do not reflect on the pangs which must wring the poor man’s heart before he can so far subdue the feelings of the husband and the father as to make him “desert his family;” or, if they do reflect on them, they must be more cruel than the storm and the waves. The labouring men in England, generally speaking, are the kindest and most indulgent of husbands and of parents. It has often been observed by me, that they are generally so to a fault. If a boy or girl belonging to them behave ill towards their employers, the father and mother are very hard to be convinced of the fact.—I have often to remonstrate with them upon this subject, and to remind them of how much more indulgent they are to their children than I am to mine. “Aye, Sir,” said a very good woman to me a little while ago, “but your children have their belly full of victuals.” The answer was a silencer. And this is the true cause of their indulgence, and of their excessive affection too. They see their children in want; they grow up in continual suffering; they are incessantly objects of compassion over and above the love which nature has implanted in the parent’s breast. Their obstinate perseverance in justifying the conduct of their children upon all occasions is a fault; but it arises from the most amiable of human weaknesses; and though it may, and often is, injurious in its effects, it is the least censurable of all the frailties of the heart.

If I have here, as I am sure I have, given the true character of the English Labourer, as a parent and a husband, what must that state of things be, which has rendered the desertion of family so frequent an offence as to call forth a hand-bill and placard such as that which I have quoted above?
[‘A Letter to Henry Hunt, Esq.’, Political Register, 14 December 1816.]

He intended to educate his boys in the direction of a virtuous and traditional life:

My intention is to make the boys fit to fight their way through life; for, who can be so weak as to imagine, that we shall, or, that they will, ever see many days of tranquillity! To write English; to speak French; to read a little Latin, perhaps; to ride, to play at single-stick, and, above all things to work at husbandry, it is my intention to teach them, in all by precept & in the most instances, if please God to spare me, by example. I have seen too many proofs of the inefficacy of riches to the obtaining of happiness & too many instances of the misery to which a dependance upon patronage leads, to think of making them either rich men, or pretenders to distinction through high favour. They may have minds that will bear them upwards from the humble walk that I have in view: if so, it is well. I shall do nothing to stifle genius, but, if it be not of a stamp to rise of itself, there is no raising it.

In his Advice to Young Men he gave earnest qualifications to look for in a prospective wife (standards which few -- perhaps no -- women today would meet):

You should never forget, that marriage ... is a thing to last for life; and that, generally speaking, it is to make life happy, or miserable; for, though a man may bring his mind to something nearly a state of indifference, even that is misery, except with those who can hardly be reckoned amongst sensitive beings. Marriage brings numerous cares, which are amply compensated by the more numerous delights which are their companions. But, to have the delights, as well as the cares, the choice of the partner must be fortunate. I say fortunate; for, after all, love, real love, impassioned affection, is an ingredient so absolutely necessary, that no perfect reliance can be placed on the judgment. Yet, the judgment may do something; reason may have some influence; and, therefore, I here offer you my advice with regard to the exercise of that reason.

The things which you ought to desire in a wife are, 1. Chastity; 2. sobriety; 3. industry; 4. frugality; 5. cleanliness; 6. knowledge of domestic affairs; 7. good temper; 8. beauty. […] if I could not have found a young woman (and I am sure I never should have married an old one) who I was not sure possessed all the qualities expressed by the word sobriety, I should have remained a bachelor to the end of that life[.]

He did not, however, stay a bachelor, and the effects of that decision impacted his life hugely. This idyll on what his life could have been like if he had never married contains some of his most poignant writing:

On what trifles turn the great events in the life of man! If I had received a cool letter from my intended wife; if I had only heard a rumour of any thing from which fickleness in her might have been inferred; if I had found in her any, even the smallest, abatement of affection; if she had but let go any one of the hundred strings by which she held my heart: if any of these, never would the world have heard of me. Young as I was; able as I was as a soldier; proud as I was of the admiration and commendations of which I was the object; fond as I was, too, of the command, which, at so early an age, my rare conduct and great natural talents had given me; sanguine as was my mind, and brilliant as were my prospects: yet I had seen so much of the meannesses, the unjust partialities, the insolent pomposity, the disgusting dissipations of that way of life, that I was weary of it: I longed, exchanging my fine laced coat for the Yankee farmer’s home-spun, to be where I should never behold the supple crouch of servility, and never hear the hectoring voice of authority, again; and, on the lonely banks of this branch-covered creek, which contained (she out of the question) every thing congenial to my taste and dear to my heart, I, unapplauded, unfeared, unenvied and uncalumniated, should have lived and died.

As his family life became increasingly more strained his hatred of fiction, especially romance, grew larger. He saw those romances (in effect not different from today's Fifty Shades, if far more modest) as corrupters of both girls and men:

I deprecate romances of every description. It is impossible that they can do any good, and they may do a great deal of harm. They excite passions that ought to lie dormant; they give the mind a taste for highly-seasoned matter; they make matters of real life insipid; every girl, addicted to them, sighs to be a SOPHIA WESTERN, and every boy, a TOM JONES. What girl is not in love with the wild youth, and what boy does not find a justification for his wildness? What can be more pernicious than the teachings of this celebrated romance? Here are two young men put before us, both sons of the same mother; the one a bastard (and by a parson too), the other a legitimate child; the former wild, disobedient, and squandering; the latter steady, sober, obedient, and frugal; the former every thing that is frank and generous in his nature, the latter a greedy hypocrite; the former rewarded with the most beautiful and virtuous of women and a double estate, the latter punished by being made an outcast. How is it possible for young people to read such a book, and to look upon orderliness, sobriety, obedience, and frugality, as virtues? And this is the tenor of almost every romance, and of almost every play, in our language. In the “School for Scandal,” for instance, we see two brothers; the one a prudent and frugal man, and, to all appearance, a moral man, the other a hair-brained squanderer, laughing at the morality of his brother; the former turns out to be a base hypocrite and seducer, and is brought to shame and disgrace; while the latter is found to be full of generous sentiment, and Heaven itself seems to interfere to give him fortune and fame. In short, the direct tendency of the far greater part of these books, is, to cause young people to despise all those virtues, without the practice of which they must be a curse to their parents, a burden to the community, and must, except by mere accident, lead wretched lives. I do not recollect one romance nor one play, in our language, which has not this tendency.

If we take Mr. Cobbett's advice to heart today, we find ourselves, indeed, bachelors for life.