27 Sep 2023

A Very Public Proposal

Public proposals have been in the news recently. These can range from the suitor who proposes in a public place in front of strangers – going down on bended knee in a crowded restaurant, for example – to people who plan huge extravaganzas, deploying flash mobs, skywriters and casts of thousands.

We have been puzzling over the ways in which the marriage proposal has evolved since the Victorian era. Etiquette guides from the 19th century are, unsurprisingly, adamant that a marriage proposal should be a private matter between the couple. In fact, managing to get a potential bride on her own during this era of chaperones and watchful mothers, was often the first hurdle a young gentleman faced:

When about to take this step, the suitor’s first difficulty is how to get a favourable opportunity; and next, having got the chance, how to screw his courage up to give utterance to the ‘declaration’. We have heard of a young lover who carried on a courtship for four months ere he could obtain a private interview with his lady-love. In the house, as might be expected, they were never left alone; and in a walk a third party always accompanied them. In such a dilemma, ought he to have unburdened his heart of its secret through the medium of a letter? We say not. A declaration in writing should certainly be avoided where the lover can by any possibility get at the lady’s ear. But there are cases where this is so difficult that an impatient lover cannot be restrained from adopting the agency of a billet-doux in declaring his passion.”

Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette, London, 1860

Once the lady’s attention was secured, the Etiquette manuals agree that they cannot offer proscriptive advice about the actual wording of the proposal, although they are adamant that the answer given should be definitive, with no mock-refusals:

We shall make no attempt to prescribe a form for ‘popping the question’. Each must do it in his own way; but let it be clearly understood and admit no evasion. A single word ‘Yes’, on the lady’s part, will suffice to answer it. If the carefully studied phrases which you have repeated so many times and so fluently to yourself, will persist in sticking in your throat and choking you, put them correctly and neatly on a sheet of the finest notepaper, enclosed in a fine but plain white envelope, seal it handsomely with wax, address it carefully, and find some way to convey it to her hand. The lady’s answer should be frank and unequivocal, revealing briefly and modestly her real feelings and consequent decision.

If a lady finds it necessary to say ‘No’ to a proposal, she should do it in the kindest and most considerate manner, so as not to inflict unnecessary pain; but her answer should be definite and decisive, and the gentleman should at once withdraw his suit. If ladies will say ‘No’; when they mean ‘Yes’ to a sincere and earnest suitor, they must suffer the consequences.”

How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Etiquette, and Guide to Correct Personal Habits, London, 1856

When it came to spreading the news of the engagement, or making it public, the advice is uncompromisingly repressive:

If it is properly anybody’s business to know that you love each other, and propose to be married, let formal notice be served accordingly; but to the great mass there need be nothing in the shape of an advertisement.”

Beeton’s Manners of Polite Society, London, 1875

It seems a long way from the discreet manners of our ancestors, with their finely-developed sense of discretion and privacy, to the zany antics of today. For the Victorians there was a clear divide between the domestic social sphere and public life, and the notion of behaviour that was essentially self-publicising was complete anathema. Personal reputation was all-important, and any behaviour that broke the strict bonds of convention and taboo could jeopardise it. The business of courtships and proposals belonged strictly to “private life”, and it was universally understood that these domestic arrangements were to be negotiated with the utmost discretion and lack of fanfare.

The barriers between public and private worlds have dissolved today and increasingly we are opting to live in the public sphere. Many of us post compulsively about our lives on social media, and – to provide ever-more fodder for our followers we feel compelled to stage manage our stories, setting up locations, inviting a supporting cast, set-dressing and dramatizing even our most intimate moments. All these tendencies have led to ever-more elaborate and attention-grabbing public proposals.

As the Victorian etiquette manuals pointed out, there is no right or wrong way to propose. But you should think carefully before going public. Will your partner be completely on-board with your plans? If you are proposing to an ebullient extrovert, who loves nothing more than being the centre of attention, then you are probably on the right course. But there are a many people who will object strongly to the notion of turning an intimate and romantic moment into a public spectacle, and mistakenly doing so could turn the whole occasion sour. A proposal should reflect the personality and style of the bride (or groom)-to-be: getting it right and correctly judging the ideal circumstances for this important ritual is a significant test that all suitors must face.

If you are determined to make your declaration in public, think very carefully about the occasion you choose. There have been well-documented examples of hapless suitors popping the question on occasions when their partner is taking centre stage (a birthday party, graduation, performance etc). A proposal in these circumstances looks very much like an egregious attempt to upstage the bride (or groom) and may very well be greeted with dismay or resentment.

It is to be hoped that suitors who are planning elaborate extravaganzas have reasons to be fully confident they will be accepted – perhaps they have already floated the idea of marriage and had an encouraging response. Making a public proposal is highly coercive: if there are any doubts about accepting it is extremely hard to manifest them in front of a marching band, fireworks, or a huge crowd of champagne-swilling, camera-wielding friends and family. Nobody wants to embark on an engagement feeling that they have been pressurised into acquiescence.

Above: Popping the Question, lithograph by Sarony & Major, 1846


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