14 Feb 2023

Courtship advice from the Victorians

Image: Robert Burns and Jean Armour, 1878, The Rev George Gilfillan

Seismic social upheavals have occurred since the Victorian period, especially in relation to love and marriage. This Valentine’s Day, we have been examining, with the help of the invaluable Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette (1860), mid-19th century courtship rituals and etiquette.

We are used to meeting people in myriad ways. ­ If we cannot meet the love of our lives through more traditional methods (workplace, university, mutual friends, parties etc), then we now have recourse to a plethora of dating apps, which use algorithms to assess compatibility and suggest perfect matches. Once we meet someone, we have infinite freedom to get to know them, to spend time together, to live and travel together. We can conduct our romantic lives away from the prying eyes of parents, untrammelled by expectations of immediate engagement and wedding bells. It was a very different story for our ancestors…

First Steps in Courtship

…A gentleman has in one way or another become fascinated by a fair lady, possibly a recent acquaintance, whom he is most anxious to know more particularly… At this point we venture to give him a word of serious advice. We urge him, before he ventures to take any step towards the pursuit of this object, to consider well his position and prospects in life, and reflect whether they are such as to justify him in deliberately seeking to win the young lady’s affections, with the view of making her his wife at no distant period.

When he has satisfied himself on this head, and found no insurmountable impediment in his way, his next endeavour will be, through the mediation of a common friend, to procure an introduction to the lady’s family.

If a Victorian gentleman wanted to be considered a man of honour, his only motivation for paying court to a young lady was to eventually seek her hand in marriage. If he dallied and flirted with a number of young women of his acquaintance and made no steps in the matrimonial direction, his reputation would be compromised, and vigilant parents would take all the measures necessary to ensure that he had no further access to their daughters.

Etiquette of Courtship

Young people are naturally prone to seek the company of those they love; and as their impulses are often at such times impatient of control, etiquette prescribes cautionary rules for the purpose of averting the mischief that unchecked intercourse and incautious familiarity might give rise to. For instance, a couple known to be attached to each other should never, unless when old acquaintances, be left alone for any length of time, nor be allowed to meet in any other place than the lady’s home particularly at balls, concerts, and other public places except in the presence of a third party.

Young people in the Victorian era were fiercely chaperoned and had no privacy. Social intercourse was strictly circumscribed, and courtship was inevitably a decorous affair; couples really had very little opportunity at all to get to know each other in private. This must have inevitably meant that most couples embarked on the life-changing commitments of engagement and marriage based on a very limited acquaintance.

What the Lady should observe during Courtship

A lady should be particular during the early days of courtship while still retaining some clearness of mental vision to observe the manner in which her suitor comports himself to other ladies. If he behave with ease and courtesy, without freedom or the slightest approach to licence in manner or conversation; if he never speak slightingly of the sex, and be ever ready to honour its virtues and defend its weakness; she may continue to incline towards him a willing ear.

His habits and his conduct must awaken her vigilant attention before it be too late. Should he come to visit her at irregular hours; should he exhibit a vague or wandering attention give proofs of a want of punctuality ­– show disrespect for age – sneer at things sacred, or absent himself from regular attendance at divine service or evince an inclination to expensive pleasures beyond his means, or to low and vulgar amusements; should he be foppish, eccentric, or very slovenly in his dress; or display a frivolity of mind, and an absence of well-directed energy in his worldly pursuits; let the young lady, we say, while there is yet time, eschew that gentleman’s acquaintance, and allow it gently to drop.

Meeting members of the opposite sex must have been a nerve-wracking experience. Because of the severe limitations placed on couples during courtship, they were enjoined to be extremely vigilant. Unable to form the ties of intimacy that we take for granted, they were forced to assess future partners by their appearance and behaviour. Ladies could judge a prospective partner’s credentials on the basis of his general manners and demeanour, the respect he showed her parents, his seriousness of mind and lack of frivolity. They were recommended to closely observe his behaviour around other young ladies; any signs of flirtatiousness or disrespect for the female sex in general were clearly red flags.

What the Gentleman should observe during Courtship

It would be well also for the suitor, on his part, during the first few weeks of courtship, carefully to observe the conduct of the young lady in her own family, and the degree of estimation in which she is held by them, as well as amongst her intimate friends. If she be attentive to her duties; respectful and affectionate to her parents; kind and forbearing to her brothers and sisters; not easily ruffled in temper; if her mind be prone to cheerfulness and to hopeful aspiration, instead of to the display of a morbid anxiety and dread of coming evil; if her pleasures and enjoyments be those which chiefly centre in home; if her words be characterised by benevolence, good-will, and charity: then we say, let him not hesitate, but hasten to enshrine so precious a gem in the casket of his affections.

But if, on the other hand, he should find that he has been attracted by the tricksome affectation and heartless allurements of a flirt, ready to bestow smiles on all, but with a heart for none; if she who has succeeded for a time in fascinating him be of uneven temper, easily provoked, and slow to be appeased; fond of showy dress, and eager for admiration; ecstatic about trifles, frivolous in her tastes, and weak and wavering in performing her duties; if her religious observances are merely the formality of lip service; if she be petulant to her friends, pert and disrespectful to her parents, overbearing to her inferiors; if pride, vanity, and affectation be her characteristics; if she be inconstant in her friendships; gaudy and slovenly, rather than neat and scrupulously clean, in attire and personal habits: then we counsel the gentleman to retire as speedily but as politely as possible from the pursuit of an object quite unworthy of his admiration and love.

Similarly, prospective suitors were encouraged to observe the behaviour of ladies within their own domestic sphere with close attention. Signs that they were respectful to their parents, dutiful, industrious, cheerful and – above all – home-loving, were all seen as indications that they would make excellent prospective wives. Any signs of vanity, petulance and frivolity were danger signals – no gentleman would want to form a lifelong relationship with a flirt, who thought more about her petty pleasures than her duties to her husband.

As you celebrate Valentine’s Day, spare a thought for our Victorian ancestors. For many of them, choosing a life partner was little more than a shot in the dark, and getting engaged to be married was in many cases an attempt to please or placate anxious parents or to reinforce social status. It is easy to take our freedom of choice and relaxed rules around romance for granted but we should rejoice in the fact that we are not forced to make life-changing choices based on rigid social expectations and a limited drawing room acquaintance.

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