11 Feb 2022

How to do romance like the Victorians

Valentine’s Day is an annual celebration of romantic love, and for many of us it provides a wonderful excuse for cards, flowers, presents, and candlelit dîners à deux, all fortuitously coming at a time of year when winter is dragging on and spring still seems a distant prospect.

Many of us do not take these celebrations too seriously, and are more interested in having a good time than cementing a lifetime’s relationship. For some of us, however, a shared Valentine’s Day is yet another step in the gradual process of commitment, and we are eagle-eyed in our observations of our putative partner’s deportment and behaviour.

We have once again turned to the invaluable Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette (first published in 1860) for Victorian insights on courtship rituals. While some of their strictures seem laughably severe, there are several nuggets of good sense buried in the flowery prose:

How to romance your lover like a Victorian

For Ladies:

“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—…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.”

For Gentlemen:

“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 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; nor dread that the lady’s friends—who must know her better than he can do—will call him to account for withdrawing from the field.”

With marriage as the ultimate goal, Victorian courtship was a serious business. It was imperative that any indications of frivolity, neurosis, selfishness or laziness were identified well before the first steps were made towards commitment. Lovers observed each other, mainly within the domestic and family sphere, with keen-eyed attention. In an age when divorce was scandalous and difficult, any misjudgements were extremely perilous.

The casual approach to love and romance we enjoy today allows us to test and re-test our first impressions, although that can be a painful and discouraging business. So perhaps we should take a leaf from the Victorians’ book, and watch out for the following:

Dating Victorian-Style

•Try and observe your lover in the context of his or her family. If they are affectionate and respectful to parents and siblings, it is an extremely good sign.

•If your lover is casually rude to, for example, waiters, be on your guard. Good manners to everyone are a sign that an individual is attuned to other people’s feelings.

•It bodes well if potential partners are loyal to their friends and stand by them, even in the face of criticism or disparagement.

•Incorrigible flirts, who are eager for universal admiration and attention, are exhausting.

•While the Victorians’ rigid attitudes to dress and personal habits have been long discarded, it is encouraging to see potential partners making an effort with their dress and appearance – it indicates that they are taking you seriously.

•Basic good manners, such as punctuality, courtesy and reliability, should be on display. It is the very least you should expect.

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