Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Art of Courtship

by V.R. Christensen

People have very little idea how great are the injuries which imprudence draws on them, or they would not despise this homely virtue. Especially for young women is prudence required in the conduct of love affairs. There is no end to the tale of misery we could tell resulting from its want. ... Marriage would not be the lottery it is, if girls would exercise a little prudence. They should never engage themselves to a man of whom they know nothing—the past of their future husband ought to be clear to them...

So advises, Mrs Valentine in The Young Woman's Book - A Useful Manual for Everyday Life.

Indeed, most advice books of the time dealt not so much with the where's and how's of courtship as with the qualities and modes of conduct most desirable in a matrimonial candidate. Robert Morris, in his Courtship and Matrimony, admonishes mothers, teachers and nursery maids to begin in childhood to establish the virtues desirable in an adult. In the instance of young men, in particular, he advises rooting out the "early habits, of disrespect, of insolence, and of moral recklessness," which should be "guarded against with the most vigilant caution."

Wise counsel indeed! For marriage, without the prospect of divorce, with hardly any opportunity to 'test the waters', so to speak, as is the aim of our modern system of 'dating', was a very serious matter. For women, in particular, it was a decision that bore with it the promise of happiness and protection, but also brought with it the very real prospect of trial and misery.

Though the idea of romantic love was the driving factor behind many Victorian marriages, marriage as a business transaction was still the reality. The concept of two becoming one in matrimony was much more than a sentimental aphorism. Before 1882, a woman's legal identity, as well as all of her personal property, was literally absorbed by her husband upon marriage. It's little wonder there was such a demand (and presumably a need) for the vast quantities of literature that were written on the subject.

So, considering the grave nature of the matrimonial contract, just what were the considerations involved? Well, to begin with, no gentleman possessing any degree of respectability could even consider marriage until he had established the means by which he could support a wife, no matter how fond he might be of a particular woman.

Such a dilemma is illustrated in George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways. An established bachelor, Thomas Redworth, is caught off guard by the disarming beauty and sharp wit of Diana Merion. As he is assigned to serve her at table during a dinner party, and during which time she engages him in some witty banter, he begins to reconsider his position. What has he to offer her?

"Eight or ten hundred. Comfortable enough for a man in chambers. To dream of entering as a householder on that sum, in these days, would be stark nonsense: and a man two removes from a baronetcy has no right to set his reckoning on deaths:—if he does, he becomes a sort of meditative assassin. But what were the Fates about when they planted a man of the ability of Tom Redworth in a Government office! Clearly they intended him to remain a bachelor for life. And they sent him over to Ireland on inspection duty for a month to have sight of an Irish Beauty....

"—Eight hundred? a thousand a year, two thousand, are as nothing in the calculation of a householder who means that the mistress of the house shall have the choicest of the fruits and flowers of the Four Quarters; and Thomas Redworth had vowed at his first outlook on the world of women, that never should one of the sisterhood coming under his charge complain of not having them in profusion."

Perhaps Redworth might have done more to prepare. Perhaps circumstances were beyond his control. Whatever the reason, he was in no position to consider Diana as a prospect. And when she married another, a heartless wastrel, just the sort Mr. Morris above would have warned against... his chance, for all intents and purposes, has passed.

To marry an equal was of course the aim of most. It came with the fewest complications. And yet, to many, the appeal of marrying up, with an eye at improving one's position, could not be denied. A gentleman did wise to marry above his station, at least where money was concerned. A woman, however, took a very great risk in marrying a man without money, even if (or perhaps particularly if) he had property. Before the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, all portable property, including money, all income made, belonged to her husband. Trusts arranged by fathers could only protect a woman's property by removing it from her hands as well, and into the protective custody of a trustee. Even for the working classes, marriage was a financial risk. As Mrs. Valentine warns, the improvident husband might sink to idleness, succumbing to the temptation to rely upon the labours of his more industrious wife.

Yet money wasn't the only matter to be considered when it came to matrimonial ambition. The social aspects were often at least as significant. A woman typically adopted the sphere of her husband, whether higher or lower. As stated in one advice guide of the time, The Etiquette of Love, Courtship, and Marriage, "A lady of high rank does not raise her husband to the same position as she formerly occupied; but sinks down to his standard; but the gentleman raises the lady, however much below himself, to the position in society."

Of course this is not universally true. Take the example of Arthur Munby, who married his servant, Hannah Cullwick. The marriage was kept a secret. Perhaps in part because Hannah would not give up her station. But, considering that Munby was obsessed with the working woman, it's quite possible he did not wish to raise her. It wasn't until many years after his death that his persona papers were made available and the truth made known.

Courtship rituals of course differed somewhat for the working classes, who did not (and could not afford to) live by such strict rules of conduct and propriety as did the upper and even middle classes, who strove to emulate their betters. The intercourse of the working classes being freer, they had much greater license, and opportunity, to become acquainted with members of the opposite sex.

However, for anyone aspiring to respectability, the prescribed method of courtship went something like this:

1) A gentlemen/lady singles out a member of the opposite sex who he/she thinks might be a good candidate.

2) He/she does a little reconnaissance in order to find out what the general opinion, character, reputation and family/financial situation of the person is.

3) If the couple are not already acquainted, a formal introduction is arranged, either through family members or a mutual friend of the same station of the party who inhabits that which is highest of the two. (An introduction at a ball does not count.)

4) Once introduced, the gentleman, as a prospective suitor, has the obligation of making his position known to the lady, as tactfully as possible. The blunt stating of financial position, as with the case of Mr. Guppy, in the prologue to his proposal to Esther in Bleak House, would have been considered presumptuous and in bad form.

"My present salary, Miss Summerson, at Kenge and Carboy's, is two pound a week. When I first had the happiness of looking upon you, it was one fifteen, and had stood at that figure for a lengthened period. A rise of five has since taken place, and a further rise of five is guaranteed at the expiration of a term not exceeding twelve months from the present date. My mother has a little property, which takes the form of a small life annuity, upon which she lives in an independent though unassuming manner in the Old Street Road. ... It is lowly, but airy, open at the back, and considered one of the 'ealthiest outlets. Miss Summerson! In the mildest language, I adore you. Would you be so kind as to allow me (as I may say) to file a declaration—to make an offer!"

Mr. Guppy went down on his knees. I was well behind my table and not much frightened. I said, "Get up from that ridiculous position immediately, sir, or you will oblige me to break my implied promise and ring the bell!"

5) Having accomplished the task of making his ability to support a wife known (and in considerably more tact than the illustration above) the next thing to do was to ascertain, very carefully, the feelings of the young woman. This was a bit of a precarious business, as a man who was too forward might offend. Alternately, he would wish to take care not to draw the young woman into any precipitate commitments, lest she compromise her character by having the term 'flirt' adhered to her.

6) Once the gentleman has some assurance of the lady's reciprocal interest, he might beg permission to call upon her, meeting her 'privately', at home, in the company of her family. All their intercourse from here on would be conducted in the presence of a chaperone, preferably married, though very often it was a hired companion, or barring that luxury, a member of the family, or a trusted household member. Here it was the young woman's duty to ascertain the gentleman's character, looking for flaws and inconsistencies which might shed some light on his true character.

7) Once an understanding has been established, the gentleman must address the girl's father, stating his intentions and proving his ability to provide for the gentleman's daughter in a matter at least equal to that which she is used to.

8) Obtaining the father's permission (or other, lacking that, a trusted guardian or appointed authority), the gentleman would, without waste of time and in all possible eloquence and delicacy, present his offer.

9) At which juncture the young woman in question had the opportunity and right (and some might add the greatest power she would ever in her life wield) to refuse or to accept.

Congratulations to them!

But what if this carefully guarded system failed to produce the desired results?

Well, could always place an add in the local newspaper.

For more about the Matrimonial advertisements, visit my blog post, (pr)eHarmony - or Alternative Courtship in the Victorian era.

*personal ads taken from 1)Freeman's Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser. Dublin, Ireland. 12 Feb 1875 2)Truman's Exeter Flying Post. Exeter, England. 30 Sep 1893 3)Bristol Mercury and Daily Post. Bristol, England. 19 Mar 1892

V.R. Christensen is the author of Of Moths & Butterflies, and Blind - a novella. Cry of the Peacock, a companion piece to Of Moths & Butterflies, is due to be released in October of 2012. To learn more about her and her work, visit


  1. Really interesting article. Thank you. :)

  2. Hey, Steven! Thanks. It's probably old hat for many, but I it's always the exceptions to the rules, those who subvert the 'canon' or prove to us we don't understand it quite as fully as we thought, that I find so fascinating.

    I noticed, too, that the link to the other post was broken, so I've fixed it. There's some really interesting stuff in those old newspapers.

  3. Val-Rae, this article was so interesting. I enjoyed the ads very much.

  4. I found the ads really fun, myself. I had no idea such a thing was even done till I read Phegley's book, and then to discover how popular they were! What a new insight into an era I thought I understood so well. I'm always impressed by the Victorians the more I learn from them, and the more those old stereotypes are broken.

    It's also giving me ideas for a new novel. *rubs hands together*

  5. I LOVE that you've put your research online. I always wanted writers to create an online research bank so it's easier for the rest of us (aspiring) writers. Thanks again.


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