Ladies also had cards like these made, but it wasn’t their main weapon. Their primary tool for breaking down the barriers of what was socially acceptable was the multifaceted fan. Ostensibly, a young woman would take it with her to keep her cool and stop her from fainting (not remotely becoming of a lady) at the stiflingly hot dances. In reality, however, innovative Victorian women invented a mode of communication that transcended what they were permitted to say.
Fan language wasn’t particularly hard to decode. If a woman kept her fan closed, it meant she had no interest in the suitor. If she kept it half open, it meant she was essentially friend-zoning him. If she opened it up completely howeverâyou guessed it: she was head over heels with the lucky ol’ chap. But as well as these unsubtle messages that were easily decipherable for suitor and chaperone alike, there existed a series of other movements which could convey slightly more secretive signals.
Fanning quickly meant that the woman was independent. Or hot. Fanning slowly meant she was engaged. Or not very hot. Fanning in front of the face using the right hand meant that the suitor was free to continue with his advances. Fanning in front of the face using the left hand meant the same as shutting the fan; she was not interested and he should leave. If a suitor was talking to a young woman repeatedly opening and shutting her fan it meant she wanted to kiss him; if he was talking to a young lady who was swinging her fan it meant she wanted them to go home together.
While young Victorians could be as suggestive as they liked with their fans and their chaperone cards, under no circumstances could they touch. This might seem incredibly prude to us today, and in a sense it was. However, more than just prudishness there were real social reasons why physical contact was railed against. Sad as it is to say, while the main thing that was required of a suitable Victorian male was that he had the potential to be a good provider, the most prized quality of a potential Victorian wife was that she was still a virgin.
Temptation was best avoided, especially considering how ruinous it could be for a woman’s reputation. Thankfully, in the West we are now moving away from these historically-entrenched views of measuring a woman’s worth in terms of her chastity. The Victorians, however, had undergone no such enlightenment. If it was believed she had been with another man, it could reduce her suitability as a wife in the eyes of some and close many social doors. If she’d had a child with another man, her chances of marrying well within her class were all but ruined.
For this reason, even after progressing through several stages of dating (like dancing, talking, and walking together at a distance), if a man was then invited to a woman’s house, their acquaintanceship would have to be under the watchful eye of a chaperone. After the appointed hourâwhich according to this stereograph above seems to have had a cut-off point of around 1:30 a.m.âthe suitor would leave, though not without organising their next meeting.
But then again, who needed physical contact when you could go on long, tense, and palpably awkward walks together in the countryside. Indeed, more than just whimsical ideas for a Sunday afternoon, these walks were prescribed as a fundamental stage in the dating process. And if a lady agreed to dance with you at the ball, talk to you (with her chaperone present, of course) and then go on a walk with you, it was a sign that things were going well.
Going on walks together was an integral part of the Victorian courtship ritual. Beginning with a short stroll an interested couple might take together either during or at the end of a dance, they would soon grow into strolls through parks or in the countryside. And though taking walks was the most conventional way of getting to know each other, it wasn’t the only one. Couples might also go ice-skating (which brought the hot prospect of an arm round the waist for stability) or play painfully soppy piano duets (made all the more steamy by the couples pushed up against each other while sharing a small piano stool).
Having said that, by Victorian standards going on a country walk could be quite racy: for it raised the slim prospect that the couple might hold hands. In fact, both the written and unwritten rules of Victorian etiquette unanimously agreed that if a man and woman happened to be walking on an unevenly surfaced road he could take her hand. As the only permissible form of contact between a couple who were not yet engaged, the presumed rationale is that it protected her from the indignity of having to be picked up from the mud.
What a man absolutely could not do during one of these walks was turn away from his beloved to look at anybody else. Whether on a walk, at church, or in the street, it was prescribed in practically every Victorian self-help dating manual that his attention was to belong entirely to his beloved. Having said that, considering that during one of their walks he might be accompanied by her mother, grandmother, cousins, aunts etc., one can only imagine he would have been far too frightened to. Nor could he let her walk on the edge of the pavement: like the gallant, chivalric knight of old, the potential for splashing his leg with roadside puddles of mud or water was his burden to bear.
Given how crazy the Victorians were for tight-fitting corsets and how they penned so much romantic writing about the gentler, fairer sex, it might come as a surprise that Victorian women weren’t expected to be overly fragile and delicate. But they weren’tâat least according to the self-help marriage manuals. Victorian men were told they were supposed to like their women strong; if not strong enough to plough the fields then at least strong enough to deal with the everyday labours of raising a family.
Over in America, George W. Hudsonâthe Methodist madman from earlier who suggested men seek out bulbous-headed womenâpenned his thoughts on a woman’s desirable physicality. With the characteristic literary flair we’ve come to expect of him, he wrote: “Choose for your wife a woman with full bust and good round limbs, as well as a good, large, well-proportioned headâone who can run and walk and lift a good load.”
But what was brain without brawn! Even Hudson conceded that brain is a “good thing”. It wasn’t just Hudson who stressed the importance of the body beautiful. Back in Britain, the turn-of-the-century writer Haydn Brown presented it as indisputable fact that: “All women would be healthier and none the less beautiful if they possessed firm muscles and strong limbs.” Even those who have no intention of marrying would do well to be mindful of their health, Brown warns.
There were enough activities to keep them in shape, especially towards the end of the Victorian and the beginning of the Edwardian Age. As well as what look like the absolutely agonising home exercises of the kind illustrated in this leather-bound book above, there was a growing trend of women taking part in sports. As an 1898 edition of the “Sportswoman’s Library” summarises, because of increased participation over the last decade in sports such as hunting, croquet, golf, and personal exercises, the women of the present generation had a “physique that would have been regarded with wondering awe, not unmixed with disapproval, by their gentle and delicate grandmothers.”
Be it a box of chocolates, a bunch of flowers, orâfor those of us still living in the 90sâa compilation mix-tape, we still see gift-giving as an effective step in courting someone. This isn’t the place to talk about the unspoken implications that lie behind gift-giving. But not all acts are purely altruistic; and whether explicit or not, throughout the history of gift-giving there has often been an expectation that the receiving party will in some way reciprocate.
The Victorians understood this full well. One the one hand, they prescribed exactly the type of gift it was appropriate for a gentleman to give. Flowers, some kind of candy, a good book: all were permissible according to Victorian etiquette. What was important was that a lady couldn’t offer her suitor a gift before she had received one herself. But once she had one, it was acceptable for her to return the favour and give her love-interest something (ideally small, inexpensive, and handmade).
Reciprocating wasn’t obligatory however, and it was for this reason several manuals warned against ladies accepting gifts from men. “Accepting gifts from men is a dangerous thing”, warns the wonderfully entitled 1837 manual “The Young Lady’s Friend, by a Lady”. “Some men conclude from your taking one gift that you will accept another, and think themselves encouraged by it to offer their hearts to you.” So how was a lady to avoid opening this Pandora’s box? Simple: “make it a general rule never to accept a present from a gentleman.”
But what about those unlabelled Trojan Horses these Helens of Troy were doubtlessly inundated withâthe anonymous gift? The manual’s advice is simple: put them out of sight and never mention them, as the mere sight of them upon your table might be enough to overexcite a potential suitor. Glad that’s sorted then.
Today, we marry for love and we divorce from the lack of it. Like every other pre-modern society, the Victorians married for much different reasons. For better or for worse, they saw marriage as a social bond: an alliance made to preserve property and guarantee inheritance. Far from being motivated by personal desire, marriages were decided on the basis of financial potential and, for the more powerful, political alliances. While desirable, happiness was incidental; or, as Haydn Brown’s put it in his 1899 publication “Advice to Single Women”: “marry well if you can; but satisfactorily at least.”
The first stage was the engagement. It was the man’s job to ask, and he had to get the go ahead not just from his ladylove but also from her father. Though possible in writing, proposals were best made in person (just as nobody wants to be proposed to over WhatsApp). And if she wanted to play hard to get, the woman was under no obligation to accept first time or to reciprocate with a ring.
Being engaged threw open the doors to a level of intimacy that had previously been unthinkable. At least by Victorian standards. Engaged couples could go on unchaperoned rides, hold hands during walks, and lightly kiss each another. They could even be left alone behind closed doors, though it was the man’s duty to leave his beloved by nightfall. There was actually sound reason for this; if their engagement were to end, rumours that they had spent the night together could be disastrous for her reputation.
Although engagements were legally binding, and Victorian men held themselves to a code in which breaking off an engagement was considered “ungentlemanly”, this didn’t stop it from happening. The offending party would often be taken to court for “breach of promise”. And although people couldn’t be coerced into marriage, the damaged party could be refunded for the costs of rings and wedding dresses etc. These tribunals could call upon all possible evidence, including letters exchanged by the former lovers. Such a scenario meant that, even in love letters, women had to err on the side of caution.