10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era

Alexander Meddings - December 15, 2017

Ah, the Victorian Age… You may have thought being named after—and presided over by—a strong female monarch like Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) might have done something to soften the naked masculinity of the time. But you’d be wrong. This was the age of muscular Christianity, the age in which the western male came to dominate and subjugate through industry and empire; the age, in short, in which men were real men, women were real men; even the children were real men.

But brute masculinity was only one side of the coin. The Victorians were also romantics, albeit in a rigidly regulated way. Like every human civilization since the dawn of time, they recognized the amorous aspects of courtship while managing to cloak their fundamental need to reproduce as a species with a series of bizarre rituals. What makes the Victorians so unique is just how stringent these rituals were: essentially resembling rules and regulations you were obliged to adhere to when in pursuit of your armor.

As you can imagine, for the middle and upper classes this made dating a minefield. At least by today’s standards. Restrictive formality dictated every interaction you had with your potential match, meaning you really had to watch what you said and how you said it. What’s worse, all meetings were so rehearsed and formalized that you would only ever see your dearly sought-after at their prim and preened best (meaning you had no idea what they were actually like until you were married, and the mundane daily tasks took over). But there was at least some rationale behind the proscriptive values of Victorian courtship: to uphold the values they believed propped up their civilization.

Arm yourself with a good self-help book

For young men and women, having to navigate a dating culture that required them to act a certain way meant self-help books were all the rage. Women, in particular, were inundated with them: from Henry Butter’s ominously titled: “Maiden, Prepare to Become a Happy Wife and Mother” (1868) to Haydn Brown’s recently republished “Advice to Single Women” (1899). In an attempt to bridge the gap, some books even targeted both genders, including the weirdly avuncular-sounding “Uncle David’s Advice to Young Men and Women on the Subject of Marriage” (published in 1863 and written by someone whose name definitely wasn’t David).

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Haydn Brown’s “Advice to Single Women” (1899)

Putting the question of authorship aside, Uncle David’s manual raises another interesting question: when was it appropriate to marry? Before 1823, the legal age for both men and women had been 23. With the passing of two parliamentary acts in 1823 and 1824, however, the age decreased to 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Parental consent was required of course, and cases of marriages taking place around this age were rare. Especially for the upper classes, the average age was between 18 and 23.

When it came to self-help marriage manuals, men had slimmer pickings. Some, however, armed themselves with a copy of “The Marriage Guide for Young Men“. (Self-) published in 1883 by American Methodist minister George W. Hudson. It hasn’t exactly stood the test of time. Instead, it’s more an intriguing repository of insane advice from a bygone age. Highlights include:

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Read this manual and you’ll soon understand why it had to be self-published. Rediff Blogs

1) Seek out women with large, bulbous heads; they’re bound to be “well sexed” and “full of pluck.” Words fail me… Still, at least contemporary advice seemed a little saner in Britain, Haydn Brown writing: “The human male likes proportion and artistic beauty… bound together not by a corset but by ineffable manner of charm.”

2) (This one from the Hudson’s personal experience): Avoid marrying into families with fugitives. When the police come knocking, your beloved will be reluctant to give up their whereabouts, and this is likely to put a strain on the relationship. Good to know.

3) A man should realize the idea of sex is abhorrent for a woman, and shouldn’t affront her virtue by making her “the football of his lust”. (I have no idea what “football of his lust” means; nor do I think I want to).

4) If the marriage breaks down, don’t get divorced but put on a brave face and live out the rest of your lives together in abject misery. “Let the world know just as little about your wretchedness as possible… though domestic unhappiness should be feeding upon your very vitals.”

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Illustration of a “coming out” ceremony in 1893 in which prospective ladies would meet Victoria and kiss her hand. Kate Tattersall Adventures

Start by “coming out”

When a woman decided she was interested in seeking out a potential suitor, she would announce that she was “coming out”. This clearly carried an entirely different meaning to the one it does today. Far from being a declaration of sexuality, it meant that the girl was interested in attending events where she could meet a prospective match. The announcement had to be made, however, because to attend such events the woman needed the explicit permission of her mother. Only after stating her intent could her chaperones be organized (because heaven forbid she went out without the appropriate supervision).

While this is what a young woman did to “come out”, what the family did to announce it depended entirely on their wealth and class. Rich families might accompany the announcement with a series of parties or even a royal visit. Middle-class families might hold a celebratory feast. Lower-class families might not formally celebrate the announcement at all—the young woman displaying her availability by wearing her hair up, donning long dresses, and accompanying family members to social events such as church services, church dinners, and festive balls.

Once a girl had come out she would wait until she was “in season.” Nope, this has nothing to do with the reproductive calendar. It refers to the four months of the year (from April through to July) where upper-class families up and down the country would send their teenage daughters to London. After flocking there en masse, the upper classes would congregate at a series of balls and dances for the purpose of the meeting, matching, and reproducing the next generation of the upper classes.

Having arrived at one of these events, the race was on to find someone with whom to “make love”. Again, this is a phrase of which the meaning has changed considerably over time. Making love in the Victorian Age meant seeking out someone who might one day come to love you. Much like still do now, just not on Tinder. As you might expect from the Victorians, however, the process was strictly controlled.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Charles Wilda’s “The Ball” (1906). Wikimedia Commons

“Make love” and listen to the music

It goes without saying that the balls and dances of the Victorian Age were a far cry from the balls and dances of today (that is unless your idea of a ball or dance resembles one of those children’s discos from when you were younger, where girls would stand on opposite sides of the room and wait for the boys to make the long, lonely walk across the hall to talk to them). Far from being liberal, let-your-hair-down events, they were highly formalized occasions arranged for the express purpose of pairing off couples.

At the beginning of a Victorian dance, the man would fill out a “dancing card” with his name on it. He would then approach a woman, request a dance, and, if accepted, leave his card with her chaperone. The role of the chaperone can’t be overstated; under no condition was an eligible young woman to attend these events alone. Nor would the chaperone leave her side for the duration of the dance. Instead, they would hover nearby by her like a silent, shadowy wing-woman: a taker of cards and protector of propriety.

The man was allowed a maximum of three dances with each woman throughout the night. After this, he was left to play the waiting game and see whether her response would be forthcoming. At the end of the night, the woman would review her options, much like Tinder. And if she liked a suitor, she would pick him out having her chaperone return his card to him. This meant it was on: she had accepted his advances, acknowledged their mutual desire to “make love” (though, again, not in that way) and he could now start courting her.

When it came to offering advice over how to “make love” at the dances, the self-help etiquette manuals didn’t disappoint. In short: keep yourself together, don’t try it on with everyone, and try to leave with the same level of dignity with which you arrived. If a man were to successfully navigate the crazy maze of Victorian courtship, it was vital that he didn’t make a reputation for himself. Even if there was a lot of love to give, coming across as Cassanovan, as a man to every woman, could only do damage. As one contemporary manual outlined, it would “belittle you in the eyes of sensible people and perhaps spoil your prospects for a desirable match”.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era

Introductions were everything in the Victorian Age

Of all the stereotypes we can pin on the Victorian middle and upper classes, being sexually liberated isn’t one of them. Their courtship rituals had none of the brashness or bravado of the dating scene today, where both men and women are free to approach each other ad lib and (within reason) be as open or direct as they choose. For Victorian men, introducing yourself was difficult; for Victorian women, it was nigh on impossible. If you saw someone you liked you had no option of going over and talking to him. You had to wait to be introduced.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that, among the still-socially stratified British, there was a strict social code dictating how people of different rank and social status could make acquaintance. Lesser-ranking individuals could not approach higher-ranking individuals unless express permission was granted. It was then the higher-ranking person’s prerogative to decide whether to continue seeing this person or to cut them from their friends.

While to us this seems incredibly backward, it would have made absolute sense to a Victorian mentality. One prerequisite of a satisfactory marriage was that it took place between two people of the same social standing. Marry someone poorer and it might be said that you were “marrying beneath you.” Marry someone richer and you might be accused of being an upstart.

One way in which the Victorians adhered to the courtship etiquette was that women were taught to be reverentially respectful towards men, just as men were taught to treat women as if they were ridiculously fragile. An offshoot of this was that it was seen as improper for a woman to use a man’s Christian name in everyday conversation. She was instead expected to address him as befitted a gentleman, using his surname.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
The (not remote secret) language of the fan. Owlcation

Flirt freely, but only with your fan

With such strictures dictating almost every element of courtship, young men and women of the Victorian Age were forced to revert to new tools and tactics to get to know each other further and take the conversation beyond finances and formality. One of these was the clandestine card. Instead of passing the official dance card or calling card to the young lady’s chaperone, a young man might discreetly pass his lady a card containing a rather risqué message.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Kissing Rogue. Gizmodo

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, however—you 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.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Flirting with fans was acceptable but touching was off the cards. Classroom / Synonym

Avoid physical contact

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.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
A late-nineteenth-century stereograph showing a young couple’s late-night amorous misdeeds being interrupted by angry parents. Boston Public Library

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 hour—which according to this stereograph above seems to have had a cut-off point of around 1:30 a.m.—the suitor would leave, though not without organizing 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.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Johannes Raphael Wehle’s Courting Walk (1848). Pinterest

Go on long walks with your beloved

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.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Keeping in shape. The Telegraph

Stay in shape

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’t—at 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 plow the fields then at least strong enough to deal with the everyday labors of raising a family.

Over in America, George W. Hudson—the Methodist madman from earlier who suggested men seek out bulbous-headed women—penned 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 head—one 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 being beautiful. Back in Britain, the turn-of-the-century writer Haydn Brown presented it as an 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.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
This leather-bound book from 1861 lists a number of exercises that can be performed at home. And many would make modern personal trainers squirm. Welcome Library

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 looks like the absolutely agonizing 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.”

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
The first of a series of 25 hand-tinted stereographs from the late-nineteenth-century showing the stages of dating. Boston Library

Beware of Victorian gentlemen bearing gifts

Be it a box of chocolates, a bunch of flowers, or—for those of us still living in the 90s—a 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. On 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 favor 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 with—the 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.

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
Getty Images

Seal the deal

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 the 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, rumors 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.

Some Sources and Further Reading:

History Collection – 16 Historical Dating Tips That Might Help Your Love Life

Medium – These Were Cute Dating Standards of the Victorian Era

History of Yesterday – The Bizarre Etiquette of Victorian Era Dating

Ranker – What You Had to Do to Hook Up in the Victorian Era