10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era
10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era

10 Strange Dating Tips From the Victorian Era

Alexander Meddings - December 15, 2017

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 plough the fields then at least strong enough to deal with the everyday labours 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 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.

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 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.”

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. 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 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 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.