Beware of Victorian gentlemen bearing gifts
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.