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
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
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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.