Dating in the Victorian era in America and in Britain meant navigating through a fog of modesty, prudence, ritual, corsets, top hats, calling cards, and your inner voice feverishly whispering etiquette book platitudes: “There is no propriety in voluntarily prolonging your ride, with a young gentleman, till after dark!” “Nothing can take the place of true genuine manhood!”
Etiquette books were all the rage at the time, advising men and women on Victorian courtship rituals and what it means to be a proper lady or manly gentleman. Maintaining relationships in the Victorian era meant deciphering the often bewildering code: How does a gentleman walk with a lady? (Closest to the mud.) Can a lady accept gifts from a gentleman? (Never.) May we speak while we dance? (How dare you even ask.)
This list is a tour of romance in the Victorian era guided by firsthand examples lifted straight out of these books (which are now in the public domain, if you’re looking to live your life as a neo-Victorian). Enjoy, but please: maintain your propriety.
Do Not Try to Make Love to Every Woman You Meet
Gentlemen were advised to not assume that “every young lady is ready to fall in love with you.” It goes on to say that when you do find a lady ready to “make love,” you should “maintain a dignified reserve” or else your behavior will “belittle you in the eyes of sensible people, and perhaps spoil your prospects for desirable match.” In other words: keep it together, Pepé Le Pew.
Accepting Presents from Gentlemen Is a Dangerous Thing
What about anonymous gifts from dudes? Surely those are okay, right? Nope: “When this is the case, it is a good way to put them by, out of sight, and never to mention them.”
Be a Thorough Manly Man
In case the message wasn’t clear, the book also advises men to “engage in every manly exercise, so that all who look upon you will be compelled to say, ‘There is a man.’”
In Public, a Gentleman Should Show Constant Attention to His Intended
So no public displays of affection? Bummer. Then there’s this: “Engaged lovers may exchange portraits, presents, and locks of hair.” So no PDA, but please: exchange hair.
A Lady Never Calls on a Gentleman
Men, however, have a bit more freedom, especially if the lady is already spoken for: “Gentlemen are permitted to call on married ladies at their own houses.” But there’s a catch: “never without the knowledge and full permission of husbands.” Surely that rule was never abused, right?
Be Ready to Act the Knight If a Lady in Your Company Is Attacked
The advice continues: “It is absurd to get into a quarrel for the sake of maintaining that a person who is insolent [i.e., the attacker] has a right to be so.” So if your lady is starting fights with men on the street for no good reason, apologize for her, but don’t take the attacker’s side too strongly: “You will show yourself, in acting thus, as ill-bred as he.”
An Introduction for Dancing Doesn't Constitute a Speaking Acquaintance
This refers, specifically, to when men and women are introduced for the first time “at a ball for the purpose of dancing.” So if they’ve never spoken to each prior to the dance, it’s rude to talk during the dance or even after; it’s only polite to speak once the hostess has made formal introductions. The duo may, however, acknowledge each other before that time: “They are at liberty to recall themselves by lifting their hats in passing.”
When Traveling With a Lady, Always Carry Her Bag
Part of “championing” a Victorian woman was carrying her stuff, as The Complete Bachelor: Manners for Men (1896) advised: “When traveling with a lady, always carry her bag and assist her in and out of trains.” This is, in fact, especially advised while traveling, since travel brings out “both the good and evil attributes of a man” and his behavior “is on its mettle under these circumstances.”
Women May Have Some Excuse for Coquetry, But a Man Has None
Interestingly, the blame is subtly shifted away from the man and onto the woman and her friends: “To allow an innocent girl to deceive herself, or, as is more commonly the case, to be deceived by the badinage [humorous or witty conversation] of her companions, into the idea that you are her lover, and intend to propose marriage, is ungentlemanly.” So it’s ungentlemanly to flirt with a woman you like but don’t love, but most often the woman’s friends deceive her or she deceives herself. So no biggie.
But the advice takes a bizarre turn, warning of “two results” of this ungentlemanly behavior: “Either, having engaged the affections, and excited the hopes of the lady, you will feel compelled to marry her, or you will be disgraced, possibly cowhided [whipped], or shot.” You’ve been warned: flirting could get you killed.
In Walking with a Lady, Leave Her the Inner Side of the Pavement
In 1922, Emily Post added a brief addendum to this, clarifying what a man should do if he’s fortunate enough to be walking with two ladies: “A gentleman, whether walking with two ladies or one, takes the curb side of the pavement. He should never sandwich himself between them.”
Neither Party Should Try to Make the Other Jealous
The entire “Lovers’ Quarrels” section is a barn burner, actually: “No lover will assume a domineering attitude over his future wife. If he does so, she will do well to escape from his thrall before she becomes his wife in reality. A domineering lover will be certain to be more domineering as a husband.” Preach it! “Neither should there be provocation to little quarrels for the foolish delight of reconciliation.” Wait: is this anti-make-up sex?
A Man Should Never Make a Declaration in a Jesting Manner
It’s interesting how the advice frames trifling behavior as affecting the sexes in wildly different ways. Women will have hurt feelings, reasonably enough, but men, apparently, will also act out: “It may cause him to express himself or to shape his conduct in such a manner as he would not dream of doing were his suit utterly hopeless.”
Should He Show Disrespect Toward Women, Repel All Advances
[S]hould [a man] show disrespect toward women as a class, sneer at sacred things, evince an inclination for expensive pleasures in advance of his means, or for low amusements or companionship; be cruel to the horse he drives, or display an absence of all energy in his business pursuits, then is it time to gently, but firmly, repel all nearer advances on his part.
Gently! Sounds like men could get away with a lot before being slapped with a glove.
The guy sounds like a real jerk, Maud. But “disrespect toward women as a class,” “cruelty to the horse he drives,” and, especially, “absence of all energy in his business pursuits” shouldn’t be on the same“dealbreaker” level, right?
Parents Should Be Familiar with Their Daughter's Associates
The advice continues, advocating the shunning of any guy in your daughter’s orbit that is “particularly ineligible,” whether he’s interested or not, suggesting that the poor hypothetical schmuck “be excluded as far as practicable from her society.”
Manifest Whatever Qualities You Would Awaken
This blatant disregard for the feelings of women continues in a section titled, hilariously, “Anglo-Saxon Love-Making Errors,” which sounds like what would happen if you let a robot name a Bon Iver album. Fowler claims that God creates women to meet the needs of men: “The choosing one [the man, duh] should think the one chosen [the pretty lady] the most perfect and best for them obtainable, and ‘thank God for having created one thus perfectly adapted to their precise needs.’”