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Photo credit: Diana Myrndorff

I am thrilled! Today is my one-year anniversary courting My Suitor. He whisked me away for sojourn to San Diego, California for a time. As I have not visited San Diego in known memory, this is truly an adventure for me. I will write in more detail later this week on the outcome of the day. My reporting is in black and my internal asides comments are in (parentheses italics.)

Until then, courting was quite different in during the Victorian era. To make the distinction, courting is not synonymous with the modern dating system. As with any Victorian social convention, it is fraught with more rules than Hammurabi’s Code. On the one hand, Victorians were an exceedingly romantic lot; romantic in the sense of ideology and naturalism, as a movement in the arts. (I, too, am a Romantic.) They loved love; the idea of it, the rose-colored glasses that came with it, the attentions and future possibilities. On the other hand, Victorians were obstinately practical and concerned with propriety as well as property. (Unfortunately, love does not pay the bills, so I concur.) So courting was very serious business. Its sole intent was to find a compatible mate of equal or greater social standing.

A young girl was presented to Court and Society around the time of sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth birthday in the Season closest to her birthday. (I did not have a debut.) Overnight she went from being “seen, not heard,” wearing school girl attire without any sort of adornment of jewelry, and childish styles of wearing the hair long and loose or in curls to finally wearing her hair up, donning her first pearls and evening gowns and allowed to speak out without waiting to be asked. The transformation was daunting as it was thrilling. She was now able to socialize and socialize she did! There was an expert from a book I read, whose exact phrasing I cannot recall, but quoted a letter from a mother to a friend boasting how her daughter attended 50 gala balls, 30 operas, 20 symphonies, 15 dinner parties, and 15 tea luncheons during her first season. The numbers are not exact to the quote, but the social calendar is impressive! It was not uncommon to attend three to five parties a night! It sounds utterly exhausting to me! However, that was the way of things. These gatherings allowed men and women of similar circles to meet on multiple occasions. It took two or three Seasons before any proposals were made however, it was social acceptable to marry up to the age of 23, after which questions begin to arise. (I can attest to the questioning!)

If a gentleman was interested, he was allowed to talk to his the woman of his choice or perhaps walk with her for short periods, sometimes making use of the courting lamp, while under the watchful eye of a chaperone. (I wonder if chaperoning lead to paranoia)? As time progressed, he was allowed to call on the young woman or “keep company”, which again was supervised. A true gentleman never touched a lady and if so, it was for the briefest of moments to assist her. If you pay attention to Victorian literature, all the little brushes of touch are mentioned with the intent of sexual tension and interest. It was one reason why ice-skating and roller skating were so popular, as it was fraught with danger and the allowance of touch. Pianoforte duets also gave interested couples a reason to touch each other’s hands and sit so near one another. Silly, it seems now.

When walking with together a couple walked apart, only engaged or married ladies were allowed to hold the arm of their partners. (Such restraint and suppression surely is not good for the health as it is for moral reasons.) Men always ambled on the street -side of walk to prevent a lady from being sullied. When passing each other on the street, a lady would acknowledge the man, whereupon he would tip his hat and move aside. If she indicated in some subtle manner, he would talk with her as they walked in the direction she was headed, for a gentleman never allows a lady to stop and talk. How gauche! After discussing and walking with a gentleman, a lady never looks back to watch the man go. (Too similar to Lot’s wife.)  A woman was expected only to ride in a closed carriage with a man to whom she was related and in an open carriage, the two non-related parties sat opposite of each other with the man sitting directly behind the horse. A gentleman was to stand when a lady entered or left the room, pull out her chair at the table, hold open doors and offer a hand of assistance and always removes his hat when discoursing with a lady. (My Suitor does these things!)

Ladies, in turn were to not to lead a man on if she does not have any intent of marrying a smitten gentleman. (I would never!) Her conversational topics must be non-political and chaste. Intelligence was severely discouraged (This is clearly why I remain unmarried) and as to not shame the man for any lack on his part. She was expected to sing (I cannot), play an instrument (it has been years since I touched the pianoforte), draw (this I can do), and keep her figure and beauty, but not be too beautiful. (How is this achieved?!) Poor dear. During the courting phase, the woman had more advantage, which she lost completely and legally after her marriage.

Neither party was to address one another by their Christian or given name. It was far too informal and intimate only the family, truly close friends, or spouses were allowed such liberties. (I wish we still addressed each other with formalities.) Verbal forms of expressions were out of the question during the Victorian era. However, there are couples who were much more brazen about such things with their terms of endearments. As a result, love letters were the means of emotional and amorous affection. The lengths and passions poured out on the pages from both men and women seems so shocking at first, but given there was no real outlet for such feelings, it should not be so surprising. The letters could also be used as proof as a breach of contract and/or engagement and many young women were advised to be careful with what they wrote. Love tokens were also wildly popular, but the gifts had to be general and not too personal should it look like either party is favoring the company of a particular person too much. Gloves, books (I sheepishly admit I have not finished the tome My Suitor gave me. It sits in the pile of nine novels stacked by my bedside), flowers and fans were quite acceptable and the latter two developed into a language all on their own. Portraits, miniatures or in later times, photographs, were given to gentlemen as a symbol of devotion. (I already gave My Suitor my portrait, he was delighted.)

Marriage was the purpose of courtship. Although Victorians wanted to marry for love, they married for status and monetary necessity. Young marriageable women had dowries to entice men. A dowry is property or money that “comes with the bride” upon her marriage; a sort of Victorian pre-nuptial agreement if you will. (I have a hope chest filled with winter clothes . . . ) While not overtly discussed in most literature, each respective family was calculating the financial holdings, political leanings, and ancestry of the other to see if the match was compatible on a practical level. It is assumed there is a mutual interest in the youths if they are courting each other. Granted, often times in the wealthier circles young people were forced upon each other only how they matched on paper and not the personalities or compatible interests. After which a gentleman would ask the father of his love interest for her hand and with his consent would get down on bended knee and ask the lady of his heart to join him in marriage. (I still await the day. . .)