The Victorian Era is the period of time in English history between the mid- and the late 19th century, covering the 64-year reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901. Though Queen Victoria’s reign over England ended in 1901, when she passed away, the era which bore her name continued on for several more years, creating styles, fashions, and symbols of a gilded age, rich with elegance, splendor, and romance.
One of the most fascinating phenomenons in the life of people in the 19th century was the complexity of the etiquette and the set of rules that regulated everything from letter writing to the greeting of friends and acquaintances on the street. The process of courting was like many other social rituals very formalized and publically supervised element of Victorian life. Naturally it was the leisured classes who paid most attention to the rules of etiquette. The working class was much more flexible and open-minded in this respect.
For the members of the upper and the middle classes Victorian romance and relationships required much more etiquette than the dating of today. An interested gentleman could not simply walk up to a young lady and begin a conversation. Courtship was considered more a career move than a romantic interlude especially for young men, as all of a woman’s property reverted to them upon marriage. Since courting was taken so seriously – by both sides, men and women were careful not to lead the other on unnecessarily. Marriages were no longer literally arranged by parents to cement territorial or political alliances, as they had been in earlier centuries; but mothers, aunts, and grandmothers put careful thought into introducing young people who had compatible interests and comparable social standing’2. This is one of the reasons why every Victorian young middle or upper class girl for the first few years of her social life was under her mother’s wings or that of another female relative, who also served as her chaperone.
The role of such chaperone was not only to protect the girl’s reputation but also to make sure she was introduced to the right men. From the early years all Victorian women were groomed for this role in life – dutiful wife and mother. Properly trained, they learned to sing, play piano or guitar, dance and be conversant about light literature of the day. They not only learned things like French and the rules of etiquette but also such skills as the art of conversation and the art of silence. Only when they completed their education were they officially available on ‘the marriage market’.
Financial or family circumstances sometimes delayed or moved up girls’ debuts, though typically, they ‘came out’ when they were seventeen or eighteen. The presentation at court was one of the most important moments in every young lady’s life and marked the begining of her search for an appropriate husband. A party, a private dance or a public event such as a county hunt ball were the most often opportunities for young girls to socialize. Among the respectable middle and upper classes, all courtship was essentially conducted in public: at parties, dances, and teas; during afternoon calls; at picnics and musical evenings.
Glamorous balls that were organised at that time in England were considered the best occasions to establish new connections and meet attractive, potential partners. ‘Nothing could be compared to the glamour – and to the cost of these extravagant parties, they were full of filthy rich guests dressed in expensive and elaborate costumes – it was not difficult to spot someone interesting’3. In the Victorian Age, love was not the main reason for marriage. Proper social status and advancement played the biggest roles, and balls or dances were designed to place children of marrying age in contact with others of their upper status.
However, just because a young gentleman managed to be introduced to a lady for the purpose of dancing during a ball did not imply that he should assume that he could speak to her at another time or place. This would have been considered to be improper, and if he wished to become better acquainted with the lady, then he would need to drop subtle hints to a mutual friend and possibly arrange for the friend to introduce him, properly. Great care had to be taken at all of the public affairs, also as not to offend the potential suitor or his family. There were many rules of conduct a proper female had to observe.
A typical debutante’s day meant she rose at 11 a. m. or 12 noon, ate breakfast in her dressing room, attended a concert or drove in the Park, dined at eight, went to the opera, then to three or four parties until 5 a. m – all under the watchful eye of her chaperone. Under no circumstances could she ever approach people of higher rank, unless she was introduced by a mutual friend. It was a rule that people of lesser rank were always introduced to people of higher rank, and that was only if the higher- ranking person had given his or her permission.
Even after being introduced, the person of higher rank did not have to maintain the acquaintance. They could ignore, or ‘cut’ the person of lower rank. Courtship advanced by gradations, with couples first speaking, then walking out together, and finally keeping company after mutual attraction had been confirmed. All dates of that time were always supervised, and generally, women were not allowed to be alone with a man until they were engaged. Proper woman would also never rode alone in a closed carriage with a man who was not a relative and she would never call upon an unmarried gentleman at his place of residence.
Certainly, she couldn’t also at any kind of circumstances receive a man at home if she was alone. Another family member had to be present in the room. If she had progressed to the stage of courtship in which she walked out with a gentleman, they always walked apart. ‘Private conversations were brief, and usually in the open air – a couple might have dropped behind the rest of the group while walking to church or skate together when everyone was enjoying the frozen river in wintertime’4. A gentleman could offer his hand over rough spots, the only contact he was allowed with a woman who was not his fiance . No impure conversations were held in front of single women and of course no sexual contact was allowed before marriage. Innocence was demanded by men from girls in his class, and most especially from his future wife.
Intelligence was not encouraged, nor was any interest in politics. Since spending time together without witnesses was to say the least not encouraged it was difficult to really get to know somebody. Cousins had much more freedom to be together and because the Church of England did not prohibit such marriages, a good many cousins fell in love. Modern euphemisms sometimes mislead readers of Victorian fiction. In the nineteenth century, ‘making love’ meant ‘flirting’. A ‘lover’ was a suitor or admirer. This was all perfectly respectable; no sexual activity was involved’5. Since flirting was usually frowned upon, encouraging the hopes or engaging the affections of someone you did not intend to marry was not only considered to be thoughtless, but immoral. However, subtle suggestiveness would be acceptable when the flirting technique was done with a personal accessory, such as a fan, or a parasol, for example.
The fan was probably the most elegant accessory that a Victorian lady could carry, it could be made of a variety of materials such as lace, silk, feathers, paper, leaves, ivory and wood, and as the literary accounts of that times say ‘it whispered of perfumed flowers, etiquette and of forbidden love’6. Some of the fans which released fragrance were able to sent a gentle, feminine message when they were appropriately warmed by the lady’s hand. However, the main task of a fan had always been: to convey intimate thoughts.
Though it was, of course, not an exact science, Victorian ladies codified this silent speech into a system of distinct signs and signals. There was the confused flutter, the merry flutter, the amorous flutter, etc. Fluttering a fan at varying speeds indicated anything from rage to interest, to utter indifference. A folded fan that was touched to milady’s chin, for example, told a gentleman that she found him attractive. However, a folded fan that was gently touched to her lips was an unspoken declaration of her love for him.
Another kind of a necessary accessory in art of flirtation was a parasol, which was also considered the most essential part of Victorian fashion. Victorian parasols were as much a part of a well-dressed lady’s outfit as were her gloves, hat, shoes and stockings. The original purpose of carrying a parasol by a lady was of course to protect her delicate and soft complexion. Parasols were made of different expensive materials such as chiffon or silk, and their hands were even sometimes decorated with precious stones. With time, the parasol, however, became a status symbol.
Though the differences between a parasol and an umbrella may seem to be of little importance today, they were quite significant and absolutely unquestionable in the cirlces of Victorian society. Victorian fashion dictated that a lady never be caught in the rain. Umbrellas were carried by men to protect a lady as he walked her from the front door to the enclosed carriage and visa-versa. A woman who carried an umbrella was publicly conceding that she could not afford to own or hire a carriage for transportation in the rain.
However, a woman who carried a parasol was most assuredly a lady. She carried her parasol in sunny weather, not rainy, and as it was always important for a lady to convey her unquestionable status and class, when she rode in her carriage, the convertible top would be down so as to be sure that she and her parasol were clearly visible to all. Parasols – while indeed serving a practical purpose – were associated with the greatest of femininity and romance. Like the fan, parasols were an inseparable part of the subtle art of flirtation.
With practice, a felicitous lady could untilize her parasol to send any number of discreet messages. She could emphasize her dazzling eyes and her demure smile, or she could sheepishly gesture the change of her mood or thoughts. A skilled practioner could conceal from her chapperone the direction of her gaze, and even camouflage or disguise her imperfections. Moreover, enchanting parasols became also one of the most prevelant gifts that a gentleman could give his sweetheart during the 19th century. Because of their elegance, extravagance, and expense, it would have been a grave impropriety for a gentleman to give a parasol to a young lady for whom his intentions were not serious, and in return, a proper and decorous young lady would not have accepted such a gift unless she intended to receive the gentleman, as well’7 Therefore, it became conventional for a groom to give to his bride a parasol as part of his wedding gift to her. Another kind of customary accesory used either by women or by men in a variety of circumstances were calling cards.
Once a couple had been formally introduced, a gentleman could then offer to escort the young lady home by offering his card to her. The woman might collect several calling cards throughout the evening, but then, to the gentleman that she most preferred, she would present her own card, thus, accepting his offer. In the Victorian era there were many other etiquette laws that dictated a person’s actions in every imaginable situation. The laws were most of the time unwritten, but understood by most of the society.
Following these social rules would put a person in good social standing with his or her peers and would give them a good reputation. There was even established a kind of a group – a camaraderie among upper class women- supervising the social affairs. ‘They were the chief arrangers of social affairs: they advised, gossiped, told secrets and wrote passionate letters to each other. Anyone who made an enemy of them could be even ostracized forever from society’8. On the other hand, however, when a young girl was on good terms with these social select, she could expect help in making an advantageous match.
When choosing a wife or a husband there were strict rules to follow, one had to take into consideration many important factors, but first and foremost – age, economic status and social class. Marriage was encouraged only within one’s class. To aspire higher, one was considered an upstart. And on the other hand to marry someone of lesser social standing was considered marrying beneath oneself. Until 1823, the legal age for marriage in England was 21 years – for men and women the same. After 1823, however, it has changed and a male could marry as young as fourteen without parental consent, and a girl at 12.
Most girls, however, married between the ages of 18 and 23, especially in the upper classes. The age difference was on the other hand not such a serious problem. Someone her own age, or even a few years younger, was perfectly acceptable for a young woman, but so was a husband who was substantially older than she. What parents and young ladies looked for mostly would have been a solid character, an established position in society, and a comfortable income. However, some fear of passing through life unmarried led women to marry unwisely.
Men did not seem to face this stigma; the assumption was that they could marry if they wanted to. If they did not, they were always called ‘bachelors’, no matter their age, while women over 30 were referred to slightingly as ‘old maids’. Lucky were the ones who went through all the stages of courtship and despite all the Victorian requirements found love within their class, and within the approval of their families. Yet there was still one thing that needed to be discussed and that was the financial situation of the future married couple. A man had to prove his worth in keeping his wife in the level of life she was accustomed.
A woman, often looking to improve her social standing, used a dowry as a lure. To protect an heiress, her family could set up an estate trust for her, which would be controlled by Chancery Court. The woman would have access to this property if she applied, but her husband could not touch it. An unmarried woman of 21 could inherit and administer her own property. Even her father had no power over it. Once she married, however, all possessions reverted to her husband. She couldn’t even make a will for her personal property, while a husband could will his wife’s property to his illegitimate children.
Therefore, marriage, although almost every Victorian woman’s aim in life, had to be very carefully contemplated. It was not ethical for a man to pay serious attention to a woman unless his financial prospects would allow them to marry at some predictable date. And similarly it was dangerous for a young woman to let herself fall in love with a man who had not indicated his interest, because she might be committing her heart to a man who would not be able to marry. Because many marriages were considered a business deal, few started with love.
Although as the years passed, many couples grew tolerably fond of each other, often resulting in a bond almost as deep as love. After the bank accounts have been studied and political connections explored the pair ‘in love’ could go on to another step, which was the engagement. Men were very anxious about their financial status and because ‘maintaining an acceptable middle – class life required a substantial investment in housing, furniture, and servants many of them tended not to marry until they were past age thirty’9 – when they were able to afford all these things.
That is why many engagements could last several years. Fortunately, it was not a rule and most of the engagements lasted from six to twelve months. If it had not already been done, the man was then introduced to girl’s parents and her peer group. Permission for asking for the daughter’s hand in marriage had to be granted by bride’s father, although the gentleman could wait until he had his bride’s consent before asking. The father’s duty was to inquire into the suitor’s prospects and establish how long would it be before the marriage could take place.
A proposal was best made in person, with clear, distinct language, so the girl might not misunderstand the gentleman’s intent. If he could not bring himself to propose in person, he could do so in writing. A girl did not have to accept her first proposal. She could play coy. A short time was allowed to elapse before an engagement was announced, except to the most intimate friends or family of both parties. This was a kind of precaution, in case the engagement was ended by either party. Once the engagement was announced the mother usually hosted a dinner party.
The purpose of this dinner was to introduce the fiance to his bride’s family. A more formal evening party may have followed. Once the groom had been introduced to bride’s family, the bride was then introduced to his. This could be a very trying time for a young girl, as a mother-in-law’s eye was often critical. After the engagement was announced to the family, the bride wrote to the rest of her friends with the news. At the same time, her mother wrote to the elders of these families.
The engagement was of course finalized with a ring. The size and stone of which depended upon the groom’s finances. They could be in the form of a love knot, a simple band, or a band embedded with different stones whose initials spelled out a name or word of love. For example, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, gave Princess Alexandra of Denmark a ‘gypsy ring’ with the stones Beryl, Emerald, Ruby, Turquoise, Iacynth and Emerald, to spell out his nickname, “Bertie”10′. A woman could, in turn, give her fiance a ring, although it was not required. The couple also exchanged lockets containing a lock of hair; hers was worn around her neck and his hung from his watch-chain.