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The Lost Art of Courtship

Gerard ter Borch, The Suitor's Visit, circa 1658, oil on canvas
Gerard ter Borch, The Suitor’s Visit, circa 1658, oil on canvas

The mating rituals of humans, that act of finding the perfect partner with which to procreate, is a complex and often mind-boggling process. The intricate dance between men and women is an age-old process that continues to change and evolve with the times. “Courtship” is officially considered to be the period preceding engagement and marriage when a couple gets to know one another in order to come to the decision of whether or not to take that next step towards a more permanent relationship such as marriage. Traditonally, it was the role of the male to “woo” or “court” the female, but a lot has changed in the last hundred years or so.

Modern courtship consists of informal dating. Today, dating is as much a social practice as it is a formal mating process. We date for “fun” and not with the sole intention of finding a mate. One expects to do a good but of dating and trying out different partners before deciding to “settle down.” Contrary to popular belief, women normally trigger and control courtship through non-verbal behaviors that men then respond to. Our modern practice of social dating serves to socialize both sexes into accepting and preparing for more permanent bonds conducive to raising children.

While the purpose of dating has evolved, the manner in which we find partners has also changed. For the most part we are still introduced to potential mates through family, friends, work, school, etc. However, the phenomenon of commercial dating services has seen a significant rise in popularity in the last decade. Online dating services such as eharmony and match.com are widely used by both men and women in our current dating society. The trend of women taking the lead in relationships and in pursuing a partner has also risen. Our modern dating rituals are a far cry from those practiced in the Victorian era.

One aspect of marriage that is very different, and which had a large impact on the mating rituals in the Victorian era, is the idea of property. While the Victorians were heavily influenced by the idea of romantic love, marriage as a business transaction was still a firm reality. Before 1882 a woman’s legal identity, including personal property and money in particular, was literally absorbed by her husband upon marriage. A woman’s property belonged to her husband unless a father arranged a trust to control her money, which even then only transferred the control into the hands of a trustee and not the woman. So, money and property was, by necessity, a large consideration when choosing a mate.

The concept of the working woman was also unheard of. The man was the sole breadwinner, and as such, it was paramount for the man to have an established means of supporting his wife, and was heavily considered when choosing or approving a marriage partner. A man could not even consider marriage if he did not have a concrete source of income. Generally, for this reason, the aim was to marry an equal, despite what fanciful romance novel may tell us. The appeal of marrying up and improving one’s financial and social situation still existed, however. A man had the liberty of marrying up or down, but a woman took great risk of she dared to marry down. Another factor that was taken into consideration was social status. A woman always adopted the sphere of her husband, so it was possible for a man to marry down a still keep his high social position, but a lady could not raise the rank of a gentleman.

Due to these financial and social restrictions the practice of choosing one’s marriage partner was taken very seriously and the rules surrounding courtship and the interaction between men and women were strict.  It went something like this:

  1. The gentleman or lady singled out a member of the opposite sex who they think might be a good candidate for marriage.
  2. The gentleman or lady does some investigation into the chosen person’s character, opinion of others about them, reputation, family, and financial status.
  3. A formal introduction is arranged through a family member or friend of the same station as the person who inhabits the highest station of the two (introductions at balls do not count).
  4. Once they couple is introduced, the gentleman is obliged to tactfully make his position, how well he can support a wife, known to the lady.
  5. Once the gentleman has done this, he must then carefully ascertain the feelings of the young woman. He doesn’t want to be too forward and risk offending the lady, but he also doesn’t want to accidentally draw her into any early commitments due to a lack of clarity, lest she then be branded with the term “flirt.”
  6. Once the gentleman has assurances of reciprocal interest, he can then beg permission to call upon her at her home, where he will meet “privately” with her in the company of her family. All interaction and courting activities from here on out must be conducted in the company of a chaperone, one who is preferably married, in order to ensure the ladies continued purity. This was often a hired companion or a family member. It is now the lady’s responsibility to use their “dates” to ascertain his character. She was to look for flaws and inconsistencies that might reveal his true nature. This was essentially her only chance to make sure that she liked the man and that she knew what she was getting into if they got married.
  7. After a period of courting, an understanding can be established that both parties suit and would like to proceed to establishing a formal engagement to be married. At this time the gentleman must address the father and state his intentions, as well as prove his ability to provide for the daughter in a manner at least equal to what she is used to.
  8. After the gentleman has obtained permission from the father, he would, eloquently and delicately, present his offer to the lady.
  9. Now the young lady can either accept or refuse, arguably the single moment in the relationship where she has absolute power. Hopefully she makes the right decision, as that power will quickly vanish after this moment.

And there you have it. The lost art of courtship. Now, one factor that spiced things up a bit was the fact that Victorian society didn’t allow for the public expression of feelings. So, men and women invented new creative ways to flirt and make their feelings about the opposite sex known. A secret non-verbal language was created, involving the clever use of fans, gloves, parasols, and handkerchiefs. Significant meaning was attached to each and every movement, and simple choices like whether to wear blue or red gloves transformed into a hidden message meant for one’s beau. Gentlemen in turn gave ladies gifts known as “love tokens” such as flowers, painted miniatures, and jewelry. The giving of flowers took on a life of its own, as specific meaning was attached to every different type and color of flower, each one conveying a secret message and expressing a particular emotion not condoned publicly by society. As flowers were the most common gift given to ladies by suitors, this aloud for an entire conversation to take place between couples without anyone knowing. Some examples are: roses generally mean love, lily’s generally mean beauty, carnations in general mean fascination or devoted love, a red carnation meant “My heart aches for you” or admiration, and a striped carnation meant “no,” a refusal, “sorry I can’t be with you,” or “wish I could be with you.” As you can see, while the rules governing courtship may have been strict, men and women found ways to bend the rules and make what appears to be a rigid ritual into a romantic endeavor.

Sources: “Love Courtship and Marriage in the Nineteenth Century.” Nineteenth Century; The Position of Women. 8. Nov. 2004

Powell, Kimberly. “Victorian Formality.” Romance Through the Ages; Customs of Love, Marriage, and Dating. 8 Nov. 2004

What do you think of this lost courtship ritual? Do you think it’s more exciting and romantic than our modern one or less? Sound off below…




Looking to experience the Victorian culture? Why not try having your own Victorian Tea Party?

Wondering how these young couples met? Take a look at The Debutante Ball.

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By on May 20th, 2014

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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1 thought on “The Lost Art of Courtship”

  1. Great article. I think you girls should write a book about the lost art of courting and how to put the romance back in dating.


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