Spanning almost 70 years, the Victorian period of British history covers Queen Victoria’s long reign in the 19th century. It was a time of quaint rituals and seemingly confused cultural sensibilities. In general, though, the Victorian period takes on a note of romantic nostalgia today. But how much romance could there be when the process of dating was just one formality after another? Simply put, we’ve come a long way from the Victorian approach to finding a mate.
First things first, young women in the Victorian period had to “come out” or make their official début as eligible bachelorettes. If you were an upper-class English girl from a wealthy family, you actually had to be presented to the court of Queen Victoria in a formal ceremony. For others, the event was a little less rigorous. In any case, coming out meant that a young woman had finished her education and was available for marriage. The typical age for a Victorian girl’s début was about 18 years old, although it wasn’t unheard of to come out at 17 or 19.
As simple and casual as flirting is today — a smile, a wink, or a sassy text message — it’s hard to believe that guys and girls in the Victorian period didn’t have it so easy. Like everything else, Victorian flirting involved ritualized behavior. For every social gathering, a young woman would be escorted by her mother or some other adult female chaperone so that nothing could damage her reputation. Young men and women at dances and balls were introduced by a third party, strictly on a last name basis. Placing his name on her dance card, a young man could dance one to three dances with the lady of his choosing. While dancing, the would-be couple could finally talk, smile, laugh, size each other up, and flirt.
Choosing a Suitor
After the formal introduction and dancing, a young man would give a young woman his card (sort of like a business card) and at the evening’s end she would look through her cards to choose who could date or “court” her. The young woman granted her chosen suitor courtship privileges by giving him her card, along with permission to escort her home or visit her at home where courting must take place. If a gentleman did not receive a woman’s card, he would not be permitted to call on her at home or court her. In other words, it meant rejection. Ouch.
Courtship was serious business in the Victorian period. This is partly because all the property of a young woman got handed to her husband upon marriage. While courtship was not all merciless gold-digging, it was taken very seriously by both genders. Still chaperoned, a single girl was never allowed out by herself, especially in male company, so courtship took place initially around other people. It advanced in stages, first with couples talking, and then walking together, and finally seeing each other regularly if there was mutual attraction. Even if a young man became a young lady’s “beau” or “sweetheart”, he could never call on her without permission.
Since Victorian society was rather restrictive and emotionally bottled-up, a young couple could not openly express love for each other. If you fell in love in the Victorian period, you had to find discreet, nonverbal ways to show it. Objects like handkerchiefs or gloves took on a covert language and suitors gave flowers, which had secret meanings, to express their emotions. When a young man decided to propose marriage to his chosen bride, he had to ask her father or other guardian for her hand. If his proposal was accepted, the courtship officially ended and the engagement began. At that point, he would present his fiancée with a diamond engagement ring that signified her purity and innocence.