Thursday, February 4, 2021

Victorian Courship Advice (1883)


Kristin Holt | Victorian Courtship Advice (1883)

by Kristin Holt
USA Today Bestselling Author of Sweet Romance
Set in the Victorian-era American West


Victorians fancied the idea of marrying for love. This revolutionary idea overturned established traditions of marriage based on economics, family connections, and societal expectations. Marrying for love meant courtship before and after marriage. Abundant advice to those matrimonial inclined came from myriad sources including books on etiquette, newspaper editorials, and religious sermons.

Oh So Victorian Courtship Advice


The following transcription comes from an editorial published in The Madison News of Madison, Kansas, dated November 16, 1883.




Courtship, like most other matters relating to love and matrimony, may be said to present abundant scope for eccentric and original developments. It is a course of proceeding which is regulated by no fixed principles or general formulæ [sic]. The symptoms are as variable as the weather, and neither precepts nor examples are of much avail, because the policy which may in one case prove eminently successful may in another result in the most lamentable failure. There is no definite rule, even on such a fundamental point as whether the initiative and active negotiations shall devolve upon the lady or the gentleman. There are fortunate individuals of both sexes whose fate, we confess, fill us with envy.


According to popular tradition, it is the special prerogative of the fair sex to be wooed and won; but this is not by any means an invariable rule. It has many exceptions; and some who profess to speak from personal experience, as well as extensive observation, go so far as to declare that in the majority of instances it is really the ladies who do the courting, though the initiative and other formal steps may ostensibly lie with the enamored swain. A good deal might, no doubt, be said in support of this theory. Women have far more tact in the management of such affairs than men, who invariably evince a remarkable propensity for “putting their foot in it.” The subject, moreover, is one in which the ladies are supposed to be more nearly concerned. As Byron says:

“Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, ‘Tis woman’s whole existence.”

While a man may have a hundred different objects and ambitions in life, and may leave his matrimonial fate in great part to chance, there is seldom any object which bulks so largely in a girl’s prospects as that of being well matched, and, as the phrase goes, “comfortably settled” as partner in a good matrimonial firm. It need, therefore, be no matter of surprise that our fair sisters should so often be found angling in the waters of the social world for what their luck may bring them in the shape of a husband; and there is considerable common sense, as well as piquant humor, in what the heroine of a popular new comedy has to say to her girl friend as to the responsibility which devolves on a dutiful young lady of paving the way and “leading up” to a declaration and proposal.


We remember listening to a remarkable address on this subject by an oratorical Quakeress, who seemed strongly disposed to assign to man the place of the wooed, rather than that of the wooer. “My friends,” she observed, “there are three things I very much wonder at. The first is, that children should be so foolish as to throw up stones, clubs and brickbats into fruit-trees, to knock down fruit; if they would let it alone, it would fall itself. The second is, that men should be so foolish, and even so wicked, as to go to war and kill each other; if let alone they would die of themselves. And the third and last thing I wonder at is that young men should be so unwise as to go after the young women; if they would stay at home the young women would run after them.”


Not withstanding this lucid train of reasoning, it is to be hoped young men will not do anything so ungallant [sic] and unmanly as to stay at home and neglect what has all along been their peculiar privilege. A man may be so highly favored by fortune that his rank, wealth, genius or personal qualities enable him to outshine all rivals, and to regard wooing and winning as for him almost synonymous terms; but to allow any such considerations to influence his conduct in a matter of this kind would not only be an evidence of the worst possible taste, but would be a flagrant outrage on all the laws of chivalry. On the other hand, a man may be so bashful and awkward in the matter as to require so much encouragement that all the courting may be fairly be said to come from the other side. But in both cases—apart from psychological subtleties and too curious matter-of-fact observations—the man’s proper and natural place, our view at all events, is that of a humble and respectful suppliant at the shrine of beauty, grace and virtue.


The inauguration of a courtship may occur in a thousand different ways. In some instances it can be traced back to the innocent companionship and confidences of early childhood; in others it springs from the sudden inspiration of what is called “love at first sight.” We have before us a curious, old-fashioned “Letter-writer,” which seems to supply epistolary prescriptions for almost every exigency of human life. A section of the work is devoted to showing how letters ought to be written on matters relating to love, courtship and marriage. One of the most interesting specimens—especially as showing how a courtship might have been initiated in the less conventional days of our grandfathers—purports to be “from a young man suddenly captivated at the play-house.” “The charms of your person”—says the “young man suddenly captivated”—“which appeared to such advantage last night at the play-house in Convent Garden have totally deprived me of my heart. I flatter myself my glances were not altogether disagreeable, as I did not perceive any token of disdain. I am therefore encouraged, though a stranger, to make this humble acknowledgment of my love; and, if you will honor me with an interview, in the presence of any relation, will satisfy you, and those whom it may concern, with respect to my parentage, connections, profession and all other matters that should be known previous to an allowed familiarity. Presuming, unless a fatal pre-engagement prevents, that you will comply with my request, seeing that my designs are apparently honorable, I remain, waiting with the utmost impatience for an answer,” etc.


To this epistle the young lady’s papa replies, the prescribed form of his answer being so far favorable as to arrange for an interview. All this is delightful; but it is hardly considered quite proper nowadays for a young lady at the play to treat the “glances” of strange young men with anything else than “disdain,” or, at all events, apparently unconsciousness; and the chances are ninety-nine to a hundred that such an epistle would now be instantly consigned to the fire or wastebasket. The illustration, however, recalls the story of a certain celebrated actress who on one occasion received the following original declaration, which, one may safely presume, was not copied from a “letter-writer:” “MADEMOISELLE—I am only a poor worker, but I love you like a millionaire. While waiting to become one, I send you this simple bunch of violets. If my letter gives you a wish to know me, and to answer to the sentiments of my soul, when you are on the stage to-night, lift your eyes to the gallery; my legs will hang over.”


The compiler of the “letter-writer” above referred to displays a singular amount of ignorance with regard to the attitude generally assumed on such occasions by the “stern parient [sic],” who, even in the “good old times,” very seldom met the advances of those who, though utter strangers, presumed so to seek his daughter’s hand with such agreeable courtesy. The difficulty of securing the consent of the young lady’s parents has always been one of the greatest obstacles in the course of true love. In order to overcome that difficulty, or to find opportunities to carry on the courtship in spite of it, many a singular device has been resorted to. Here are two rather entertaining illustrations:


A young gentleman fell in love with the daughter of his employer; but the different social status of the pair seemed to preclude all hope of a successful issue, the young lady’s papa sternly forbidding any further progress in the matter, and denying the young man the privilege of continuing to visit at his house. The situation appeared almost hopeless; but feminine ingenuity rose to the occasion. The old gentleman was in the habit of wearing a cloak, and the young couple made him the unconscious bearer of their correspondence. The young lady would pin a letter inside the lining of her father’s cloak, and when the old gentleman threw off the garment in the counting-house, her lover would take the earliest opportunity to secure the valued missive and send back his reply in the same manner. Love and ingenuity were finally successful. The other case was that of an American young lady whose friends refused to ratify her choice and approve her betrothal. The expedient she hit upon was simple but effective. She just went to bed, declaring her determination to remain there till her parents gave their consent, which occurred in less than a fortnight. It was found by that time to be less expensive and more agreeable to call in the lover than the doctor.


So much for what may be called the parental difficulty; but what about the success of the lover in finding favor in the eyes of his adored? The pleasures of courtship are no doubt very great, but they will become as ashes to the palate if they end in final rejection. As a trans-atlantic [sic] poet pathetically remarks:

“Tis sweet to love; but, ah! how bitter

To love a gal and then not git her!”


It is often extremely difficult to know exactly how to achieve success in love. We cannot all be great, or beautiful, or even supremely good; but next to realizing all these conditions in one’s-self, it is important to believe, or, at all events, to make the young lady believe, not only that she herself is beautiful and good, but that she possesses those qualities in sufficient plentitude [sic] to make up for your manifold deficiencies. Even in this direction, however, there is danger; and the lover will do well to bear in mind the experience of an abandoned suitor, who, when asked why he had been rejected, replied: “Alas, I flattered her till she became too proud to speak to me.”


Touching this same subject of flattery, a lady was asked on one occasion why plain girls often get married sooner than handsome ones; to which she replied that it was owing mainly to the tact of the plain girls, and the vanity and want of tact on the part of the men. “How do you make that out,” asked a gentleman. “In this way,” answered the lady. “The plain girls flatter the men, and so please their vanity; while the handsome ones wait to be flattered by the men, who haven’t the tact to do it.” There have been cases, however, in which the situation presented here as been reversed, and plain, even ugly men have succeeded in making themselves so agreeable to young ladies as to become their accepted suitors. Here is a case in point. When Sheridan first met his second wife, who was then a Miss Ogle, years of dissipation had sadly disfigured his once handsome features, and only his brilliant eyes were left to redeem a nose and cheeks too purple in hue for beauty. “What a fright!” exclaimed Miss ogle, loud enough for him to hear. Instead of being annoyed at the remark, Sheridan at once engaged her in conversation, put forth all his powers of fascination, and resolved to make her not only reverse her opinion, but actually fall in love with him. At their second meeting she thought him ugly, but certainly fascinating. A week or two afterwards he had so far succeeded in his design that she declared she could not live without him. Her father refused his consent unless Sheridan could settle fifteen thousand pounds upon her; and, in his usual miraculous way, he found the money.


Those who have read George Eliot’s “Felix Holt” will remember how Felix, though himself a rough, unpolished workman, gained the love of a refined and delicately reared young lady, not by flattering, or even attempting to please and gratify her, but by chiding, depreciating and almost despising her because she read Byron and knew nothing of the heavy mental pabulum on which he was wont to feed. She at first was dreadfully vexed and offended; but by-and-by she came to believe that Felix had a grand moral ideal, beside which her own was frivolous and insignificant; and striving to emulate his exalted motives and views of life she made him her beau ideal, with, of course, the usual result. In theory, or in a novel, this is no doubt all very fine; but in everyday life the mode of procedure adopted by Felix Holt would be, to say the least, decidedly risky, and would very probably end disastrously. It is always safer to risk a little flattery.

“Happy is the wooing

That is not long a doing,”

says the old couplet; but a modern counselor thinks it necessary to qualify the adage by the advice: “Never marry a girl unless you have known her three days, and at a picnic.” In this, as in other matters, it is always desirable to hit the happy medium. Marrying in haste is certainly worse than a too protracted courtship; though the latter has its dangers, too, for something may occur at any time to break off the affair altogether, and prevent what might have been a happy union. It may always be concluded there is a screw loose somewhere if Matilda is overheard to say to her Theodore, as they steam up the river with the excursion: “Don’t sit too far away from me, dear, and turn your back on me so; people will think we’re married.”


A friend of Robert Hall, the famous English preacher, once asked him regarding a lady of their acquaintance: “Will she make a good wife for me?” “Well,” replied Mr. Hall, “I can hardly say—I never lived with her!” Here Mr. Hall touched on the real test of happiness in married life. It is one thing to see ladies on “dress” occasions and when every effort is being made to please them; it is quite another thing to see them amidst the varied and often conflicting circumstances of household life.—Chambers Journal.

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