During the Victorian Era, the idea of dating was nonexistent. Instead couples went through a ritualized form of it known as "courting." Rather than being the romanticized ideal found in fiction, the courtship period was actually viewed more as a career move for a gentleman.
Courtship differed for each of the classes on both sides of the pond (America and England), due to different ideals and laws that were in place. For people growing up in rural areas, it was not as strict of an ordeal. Young couples could socialize with each other at events such as Sunday services, church gatherings, and community balls. Men were usually looking for a wife who would aid in helping to run the farm or the house, women for a husband who could financially support and take of them. These partnerships would have probably had a bit of mutual affection from both parties upon marriage.
Within the rigid structure and tradition of the upper classes though, courtship was very different. Matches were often made to aid in climbing the social ladder or to bring income into an impoverished estate or business. Rather than the church picnic, the way a young lady was introduced into Society was as a debutante at the start of the Season (England) or after she had finished her schooling (America), which was when she was about seventeen or eighteen. American society functioned on a year round social schedule. The London Season however, was the height of matchmaking for both American heiresses and English society girls. The Season ran from April through July and was an endless string of dinner parties and balls that the young woman attended in hopes of catching the eye of an acceptable suitor.
Acceptable meant a number of things. Usually a higher income was desired, the larger the better. Connections with business partners and the peerage were a plus. The holding of a title of any type was the ultimate catch.
The acceptable suitor was selected during the numerous social functions both men and women attended. Balls were the equivalent of speed dating that could lead to the courtship ritual. At these functions would be men and women of good standing and connections, in other words, acceptable marriage material. As previously mentioned, courtship was ritualized by strict rules. A certain amount of decorum was expected from these same men and women who were looking for a suitable partner for more than just the next quadrille.
- Ladies must never enter or cross a hall unattended.
- No gentleman is allowed to enter the ladies' dressing room at the ball.
- Ladies should not dance with the same partner twice in a row, neither could they dance with the same gentleman for more than three dances.
- Unmarried (and married) ladies could not leave the ballroom alone.
- Gentlemen could never lead a lady into the ballroom by the hand, instead he offered his arm.
- Gentlemen who were waltzing never pressed upon a lady's waist if he was not wearing gloves. If he had no gloves, he used a handkerchief.
Along with meeting, couples then had to be introduced properly, also requiring its own set of rules:
- Unless being introduced by a mutual friend, a lady could not approach a person of higher rank. Before a lower-ranking person could be introduced, the higher-raking person also had to give permission.
- Single women could not address men without first being introduced to them.
After the introduction and an initial conversation, the couple could look at possibly walking out together and keeping company. These were the initial stages of courtship, also dictated by another set of guidelines.
- A lady could not receive a gentleman in her home while she was alone. Another family member had to be present.
- No physical contact was allowed between the couple. The gentleman could offer his gloved hand if the road was rough, but this was it.
- The lady could not be invited to visit the gentleman's place of residence.
- Ladies could not ride in a closed carriage alone with a man, unless it was a close family member.
- If a gentleman was visiting the lady's house, he could not stay late and did not visit at night.
- Impure conversations were not held in front of single women.
- Intelligence was not encouraged by the lady, neither was an interest in politics.
- Meetings were supervised by a chaperone, typically an older female family member of the lady's family.
If the courtship progressed to the point of an engagement, the couple were then allowed to hold hands in public, go for walks unsupervised, and take unchaperoned rides. They were also allowed to meet behind closed doors, but had to be separated by nightfall.
While this method of dating may seem vastly outdated, it was in place for various reasons. The first was that a lady's highest asset was her virtue. These rules helped to ensure that it was never called into question. If there was even a whispering against the lady's character, it could forever tarnish her reputation. Courtship was also taken seriously because once it progressed to the point of an engagement, it usually resulted in marriage. Broken engagements were fodder for gossip and tarnished reputations.
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For more fun info on Victorian etiquette and courting check out these books.