What You Had To Do To Hook Up In The Victorian Era

Dating in the Victorian era in America and in Britain meant navigating through a fog of modesty, prudence, ritual, corsets, top hats, calling cards, and your inner voice feverishly whispering etiquette book platitudes: "There is no propriety in voluntarily prolonging your ride, with a young gentleman, till after dark!" "Nothing can take the place of true genuine manhood!"

Etiquette books were all the rage at the time, advising men and women on Victorian courtship rituals and what it means to be a proper lady or manly gentleman. Maintaining relationships in the Victorian era meant deciphering the often bewildering code: How does a gentleman walk with a lady? (Closest to the mud.) Can a lady accept gifts from a gentleman? (Never.) May we speak while we dance? (How dare you even ask.)

This list is a tour of romance in the Victorian era guided by firsthand examples lifted straight out of these books (which are now in the public domain, if you’re looking to live your life as a neo-Victorian). Enjoy, but please: maintain your propriety.

Photo: Boston Public Library / Flickr / CC-BY 2.0

  • Do Not Try To Make Love To Every Woman You Meet

    This is sound advice regardless of the era you live in, right? But it’s important to note that this pearl of wisdom from The Marriage Guide for Young Men: A Manual of Courtship and Marriage (1883) isn’t referring to intercourse. “Make love” to Victorians meant instead chaste courtship or wooing. This advice is offered under a heading titled “Do not carry your politeness too far.”

    Gentlemen were advised to not assume that “every young lady is ready to fall in love with you.” It goes on to say that when you do find a lady ready to “make love,” you should “maintain a dignified reserve” or else your behavior will “belittle you in the eyes of sensible people, and perhaps spoil your prospects for desirable match.” In other words: keep it together, Pepé Le Pew.

  • Accepting Presents From Gentlemen Is A Dangerous Thing

    The Young Lady’s Friend (1837) advises young ladies that accepting presents from guys will lead them on. “Some men conclude from your taking one gift that you will accept another, and think themselves encouraged by it to offer their hearts to you,” the reasoning goes, setting up this rule of thumb: “Make it a general rule never to accept a present from a gentleman.” Never? That’s harsh. Why? “You will avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, and save yourself from all further perplexity.”

    What about anonymous gifts from dudes? Surely those are okay, right? Nope: “When this is the case, it is a good way to put them by, out of sight, and never to mention them.”

  • Be A Thorough Manly Man

    Be A Thorough Manly Man
    Photo: Unknown author / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The author of The Marriage Guide for Young Men: A Manual of Courtship and Marriage (1883) doth protest too much, methinks and advocates for men to be “thorough manly men,” since “nothing can take the place of true genuine manhood.” (Nothing!) Women, it is argued, prefer a “backward, awkward, and even a little uncouth” manly man over a “polite, agreeable dandy.” Men of the time were told to not frequent “the haunts of disreputable women” or spend time “ruining weak-minded girls,” but instead “harden your hands and smut your face at honest work.”

    In case the message wasn’t clear, the book also advises men to “engage in every manly exercise, so that all who look upon you will be compelled to say, ‘There is a man.’” 

  • In Public, A Gentleman Should Show Constant Attention To His Intended

    In Public, A Gentleman Should Show Constant Attention To His Intended
    Photo: Edmund Leighton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Cassell’s The Hand-book of Etiquette (1860) says engaged men should not only “show constant attention” to their “bride-elect,” they should also “neither in company nor elsewhere... flirt with any other lady.” Sound advice, right? But there’s a Victorian twist: “On the other hand, he should avoid, even to his bride-elect, those marked attentions and endearments that would excite in strangers a smile of ridicule.”

    So no public displays of affection? Bummer. Then there’s this: “Engaged lovers may exchange portraits, presents, and locks of hair.” So no PDA, but please: exchange hair.

  • A Lady Never Calls On A Gentleman

    A Lady Never Calls On A Gentleman
    Photo: Edmund Leighton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society (1882) is very clear on this point: “It is not only ill-bred, but positively improper to do so.” The only exceptions are of the non-romantic variety; i.e., “professionally or officially.”

    Men, however, have a bit more freedom, especially if the lady is already spoken for: “Gentlemen are permitted to call on married ladies at their own houses.” But there’s a catch: “never without the knowledge and full permission of husbands.” Surely that rule was never abused, right?

  • Be Ready To Act The Knight If A Lady In Your Company Is Attacked

    Be Ready To Act The Knight If A Lady In Your Company Is Attacked
    Photo: Edmund Leighton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Chivalry was very much alive and well in the Victorian era, it appears, with this weird nugget from Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette For Ladies and Gentlemen (1859) dealing with verbal “attacks.” Interestingly, the advice also touches on what to do if a “lady in your company” is the one who started the trouble: “If she give offense, and that without reason, your office is that of mediator. You should even ask pardon for your companion.” Is this advising you throw your lady under the bus (or the Victorian equivalent)? Sort of!

    The advice continues: “It is absurd to get into a quarrel for the sake of maintaining that a person who is insolent [i.e., the attacker] has a right to be so.” So if your lady is starting fights with men on the street for no good reason, apologize for her, but don’t take the attacker’s side too strongly: “You will show yourself, in acting thus, as ill-bred as he.”