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.
A Lady Never Calls on a Gentleman
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
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.”
An Introduction for Dancing Doesn't Constitute a Speaking Acquaintance
Rules of Etiquette & Home Culture: Or, What to Do & How to Do It (1893) advises men and women to remember: dancing with one another doesn’t give you the right to speak to one another. It’s a ballroom, not a brothel, right?
This refers, specifically, to when men and women are introduced for the first time “at a ball for the purpose of dancing.” So if they’ve never spoken to each prior to the dance, it’s rude to talk during the dance or even after; it’s only polite to speak once the hostess has made formal introductions. The duo may, however, acknowledge each other before that time: “They are at liberty to recall themselves by lifting their hats in passing.”
When Traveling With a Lady, Always Carry Her Bag
Paul Ryan would have loved the Victorian era. When the Republican House Speaker condemned Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape in 2016, he said that “women are to be championed and revered,” a sentiment very much in line with Victorian-era etiquette: “For your own sake reverence woman wherever you find her; it will confirm you in the habits of a gentleman, and may be the means of winning you a genuine matrimonial prize.” (Champions typically get prizes, right?)
Part of “championing” a Victorian woman was carrying her stuff, as The Complete Bachelor: Manners for Men (1896) advised: “When traveling with a lady, always carry her bag and assist her in and out of trains.” This is, in fact, especially advised while traveling, since travel brings out “both the good and evil attributes of a man” and his behavior “is on its mettle under these circumstances.”