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What You Had to Do to Hook Up in the Victorian Era

Updated October 15, 2018 168.4k views15 items

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.

  • 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

    Photo: Public Domain / via Wikimedia

    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

    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.