Until around 1780, arranged marriages were de rigueur. It made sense–more or less—considering that marriage was a business and often political arrangement. But then the Enlightenment happened and philosophers made a mess of things that were working perfectly well—more or less.
The pesky notions of reason and individualism over tradition got people thinking that perhaps personal preference should play a role in one’s marriage choices. That led to considering love and –ack!—romance as possible players in the field and that lead to something near panic for parents and anyone else who cared about social order and stability.
But never fear, enter the conduct literature writers to rescue humanity from itself. Authors readily offered advice on how to judge character, how to behave in public toward the opposite sex, how to attract the opposite sex, even the proper way to make or refuse an offer of marriage.
Out of this advice, strict rules for behavior during courtship developed. The rules safeguarded both sexes. Gentlemen required protection from being trapped into matrimony and ladies needed to be guarded from becoming attached to men who were not honest in their intentions toward them.
Arguably, the cardinal rule of courtship became to seek compatibility and friendship rather than romance, since the former might stand the test of time and could provide far more enduring and stable relationships than fleeting passion. Young men were counseled not to embark upon courtship lightly, and young women not to give affections too easily. (Small side note: Since courtship and marriage were serious steps for middle class men and women, they usually not embarked upon until their middle to late twenties. Lydia Bennet at 15 was VERY young for marriage.)
I cannot even understand how it is flattering to a man’s vanity, to gain the affections of a deserving and too credulous woman, whom he never intends to marry. He ought to lose more in his character for integrity, than he can gain as one successful in courtship. His manner of address, consisting of a visible attachment. While his heart is not engaged, is most detestable hypocrisy. And to say that he is not bound in honour, because he has subjected himself to no specific promise, is the highest aggravation of his guilt. Were he to act in the same manner in his common transactions with mankind, his character would be forever blasted. (Gener, 1812.)
A woman is often placed in a very delicate situation. She may be distinguished by a kind of attention which is calculated to gain her affections, while it is impossible to know whether the addresses of her pretended lover will end in a serious declaration. (Gener, 1812)
As in most things in society in that era, men played the active role in the prescribed procedure for proper courtship. Women had to wait for pursuit by a suitor. Siblings and friends could be recruited as messengers to alert a potential suitor of a young lady’s inclinations, but she could take no further initiative. Even if a suitor made the first move, she was expected to behave with considerable reserve and not openly encourage a man’s suit.
ONE of the chief beauties in a female character is that modest reserve, that retiring delicacy, which avoids the public eye, and is disconcerted even at the gaze of admiration. (Gregory, 1774)
Ironically, the one area in courtship where the lady might have an active role was in refusing unwanted attentions. This restricted her choices from among those who made advances toward her. It was not uncommon for a woman to feel pressured to accept the first reasonable offer they received, since another might never come their way again.
Female conduct manuals universally cautioned women not to be forward in their dealings with men or to encourage their advances. A woman must never confess her feelings until absolutely convinced of his intentions. Some went so far as to insist a woman must never look at a man unless he made the first advance.
Other rules to help squelch the possibilities of romantic passion included forbidding the use of Christian names, paying compliments, driving in carriages alone together, correspondence, and any kind of intimate contact.
Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman or at any social event, without a chaperone. (Who knew what kind of ideas she or he could get!) Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not even walk without an appropriate companion. (Of course a potential suitor would not be appropriate!) Though a lady might drive her own carriage or ride horseback, if she left the family estate, a groom must attend her.
Naturally, all forms of touching were kept to a minimum. Sakes alive, what kind of unrestrained behavior might that lead to? Putting a lady’s shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage or climb stairs were acceptable. A gentleman might take a lady’s arm through his, to support her while out walking. But he must never try to take her hand, even to shake it friendly-like. If he did, she must immediately withdraw it with a strong air of disapproval, whether she felt it or not.
Conversations had to be extremely discreet leaving much to be interpreted from facial expressions alone. Even those were proscribed by many advice writers.
There is another Character not quite so criminal, yet not less ridiculous; which is, that of a good humour’d Woman, one who thinketh me must always be in a Laugh, or a broad Smile, because Good-Humour is an obliging Quality… . (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1737)
Not surprisingly, it was difficult for either party to truly discern the feelings and intentions of the other. Only at the moment an offer of marriage was made could a man declare his feelings and a woman her own in return. This was arguably the desired effect and what makes it all sound so laughable to modern viewpoints.
But there were some genuinely good reasons for all of the restrictions. While philosophy did alter some perspectives about marriage, some things did not change. At the core, marriage was still a business arrangement, men and women each bringing their part to the matter. Real property, dowries and fortunes, trades, skills (including those of keeping house), social connections (of course those might be good or bad, just saying… ) and the provision of heirs were all very real commodities in the transaction. One needed to make sure that arrangements offered equitable compensation as it were, for all involved and no one, including the extended families, was being shorted in the exchange.
It light of all the fuss, modern minds might argue in favor of simply staying single and being done with it all. However, in the day staying single was definitely not a good alternative. Society did not look with great favor upon the unmarried adult. Spinsters were considered the bane of society, but bachelors were also looked down upon as still not having come into their own in society, not quite fully participating in adult life. (Vickery, 2009) A great deal rode on establishing oneself in a comfortable married state.
If this weren’t enough reason for anxiety, add to it that divorce was nearly impossible to obtain. It was entirely possible that one might have only one opportunity to ‘get it right’ as it were. Granted, widowhood was common enough, and some married multiple times because of it, but it probably wasn’t a good thing to count on.
No wonder parents were in a dither that their children might make a tragic mistake choosing a marriage partner. With so much on the line, can you really blame them for supporting rules designed to keep runaway passions at bay and encourage level-headed decision making?
Gener, S., and John Muckersy. M. Gener, Or, A Selection of Letters on Life and Manners. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: Printed for Peter Hill …, A. Constable & and A. MacKay ;, 1812.
The Whole Duty of a Woman, Or, an Infallible Guide to the Fair Sex. Containing, Rules, Directions, and Observations, for Their Conduct and Behaviour through All Ages and Circumstances of Life, as Virgins, Wives, or Widows. With Directions, How to Obtain All Use. The 2nd ed. London: Printed for T. Read, in Dogwell-Court, White-Fryers, Fleet-Street, 1737.
Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009.