The good reasons behind strict courtship rules
Today, I turn my blog over to Maria Grace. She has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, but those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.
She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts (which I find most impressive!), three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years and published her tenth book last year. Phew: just reading that makes me exhausted, even if I keep even pace both on the sons and books front. No nieces, though…Anyway: without further ado I turn you over into Maria’s capable hands – did I mention she’s something of an expert on the Regency era?
I’m so excited to be visiting with Anna today. I love her blog and all the wonderful stories she tells. Often, she writes about the consequences and intrigues associated with arranged marriage.
I can’t say I long for a return to those days myself, but it is really interesting to look at what a tizzy parents went into when society moved away from the practice.
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.
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)
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?
Thank you, Maria, for that informative piece. Must say I feel relief at not having had to negotiate such convoluted courtship rules 🙂 Now, Maria does not only write posts, she also writes books – many of them Jane Austen spin-offs, and having read one or two I can assure you she does that very well. Her latest release is called The Trouble to Check Her, and here we have that disobedient sprite, Lydia Bennet having to handle the consequences of her reprehensible behaviour (well, as per the standards of the day) in Pride and Prejudice. As per the blurb:
Lydia Bennet faces the music…
Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?