Romance or the Marriage Mart?: 10 Victorian Courtship Rituals

In the Victorian era, courtship was a business. There was even a term for it: “the marriage mart.” Dowries, lands, and titles served as motivators for selecting a life partner. A gentleman might ask, “Is her dowry large enough?” A lady might ask, “Is his title high enough?”
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However, finding genuine love and affection were encouraged in various guidebooks, such as Godey’s Lady Book or Manners for Men by Mrs. C.E. Humphry. Romance, the pathway to an everlasting marriage, was idealized in literature, poetry, and plays. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were seen as a perfect union with all the right ingredients: love, trust, and respect—and also a horde of children. Then again, the term “marriage mart” might also stick in a cynic’s mind.
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Navigating the throes of romance—or the “marriage mart”—required very specific guidelines, because for the Victorians, much of life was ritualized. Even love. Here’s but a few courtship rituals from a society grounded in etiquette and politeness:
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1) Welcome to the London Season! The London Season was a social whirl of the upper classes that began with the sitting of Parliament. This started after Christmas and lasted until mid-June. The London Season acted as a “marriage mart” for single ladies and gentlemen.
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1 1870-London-season-cartoon.gif pub domain
London Season cartoon from 1870. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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2) Ready for your “coming-out”? Young, single girls attended a “coming-out” ceremony. During this ceremony, which lasted a few days, these girls, or debutantes, would be  presented to the Queen. This ceremony coordinated with the height of the London Season, which was some time after Easter. After their presentation before royalty, these debutantes were ready for the  “marriage mart.”
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3) Single women never addressed an unknown gentleman. If a single lady didn’t know that handsome man standing by the punch bowl or that cutie standing in the corner of the ballroom, she couldn’t address him without an introduction.
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Dated March 31st, 1860, this picture illustrates the presentation of young girls to the Queen. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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4) Don’t visit his house! Women were forbidden to call on the homes of unmarried gentlemen. Also, she couldn’t receive a gentleman at her home if she was alone. Chaperones were always a must for the unwed lady!
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5) Women talked to their suitors through their fans. In a crowded ballroom, a fan was a girl’s best friend. Nineteenth century women had to be roasting beneath all the corsets, stays, crinolines, and petticoats, so unsurprisingly, fans were a wonderful accessory. Women used fans to communicate with their suitors in what was deemed a “fan language.” A closed fan signalled the woman wasn’t interested in her ardent beaux, a half-open fan meant only friendship, and an open fan meant the lady was interested, which would be equivalent to today’s, “Hey, I really like you. Text me later?” Chaperones found this communication acceptable, because it showed self-restraint on the lady’s part.
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Victorian depiction of a courting couple. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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6) No touching the single ladiesunless the road’s uneven. Even if a gentleman was courting the special lady who’d caught his eye, he couldn’t touch her under any circumstances. The only time this was deemed acceptable was if the courting couple were walking on an uneven road, then the gentleman could offer his arm.
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7) Gentlemen, never send expensive gifts. Guidebooks of the era remarked on how it was indecent to send expensive gifts to a single lady. It risked appearing as a bribe on the lady’s affections. Only books, flowers, sweets, and music sheets were seen as appropriate gifts from a gentleman courting his lady love.
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8) Wanna dance? Two young people introduced for the first time at a ball, for the purpose of dancing, could not speak to each other during or after the dance. Introductions had to be made by the ball’s hostess for any chatting to be considered polite. However, if the two had met before the ball, then the two could slip onto the dance floor, tongues wagging. Does this make sense? Not to our modern standards!
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 Two young people introduced for the first time at a ball, for the purpose of dancing, could not speak to each other during or after the dance. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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9) Remember to carry her bag! Men of today should heed this bit of advice: always carry your lady love’s bag. Victorian gentlemen had no qualms with carrying bags while travelling. These same gentlemen also helped their lady love in and out of trains—one of the few times it was acceptable to touch! *Gasp, swoons, and faints.*
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10) Not married yet? If a lady endured three London Seasons, she started to steel herself for the inevitable–spinsterhood. Here she’d end her days feeding cream to her fifty cats and acting as chaperone to her sister’s children, who’d one day enjoy their own Season. And the bachelor? Well, he could enjoy independence and freedom for as long as he wished and still be marriageable to all the young single ladies.
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Further Readings:
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What is a Debutante? on VictorianEra.org
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