Friday, 13 November 2015

The Victorian Courting Ritual

Courtship in the Victorian era was a serious undertaking on both the gentleman and lady's side.  Unlike the lax attitudes towards relationships in the dating world today, Victorians meant serious business when they entered into a courtship. Finding and making an advantageous match was what many young men and women set out to accomplish in order to raise their social standings and lead a comfortable life.  The whole process was by no means easy, as certain skills and manners needed to be learned before anyone might even consider a man or a woman worthy of entering into a courtship.  Many Victorian novels depicted some aspects of the courting ritual, as the process would have been highly relatable and familiar to all.  Nowadays we would describe courtship as dating with a purpose, and that purpose of course being marriage.  

Marriage was the end goal, however, we shouldn’t too ahead of ourselves with such thoughts. We’ll first observe some of the mechanics and rules, of which there were many, of courtship.  First and foremost, on the woman’s side, she must have completed her education before officially “coming out” onto the marriage market, at which point in time she would most likely be seventeen or eighteen.  In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice we’re given more pertinent information regarding the abilities which a women, once on the courting scene, should possess.  Caroline Bingley begins thusly:

Pride and Prejudice TV Mini-Series (1994)
“A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages…; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions…”

It’s also important to note that it was frowned upon for a woman to be too intellectual or to be what many referred to as, a ‘blue-stocking’, otherwise known as a woman who placed too much stock in intellectual pursuits.  That was deemed to be unfeminine.  With this in mind and once it’s was announced that she was available, suitors were given the ability to show real interest.  As far as rules and regulations go in the gentleman’s department C.E. Humphry wrote a book specifically for this purpose.  In Manners for Men, she gives her own stance on the qualities a gentleman ought to possess:

“Gentleness and moral strength combined must be the salient characteristics of the “gentleman”, together with that polish that is never acquired but in one way: constant association with those so happily placed that they have enjoyed the influences of education and refinement all through their lives.  He is always true to himself, and “cannot then be false to any man.”  And he must have a sense of humour, too, otherwise he would be far from perfect.  How life is brightened by a sense of fun!”

Once a gentleman showed his interest in a lady, the couple would begin by simply chatting before being able to walk about together, and finally, after confirming a mutual attraction, keeping company with the other.  Here’s a queer little fact; if a man had originally made the acquaintance of a woman during a formal event and happened to pass her by on the street, he couldn’t just waltz up to her and begin a friendly conversation. That would be the height of impropriety! He needed to have a mutual friend re-introduce him to his female acquaintance if he wished to further their relationship. 

There were, of course, more rules which need to be obeyed if the courtship was to proceed in a respectful manner.  If a couple were walking about together they had to remain apart.  Touch could only be initiated in an instance where the woman needed to be helped over a puddle or other difficult terrain, and even then only the hand could be offered.  Riding in a carriage together would have been unheard of if the man wasn’t a relative of the woman and she must always have a chaperone present when she desired to go about.  She could never visit the gentleman at his home or allow him into her home if she was the only one in.  This all seems relatively strict, but, as young people often do, there were methods of flirting that were created to bypass some of this rules.  If a woman wanted to have a conversation with a man without her chaperone or anyone else interfering she could always use her fan.

The following are some of the signals a woman could give and their meanings.  If she fanned herself quickly that meant she was engaged, however, if she simply carried the fan in her left hand it meant she was independent and desired to make an acquaintance.  Placing the handle of the fan to one's lips meant 'kiss me'.  If she drew her fan across her cheek that meant 'I love you', but if she drew it through her hand that meant 'I hate you'.  These are just a few of the many signals young women invented.  To go along with this ‘fan language’, there was also a ‘flower language’, a 'parasol language' and a number of other flirtatious methods.  Interesting facts aside, courtship on a whole was more than flirty fan signals and flowers.

Courtship was often considered to be more of a career move than done for the purpose of love.  As this subject was highly relatable, it permeated through the writings of many Victorian authors during this time.  If I may mention Pride and Prejudice again, there is a scene in which one of the characters, Charlotte Lucas, offers this simple insight to Jane Bennet, which would have represented the sentiment of many at the time,

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance”.

It’s rather an unfortunate sentiment, but that was the thought process of many women.  We know that Charlotte goes on to marry Mr. Collins to avoid becoming an 'old-maid' and for financial stability and security.  Though she tolerates him, it’s obvious the motive isn’t love. Lydia Bennet elopes with Wickham under the pretense that he loves her and plans on marrying her, but she ends up sorely mistaken.  Not only is eloping seriously frowned upon in Victorian society, but this action threatens to destroy the Bennet’s reputation, thereby threatening the opportunities for the rest of the Bennet sisters to successfully marry.  It’s only through Darcy’s intervention that their reputation is saved and Wickham and Lydia married.  In this instance we are shown exactly how not to go about courting an individual, while also being shown how influential money is in regards to courtship and marriage. To end on a lighter note, we all know that Lizzie and Darcy and Jane and Bingley get lucky and end up happily married, so there's always hope.

In Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel Mary Barton, we are given glimpses into the type of courtship exchanged between working class individuals.  Unlike the Bennet’s, who happen to be a middle class family, we can see how the difference in social status affects the courting ritual.  In Mary Barton, less emphasis is place on making an acceptable match, though that doesn’t stop Mary from fantasizing about being married to the well-to-do Harry Carson and being elevated in social status. Jem Wilson courts Mary in a simple way, coming by to speak with her and at least attempting to bring her flowers.  Gaskell gives us more of a watered-down version of courtship without all the pomp and circumstance. 

To end with, Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights also gives us a more relaxed view on courtship.  Possibly due to the setting of the novel, we don’t see any formal gathering where one might find suitors, however, Edgar Linton does his best to call upon Cathy at times and she does her part to do the same.  Though we aren’t given too many details about the workings of their courtship we see many instances where Cathy behaves in an un-lady like fashion, going as far as to slap Nelly.  There is no doubt in my mind that Caroline Bingley would have been appalled at her conduct! Cathy and Hareton are also seen at the end of the novel walking out together, but without a chaperone. How scandalous! But keeping their location and situation in mind, I don’t think anyone would have cared. 

So, do you think the whole courtship ritual is completely outdated and pointless or are there some aspects that you'd like to see brought back into the modern dating scene? Food for thought!


Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.

Brontë, Emily. Wuthering Heights. London: Penguin Books, 1994. Print

Hoppe, Michelle. “Courting the Victorian Woman.” Courting the Victorian Woman. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

Humphry, C.E. Manners for Men. London: Magnolia, 1979. Print

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 2012. Print.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library. Web. 13 Nov. 2015


  1. Wow, I found this very entertaining! I particularly liked the part about the language of the fan. I have heard of it before but not in such detail! Well done :)

  2. Hi Yazmeen,
    I found your blog on the Victorian courting rituals very interesting to read and feel I now have a greater knowledge on the rules in relation to courting. I was particularly humoured by your discussion about men not being able to waltz up to women in the street, even if they had acquainted previously at a formal event. This was a great way of providing the reader with the facts and it really has stuck in my head. In response to your final question, I think courting could still be used to allow young men and women to know more about each other before getting married however morally, I do think it is wrong to marry someone on the basis of position and wealth and therefore I think courting is rather outdated. I would love to hear your overall opinion on whether you think courting is outdated or not.

  3. Thanks for the insight Yazmeen! We might have a romanticized version of Victorian courtship because of Jane Austen, but as you pointed out, it didn't always end in love and happily ever afters. That being said, I would love it if people today had more of the seriousness and commitment that went into relationships at that time. Still, I doubt I would be able to remember all those fan signals.

  4. Hi Yazmeen! This is such a great post and such an entertaining topic! I read somewhere that even though texts like Jane Austen's or the Bronte's give us the impression that all Victorian women married extremely young, many women actually married much later, in their late 20s and early 30s. I wonder how common it was for a woman to go through more than one engagement and if that damaged her social reputation? Also, though a lot of demands were placed on women, I expect men had to fulfill a lot of social demands before seeking a partner as well. I think it was usually preferred that men be of age (over 25 I think?) before they married and have a reliable income, which may be why so many women married men considerably older than they were.
    Also, you made me laugh so much about women being helped over 'difficult terrain' such as puddles! A very perilous crossing, I'm sure!

  5. Hi Yazmeen,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog! I found it very interesting. It made me question what I formerly knew about Victorian courting and look at it in a different way, I didn't know it was this complicated and to think nowadays things are so different and there is no need for courting. I particularly liked the use of fan language I have heard of this before but not in so much detail, it sounds like it would have been hard to remember all the meanings (imagine if it was a method we still used today!)