Courting the Victorian Woman

By Michelle J. Hoppe

Courtship was considered more a career move than a romantic interlude for young men, as all of a woman's property reverted to him upon marriage. Therefore courting was taken very seriously--by both sides. Men and women were careful not to lead the other on unnecessarily. 

From the time she was young, a woman was groomed for this role in life--dutiful wife and mother. Properly trained, she learned to sing, play piano or guitar, dance and be conversant about light literature of the day. She also learned French and the rules of etiquette as well as the art of conversation and the art of silence. 


Coming out meant a young woman had completed her education and was officially available on the marriage mart. Financial or family circumstances might delay or move up a girl's debut, though typically, she came out when she was seventeen or eighteen. She purchased a new wardrobe for the season, in order to appear her best in public.

A girl was under her mother's wing for the first few years of her social life. She used her mother's visiting cards, or that of another female relative if her mother was dead. This same person usually served as her chaperone, as a single girl was never allowed out of the house by herself, especially in mixed company.

Courtship advanced by gradations, with couples first speaking, then walking out together, and finally keeping company after mutual attraction had been confirmed. But a gentleman had to take care in the early stages of courtship. If he was introduced to a lady at a party for the purpose for dancing, he could not automatically resume their acquaintance on the street. He had to be re-introduced by a mutual friend. And then, only upon permission of the lady.

The lower classes had opportunities to socialize at Sunday Service, Church suppers and holiday balls, while upper classes held their social events throughout the season. The season ran from April to July. Some families arrived in town earlier if Parliament was in session. A typical debutante's day meant she rose at 11a.m. or 12 noon, ate breakfast in her dressing room, attended a concert or drove in the Park, dined at eight, went to the opera, then to three or four parties until 5 a.m--all under the watchful eye of her chaperone.


Great care had to be taken at these public affairs, so as not to offend a possible suitor or his family. Following are some rules of conduct a proper female must adhere to:

  • She never approached people of higher rank, unless being introduced by a mutual friend.
  • People of lesser rank were always introduced to people of higher rank, and then only if the higher-ranking person had given his/her permission.
  • Even after being introduced, the person of higher rank did not have to maintain the acquaintance. They could ignore, or 'cut' the person of lower rank.
  • A single woman never addressed a gentleman without an introduction.
  • A single woman never walked out alone. Her chaperone had to be older and preferably married.
  • If she had progressed to the stage of courtship in which she walked out with a gentleman, they always walked apart. A gentleman could offer his hand over rough spots, the only contact he was allowed with a woman who was not his fiancée.
  • Proper women never rode alone in a closed carriage with a man who wasn't a relative.
  • She would never call upon an unmarried gentleman at his place of residence.
  • She couldn't receive a man at home if she was alone. Another family member had to be present in the room.
  • A gentlewoman never looked back after anyone in the street, or turned to stare at others at church, the opera, etc.
  • No impure conversations were held in front of single women.
  • No sexual contact was allowed before marriage. Innocence was demanded by men from girls in his class, and most especially from his future wife.
  • Intelligence was not encouraged, nor was any interest in politics.


A woman was allowed some liberties, however. She could flirt with her fan, as this behavior was within the protocol of accepted behavior. Here are what different signals meant:

Fan fast--I am independent
Fan slow--I am engaged
Fan with right hand in front of face--Come on
Fan with left hand in front of face--Leave me
Fan open and shut--Kiss me
Fan open wide--Love
Fan half open--Friendship
Fan shut--Hate
Fan swinging--Can I see you home?


By the end of the season, many relationships had been cemented, with an eye to the future. Thus began the serious chase, with marriage the ultimate goal.

There was a camaraderie among upper class women. They advised, gossiped, told secrets and wrote passionate letters to each other. They were the chief arrangers of social affairs, but woe to anyone who made an enemy of them, as they could be ostracized forever from society. When a young girl was on good terms with these social select, she could expect help in making an advantageous match.

There were rules to follow even here, however. Until 1823, the legal age in England for marriage was 21 years--for men and women. After 1823, a male could marry as young as fourteen without parental consent, and a girl at 12. Most girls, however, married between the ages of 18 and 23, especially in the upper classes.

It was also illegal to marry a deceased wife's sister. But you could marry first cousins. The attitude toward first-cousin marriages changed by the end of the century, however.

Marriage was encouraged only within one's class. To aspire higher, one was considered an upstart. To marry someone of lesser social standing was considered marrying beneath oneself.

In upper class marriages, the wife often brought with a generous dowry--an enticement for marriage. The financial aspects of a marriage were openly discussed, much like the pre-nuptial agreements of today. Both parties disclosed their fortunes. A man had to prove his worth in keeping his wife in the level of life she was accustomed. A woman, often looking to improve her social standing, used a dowry as a lure. To protect an heiress, her family could set up an estate trust for her, which would be controlled by Chancery Court. The woman would have access to this property if she applied, but her husband could not touch it.

An unmarried woman of 21 could inherit and administer her own property. Even her father had no power over it. Once she married, however, all possessions reverted to her husband. She couldn't even make a will for her personal property, while a husband could will his wife's property to his illegitimate children. Therefore, marriage, although her aim in life, had to be very carefully contemplated.

Because many marriages were considered a business deal, few started with love. Although as the years passed, many couples grew tolerably fond of each other, often resulting in a bond almost as deep as love.



The bank accounts have been studied, the ancestral lineages inspected, and political connections explored. If both parties passed muster, the next step toward marriage was the engagement.

If it had not already been done, the man was introduced to girl's parents and her peer group. Permission for asking for the daughter's hand in marriage had to be granted by bride's father, although the gentleman could wait until he had his bride's consent before asking.

A proposal was best made in person, with clear, distinct language, so the girl might not misunderstand the gentleman's intent. If he could not bring himself to propose in person, he could do so in writing. A girl did not have to accept her first proposal. She could play coy.

A short time was allowed to elapse before an engagement was announced, except to the most intimate friends/family of both parties. This was a precaution, lest the engagement be ended by either party.

The mother hosted a dinner party once the engagement was announced. The purpose of this dinner was to introduce the fiancé to his bride's family. A more formal evening party may have followed. Once the groom had been introduced to bride's family, the bride was then introduced to his. This could be a very trying time for a young girl, as a mother-in-law's eye was often critical.

After the engagement was announced to the family, the bride wrote to the rest of her friends with the news. At the same time, her mother wrote to the elders of these families. Engagements lasted from six months to two years depending upon ages and circumstances.

The engagement was finalized with a ring. The size and stone depended upon the groom's finances. They could be in the form of a love knot, a simple band, or a band embedded with different stones whose initials spelled out a name or word of love. For example, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, gave Princess Alexandra of Denmark a 'gypsy ring' with the stones Beryl, Emerald, Ruby, Turquoise, Iacynth and Emerald, to spell out his nickname, "Bertie."

A woman could, in turn, give her fiancé a ring, although it was not required.

The couple could become a bit more intimate once they were engaged. They could stroll out alone, hold hands in public, and take unchaperoned rides. A hand around the waist, a chaste kiss, a pressing of the hand, were allowed. They could also visit alone behind closed doors. But they had to be dutifully separated by nightfall, or overnight at country parties. Thus, if the engagement was broken, the girl suffered the consequences of a ruined reputation because of her previous behavior. An honorable man never broke an engagement, so as not to cause the girl discomfiture.

Unfortunately, some engagements did end, with resulting embarrassment and possibly even legal action should it be terminated by one party over the protest of the other. A "breach of promise" suit might result in one party paying for the other's damages, such as cost of a wedding gown and trousseau. This was one reason news of the betrothal was often kept from family and friends. It wasn't considered official, and therefore would not hold up in court. Women were even cautioned as to what they wrote in letters and journals, should the case go that far.

As callous as all this sounds, there was true romance and love during the Victorian era. Why else did samples of heart-rending verses and flowery cards last through the ages for us to ponder and dream over? Perhaps it was these very constraints and rules that made true love all the more special to those who found it. For lucky were the ones who found love within their class, and within the approval of their families. Yet even those marriages that did not begin with love, often ended in a deep, endearing attachment that would be envied by many.


For information on Victorian weddings, see the following research articles:
The Victorian Wedding, Part I--Preparation
The Victorian Wedding, Part II--Ceremony and Reception

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Copyright 1998, M. Hoppe

Artwork courtesy of Marvelicious