|“The rules and suggestions for courtship and romance occupy most of the space in Victorian etiquette and letter writing books. Near the end of the section there is generally one curt letter of refusal to a marriage proposal.”
by Heather Palmer
The rules and suggestions for courtship and romance occupy most of the space in Victorian etiquette and letter writing books. There are usually flowery forms for written proposals from the suitor as well as a plethora of gushing acceptances from the bride-elect. Near the end of the section there is generally one curt letter of refusal to a marriage proposal. Usually the tone of the letter is vague and contains assurances that the honored lady thanks the gentleman for his offer but she cannot accept his proposal. The Victorian precept that a lady “never explains or complains” is followed rigidly.
Surprisingly, the 1879 edition of THE WORCESTER LETTER WRITER by the publishing house of Dick & Fitzgerald of New York presents more letter forms for refusing a proposal than it presents for encouraging a suitor! To readers today the index titles for these letters sound wildly humorous. Consider the titles “Refusal on the grounds of dislike”, “Refusal on the grounds of unsteadiness of the suitor”, and “Refusal on the grounds that the suitor is much younger than herself”.
Upon careful thought, however, these letters can be seen to be sober testimony to the general tenor of society in the third quarter of nineteenth century America. The short paragraph headed “Refusal on the grounds of dislike” is important information to a historian today for what it reveals about the life of men in 1879. That such a letter was not absurd to include in a serious work is mute testimony to the number of young men who “failed” in the world. The contents of the letter are brief:
“Sir. — I am astonished at your temerity, or, rather, your impudence. The man who assisted in effecting a brother’s ruin, is not a suitable partner for his sister; and a moment’s reflection might have convinced you that your agency in the matter to which I allude, has earned for you, not the love, but the unchangeable dislike of…”
Further evidence that young men of 1879 America were going “astray” is found in the letter entitled “Refusal on the grounds of unsteadiness of the suitor”:
“Sir. — There was a time when your addresses would have flattered and pleased me, but that time has long since passed away. Your conduct during the last two years has been made known to me, and, viewing you in the light of a dangerous man, I do not desire anymore intimate acquaintance. I could not reasonably expect happiness from a union with an individual who has destroyed the mental quiet of more than one young person, by his total disregard for what is due to the weaker by the stronger sex…”
Indeed, men of the period seem to have had such a predilection for going astray that the “courtship” section also includes a lengthy epistle entitled “Remonstrance of a young lady against the reckless life of her future husband”. The lady writes to her future husband that the company he is keeping of late is “fast” and that his associates are “prejudicial to his future prospects” in business and also, since possessed of greater fortunes than has he, are luring him into a life beyond his means.
“Let me beseech you to abandon company which can only unsettle your disposition and destroy your future prospects,” she begs.
In all these letters we catch a glimpse of what was relatively new in America — a young educated man with a living to earn, probably separated from his family and living on his own in a city. In nineteenth century America a young man was reared to look to his mother and sisters for moral guidance and away from these influences he was culturally unprepared to take a strong moral stand on his own. As a “victim” of the new technology, the town worker had more leisure than had even his recent ancestors. In search of ways to occupy his evenings when his pocket money was limited, he often fell in with other fellows like himself. It is curious that the same letter writing volume contains a form for a letter between young men-about-town which has the seeds for disaster on which the three foregoing letters touch:
“My dear Lloyd. — Half a dozen good fellows, together with your humble servant, propose devoting a few hours on Wednesday evening to a little social chit-chat, etc., enlivened by the imbibitions of sundry bottles of wine. I trust you will be present on that occasion… believe me, we shall have a right merry party.”
What course was left for the young man who had strayed? If he had acquired a taste for high living and the suitable young women were refusing his advances, perhaps he could find a wealthy widow. At least enough young men had to be trying that route in order to justify the letter manual’s inclusion of “Refusal on the grounds that the suitor is much younger than herself”. The text is interesting enough to be cited at length:
“Dear Sir. — My objections to the proposal contained in your letter, though few in number, demand some attention and, I am well assured, cannot be overcome. You are twenty-six years of age, I am forty-five. I have a son seventeen years of age, and consequently too far advanced to learn filial duty from one not much his senior. As to my little fortune, I consider myself merely the trustee for my children…. When you can convince me that, in point of age, fortune, and morals, you are such a person as I can, without reproach, take for my husband, and constitute the guardian of my children, I shall cease to suspect, that motives not the most honorable have induced you to play the lover to a woman sufficiently old to be your mother. I hope I have said enough to make you ashamed of your conduct…”
The young men of 1879 stood between two ways of life in a time of great change in America. They were exposed to temptations unknown to most of their fathers in a society more restrictive than that which their sons would enjoy. Women were at even more of a disadvantage in that restrictive society as they still could not seek out men or make “the first move.” Their prerogative was, as was often quoted, “but to accept or decline”. Armed with THE WORCESTER LETTER WRITER, at least they could express their refusal in a more forthright way than had the previous generation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Heather Palmer, has served as the Curator of three historic house museums and was also the Historian of Blair House, the President’s Guest House. She lectures at colleges and publishes articles in the fields of 18th and 19th century women’s lives, clothing and needlework, and in the area of material culture. She does free-lance editorial work and writing.
Love and Courtship in the Time of Jane Austen
- Glances at a ball – scans from the book at Pemberley.com
A knowledge of the strict code of behavior for courtship in the time of Jane Austen is imperative to understanding the romantic relationships in the novels.
The intertwined subjects of love, courtship and marriage are the impetus of all of Jane Austen’s novels. The couples in the books are making their own love matches; coming together based on attractiveness, compatibility, and intimacy rather than being subjected to the arranged marriages of previous centuries for wealth, status and family advancement.
A woman of the Georgian and Regency period had no other occupation than to find a husband and of course, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
To this end, couples had to navigate through an established and inflexible etiquette developed over time to protect the woman’s character and good name thus ensuring her viability on the marriage market but needless to say made courtship very difficult . To modern readers of the novels, the prohibitions put upon unmarried males and females of private conversation, correspondence, and even touching are seemingly too numerous to overcome in the pursuit of love.
It was unacceptable for a lady to acknowledge a man’s attentions apart from the accepted forms of observed behavior. A lady who did succumb to any enthusiasm or awareness of a gentleman’s intentions was inviting herself to ridicule and herself becoming a subject of mockery and derision.
The Rules and Prohibitions of Courtship
There were very specific rules and prohibitions to forming an attachment.
- Formal means of address
- Discreet conversation
- No intimate touching
- No correspondence
- No gift-giving
Modes of Address
At this time, forms of address even amongst family members were very reserved. Married couples would address each other formally in public — as Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet do in Pride and Prejudice. Outside the family the use of Christian names would be used to distinguish younger siblings such as Miss Dashwood (the elder sister, Elinor) and Miss Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. To address anyone other than by their surname was to denote an inferior rank such as that of a servant or of a child.
Conversation and Physical Contact
Young and unrelated unattached men and women were not allowed to be left alone together. And any conspicuous interest, however slight, shown in public would be misconstrued as marital intent. Conversation remained discreet and meaning had to be conveyed and interpreted (or misinterpreted as in Emma) by facial action — blushes, stares, smiles, frowns, and tears.
Even physical contact was limited. The shaking of hands so prevalent in our modern times as an acceptable means of greeting and leave-taking was during Austen’s time more a sign of intimacy. Generally, verbal expression would be acknowledged with a slight bow of the head or curtsy.
But there were ways for an unattached man and woman to conduct conversation and come together physically within the strict parameters of acceptable behavior — dancing and walking.
Dancing was an important social function in which couples could come together, converse, and even touch. The intricate figures of the favored country dancing allowed for hand holding. The couple could also conduct a somewhat private tête-á-tête while being supervised by those sitting overlooking the dance floor.
Another opportunity would have been chaperoned walks in the countryside. If a couple wanted to speak they could fall behind the others for a discreet chat.
Correspondence and Gift Giving
The rules forbidding correspondence and gift giving is obvious. The prohibition of intimate conversation and physical contact would necessarily also include private letter-writing and the much more personal act of offering gifts. Any of these two things being observed generally meant that an attachment had been made. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood assumes an attachment, albeit a secret one, between her sister Marianne and Willoughby exists because Marianne has accepted a gift of a horse, has in turn given a lock of her hair, and corresponds openly with Willoughby while in London. “Such conduct made them, of course, most exceedingly laughed at; but ridicule could not shame, and seemed hardly to provoke them” (S&S, chapter 11).
When a gentleman was certain of reciprocation of his ardent feelings from his chosen lady then a private moment was needed in order to actually propose. The easiest and presumably most acceptable way to go about this was to ask the permission of the lady’s parents. In this way intentions were made clear and an appropriately private setting could be arranged.
It is believed that most of the time a proposal would be most graciously answered in the positive by the lady with decorum and composure. But occasionally a proposal is not welcomed and by the etiquette of the period it was very bad form to encourage an attachment if one did not exist. The gentleman would have to be turned down but with a sensitivity deferential to the man’s feelings.
Once a proposal was accepted and parental consent was obtained to break off an engagement was considered most grave. An engagement was seen as a contract. A gentleman was strictly forbidden from breaking an engagement once accepted and a lady could only change her mind after careful consideration.
Once courtship was successful and proposals were made and accepted it is assumed the happy couple would then blissfully and happily enter into the state of matrimony.
Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author. (Holbrook, MA: Adams Media Corporation, 1996)
LeFaye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002)
Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces (1811) by a Lady of Distinction (reprint). (Mendocino, CA: R.L. Shep, 1997)
Ross, Josephine. Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners: Compliments, Charades & Horrible Blunders. (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006)
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