Monday, January 16, 2012

Courtship Throughout History - Regency England

By Danielle Lisle

Over my next few posts, I plan to take us all on a ride through time and witness some of the differences society standards and geological distance played in regards to young lovers and their courtship. You might be surprised to learn it was not as you thought it to be.

Regency England (early 1800’s)
Have flowers and candy always been the way to a woman’s heart?
Seemingly not.

I often wonder while I sit in my comfy recliner, watching regency movies or reading a new and exciting historical novel; Are the happy ever afters truly accurate? Do they really happen like we dream, watch or read about?

It turns out that fiction is simply fiction and majority of the time love has very little to do with a couple’s courtship. How sad.
Now this is not always the case, but it sadly occurred with some regularity among noble houses in the Regency period. People married for money and station in the past, with love having little or anything to do with the union. I guess I can see why it was so accepted to have a mistress back then. It makes me want to weep at the idea of a woman never finding her true love or happy ever after in life. Am I alone in this thought?

I guess there is an ideal example of the hardships woman faced back in the Regency in regards to marriage. The truth is, a woman had very little choice in the matter of her husband-to-be. Fathers ‘owned’ their daughters in a sense and contracts were drawn up once a settlement was agreed upon by the future groom and the bride’s father. But first, a woman needed to be chosen. And how was that done? *very big grin*

House parties and balls were a good opportunity for fathers and eager mothers to parade their young daughters around like horses up for sale at the stockyards. The young women (around seventeen years old) would be dressed in the latest fashion, jewelled in extravagant pieces and educated in the art of snagging a husband. After all, it was a woman’s goal in life to marry and run their own household. *can you hear me snorting people?*
The girls would be introduced to the men in attendance either by the host, their mother or a friend. It wasn’t like today, where you (okay, like me) would sashay up to a fella in a nightclub or bar and wink, ‘Hey stud, wanna dance?’ He would in turn give you a saucy grin and pull you onto the dance floor where you would bump and grind to the latest song on the pop charts. *snort* Hardly. A lady could never appear eager (I clearly wouldn’t have survived back then) or approach a man, especially if she had never been formally introduced to him before. There was a format that needed to be followed and strict unwritten rules that governed everyone, from the royalty to the labouring poor.
It wasn’t always peaches and cream for the men either, they were ‘expected’ to dance with all the girls making their come out, if not for the prospect of finding a bride but to appease their mothers, whether because they felt sorry for the wall flower sitting by the sideline or because they were a friend of a friend of a friend etcetera, it was still the expected thing to do. It was in these moments that a lady needed to shine. Her dancing needed to be precise and angelic, her manner needed to be demure and educated and her appearance needed to capture the man’s attention. Low necklines exposing the ‘girls’ was not unheard of either. But snagging a young buck was not always the easiest thing to manage.
A Regency Brothel

Men or boys (depending on your point of view) were ‘expected’ to sow some ‘wild oats’ before settling down and choosing a bride, likely because their father before them had done the same thing. College, at either Oxford or Cambridge, had little to do with education (in their mind anyway) and more to do with exploring life away from under their mother’s hand. Gaming Hells and Brothels catering to high society gentleman were a lucrative establishment to run, with regular visits from young gentlemen to their favourite courtesan or card table.
As a result, gentlemen did not generally marry at a young age and the men who were truly available to a debutant was likely quite older than she.

But what happened once a young lady actually caught a gentlemen’s eye?

Well, the idea of flowers and candy was not at all a reality back then. ‘Feel sorry for em now, huh?’ It was prohibited (not by a law, but simply society standards) that a man and woman could not correspond or exchange gifts. It was only into the Victorian era that flowers and candy became acceptable gifts, but that was all. The first gift a man would generally give his wife was her wedding ring and oddly they were not always expected or common.

So how did they get to know each other then? Well, in my opinion they didn’t, but I’m sure that’s debatable. A young lady’s most precious asset was her ‘virginity’ and it was not wise to call that into question or unmarried you would stay. It was therefore important that an unmarried woman was chaperoned at all times when outside of her home. She was accompanied by her mother, a member of the family or maid at every moment, whether it be a carriage ride in the park, a shopping trip or making a call to a friend, ensuring her ‘maiden state’ was never called into question. She was never, ever, left alone in the company of a man, courting or otherwise. Can you imagine trying to date a bloke with your mother listening to your every word? *shudders* I, for one, am glad times have changed.
I like thinking back to the Pride and Prejudice movies, either the early miniseries or the recent movie to explain this next point. Do you ever see Mr Darcy and Miss Bennett touch? Do you see them kiss? Well, they do kiss, but only AFTER they’re married. They never hold hands, or show any affection towards each other in any form of physical contact, simply because it just wasn’t done back then. Nor do they address each other by their given names, as that would appear far too ‘vulgar’ and call the poor woman’s virtue into question. *sigh* So, how did they truly do it? It was trying, to say the least.
While there is just something romantic about the Regency period, I think it is fascinating to learn that the idea of sending flowers and candy was not a reality in any way, shape, or form. But then again, there was always the opportunity to go riding with the handsome gentlemen, just sadly with your mother in tow. 
Comment below for your chance to win a copy of Regency Pleasures by Louise Allan.
Danielle can be contacted via her website, Twitter or Facebook accounts.


Anonymous said...

Grinning from your wit and humor :)
OK Danielle, I want to know who's getting Candy and Flowers these days ... :( not I...ha ha ha ha maybe some traditions are still alive and well today??
Interesting facts in this post.
Shame about not receiving even a wedding ring.
One can't really imagine many of those customs coming into play with the courting act of today ...

Which makes me wonder - Is there a courting act of today?
I've seen how the younger culture *get together* hmmm maybe they did get somethings right, back in the Regency...
thanks for sharing Danielle

Danielle Lisle said...

Maryde - *blushes* I don’t think I’ve ever been labeled witty… but I’ll take it! :D

I think the ‘idea’ of flowers and candy are alive and well today, but I know my husband rarely chooses to adhere to said idea. A tap on the bottom seems to suffice his affection.

Is there a courting act of today? I suppose there is, but maybe we’re too close to it to label or define it. In my mind, I think men take snips of ‘courting acts’ from the past in an effort to win the lady around... but I doubt marriage is always on their mind.

Maggi Andersen said...

Great post, Danielle. If we wrote Regencies like this they'd never get read!

Danielle Lisle said...

Hi Maggie! I know, right! When I started researching my Regency novels I was like, “Oh, that will never do!” Have to love the world of ‘fiction’ don’t we, with a selective dash of truth thrown in.

Suzi said...

Thanks for your insight into Regency courtship. Yes, things are sure different these days.
Thanks goodness for women's lib!

Danielle Lisle said...

Suzi, indeed. I do however long for the days of gentlemanly behaviour, the opening of doors, standing when a woman enters the room and such. Yesterday I walked in the door and hubby looked up from the couch and asked what’s for dinner. He was lucky he didn’t end up wearing it!

Cheryl Leigh said...

Thanks for the fun and interesting post, Danielle! I'm happy that my hubby still surprises me with flowers now and then. :)

Danielle Lisle said...

Cheryl - show off! :P

On a non jealous note, I'm very happy you stopped by. :)

Elle Fynllay said...

I wonder how many women courted, as in encouraged, the "man of their dreams" only to realize too late, that they had been dealt a dud hand. Lovely to think Elizabeth Bennett's parents from Pride and Prejudice, still had affection for each other, yet Lydia, ends up with the "bad egg"
Hmm. Wonder how much Jane Austen witnessed in reality....

Grace Burrowes said...

I am not a Janeite by any stretch, but wasn't there a great deal of touching involved in the parlor dances? A lot of it fleeting, and all of it public (and gloved), but touching of some degree. Then too, a gentleman always offered his arm when serving as escort, he took a lady's hand to help her in and out of conveyances, and so forth.

They did touch, and were probably grateful for the manners requiring them to--at least some of the time. Certainly glad times have changed in some regards.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Great Post Danielle. I think we just take it for granted that courtship was always acompanied by candy and flowers. What about poetry in courtship?

Danielle Lisle said...

Hi Elle! Yes, I also wounded how many woman realised too late they’d picked the rotten egg. I think it was all a game of luck, some woman struck gold and sadly, others only found dirt.

Danielle Lisle said...

Howdy Grace!
Yes, they certainly did touch. Life would surely have been horrible if they didn’t and it would also put us poor romance writers out of a job. :)
It was such a gentlemanly thing to help a woman from a carriage and kiss their gloved hand in greeting, wasn’t it? I don’t think a man has ever kissed my hand... oh, how we can dream.
I think the point I was trying to get across, (and slap me with a fish if I failed) was that courting was nothing like it is today. Touching as in ‘fleeting moments’ seems to be well recorded, but ‘touching’ like we do today in public was a big ‘no, no’.
Don’t forget these young woman were very naive when it came to sex or the male gender for that matter. If they had a brother then perhaps they were one up on the rest of the debutantes, but otherwise they were not well versed on the ways of the world. Kissing was another big ‘no, no’ and it was never done in public, no matter who you were!
Touching can be many things, but a hand on a waist or anything more proactive (in those days anyway) was far too much for any society lady.

Danielle Lisle said...

Hi Cassandra!
Poetry... hmm, I’m not a fan, so I must admit I don’t know as it was not part of my research for my books and therefore didn’t find a home in this post.
I too was surprised when I discovered it all (flowers and candy) started in the Victorian era, not well before, and was the reason I decided on this topic. :D

Christina Phillips said...

What a fun post, Danielle! Much as I love reading about the Regency I'm glad I didn't have to live through it :-)

Danielle Lisle said...

Hi Christina!
I have to admit I am the same. I love writing it, imagining how they lived, but there is no way I want to change places. Most people only bathed once a week! Ewww!

Angelyn said...

I like the pictures in this post particularly. Well-written overview.

Danielle Lisle said...

Thanks Angelyn! Most of them are stock photos. I love historical pics, but they are so hard to find. :(

Allison Butler said...

Hi Danielle,

Thanks for this informative, fun post:) Courting during the Regency period was certainly a very formal and structured affair. I don't think I would have coped LOL.
And my DH still surprises me with flowers now and then *sigh*

Danielle Lisle said...

A big congrats to Grace Burrowes, who won the copy of Regency Pleasures by Louise Allan.

Please email me Grace on danielle (at) daniellelisle (dot) com to claim!