“Elizabeth, ….. forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change,…. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.”
The above quote is from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and is one of my favorites. I really wish we could pick Jane’s brain and discover just what she imagined as how Mr. Darcy expressed being “violently in love.” Most likely, considering the Era, he waxed eloquently and poetically, and at most grasped her hand. In fact, given the following sentences in the novel I suppose we can be fairly certain he did not bodily embrace Lizzy and plant a long wet kiss! Still, it is fun to dream and clever Jane did leave it open for entertaining interpretation.
What I do appreciate about that quote and all the careful phrases Jane uses in her novels is the idea that despite the strictures of the period, and her own limited romantic experience, she did comprehend and promote the concept of love. Each of her couples found their “soulmate” and did so within the societal mores and demands of the Regency.
Frankly, as much as I adore reading Austen and writing in that time, the strict codes of conduct drive me insane! I am quite happy to spin away a bit and take a slightly more modern view of how my characters interact. I do my best to be historically accurate in general, but it is fun to give them a tiny bit of latitude! Luckily for me, the Regency was a highly romantic period in history and standards of love and romance were altering to a degree, even if it did not last.
“By the mid-1820s young couples would be arrested by zealous officers for the heinous crime of kissing in public.” This is according to Ben Wilson’s The Making of Victorian Values, Decency & Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837.Can you imagine? Courtship – that interlude of finding one’s mate – was a serious undertaking with rules rigidly enforced by all parties. During the search for a potential marriage partner, single persons were severely limited in when they could touch or conduct an intimate tête-à-tête. They were never alone or allowed to sit too close together, could not address each other by their Christian names, and were unable to correspond privately or exchange gifts. Numerous booklets on the “rules of conduct” were written and memorized to ensure everyone did the right thing and properly interpreted the vague glances and innuendoes.
The relaxed atmosphere of balls, group events, and spectator sports allowed for improved socialization. In such milieus they could release their guard, loosening up so as to express one’s true personality. Dancing, especially, was one of the few times an unbetrothed couple could touch, come into very close proximity, and perhaps exchange a whispered sentence or two, thus it was the prime choice of entertainment. Flirting was an art form extremely important to perfect with witty repartee essential as a way to convey emotion and sentiments in a guarded, acceptable fashion. No wonder Ms. Austen was so clever in writing her characters!
Men had to be very cautious in how they acted or they might find themselves engaged without asking first. Well, not technically, but behaving in an untoward manner could seriously damage his reputation, as well as the lady involved. If interested the man was expected to be forward, making his intentions clear to all involved, and honorably follow through. Once properly introduced to a lady it was acceptable for him to lend his arm while they strolled, assist in and out of a carriage, place a shawl on her shoulders, gift a freshly picked Posey, and other such discreet gestures that not only conveyed his positive feelings but also gave him a chance to sneak in a glancing touch! He was in control and made all the moves while the woman, conversely, was to be demure and modest. She was never to be forward or overtly encouraging in a courtship. Neither party could misstep or the consequences would be dreadful.
“Any kind of impropriety, in the form of overfamiliarity, overt flirting or other behavior may arouse comment, should be scrupulously avoided. A woman's reputation for virtue is one of her most precious possessions. Should matters proceed to an unwanted proposal, this must be refused with the greatest delicacy and attention to the gentleman's feelings.” Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine RossFortunately for the Regency couple the early 1800s saw a change toward marriages being based on love or at least some sort of affection between the two. Arranged marriages were frowned upon and pressure from parents was judged contemptible. It was still deemed wise to consider equality in social standing, wealth, and security, but emotion played a much larger part in the pairing. Young men and women were expected to choose based on their heart, but also utilize reason and responsibility to family as main factors. A marriage proposal was directly asked of the lady in question with parental consent obtained after she agreed, rather than the old-fashioned method of asking the father first. This was a radical change!
“Most marriages contained elements of both the traditional alliance, based on the maintenance of a family's social position, and the romantic alliance, based on private considerations. Parents were rarely immune to the emotional needs of their children, and children were just as unlikely to ignore their own material welfare.” In the Family Way, Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860 by Judith Schneid Lewis
I love the above etching! It is an ad from the Victorian Era and the woman is saying, “Yes, on condition that you buy me a ‘domestic’ with new wood work and attachments.” Ha! There is a smart girl! Make sure you have proper furniture before agreeing to anything!
Once they were properly and legally betrothed – and it was a binding agreement that could only be broken by the woman – their relationship could gradually become more intimate. They would still be diligently chaperoned, but could speak freely, talk about intimate subjects, touch and even kiss (privately and very cautiously, mind you!), and spend brief periods of time alone together. I suppose it goes without saying that pre-marital sex was a huge taboo, but people have always been human! There are plenty of references out there that prove the reality of desire between the sexes not being a 20th century development. LOL!
I suppose, depending on how one looks at it, courtship in the Regency might be easier than today. Forthright dialogue may have been difficult, but at least a girl knew when a man was interested! If he gave her flowers, asked her to dance, or even extended an arm as support during a walk, she could feel secure in his attention. He was left to guess and sweat from the fear of a refused proposal. If all else failed, they could open a guidebook for direction. It has been a long while since I partook of the dating game, but I sure can recall a few embarrassing moments when that would have been handy! How about you?