Five Things The Victorians Got Right About Dating

Imagine you’re dating a guy and he hands you a lock of his hair to remember him by when he’s not around. DON’T BE FREAKED OUT, IT’S VICTORIAN AND ROMANTIC.
Publish date:
January 7, 2014
Dating, victorian era, victorian

Dating isn’t one of my fortes. I think I make a pretty good impression in person, and I can generally give a good first date performance, but I have a habit of falling apart after that. I let anxiety take over, and I don’t know how to act or how aloof to be, but mostly, I don’t know how to respond to text messages.

Why isn’t there a rule that when you first start dating someone, you have to call each other? No one except your grandma talks on the phone anymore, I KNOW, but if you’re actually trying to get to know someone, why opt for typed mini-messages, wide open to misinterpretation, over speaking? Text messaging isn’t romantic. There’s no valor in an electronic message someone sends you while making toilet water waves on the porcelain throne.

That, combined with social media where you can see and analyze everything the person you are dating is up to, adds up to dating disaster (for me). I have suffered mild heartache, both real and imagined, after seeing something suspicious on a suitor’s wall. Dating games have been played for eons, but it seems that our constant need to communicate and share information with each other and the world has made these games more complex. It’s just… exhausting. I AM EXHAUSTED.

Last week, I went on a pretty good first date with a French Canadian man who didn’t speak English very well. I don’t speak French very well, so there was a lot of hand gesturing, wine drinking, and laughing. A few days later, he added me on Facebook, liked a dozen pictures of me, and sent me text messages like, “I love very much your beauty photo.” Then, he messaged me in Italian, writing, “un giorno mi sposerò la mia bellissima ragazza italiana,” which means “one day I will marry my beautiful Italian girl.” I was like, ummm, we’ve been on one date, dude. ONE DATE. I didn’t say that, because if his Italian was as bad as his English, he might have been confused. Instead, I opted for, “Haha, I’m going to bed. See you tomorrow for our date.” There would be no date the next day. He completely blew me off, and never messaged me again. Now, I’m pretending he died. (He didn’t die).

Maybe if I had grown up with texting and Facebook, I wouldn’t be so traumatized by them, but alas, they were thrust upon me as an adult. It’s a scientific fact that you just don’t learn things as well as after about 24. My fully formed adult brain, unable to make vibrant new pathways to decode text messages or process new romantic rules, continually misfires like a broken jack in the box.

I wasn’t any better at dating when I was a teenager, but looking back, things did seem a little more straightforward. I’m taking the “Drunk Uncle” approach to “back in my day” ranting, but maybe dating is terrible right now because there are no rules. Protocol’s been chucked out the window along with planning anything more than a week in advance and talking on the phone to other humans.

It’s enough to make a gal long for the olden days of love letters, corsets, and courting. The Victorians would probably consider me a crazy old spinster, and I’ll have none of their repressive, sexist marriage practices and lack of equal rights, but damn, they had romantic etiquette locked down.

Here are five things they got right about dating:

1) The Grooming Ritual

My getting ready rituals for dating usual include showering, not shaving my legs so I’m dissuaded from sleeping with the guy, putting on something black, doing myself up minimally, and some perfume. I love rituals in bathing, dressing, cooking, eating—basically I love rituals everywhere except church (mainly because of the constant “sit down, stand up”).

The Victorians, with their beautiful vanities, flowers, lace, silver handled brushes, romantic oils and scents, gorgeous dresses, and perfect hair, were all about their getting ready rituals. This might be horribly vain, but I think there’s something romantic about the time a woman spends in front of the mirror. This is less about obsessing over appearance or looking good for a man or society, and more about presenting your best self to the world. I always feel better when I look good and am dressed well.

Also, I am slightly obsessed with "Downton Abbey," which takes place about ten years after the Victorian Era, during the reign of George V, but many of the customs are similar. Seeing Mary Crawley get ready, with her lady maid Anna helping her set her perfectly curled hair, dust her cheeks with rouge and powder, pull on silk gloves and drape strings of pearls around her neck makes me salivate. Corsets might be demonic, constrictive upper body bras, but I will wear a corset if I get to dress like Mary Crawley.

I mostly enjoy Victorian grooming rituals because, aside from corsets, they seem very romantic. If an atmosphere of romance can be set before someone to share it with enters the picture, I think you’re off to a good start.

2) Dancing

Dating started with a dance for the Victorians, and what a merry way to enter into romance. When a woman came of age (between 18 and 25 years of age) her rich parents threw her a grand ball where potential suitors would aim to impress her with their dance floor know-how. Judging by my pedigree, I’d probably be a servant at that ball, but I’ve seen Downton Abbey enough times to know that even servants took romance very seriously.

Actually, I’d be a wily Victorian servant. I’d befriend a rich girl and get invited to her coming out party, like Meg March in Little Women, where I’d hopefully get a fellow peasant man to dance with me.

A coming out ball designed to set couples up might not exactly be a low-pressure, but it did afford women a chance to assess their romantic options while getting down with her bad self.

A woman received a dance card at the beginning of these dances, and gentlemen would have to sign up to dance with her. Unfortunately, this meant she might have to dance with some men she didn’t like, and that is why it was important to be smart and fill the dance card up right away with dance-worthy men. The Victorians also thought it better to dance with a man you didn’t like than to be considered a wallflower.

I’ll have to disagree. Wallflowers rock. Although a better solution might be for girls to dance together instead of with guys they didn’t like.

3) Walks

I’m big on walks in romance. Unless it’s bitterly cold, I think a walk is the perfect way to talk to each other without the awkward pressure of sitting across a table trying not to spill your water and hating yourself for ordering salad because you know there’s a dark green leaf morsel stuck in your teeth. Plus, there are always distractions on walks, like the animated squirrels in Central Park that I’m pretty sure are circus trained.

The Victorians appreciated a good walk while courting. After the dance, if a pair hit it off, they would then take a stroll together. Walks would continue until a real date was planned. I think making the first few dates nature outings would be a great way to take the pressure off and get to know each other in an unrushed, leisurely way.

To get around not being able to touch until engaged, many couples would go roller skating or ice skating so they could hold hands in public without scandal. They would also do piano duets, so they could share the piano bench and “accidentally” touch hands while reaching for the keys. Is it getting hot in here?

4) Chaperoned Dates

The Victorians perfected the art of the wait, and there’s something to be said for holding out.

These strict, modest expectations would make it even more fun to break the rules, which is something I would have totally done in the Victorian Era. But maybe not, because Victorian Era hussies had very few options if they got pregnant. By very few, I mean none except to get married right away, unless the dude bounced, in which case, she would be a ruined woman. Whatever. We’re talking about Victorian romance here, not the limited life choices of sexually liberated women.

I’d probably hate my life as much as the next Victorian girl if one of my aunts or cousins was my designated date chaperone, but judging by some of my past choices in love, I might do well to have a totally not-objective third party observing and kyboshing potential disasters.

Victorian couples could be finally alone after they were engaged, and by then the man’s testicles had turned an icy shade of azure and he was ready to propose to anyone with a vagina. Jokes!

5) The Romantic Gestures

After dances were danced and introductions were made, Victorians then began the courting game. If the two really liked each other after their walks, they would use secret cues and codes to communicate with each other. PDAs and talking about feelings were frowned upon, so they got inventive. A woman would adorn her fans, gloves, parasols, and handkerchiefs with artwork symbolizing her interest in a guy.

If a woman wasn’t interested in a man who fancied her, the message was sent just as passive-aggressively, with symbols on accessories. The Victorian middle finger was basically a pretty parasol.

A woman would never give a man a gift until after he had given one to her. Women also kept diaries of the courtship, and the couple would exchange romantic letters, as well as lockets, antique coins, portraits, poems, sketches, and locks of hair. Imagine you’re dating a guy and he hands you a lock of his hair to remember him by when he’s not around. DON’T BE FREAKED OUT, IT’S VICTORIAN AND ROMANTIC.

These people weren’t proposing on the Jumbotron at a baseball diamond; their romantic gestures were subtle and a little bizarre, but always classy.

We might do well to adopt some fun courting rituals from the Victorian Era, like the extended “getting to know you” phase, long talks while on walks, the cute date activities, the love tokens, and love letters written by hand, not on a cellphone, but they can definitely keep their repressive sexism and locks of hair.