Today, dating seems to have no rules anymore. But, once, in Victorian America, if you wanted to court a woman, you had to do it properly. Here’s how:
A GENTLEMAN’S CONDUCT TOWARD LADIES
Young people of either sex, who have arrived at mature age, and who are not engaged, have the utmost freedom in their social intercourse in this country, and are at liberty to associate and mingle freely in the same circles with those of the opposite sex. Gentlemen are at liberty to invite their lady friends to concerts, operas, balls, etc., to call upon them at their homes, to ride and drive with them, and make themselves agreeable to all young ladies to whom their company is acceptable. In fact they are at liberty to accept invitations and give them ad libitum. As soon, however, as a young gentleman neglects all others, to devote himself to a single lady, he gives that lady reason to suppose that he is particularly attracted to her, and may give her cause to believe that she is to become engaged to him, without telling her so. A gentleman who does not contemplate matrimony should not pay too exclusive attention to any one lady.
A LADY’S CONDUCT TOWARD GENTLEMEN
A young lady who is not engaged may receive calls and attentions from such unmarried gentlemen as she desires, and may accept invitations to ride, to concerts, theatres, etc. She should use due discretion, however, as to whom she favors by the acceptance of such invitations. A young lady should not allow special attention from anyone to whom she is not specially attracted, because, first, she may do injury to the gentleman in seeming to give his suit encouragement; and, secondly, she may keep away from her those whom she likes better, but who will not approach her under the mistaken idea that her feelings are already interested. A young lady should not encourage the addresses of a gentleman unless she feels that she can return his affections. It is the prerogative of a man to propose, and of a woman to accept or refuse, and a lady of tact and kind heart will exercise her prerogative before her suitor is brought to the humiliation of an offer which must result in a refusal.
No well-bred lady will too eagerly receive the attentions of a gentleman, no matter how much she admires him; nor, on the other hand, will she be so reserved as to altogether discourage him. A man may show considerable attention to a lady without becoming a lover; and so a lady may let it be seen that she is not disagreeable to him without discouraging him. She will be able to judge soon from his actions and deportment, as to his motive in paying her his attentions, and will treat him accordingly. A man does not like to be refused when he makes a proposal, and no man of tact will risk a refusal. Neither will a well-bred lady encourage a man to make a proposal, which she must refuse. She should endeavor, in discouraging him as a lover, to retain his friendship. A young man of sensibilities, who can take a hint when it is offered him, need not run the risk of a refusal.
PROPER MANNER OF COURTSHIP
It is impossible to lay down any rule as to the proper mode of courtship and proposal. In France it is the business of the parents to settle all preliminaries. In England the young man asks the consent of the parents to pay addresses to their daughter. In this country the matter is left almost entirely to the young people.
It seems that circumstances must determine whether courtship may lead to engagement. Thus, a man may begin seriously to court a girl, but may discover before any promise binds them to each other, that they are entirely unsuited to one another, when he may, with perfect propriety and without serious injury to the lady, withdraw his attentions.
Certain authorities insist that the consent of parents must always be obtained before the daughter is asked to give herself in marriage. While there is nothing improper or wrong in such a course, still, in this country, with our social customs, it is deemed best in most cases not to be too strict in this regard. Each case has its own peculiar circumstances which must govern it, and it seems at least pardonable if the young man should prefer to know his fate directly from the lips of the most interested party, before he submits himself to the cooler judgment and the critical observation of the father and mother, who are not by any means in love with him, and who may possibly regard him with a somewhat jealous eye, as having already monopolized their daughter’s affections, and now desires to take her away from them altogether.
PARENTS SHOULD EXERCISE AUTHORITY OVER DAUGHTERS
Parents should always be perfectly familiar with the character of their daughter’s associates, and they should exercise their authority so far as not to permit her to form any improper acquaintances. In regulating the social relations of their daughter, parents should bear in mind the possibility of her falling in love with any one with whom she may come in frequent contact. Therefore, if any gentleman of her acquaintance is particularly ineligible as a husband, he should be excluded as far as practicable from her society.
A WATCHFUL CARE REQUIRED BY PARENTS
Parents, especially mothers, should also watch with a jealous care the tendencies of their daughter’s affections; and if they see them turning toward unworthy or undesirable objects, influence of some sort should be brought to bear to counteract this. Great delicacy and tact are required to manage matters rightly. A more suitable person may, if available, be brought forward, in the hope of attracting the young girl’s attention. The objectionable traits of the undesirable suitor should be made apparent to her without the act seeming to be intentional; and if all this fails, let change of scene and surroundings by travel or visiting accomplish the desired result. The latter course will generally do it, if matters have not been allowed to progress too far and the young girl is not informed why she is temporarily banished from home.
AN ACCEPTABLE SUITOR
Parents should always be able to tell from observation and instinct just how matters stand with their daughter; and if the suitor is an acceptable one and everything satisfactory, then the most scrupulous rules of etiquette will not prevent their letting the young couple alone. If the lover chooses to propose directly to the lady and consult her father afterward, consider that he has a perfect right to do so. If her parents have sanctioned his visits and attentions by a silent consent, he has a right to believe that his addresses will be favorably received by them.
REQUIREMENTS FOR A HAPPY MARRIAGE
Respect for each other is as necessary to a happy marriage as that the husband and wife should have an affection for one another. Social equality, intellectual sympathy, and sufficient means are very important matters to be considered by those who contemplate matrimony.
It must be remembered that husband and wife, after marriage, have social relations to sustain, and perhaps it will be discovered, before many months of wedded life have passed, when there is a social inequality, that one of the two have made a sacrifice for which no adequate compensation has been or ever will be received. And so both lives become soured and spoiled, because neither receives nor can receive the sympathy which their efforts deserve, and because their cares are multiplied from a want of congeniality. One or the other may find that the noble qualities seen by the impulse of early love, were but the creation of an infatuated fancy, existing only in the mind where it originated.
Another condition of domestic happiness is intellectual sympathy. Man requires a woman who can make his home a place of rest for him, and woman requires a man of domestic tastes. While a woman who seeks to find happiness in a married life will never consent to be wedded to an idler or a pleasure-seeker, so a man of intelligence will wed none but a woman of intelligence and good sense. Neither beauty, physical characteristics nor other external qualifications will compensate for the absence of intellectual thought and clear and quick comprehensions. An absurd idea is held by some that intelligence and domestic virtues cannot go together; that an intellectual woman will never be content to stay at home to look after the interests of her household and children. A more unreasonable idea has never been suggested, for as the intellect is strengthened and cultured, it has a greater capacity of affection, of domesticity and of self-sacrifice for others.
Mutual trust and confidence are other requisites for happiness in married life. There can be no true love without trust. The responsibility of a man’s life is in a woman’s keeping from the moment he puts his heart into her hands. Without mutual trust there can be no real happiness.
Another requisite for conjugal happiness is moral and religious sympathy, that each may walk side by side in the same path of moral purpose and social usefulness, with joint hope of immortality.
PROPOSALS OF MARRIAGE
Rules in regard to proposals of marriage cannot be laid down, for they are and should be as different as people. The best way is to apply to the lady in person, and receive the answer from her own lips. If courage should fail a man in this, he can resort to writing, by which he can clearly and boldly express his feelings. A spoken declaration should be bold, manly and earnest, and so plain in its meaning that there can be no misunderstanding. As to the exact words to be used, there can be no set formula; each proposer must be governed by his own ideas and sense of propriety in the matter.
DO NOT PRESS AN UNWELCOME SUIT
A gentleman should evince a sincere and unselfish affection for his beloved, and he will show as well as feel that her happiness must be considered before his own. Consequently he should not press an unwelcome suit upon a young lady. If she has no affection for him, and does not conceive it possible even to entertain any, it is cruel to urge her to give her person without her love. The eager lover may believe, for the time being, that such possession would satisfy him, but the day will surely come when he will reproach his wife that she had no love for him, and he will possibly make that an excuse for all manner of unkindness.
A LADY’S FIRST REFUSAL
It is not always necessary to take a lady’s first refusal as absolute. Diffidence or uncertainty as to her own feelings may sometimes influence a lady to reply in the negative, and after-consideration cause her to regret that reply.
Though a gentleman may repeat his suit with propriety after having been once repulsed, still it should not be repeated too often nor too long, lest it should degenerate into importuning.
No lady worthy any gentleman’s regard will say “no” twice to a suit which she intends ultimately to receive with favor. A lady should be allowed all the time she requires before making up her mind; and if the gentleman grows impatient at the delay, he is always at liberty to insist on an immediate answer and abide by the consequences of his impatience.
A LADY’S POSITIVE REFUSAL
A lady who really means “no” should be able to so say it as to make her meaning unmistakable. For her own sake and that of her suitor, if she really desires the suit ended her denial should be positive, yet kind and dignified, and of a character to let no doubt remain of its being final.
TRIFLING WITH A LADY
A man should never make a declaration in a jesting manner. It is most unfair to a lady. He has no right to trifle with her feelings for mere sport, nor has he a right to hide his own meaning under the guise of a jest.
A DOUBTFUL ANSWER
Nothing can be more unfair or more unjustifiable than a doubtful answer given under the plea of sparing the suitor’s feelings. It raises false hopes. It renders a man restless and unsettled. It may cause him to express himself or to shape his conduct in such a manner as he would not dream of doing were his suit utterly hopeless.
HOW TO TREAT A REFUSAL
As a woman is not bound to accept the first offer that is made to her, so no sensible man will think the worse of her, nor feel himself personally injured by a refusal. That it will give him pain is most probable. A scornful “no” or a simpering promise to “think about it” is the reverse of generous.
In refusing, the lady ought to convey her full sense of the high honor intended her by the gentleman, and to add, seriously but not offensively, that it is not in accordance with her inclination, or that circumstances compel her to give an unfavorable answer.
UNLADYLIKE CONDUCT TOWARD A SUITOR
It is only the contemptible flirt that keeps an honorable man in suspense for the purpose of glorifying herself by his attentions in the eyes of friends. Nor would any but a frivolous or vicious girl boast of the offer she had received and rejected. Such an offer is a privileged communication. The secret of it should be held sacred. No true lady will ever divulge to anyone, unless it may be to her mother, the fact of such an offer. It is the severest breach of honor to do so. A lady who has once been guilty of boasting of an offer should never have a second opportunity for thus boasting.
No true-hearted woman can entertain any other feeling than that of commiseration for the man over whose happiness she has been compelled to throw a cloud, while the idea of triumphing in his distress, or abusing his confidence, must be inexpressibly painful to her.
THE REJECTED SUITOR
The duty of the rejected suitor is quite clear. Etiquette demands that he shall accept the lady’s decision as final and retire from the field. He has no right to demand the reason of her refusal. If she assign it, he is bound to respect her secret, if it is one, and to hold it inviolable. To persist in urging his suit or to follow up the lady with marked attentions would be in the worst possible taste. The proper course is to withdraw as much as possible, from the circles in which she moves, so that she may be spared reminiscences which cannot be otherwise than painful.
PRESENTS AFTER ENGAGEMENT
When a couple become engaged, the gentleman presents the lady with a ring, which is worn on the ring-finger of the right hand. He may also make her other small presents from time to time, until they are married, but if she has any scruples about accepting them, he can send her flowers, which are at all times acceptable.
CONDUCT OF THE FIANCEE
The conduct of the fiancee should be tender, assiduous and unobtrusive. He will be kind and polite to the sisters of his betrothed and friendly with her brothers. Yet he must not be in any way unduly familiar or force himself into family confidences on the ground that he is to be regarded as a member of the family. Let the advance come rather from them to him, and let him show a due appreciation of any confidences which they may be pleased to bestow upon him. The family of the young man should make the first advances toward an acquaintance with his future wife. They should call upon her or write to her, and they may with perfect propriety invite her to visit them in order that they may become acquainted.
THE POSITION OF AN ENGAGED WOMAN
An engaged woman should eschew all flirtations, though it does not follow that she is to cut herself off from all association with the other sex because she has chosen her future husband. She may still have friends and acquaintances, she may still receive visits and calls, but she must try to conduct herself in such a manner as to give no offense.
POSITION OF AN ENGAGED MAN
The same rules may be laid down in regard to the other party to the contract, only that he pays visits instead of receiving them. Neither should assume a masterful or jealous altitude toward the other. They are neither of them to be shut up away from the rest of the world, but must mingle in society after marriage nearly the same as before, and take the same delight in friendship. The fact that they have confessed their love for each other, ought to be deemed a sufficient guarantee of faithfulness; for the rest let there be trust and confidence.
THE RELATIONS OF AN ENGAGED COUPLE
A young man has no right to put a slight upon his future bride by appearing in public with other ladies while she remains neglected at home. He is in future her legitimate escort. He should attend no other lady when she needs his services; she should accept no other escort when he is at liberty to attend her. A lady should not be too demonstrative of her affection during the days of her engagement. There is always the chance of “a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip;” and over-demonstrations of love are not pleasant to be remembered by a young lady, if the man to whom they are given by any chance fails to become her husband. An honorable man will never tempt his future bride to any such demonstration. He will always maintain a respectful and decorous demeanor toward her.
No young man who would shrink from being guilty of a great impropriety, should ever prolong his visits beyond ten o’clock, unless it be the common custom of the family to remain up and to entertain visitors to a later hour, and the visit paid is a family one and not a tete-a-tete. Two hours is quite long enough for a call; and the young man will give evidence of his affection no less than his consideration, by making his visits short, and, if need be, making them often, rather than by prolonging to unreasonable hours.
BREAKING AN ENGAGEMENT
Sometimes it is necessary to break off an engagement. Many circumstances will justify this. Indeed anything which may occur or be discovered which shall promise to render the marriage an unsuitable or unhappy one is, and should be accepted as, justification for such rupture. Still, breaking an engagement is always a serious and distressing thing, and ought not to be contemplated without absolute and just reasons. It is generally best to break an engagement by letter. By this means one can express himself or herself more clearly, and give the true reason for his or her course much better than in a personal interview. The letter breaking the engagement should be accompanied by everything, in the way of portraits, letters or gifts, that has been received during the engagement. Such letters should be acknowledged in a dignified manner, and no efforts should be made or measures be taken to change the decision of the writer, unless it is manifest that he or she is greatly mistaken in his or her premises. A similar return of letters, portraits and gifts should be made.
Our Deportment by John H. Young