Courtship and Dating in the Victorian Era

The Start of it All: Coming Out

When a woman “came out,” it meant that she had completed her education and was ready to get married. A woman’s education was simple and consisted primarily of music and dance. Girls usually came out when they were seventeen or eighteen, but a family’s financial status could delay a girl’s debut. Single girls were never let out of the house alone and were placed under their mother’s wing for the first few years of their social lives. If a girl’s mother was not alive, another woman was designated as her chaperone.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet family is of a lower class than the Bingleys and the Hursts. The Bennet girls frequently leave the house alone. Lydia and Kitty are prime examples of this as they go to Meryton to see the soldiers and flirt, while Jane and Elizabeth both take ventures to Netherfield alone. Miss Bingley and Miss Hurst would never leave the house without their chaperones as they are of higher class. This shows how girls of higher rank were expected to follow the social customs while girls of lower rank could get around them [1].
There were many rules that a woman had to follow if she was trying start a relationship with a man.
  • Women were never supposed to approach people of higher rank unless they were introduced by a mutual friend.
  • People of higher rank first had to give their permission before a person of lesser rank could be introduced to them.
  • Higher ranked men did not have to maintain an acquaintance after being introduced.
  • Men and women in the stage of courtship in which they walked out together always walked apart. The only time a man and woman could hold hands was when walking over a rough spot.
  • Proper women never rode alone in a closed carriage with men who weren’t relatives.
  • Women never called upon unmarried men in their place of residence.
  • Another family member had to be present in the room if an unmarried couple were together.
  • No sexual contact was allowed before marriage.
  • Intelligence was not encouraged for women, especially any interest in politics [5].

Balls played very important roles in Pride and Prejudice. Dancing with certain men was what the Bennet girls looked forward to at each ball. Mrs. Bennet was very insistent that her daughters danced with Mr. Bingley at the first ball presented in the novel. The attraction between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennet began at this dance and they continued to dance together at subsequent balls. Without having balls to attend, it is doubtful that most women in the Victorian Era, especially those of lower classes, would have been able to form a relationship with a man, as these were places where men and women saw each other often [1].

Dance_Cards.jpgDance cards were used excessively in the Victorian Era to court a relationship between men and women. These were items used at balls so women could keep track of the men they were to dance with at each event.

  • Consisted of a decorative case which opened to reveal a book that listed various dance titles and composers.
  • A blank line was listed next to each dance. The names of the person with which the lady intended to dance were filled in on the lines.
  • Each card could list 10 to 20 dance titles.
  • A decorative card was attached to the case so the whole concoction could be attached to a lady’s ball gown.
  • They were generally between 1 to 3 inches in size so that they weren’t too cumbersome.
  • Cards were made of either paper, metal, wood, or organic materials.
  • Used to record the order of the evening’s dances as well as a memento for the lady [8].

Rules of Flirtation

The ways in which men and women interacted in the Victorian Era was dictated by a set of rules that society deemed to be acceptable. These were used as very strict guidelines during courtship; each member of a couple was expected to behave with a certain amount of poise and dignity. Courtship had become a science during this time period, and there was a formula of sorts that assigned each person the "perfect" suitor based on their personality traits and appearance. It was believed that there should always be a balance between two members of a couple and were therefore encouraged to choose people who had opposite traits.
  • Eye color: people of the same eye color were not encouraged to marry, especially if they had hazel, blue, black or grey eyes.
  • Personalities: people of weak character should marry someone strong-willed.
  • Calmness: people with short tempers or nervous tendencies should marry someone calmer, and the calmer one would help the excitable one remain calm.
  • Mannerisms: people with subtle mannerisms and very deliberate gestures should marry someone who talks quickly and uses lots of extraneous gestures.
  • Hair type: people with straight hair should marry people with curly hair, and people with thin hair should marry people with thick hair.
  • Hair color: people with bright hair, such as redheads or blondes, should marry someone with darker hair.
  • Complexion: people with pale complexions were encouraged to marry people with darker complexions.
  • People who did not fit into one particular category (for example, people who had hair that was somewhere between blonde and brunette) should marry people like themselves [4].


There were a number of expectations that women were to meet in order to be considered proper. In the public eye, a lady was expected to:
  • Never act in a crude, rude, ignorant or indifferent manner toward another person.
  • Always have a positive attitude in public.
  • Never play with her hair or adjust her appearance in public.
  • Never discuss how much things cost with another; it was thought to be in bad taste.
  • Never gossip about others.
  • Know how to give and receive compliments graciously and politely.
  • Never curse or use common slang.
  • Always aim to better herself, whether it be physically, intellectually or spiritually.
  • Never exhibit public displays of affection.
  • Own at least one reference manual dedicated to etiquette protocol and know its contents well.
  • Never send mixed messages to men or lead on a man she has no interest in.
  • Never accept attention from a man too easily; it was much more acceptable to play "hard to get" [2].
    • This tactic was referred to by Austen when Mr. Collins attempted to propose to Elizabeth. He believed that she was teasing him rather than actually turning him down; this would have been socially acceptable and, unlike modern times, would not have pushed Mr. Collins away at all [1].


Although men were given a bit more freedom by society, they still had to follow strict rules as well. If they failed to fulfill any of their expectations they would be considered a man of poor breeding and unworthy of marriage; Mrs. Bennet believes Mr. Darcy to be of poor breeding after seeing him at the ball; in fact, despite her obsession with finding suitors for her daughters, she goes so far as to call him "such a disagreeable man that it would be quite a misfortune to be liked by him" [1]. Men were expected to:
  • Be gentle and of good breeding, even if they were not of noble birth.
  • Act chivalrously toward women; for example, they were expected to open a door for a lady if they were within a reasonable distance from them.
  • Rise to a standing position when a woman entered the room for the first time or left the room for the final time.
  • Never pay exclusive attention to a single woman unless he had plans to propose to her.
  • Take all relationships slowly; a man should not ask a woman to marry him too quickly.
  • Never take off his coat while in the presence of a woman, nor should he ask a woman to dance if he wasn't wearing his coat.
  • Always walk on the outside when walking with a woman.
  • Never hold a woman's arm unless it was necessary to support her.
  • Never wear his hat when talking to a woman [2].

Communication through Letters

Letter.gifSince society found verbal means of expression to be improper, love letters were one of the only ways for a person to express themselves emotionally. People in the Victorian Era often looked for consultation about the appropriate contents of a letter. Several manuals provided the steps to writing a letter for every stage of a relationship (acquaintance, business, courtship, marriage, and friendship). Would be lovers often used cryptic messages to convey their desires through letters [9].

Valentine's day was a day that gave courters complete emotional freedom in their letters. It was the one time of the whole year that allowed them to abandon cryptic messages and make their letters much more elaborate than usual. Couples would exchange paper hearts, parchment art and intricate designs of gilded powdered glass to display their affection for each other.

Loopholes in the Social Norm

Since it was frowned upon to flirt openly with members of the opposite sex, couples relied on the use of "love tokens" to relay messages. Love tokens were objects, such as flowers, gemstone jewelery or painted miniatures, that a person could give to their significant other; each type of flower, gemstone or miniature would have a specific meaning that was assigned to it by the culture. Guessing what each object meant was a parlor game of sorts among the wealthy and elite.


When flowers were given, the number of leaves on a branch told the receiver the time and date of a future rendezvous. In addition, the petals and blooms of the flowers themselves could reveal how the sender felt:Orchids.jpg
  • Orchids (pictured to the right): ecstasy
  • Sweet pea: lasting pleasure
  • Daffodil: chivalry
  • Violet: pledge of faithfulness
  • Red rose: true love
  • Narcissus: egotism
  • Buttercup: ingratitude
  • Yellow rose: jealousy
  • Dahlia: instability
  • Fennel: worthy of all praise
  • Peppermint: warmth of feeling
  • Sage: domestic virtue
  • Stephanotis: marital happiness

Some flowers had two meanings, leaving it up to the receiver to interpret the gift:
  • Amaryllis: pride or timidity
  • Delphinium: flight of fancy or ardent attachment
  • Lavender: distrust or loyalty [6]


When a woman could not communicate verbally to a man what she wanted to say, she often used her fan to convey messages. The way she held it or moved it determined what message she wanted to send:Fan.jpg
  • Fanning fast: independence
  • Fanning slow: engaged
  • Snapping the fan open and shut: kiss me
  • Fan wide open: love
  • Fan half open: friends
  • Fan closed: hate
  • Fan twirling in right hand: you're being watched
  • Fan resting on right cheek: yes
  • Fan placed to left ear: leave me alone
  • Fanning face with right hand: come on
  • Fanning face with left hand: leave me
  • Fan placed to lips: kiss me
  • Resting closed fan on right eye: when can I see you?
  • Open fan pressed to left ear: do not betray our secret
  • Pulling fan across the eyes: I apologize
  • Fan twirling in left hand: we are being watched
  • Presenting the fan closed: do you love me? [7]

A Humorous Take on Courtship and Dating in the Victorian Era

"How to Pick up Girls (Pride and Prejudice Style)"

Works Cited

  1. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
  2. "Victorian Courtship." Victoria's Past. 15 July 2004. Victoria's Past. 28 Oct 2007 < >.
  3. "Proper Victorian Era Courtship Practices." Averyl's Attic. 28 Oct 2007 < >.
  4. Alfson, Emily. "Marriage in the Victorian Era." Marriage in the Victorian Era. 28 Oct 2007 >.
  5. Hoppe, Michelle J. “Courting the Victorian Woman.” 1998. 28 Oct 2007 < >.
  6. Anderson, Lucy. "Plant Talk." Southern Accents. 28 Oct 2007 <,14743,660056,00.html >.
  7. "The Fan Says It All." Victorian Charm. 28 Oct 2007 < >.
  8. "Save a Dance For Me." Victorian Charm. 28 Oct 2007 < >.
  9. "The Victorian Art of Letterwriting." Eras of Elegance. 28 Oct 2007 < >.
  10. Hsie, Sinsar. "How to Pick Up Girls (Pride and Prejudice Style)." YouTube. 28 October 2007. <>