The Victorian era is defined as the years from 1837 until 1901 as this was the time in which Queen Victoria ruled England. There is no exact date as to when the Victorian era truly ended as the Victorian lifestyle continued to influence culture, customs, and societal ways for several years following Queen Victoria’s death. Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII ruled from 1901 until 1910 and historians refer to these years as the Edwardian era; however, throughout this period, Victorian influence was strong.
Women and men who held greater standards of morality and social etiquette marked the Victorian era. Sexual restraint was in great demand. Societal norms taught men and women to behave with modesty and prudence. Those in the upper echelons of society closely adhered to rules of etiquette. The working and lower classes were more liberal with their thoughts, behaviors, and explored sexual freedom, though high society looked down upon them for doing so. Women and men also faced strict rules regarding courtship. The notion of two people falling wildly and madly in love and running away into the night, regardless of the opinions of their families or plan for the future was not something commonplace to the upper and middle class. Society viewed courtship as a career move for men and a woman’s way of securing her position in life and security for her children. A Victorian man could amass great wealth simply by choosing a woman of great means, as her property would transfer to the man once married. Though this may seem restrictive, it was actually an improvement as the Victorian era saw less arranged marriages and couples selected their own partners. This does not indicate that all was left to romantic chance meetings. Families played a pivotal role by introducing young couples whom they thought would be well suited for one another. Though parents no longer arranged marriages, they still had an impact in arranging courtships.
Balls and dances were the primary method of introductions and courtships. Young Victorian women would be introduced to society through a ball or dance. This was called “coming out” and indicated that a young woman was interested in potential suitors. The Victorian dances were nothing like modern dances and even these were controlled. A chaperone would oversee the activities to ensure a man did not somehow defile the young Victorian woman at the dance. Men would fill out their names on a dance card, and then chaperones gave them the opportunity to dance with the woman. Up to three dances per man was allowed and after the ball, the woman could review the cards left with her then choose a man she felt she would like to suit her. After a woman selected a suitor from the list of cards, she would give her card to the man. This signified that the man could call upon the lady and begin the courting process. Once the courtship began, there were more rules for both men and women to follow.
There may have been nothing more important in Victorian society than a woman’s reputation and many of the rules of courtship were designed to protect it. Men and women were not at liberty to just speak to each other while passing by but had to be properly introduced first. The courtship process took place in stages, beginning with the ball or dance and proceeding with speaking before progressing to taking a walk together. Once the couple had affirmed they wished to move forward with courtship they were said to “keep company.” While keeping company they would enjoy chaperoned dates together to ensure the young woman remains unspoiled before marriage.
Many books were written during the Victorian era for explaining the rules of etiquette to both genders. Some of these include Godey’s Lady Book, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Manners for Men by Mrs. C.E. Humphry, The Laws of Etiquette: or, short rules and reflections for conduct in society, by a gentleman, and Manners and Social Usages. These books explained numerous rules for societal behavior and those in the Victorian age closely practiced them.
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