By Arlys Holloway & Vaughn Treude
Our model: Arlys Endres, photo by @
In our extended celebration of Valentine’s Day, we’d like to summarize some of our research about love in Victorian times. We’ve learned some interesting and sometimes surprising facts.
The Victorian period, which is defined by Queen Victoria’s long reign as monarch of the British Empire, was the era of romanticism. In America, this time was known as “The Gilded Age.” Courtship was an established tradition for single people in all social classes. Though we think of the Victorian era as being particularly restrictive, people were actually much freer to choose their own partners than in previous times. Still, there were stringent rules that had to be followed.
Courtesy and manners were paramount. Ladies were to be respectful to men, and men were to treat women with care, and not smoke or have “impure” conversations in their presence. It was considered disrespectful for a woman to use a man’s given name in conversation. Instead, she would address him by “Mister” and his surname.
Another interesting fact about Victorian times was that life was much quieter without modern electric appliances or amplified sound. Without motor vehicles everywhere, it was even quieter outdoors. Furthermore, politeness dictated that people speak quietly and not draw attention to themselves. Even flirtation was largely non-verbal, as a young lady would sometimes cast glances at a gentleman from behind her fan.
Most importantly, women were groomed from early on to be perfect wives and mothers. A lady was expected to remain chaste until marriage, and thus she was not allowed to go out alone to meet a suitor. She was always accompanied by a chaperon, often an older member of the family. A single woman was not even to speak to a man without a proper introduction. Thus it was necessary to create numerous social events such as balls and parties, where young men and women could meet potential partners in a supervised environment. This was one reason holidays like Halloween became so popular at that time. See Arlys’ article “For the Love of Halloween.”
A typical Victorian romance consisted of three stages:
1. Courtship – Dating began when the man and woman were first introduced and could speak to each other. Later they would go for walks and eventually “keep company” by attending social or church events. Of course, they were never allowed to be alone together.
2. Engagement – Once a couple was engaged to be married, they were allowed more liberties, such as taking walks by themselves or holding hands in public. They could even meet behind closed doors, though only in the daytime. Breaking off an engagement was considered bad form for a man, as doing so would tarnish the woman’s reputation.
3. Marriage – Marriage was always the end-game of a Victorian courtship, which was only acceptable between members of the same social class. After the wedding, the couple was finally allowed to have a physical relationship. As per tradition, the man would be the breadwinner and the woman would be a dutiful wife and mother.
These were the social norms, and of course, there were always exceptions. In modern historical fiction, especially steampunk, we often see women stepping out of those restrictions. However, even a liberated woman like our heroine Professor Ione D. must do so discreetly, always observing the dictates of courtesy and politeness. This provides a particular challenge for our characters, who are nonetheless up to the task.
Victorian social norms were quite different than our own, a fact which can make period fiction quite interesting. We can be grateful for the increased freedom our modern life affords us, though a return to some of the manners and civility of that era would be a welcome change.
Sources: victorian-era,org, victorianweb.org,