In many people’s minds, the Regency Era, with its Dukes and Barons and Ladies seems like the era when fairy tales were true. This notion has been greatly cultivated by Hollywood movies that tend to present things through rose tinted glasses, depicting situations and the subsequent reactions that only show a fraction of the truth, if any.
These days, dating is easy. In today’s world a man simply asks out a woman (or if she’s braver than I’ll ever be, she asks him out). The existence of Facebook and Instagram and all those social media platforms has made meeting people a lot easier. Reaching out to others has become as easy as clicking a few keys on the keyboard and the number of couples that met through these means has skyrocketed the past few years.
The formula is pretty simple. Guy meets girl. Guy and girl like each other. Guy asks girl out. If she accepts, they end up for drinks or for a bite or watching a movie. If it’s a match made in heaven, the rest is history. Pretty easy, right?
Was it like this back in the day?
Well….not so much.
Dating – or courting as it was called- in the Regency Era was a very important affair governed by a whole bunch of strict rules. Failing to follow these rules could result in dire consequences, especially for a woman, that included a ruined reputation, being forced into marriage, even duels of honor at dawn. Needless to say, trying to get a girlfriend back then could be a deadly affair.
Rejoice modern-day daters! At least you don’t have to deal with that!
So, how was it done?
By the time the Prince Regent rose to power, the notion of marrying for love had already started gaining ground in people’s minds as opposed to previous years when marriages were almost exclusively political and resembled business deals more than actual marriages.
Courtship was a complicated business for the more privileged members of society in England during that time. Sons of noble families were mostly after the hefty dowries of noble daughters, though it was not uncommon for the son of a noble family to “marry down” if the woman’s fortune was large enough. A merchant’s daughter, for example, could a make a good match if she were rich enough and her reputation beyond question.
Of course, the same rules did not apply to women and things were a lot harder for them. Even the smallest infringement could result in a ruined reputation and during that time, when honor and good name where exceedingly important, that was the equivalent of kissing one’s chances at a comfortable and respectable future goodbye. The British Ton had no qualms about turning their backs and closing all doors to a woman whose reputation was questionable, even if it were mere rumor.
For an aristocrat’s daughter, finding a noble suitor was imperative to her name and future. In the early 1800s, there were certain manners and customs in courtship, which were vital for young ladies and gentlemen to obey if they were to be accepted as potential participants within high society’s marriage market. The underlying principle, which informed these codes, was that a young person displayed her or his availability and attractions to appropriate members of the opposite sex effectively, yet without deception, vulgarity or exploitation. There were protocols that had to be followed about the “dos” and “don’ts” of courtship and it was probably a real headache to the young ladies and gentlemen of the time.
Dating is hard enough in modern times without all those “rules” to follow. Can you imagine worrying over every word exchanged or every tiny little interaction?
A young lady of good breeding, who wished to keep her reputation pristine, would never, ever put herself alone with a man. Courting was a public affair and any new and aspiring couple was sure to spend a considerable amount of time under society’s scrutiny.
If one wanted to meet with another, they had to be introduced by a mutual friend, more often than not at soirees and balls, which were the Regency Era equivalents of your neighborhood’s wine bar or club. They were THE places to meet eligible partners.
If a gentleman wished to get better acquainted with a lady, he could send flowers or visit her at her home, but only after informing her family and always under the watchful eye of the lady’s chaperone. Carriage rides and walks around the local park were common and served a dual purpose: the gentleman and lady got to spend time together and get to know each other, but it was also a statement to their peers and society in general that they were courting each other.
Before engagement, couples couldn’t be found walking or speaking privately without the presence of a chaperone. Even the actual marriage proposal was sometimes done in the presence of others. Should the lady accept, the gentleman then had to ask her father or head of the family for her hand, which was an equally nerve-wrecking process, sometimes even more so than the courting itself, considering noble families had pretty high standards and it was within a father’s rights to refuse to a proposal for his daughter’s hand. However, this rarely happened as most marriages were arranged by the parents, with or without the offspring’s consent.
Of course, accepting ones proposal didn’t by any means suggest that things were over. Marriage contacts were very popular and mandatory, playing a very important part in arranging the distribution of wealth and property, but also in solidifying what would happen to the wife and offspring should something befall the husband.
Annulments and Separations
Despite what you might think or what you may have read in regency romance books, divorce was not a known concept back then and annulment and separations were hard to obtain, even for those with the power and wealth to petition for them.
The idea that a couple could get their marriage annulled if they didn’t consummate it did not apply in Regency England. However, a marriage could be annulled if the husband were to be found impotent or unable to consummate the marriage.
Of course, such a thing had to be declared by a licensed doctor and most people were not willing to admit to subject themselves to such an examination, choosing to stay silent about it. The social stigma following such a situation was more than enough to keep people, especially those of prominent social standing, from even entertaining the thought of requesting an annulment, choosing instead to remain in wedlock, as miserable and childless as that was.
Other marriages that could be annulled were those that were never valid in the first place. Those included marriages were one spouse was already married to another, when one of them was under the appropriate age or when proper permission hadn’t been given either by the lady herself or her family. Close familial bonds between spouses was also a valid reason to request an annulment, seeing as consanguinity in married couples was frowned upon.
It is very obvious that courtship and marriage could often be unpleasant affairs and could quite easily become ones worst nightmare.
What we now know as one of the most pleasant and fulfilling parts of human interaction was so heavily dictated by societal rules, that it probably lost much of its charm.
There were even rules about sending letters! More often than not, the exchange of letters is seen as one of the most romantic gestures between couples, as seen in movies and books. More often than not, these depictions take place in the Georgian Era, including the Regency period.
Was it actually like that?
The exchange of letters between a couple that was not married or at the very least engaged, was considered scandalous and was forbidden!
Ugh, sorry for killing the fantasy girls!
Written by Emma Linfield