How to succeed in Regency courtship
Navigating the marriage market in Regency high society could be a desperate business, with hopeful candidates bound by strict rules of etiquette that could make or mar their chances of an advantageous match. So how could they improve their prospects, or even – if they were especially lucky – set the fashionable world ‘on fire’? Historian Emily Brand explains more…
Make oneself agreeable
For those all-important first impressions, it was crucial to look and act the part. For both sexes this inevitably meant being as physically attractive as possible, adhering to the contemporary standards of beauty, hygiene and high fashion.
Books such as The Mirror of The Graces (1811) gave helpful “Directions for the Preservation of Health and Beauty”, and the fashion plates of magazines like La Belle Assemblée revealed the newest trends. But, as Jane Austen makes so clear, the possession of either an impressive fortune or illustrious rank could make up for any natural deficiencies in this area.
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However, each sex was also expected to fulfil the highly gendered expectations of what was required in an appealing spouse.
For gentlemen, sporting prowess, respectable, intellectual pursuits, extensive European travel and elegant dancing might all act as pleasing additions to a suitor’s character.
In a young lady, the obvious virtues of modesty, chastity and youth could be polished with the mastery of “feminine accomplishments” such as music, French, needlework and the arts.
Whatever your talent, life in the Regency ton offered endless opportunities to impress.
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Select your target
Finding the perfect partner meant knowing where to look. Over the winter, the more traditional could seek access to the highlights of the year’s social ‘season’: perhaps the private masquerades of the great and good, fireworks displays in the pleasure gardens or – of course – the royal entertainments at which young ladies made their courtly and social debuts.
Outside of London, trips to fashionable spa or seaside towns such as Bath and Brighton also offered ample opportunities to fashionably promenade into the paths of suitable candidates.
It was likely that a young person’s family or guardians were eagerly on the lookout for promising matches that could elevate their fortune or social status. A helping hand could also be found in gossiping books or newspaper columns naming and ranking society’s men and women either by fortune or by beauty.
Anyone still struggling could place the Regency equivalent of ‘lonely hearts’ adverts in local or national newspapers, providing a summary of their attractions beneath the heading, MATRIMONY or WANTED: A WIFE.
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Impress the family
Since the mid-18th century there had been a growing expectation that marriages should ideally be based in affection over strategic alliance. However, among the upper classes the enduring importance of elevating one’s social standing ensured that family matchmaking was still prevalent, and obstructions to unprofitable relationships were common.
In England, any marriage contracted with either party aged under 21 without consent from a parent or guardian was legally invalid (giving rise to the custom of eloping to Scottish towns like Edinburgh and Gretna Green). When Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, proposed to his sweetheart in 1793, it was her brother who blocked the match – quietly removing his objection once Wellesley had amassed military rank and fortune.
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As well as these overriding qualities, one important tool for impressing the family was flawless etiquette. Whether it was knowing how to politely request and accept a dance, carve a roasted pig at the dinner table, correctly escort a lady on horseback, or simply properly address and converse with a potential partner and their associates, understanding the ‘rules’ of polite society showed that you belonged.
Books such as Principles of Politeness – based on the fatherly advice of Lord Chesterfield in the mid-18th century and expanded upon by John Trusler over various editions – outlined the correct form for such occasions and urged in general against keeping any ‘bad company’ that might tarnish a reputation.
Make your intentions known (without inviting disgrace)
With all the required introductions successfully made, and good relations forged, it was necessary to make one’s interest known either in private expressions or public behaviours.
According to etiquette, there were some very specific means by which a suitor could indicate particular interest in a young lady. He might give thoughtful gifts such as books or music, or request the honour of more than one dance at a ball (though not three, which could be tantamount to announcing an engagement). Acceptance was generally received as a return of the sentiment.
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Such public demonstrations of preference could be followed with increased (chaperoned) private calls to the family home and striking up an exchange of letters to become better acquainted. Crucially, though, any couple must behave at all times with propriety; being discovered alone together in dubious circumstances or conducting a long, secret correspondence would invite questions about how respectable the relationship truly was.
Win their affections
All that now remained was to secure the affections of one’s intended partner. While, then as now, there were not set rules about what could capture a particular person’s heart, there were common traits that were more generally prized (see ‘Making oneself agreeable’) and methods (such as gift-giving, or writing poetry) that could be safely pursued.
At a time when business or social engagements might keep courting couples apart for weeks or months at a time, a romantic correspondence – letters that elegantly expressed one’s feelings, but could be safely be read by each other’s families – could be key. For the especially anxious, manuals such as The Lover’s Instructor or The Herald of Love were repeatedly reprinted, providing useful hints on giving reassurance without overstepping.
Make a proposal
While there were no strict requirements for the format or etiquette of a marriage proposal, it could be performed with or without delicacy. Men, of course, took the active role (though the idea of a woman being permitted to propose on a leap year was already a subject for amusement in the press during the speculation about Princess Charlotte’s amorous affairs in 1816).
While artistic representations of the formal proposals of the 18th-century and Regency eras often depict the gentleman on one knee, and it was considered a general ‘tribute of adoration’, there is nothing to suggest that it was a necessity; similarly, while the presentation of a keepsake or promise ring had been a feature of some proposals for centuries it was not essential. The question need not even be popped in person, as demonstrated by the poet Lord Byron’s vague proposals by letter (and even via an aunt) to fastidious heiress Annabella Milbanke.
Whatever the method, once an engagement was public knowledge the couple could be feted in the newspapers as having escaped the hazardous seas of courtship, inbound for the safe haven of matrimony. However, as the tongue-in-cheek Dictionary of Love declared to its 18th-century reader, as far as promises of matrimony were concerned, ‘making them is one thing, and keeping them another’.
Emily Brand specialises in social history and romantic relationships during the long 18th century. She is the author of The Fall of the House of Byron (John Murray, 2020) has previously worked as an editor of history and classic literature for the University of Oxford, and has since provided historical consultancy for television – including reality dating show The Courtship.
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