The Victorian era began with Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837 and ended with her death in 1901. Her reign over Great Britain and Ireland set a stricter moral tone for much of European and American society. By 1890, the British Empire had claimed a quarter of the world through colonization, yet domestic life became increasingly limited, as social expectations were set by the Victorian period’s cultural emphasis on propriety. Because of this, courtship was an extremely codified affair.
Victorian Social Climate
“Victorian” became a synonym for prudery at the turn of the last century, largely because Victorian culture prized sexual restraint and banned any talk of physical love from the public sphere. Women of the middle and upper classes were expected to conform to the sentimental idealization promoted by the literature and art of the time. Even the fashions of the day, like tight corsets and hoop skirts, symbolized the rigid structure women were expected to live within. Maintaining a spotless reputation was essential for both men and women, and once each was of marriageable age, there was a timetable and script to follow to matrimony.
Once a young woman was done with her schooling, she would be presented to society to show she was in the market for a husband. A girl’s "coming out" depended on her parent’s resources. Wealthy families might hold a series of parties, middle-class families generally held one private party or dance, and girls from working class families usually did without a celebration and simply signaled they were of age by wearing their hair up, dressing in long skirts and joining the adults for dinner and on social calls.
Out and About
Young, unmarried women were never left alone with men who weren’t relatives, and they could not leave the house without a chaperone. When there was romantic interest, the young man was expected to act as the pursuer. Men were cautioned not to pay too much attention to a woman unless he was serious about her and also financially ready for marriage -- or soon to be. Yet with little privacy, young couples lacked the opportunity to get to know each other well before confronting the question of marriage.
The Working-Class Exception
Working-class families couldn’t afford the formality of demanding that dating be done entirely in public. Poor couples generally made an effort to be as respectable as their wealthier counterparts, but the rules were more lax. Once a working-class couple decided to marry, they could socialize together with only a younger sibling as a chaperone. Premarital sex was tolerated in such cases, because announcing an engagement was considered a verbal contract.
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