Courtship and a Woman’s Responsibilities

Courtship preceded an engagement and was a time period that allowed a man and woman to discover whether they were compatible. Because marriage was the goal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, courtship was important, and perspective mates attempted to put their best foot forward. Women could accomplish this by following proper etiquette and possessing desirable qualities that would make them a good spouse.

Victorian Depiction of Courtship in early 1800s, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Victorian depiction of courtship in early 1800s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In addition, young ladies were encouraged to seek acceptable partners. Their parents were also encouraged to be involved to the extent that they were “perfectly familiar with the character of their daughter’s associates and … exercise[d] their authority so far as not to permit her to form any improper acquaintances.”[1] After all, parents had to keep in mind their daughter might fall in love with someone whom she had frequent contact with, and, so, “if any gentleman of her acquaintance [was] particularly ineligible as a husband, he [was to] … be excluded as far as practicable from her society.”[2]

This also meant that one of the first responsibilities of a young woman after determining that a suitor was acceptable was to determine if she could return his affection. If she could not, she was to discourage his unwanted advances. There were two reason for this:

[O]ne, that she may not do an injury to the gentleman in seeming to give his suit encouragement, and … [two], that she may not harm herself in keeping aloof from her those whom she might like better, but who will not approach her under the mistaken idea that her feelings are already interested.[3]

The Lover's Walk, Courtesy of Library of Congress

The Lover’s Walk. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Eligible ladies were also warned that during the early days of courtship, “while her eyes still retain[ed] some portion of their power of clear vision,”[4] to observe the comportment of her suitor and determine if he was the right man for her. One way for her to accomplish this was to seek out men with proper qualities. She also needed to avoid weak-minded, bad tempered men who did not honor their parents, thought lightly of women, or possessed moral or vulgar flaws that a woman might wish to change. Additionally, one father offered this tidbit, “Never marry for money, and never look where there is none.”[5]

This did not mean that a woman was to look for someone who was the exact counterpart of herself. In fact, diversity was said to be a most desirable trait because although “bread is good, and cheese is good … they are best eaten together.”[6] One writer noted that “blue eyes should marry black,”[7] and to create what was thought to be handsome couple the following suggestion was given:

“[T]he female should be about three inches less than the male; and if the parties are [diverse but] proportionally developed throughout their system, this selection may be found of advantage in other matters besides appearance.”[7]

Women were also advised to seek in their mate what they wanted most in themselves as this contrast between partners was said to create “relish to married life.”[8] In addition, characteristics that differed between the partners was claimed to yield “mutual profit” and each person would be a “gainer.” So, “if you [were] warm and hasty and impulsive, it is well that you should be matched with one who [was] calm and cool and self-possessed.”[9] This type of diversity also extended to such characteristics as temperament, disposition, and talkativeness.

Courtship by Edmund Leighton, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtship by Edmund Leighton. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Diversity was not the only requirement as equality also had to exist in two important areas: age and station. When it came to age, one book noted that if there was a difference of 15 to 20 years, a visitor could not always be sure if a woman was the wife or the daughter-in-law, and “out of such circumstances much awkwardness has arisen … some painful and others ludicrous.”[10] At least one writer noted that a husband should be a “few years the senior of his wife.”[11] However, a person’s station was even more important than age when it came to equality. Although no one could object to a woman wanting to marrying into a good family or a husband choosing a wife “from a class not equal to his own,”[12] it was said it was not a good thing for a son-in-law to be a “poor relative.” This was because any woman who found herself saddled to a husband whom she had to maintain would eventually cause her to be “full of anger, impudence, and much reproach.”[13] Moreover, women were told that “it is the sign of a mean spirit when a man is able to work, and yet prefers to lead an idle life and live upon money that he has married.”[14]

A Flirting Couple in 1825, Public Domain

A flirting couple in 1825. Public domain.

Women had to do more than carefully screen mates. They also had to possess certain qualities that made them a good catch in the nineteenth century. Among the so-called “good qualities” was a woman’s ability to be thrifty and economical. One bishop noted that “as a girl spends her own money, so she will spend yours.”[15] Good common sense, was another delightful quality because “no sensible man can be happy with a soft woman.”[16] It was further noted that marrying a woman without common sense “would be a wrong to yourself and a sin against society. It is doubtful morality to marry and run the risk of multiplying weak-minded people. The sooner the race of soft persons is extinct, the better.”[17] A husband’s happiness was also said to depend upon his wife’s “respectable temper.” Therefore, men were advised to ferret out bad temperament before marriage and “wisely make the question of temper second only to that of sense.”[18] Personal godliness was another desirable trait for a prospective wife. Yet no woman was expected to persuade her husband to become a Christian:

“No young girl can make a more profound mistake than to marry a man of doubtful habits in the hope of reforming him after she is his wife.”[19]

A Couple in Love, Public Domain

A couple in love. Public domain.

In the end perhaps one of the best description of how marriage was viewed in the 1700 and 1800s comes from Henry Tinley, the love interest of 17-year-old Catherine Morland in Jane Austen‘s novel Northanger Abbey, when Tinley is talking to Morland and compares dancing to marriage: 

“You will allow that in both man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbors, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else.”[20]


  • [1] Duffey, Eliza Bisbee, The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877, p. 128.
  • [2] Our Deportment, 1881, p. 183.
  • [3] Duffey, Eliza Bisbee, p. 125.
  • [4] The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony, 1852, p. 26.
  • [5] Bush, Joseph, Courtship and Marriage, A Lecture, Vol. 3, 1863, p. 46.
  • [6] Ibid. p. 12.
  • [7] Becklard, Eugène, Physiological Mysteries and Revelations in Love, Courtship and Marriage, 1844, p. 85.
  • [8] Bush, Joseph, p. 12.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 13.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 14.
  • [11] Ibid., p. 15.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 16.
  • [13] Ibid., p. 17.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 16.
  • [15] Ibid. p. 22.
  • [16] Ibid. p. 26.
  • [17] Ibid.
  • [18] Ibid.
  • [19] Swan, Annie S., Courtship and Marriage, 1894, p. 16.
  • [20] Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey, 1833, p. 58.

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