Certain etiquette and conduct was expected of an eighteenth or nineteenth century gentleman when courting. One etiquette book noted that “courting ought never to be done except with a view to marriage.” One nineteenth century gentleman maintained that “true courtship consists in a number of quiet, gentlemanly attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, not so vague as to be misunderstood.” This meant a gentleman had to walk a fine line. He could not pay exclusive attention to any particular woman unless he was serious and wanted to pursue marriage, and he could not attend church with a woman regularly, give her costly presents, or be her constant escort unless he had serious intentions. If he neglected “all others to [solely] devote himself to a single lady he [gave] that lady reason to suppose he [was] particularly attracted to her … [and there was] danger of her feelings becoming engaged.” In addition, by avoiding such singular-focused behavior, a gentleman would avoid winning a love he could not reciprocate, stop wasting his time and money, or sidestep falling in love with someone considered unworthy.
Before a gentleman could even consider courting a woman, he had to have already met her or finagled an introduction through society’s proper channels. This might be accomplished through a mutual friend. If not, then his first consideration was how to get acquainted with the young woman, and this is where a gentleman’s investigative skills came into use. He would have to ascertain where she lived and then make discreet inquiries, respecting her family and avoiding compromising her name by not even mentioning it in the course of his inquiry. Then, hopefully, he could somehow work towards an introduction.
If that proved unproductive, his only other option was to get the lady to notice him by attending places she frequented and judging for himself “without speaking to his fair conqueror, — whether his further attentions would be distasteful to her.” If his advances appeared acceptable, he could make “the first deliberate step on the Ladder of Matrimony,” by writing to the woman’s father or guardian and stating “his position in life and prospects, as well as mention his family, [and] request permission … to visit the family as a preliminary to paying his addresses to the object of his admiration.”
Parents often viewed the gentleman suitor as an interloper: Someone plucking from their well-tended garden, a flower they had tenderly reared. For that reason, one etiquette book noted that a gentleman should be “decidedly respectful” toward a woman’s parents, and, because the nature of courtship required an exaggeration of a person’s good qualities and a person’s manners, they were to be above reproach. Mothers, in particular, watched “with a jealous care the tendencies of their daughter’s affections.” If for some reason she found a gentleman unacceptable, the advice to the mother was to try to turn her daughter’s head by finding a more suitable person. If that failed, parents were advised to provide their daughter with a “change of scene and surroundings by travel or visiting.” However, if parents determined the suitor acceptable, “then the most scrupulous rules of etiquette [would] not object to their letting the young couple [spend some time] alone.”
A gentleman first and foremost was to “be thoroughly honest” and never strive to be something he was not. If he was a willful deceiver, he was bound to be detected at some point, and one etiquette expert noted that if that happened, how would a gentleman expect a woman to continue to love and trust him? The conclusion was that “if you prize your own happiness … never intentionally deceive. Better that you underestimate.” On the other hand, a gentleman was to make himself as attractive as possible and use every power he possessed, whether it be attractiveness of manner, physical characteristics, education, money, position, skill, or strength, because “to do less would be injustice to yourself; to do more, would be injustice to others.” Gentlemen were also advised to never “give your best impression at … first.” The reason for this was because supposedly a suitor acquired an advantage by allowing “to unfold gradually the adornments of … character, making some new and favorable impression, if possible at each interview.”
Once a gentlemen found a woman he wanted to court, one book provided a specific list for him to win her over. The book noted there that “certain requisites of the masculine character” needed to be used to successfully woo the female sex. These included:
- Always treat ladies with the greatest respect — This meant a gentleman was to not treat a woman as his equal, but as his superior. He was to carry a woman’s bundles, give her his seat on a crowded car, open doors, etc., and this applied to any woman, young or old.
- Be a person with pure-minded manly boldness — A gentleman was not to be too bashful or too bold.
- Be not over-precise in your manner — In other words, a gentleman was advised to not hamper himself “too much with rules of social etiquette.”
- Be, at all times, a perfect gentleman — Avoid rudeness, be polite, and behave respectfully.
- Be neat in your person — Gentlemen were o avoid “carelessness or slovenliness,” and all gentlemen were advised to “have your linen clean and neat, your collar on and buttoned, and your necktie in place.”
- Be a thorough manly man — This meant a gentleman was to “avoid all bad habits … [and instead] seek to be a man of positive qualities.”
- Be prudent in your proffers of love — A gentleman was never to force his company upon a woman nor “resolve to marry somebody at any cost.”
- Be polite but do not carry your politeness too far — One etiquette expert noted, “Politeness is one thing, courting is another … Do not try to make love to every woman you meet.”
- Duffey, Eliza Bisbee, The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877
- Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873
- Hudson, George W., The Marriage Guide for Young Men, 1883
- The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony, 1852