Frisky Matrons of the Victorian Era

A ballroom scene by James Tissot in 1873 titled “Too Early.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One reporter declared in 1863 that there were too many “frisky matrons” of the Victorian Era. He claimed that married women were become all too common a sight at London balls and at English country houses. To justify his position, he wrote the following piece that he titled “Frisky Matrons,” which is provided nearly verbatim:

Whoever had charge of the Japanese Ambassadors last year must have attempted to explain to their puzzled Excellencies the object and meaning of a ball. It is intended, he probably said, to enable the youth and beauty of each sex to mingle in the dance. Hither fair maidens flock, for the purpose of captivating their future husbands. Their mothers attend, at the cost of much physical suffering, not so much from the promptings of parental instinct, as from a high, perhaps exaggerated, sense of decorum.

The active element is the marriageable element in the assemblage. The lovely and animated teetotums that spin round the room do so out of pure girlish glee. The graceful beings that thread the maze of lancers or quadrille are all fancy-free and own as yet no lord and master. It is, in short, the single young ladies in England who dance, while the married are content to guard the public morals by lining the walls, and peeping at the performance through any chink in the wedge of palpitating humanity in their front.

If this be an item in the latest report on English customs carried back to Jeddo, nothing can be more fallacious. It has ceased to be a correct description of a fashionable ball. Now-a-days, it is the married women who dance, while the young ladies too often sit unasked. Twenty or thirty years ago, a dancing matron was a rarity. One saw, indeed, occasionally, a married couple complacently gyrating round the room, locked in a sort of Darby and Joan embrace. But, as a rule, married women abandoned the service of Terpisichore to their younger and more supple sisters.

Now, they are to be seen in any ball-room capering about like so many frolicsome lambkins. If it is the exercise merely which attracts them it would be easy to provide some better valve for letting off their exuberant activity. Let us have gymanasia, where married women who find a life of domestic repose rather slow may privately resort for the purpose of indulging in feats of agility. With a due supply of poles to climb, and circular swings to fly round upon, they would by nightfall have so far reduced their muscular force as to be able to adopt in the ball room a more quiet and matronly deportment. At all events, we should be spared the ludicrous exhibition of married women, nearing their grand climacteric, venturing to disport themselves on the anything but light fantastic toe.

It would be absurd to speak of self-respect to the woman who, being the mother of daughters “out,” can permit a foppish stripling, young enough to be her son, to whisk her off her legs in a fast and furious gallop. Such a spectacle produces on a bystander the impression that law of nature is being actually contravened before his very eyes. One would be glad to believe that her physician had prescribed rapid and exhilarating motion for the benefit of her health.

But alas, there is no such excuse. She is only an extreme instance of the license conceded by the fashion of the day to wives. She could not lay these antics if society frowned on them. It is because married women have been allowed to set up an impudent, but successful, claim to all the privileges of young ladies, in addition to those of wives, that matrons of middle age are to be seen waltzing with all the ardor of a débutante, and mothers are not ashamed to stand up in the same set of Lancers as their daughters with the younger and handsomer partner of the two.

The same sort of wife-errantry, which is at its height in town in the summer, has become a periodical feature of the English country house. In inviting an autumnal arty of friends, there was no point which the mistress of the hall or park used to revolve more anxiously than the ways and means for making their stay agreeable to her young lady visitors. To ask a young lady without providing a beau for her was considered very much like obtaining her company on false pretences. In short, to take care of the young ladies, and to let the married women take care of themselves, was the principle kept steadily in view in dispensing country house hospitalities. Now it is altogether discarded.

A hostess who wants her party to go off well thinks only of getting as many pretty, well-dressed, and fashionable young married women as she can master, not over-burdened with any exuberant fondness for their husbands, with whom they are on the footing so well described by Millamant in The Ways of the World – “as strange as if they had been married a great while, and as well-bred as if they had never been married at all.” They come down and settle like a blight on the budding hopes and nascent flirtations of spinsterhood. They have every advantage on their side – beauty, wealth, knowledge of the world; a semi-independent position. Against such a combination no young lady can stand. One by one her fickle admirers desert her standard, and pass over to the enemy. In vain does she display her many and varied accomplishments. No one cares to look at her sketch-book, and just as she is beginning to deliver herself of an impassioned bravuras from Didone Abbandonata, all the world slips away to play croquet with one or other of the piquant brides of last year. From first to last, the married women monopolize the attention of the male portion of the circle. The eye is ravished by the exquisite taste and variety of their dresses. What they wore yesterday, and what they will wear to-morrow, are topics of absorbing interest to the whole household. How their hair is done, is a problem which baffles the united ingenuity of both sexes.

As nothing else is talked about, so no one’s pleasure is consulted but the young matron’s. And her pleasure is to flirt. Flirting, in all its branches, is the only thing she understands or cares for. She must have an outer circle of handsome young men to dance attendance upon her. In the Park, or at a flower show, or a fancy fair for the irremediables, she would be content, upon an average, with fifteen. In her box at the opera, or at a private ball, five or six of her special favourites would suffice. Such are the modest requirements of the fashionable wives of the present day.

In the entertaining scene in the comedy from which we have already quoted, the heroine is represented as stating the conditions on which alone she will consent to marry. She is to wear what she pleases, to have her own friends, to “remain sole empress of her tea-table.” The Millamants of the present day would certainly go on to stipulate, like a dissipated housemaid, for an unlimited number of “followers.” So, much more strait-laced and decorous is the age in which we live than that in which the prudish Mr. Congreve wrote.

Is it too late to hope that the tendency to relax the safeguards with which in England married life has been hitherto environed may yet be arrested? If the mischievous example which a few empty-headed and frivolous leaders of fashion are setting is to be extensively followed, it would be better at once to adopt the French system outright. Let us have its good as well as its evil. Let our young ladies be kept in strict retirement, until marriage gives the signal for quitting it for ever. At all events, a long period would thus be secured for improving the mind and cultivating the habit of occupation. At present, we seem to be combining what is vicious in both the English and the French etiquette for women. With us, they emerge from the hands of the governess far too soon, and turn to the real duties and responsibilities of married life far too late.

References:

  • “Frisky Matrons,” in Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 10 July 1863, p. 3.

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