Etiquette of Courtship

[This is taken from George Routledge's Courtship and Matrimony.  Mr. Routledge lived between 1812 and 1888, but we trust his advice has a certain timelessness attached to it.  - Ed.]

In whatever way the attachment may have originated, whether resulting from old association or from a recent acquaintanceship between the lovers, we will assume that the courtship is so far in a favorable train that the lady’s admirer has succeeded in obtaining an introduction to her family, and that he is about to be received in their domestic circle on the footing of a welcome visitor, if not yet in the light of a probationary suitor.

In the first case, matters will in all probability be found to amble on so calmly, that the enamored pair may seldom find it needful to consult the rules of etiquette; but in the latter, its rules must be attentively observed, or “the course of true love” will assuredly not run smooth.

If the gentleman be a person of good breeding and right feeling, he will need no caution from us to remember that, when he is admitted into the heart of a family as the suitor of a daughter, he is receiving one of the greatest possible favors that can be conferred on him, whatever may be his own superiority of social rank or worldly circumstances; and that, therefore, his conduct should be marked by a delicate respect towards the parents of his lady-love. By this means he will propitiate them in his favor, and induce them to regard him as worthy of the trust they have placed in him.

Young people are naturally prone to seek the company of those they love; and as their impulses are often at such times impatient of control, etiquette prescribes cautionary rules for the purpose of averting the mischief that unchecked intercourse and incautious familiarity might give rise to. For instance, a couple known to be attached to each other should never, unless when old acquaintances, be left alone for any length of time, nor be allowed to meet in any other place than the lady’s home—particularly at balls, concerts, and other public places—except in the presence of a third party. This, as a general rule, should be carefully observed, although exceptions may occasionally occur under special circumstances; but even then the full consent of the lady’s nearest relatives or guardians should be previously obtained.

What the Lady should observe during Courtship.

A lady should be particular during the early days of courtship—while still retaining some clearness of mental vision—to observe the manner in which her suitor comports himself to other ladies. If he behave with ease and courtesy, without freedom or the slightest approach to license in manner or conversation; if he never speak slightingly of the sex, and be ever ready to honor its virtues and defend its weakness; she may continue to incline towards him a willing ear. His habits and his conduct must awaken her vigilant attention before it be too late. Should he come to visit her at irregular hours; should he exhibit a vague or wandering attention—give proofs of a want of punctuality—show disrespect for age—sneer at things sacred, or absent himself from regular attendance at divine service—or evince an inclination to expensive pleasures beyond his means, or to low and vulgar amusements; should he be foppish, eccentric, or very slovenly in his dress; or display a frivolity of mind, and an absence of well-directed energy in his worldly pursuits; let the young lady, we say, while there is yet time, eschew that gentleman’s acquaintance, and allow it gently to drop. The effort, at whatever cost to her feelings, must be made, if she have any regard for her future happiness and self-respect. The proper course then to take is to intimate her distaste, and the causes that have given rise to it, to her parents or guardian, who will be pretty sure to sympathize with her, and to take measures for facilitating the retirement of the gentleman from his pretensions.

What the Gentleman should observe during Courtship.

It would be well also for the suitor, on his part, during the first few weeks of courtship, carefully to observe the conduct of the young lady in her own family, and the degree of estimation in which she is held by them, as well as amongst her intimate friends. If she be attentive to her duties; respectful and affectionate to her parents; kind and forbearing to her brothers and sisters; not easily ruffled in temper; if her mind be prone to cheerfulness and to hopeful aspiration, instead of to the display of a morbid anxiety and dread of coming evil; if her pleasures and enjoyments be those which chiefly centre in home; if her words be characterized by benevolence, goodwill, and charity: then we say, let him not hesitate, but hasten to enshrine so precious a gem in the casket of his affections. But if, on the other hand, he should find that he has been attracted by the tricksome affectation and heartless allurements of a flirt, ready to bestow smiles on all, but with a heart for none; if she who has succeeded for a time in fascinating him be of uneven temper, easily provoked, and slow to be appeased; fond of showy dress, and eager for admiration; ecstatic about trifles, frivolous in her tastes, and weak and wavering in performing her duties; if her religious observances are merely the formality of lip service; if she be petulant to her friends, pert and disrespectful to her parents, overbearing to her inferiors; if pride, vanity, and affectation be her characteristics; if she be inconstant in her friendships; gaudy and slovenly, rather than neat and scrupulously clean, in attire and personal habits: then we counsel the gentleman to retire as speedily but as politely as possible from the pursuit of an object quite unworthy of his admiration and love; nor dread that the lady’s friends—who must know her better than he can do—will call him to account for withdrawing from the field.

But we will take it for granted that all goes on well; that the parties are, on sufficient acquaintance, pleased with each other, and that the gentleman is eager to prove the sincerity of his affectionate regard by giving some substantial token of his love and homage to the fair one. This brings us to the question of  


a point on which certain observances of etiquette must not be disregarded. A lady, for instance, cannot with propriety accept presents from a gentleman previously to his having made proposals of marriage. She would by so doing incur an obligation at once embarrassing and unbecoming. Should, however, the gentleman insist on making her a present—as of some trifling article of jewelry, &c.,--there must be no secret about it. Let the young lady take an early opportunity of saying to her admirer, in the presence of her father or mother, “I am much obliged to you for that ring (or other trinket, as the case may be) which you kindly offered me the other day, and which I shall be most happy to accept, if my parents do not object;” and let her say this in a manner which, while it increases the obligation, will divest it altogether of impropriety, from having been conferred under the sanction of her parents.

We have now reached that stage, in the progress of the courtship where budding affection, having developed into mature growth, encourages the lover to make

The Proposal.

When about to take this step, the suitor’s first difficulty is how to get a favorable opportunity; and next, having got the chance, how to screw his courage up to give utterance to the “declaration.” We have heard of a young lover who carried on a courtship for four months ere he could obtain a private interview with his lady-love. In the house, as might be expected, they were never left alone; and in a walk a third party always accompanied them. In such a dilemma, ought he to have unburdened his heart of its secret through the medium of a letter? We say not. A declaration in writing should certainly be avoided where the lover can by any possibility get at the lady’s ear.  But there are cases where this is so difficult that an impatient lover cannot be restrained from adopting the agency of a billet-doux in declaring his passion.

The lady, before proposal, is generally prepared for it. It is seldom that such an avowal comes without some previous indications of look and manner on the part of the admirer, which can hardly fail of being understood. She may not, indeed, consider herself engaged; and, although nearly certain of the conquest she has made, may yet have her misgivings. Some gentlemen dread to ask, lest they should be refused.  Many pause just at the point, and refrain from anything like ardor in their professions of attachment until they feel confident that they may be spared the mortification and ridicule that is supposed to attach to being rejected, in addition to the pain of disappointed hope. This hesitation when the mind is made up is wrong; but it does often occur, and we suppose ever will do so, with persons of great timidity of character. By it both parties are kept needlessly on the fret, until the long-looked-for opportunity unexpectedly arrives, when the flood-gates of feeling are loosened, and the full tide of mutual affection gushes forth uncontrolled. It is, however, at this moment—the agony-point to the embarrassed lover, who “doats yet doubts”—whose suppressed feelings render him morbidly sensitive—that a lady should be especially careful lest any show of either prudery or coquetry on her part should lose to her for ever the object of her choice. True love is generally delicate and timid, and may easily be scared by affected indifference, through feelings of wounded pride.  A lover needs very little to assure him of the reciprocation of his attachment: a glance, a single pressure of hand, a whispered syllable on the part of the loved one, will suffice to confirm his hopes.

Refusal by the Young Lady.

When a lady rejects the proposal of a gentleman, her behavior should be characterized by the most delicate feeling towards one who, in offering her his hand, has proved his desire to confer upon her, by this implied preference for her above all other women, the greatest honor it is in his power to offer. Therefore, if she have no love for him, she ought at least to evince a tender regard for his feelings; and, in the event of her being previously engaged, should at once acquaint him with the fact. No right-minded man would desire to persist in a suit when he well knew that the object of his admiration has already disposed of her heart.

When a gentleman makes an offer of his hand by letter, the letter must be answered, and certainly not returned, should the answer be a refusal; unless, indeed, when, from a previous repulse, or some other particular and special circumstances, such an offer may be regarded by the lady or her relatives as presumptuous and intrusive. Under such circumstances, the letter may be placed by the lady in the hands of her parents or guardian, to be dealt with by them as they may deem most advisable.

No woman of proper feeling would regard her rejection of an offer of marriage from a worthy man as a matter of triumph: her feeling on such an occasion should be one of regretful sympathy with him for the pain she is unavoidably compelled to inflict. Nor should such, a rejection be unaccompanied with some degree of self examination on her part, to discern whether any lightness of demeanor or tendency to flirtation may have given rise to a false hope of her favoring his suit. At all events, no lady should ever treat the man who has so honored her with the slightest disrespect or frivolous disregard, nor ever unfeelingly parade a more favored suitor before one whom she has refused.


Conduct of the Gentleman when his Addresses are rejected.

The conduct of the gentleman under such distressing circumstances should be characterized by extreme delicacy and a chivalrous resolve to avoid occasioning any possible annoyance or uneasiness to the fair author of his pain. If, however, he should have reason to suppose that his rejection has resulted from mere indifference to his suit, he need not altogether retire from the field, but may endeavor to kindle a feeling of regard and sympathy for the patient endurance of his disappointment, and for his continued but respectful endeavors to please the lukewarm fair one. But in the case of avowed or evident preference for another, it becomes imperative upon him, as a gentleman, to withdraw at once, and so relieve the lady of any obstacle that his presence or pretensions may occasion to the furtherance of her obvious wishes. A pertinacious continuance of his attentions, on the part of one who has been distinctly rejected, is an insult deserving of the severest reprobation. Although the weakness of her sex, which ought to be her protection, frequently prevents a woman from forcibly breaking off an acquaintance thus annoyingly forced upon her, she rarely fails to resent such impertinence by that sharpest of woman’s weapons, a keen-edged but courteous ridicule, which few men can bear up against.


Refusal by the Lady’s Parents or Guardians.

It may happen that both the lady and her suitor are willing; but that the parents or guardians of the former, on being referred to, deem the connection unfitting, and refuse their consent. In this state of matters, the first thing a man of sense, proper feeling, and candor should do, is to endeavor to learn the objections of the parents, to see whether they cannot be removed. If they are based on his present insufficiency of means, a lover of a persevering spirit may effect much in removing apprehension on that score, by cheerfully submitting to a reasonable time of probation, in the hope of amelioration in his worldly circumstances. Happiness delayed will be none the less precious when love has stood the test of constancy and the trial of time. Should the objection be founded on inequality of social position, the parties, if young, may wait until matured age shall ripen their judgment and place the future more at their own disposal.  A clandestine marriage should be peremptorily declined. In too many cases it is a fraud committed by an elder and more experienced party upon one whose ignorance of the world’s ways and whose confiding tenderness appeal to him for protection even against himself. In nearly all the instances we have known of such marriages, the results proved the step to have been ill-judged, imprudent, and highly injurious to the reputation of one party, and in the long run detrimental to the happiness of both.


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