Etiquette of an Engagement

[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.]

We will now regard the pair of lovers as formally engaged, and bound together in that state of approximation to marriage which was in the ancient Christian Church, and indeed is still in many countries of Europe, considered in a very sacred light, little inferior to, and, in fact, regarded as a part of, marriage itself—the Betrothment.


Conduct of the Engaged Couple.

The conduct of the bridegroom-elect should be marked by a gallant and affectionate assiduity towards his lady-love—a devouement easily felt and understood, but not so easy to define. That of the lady towards him should manifest delicacy, tenderness, and confidence; while looking for his thorough devotion to herself, she should not captiously take offence and show airs at his showing the same kind of attention to other ladies as she, in her turn, would not hesitate to receive from the other sex.

In the behavior of a gentleman towards his betrothed in public, little difference should be perceptible from his demeanor to other ladies, except in those minute attentions which none but those who love can properly understand or appreciate.

In private, the slightest approach to indecorous familiarity must be avoided; indeed, it is pretty certain to be resented by every woman who deserves to be a bride. The lady’s honor is now in her lover’s hands, and he should never forget in his demeanor to and before her that that lady is to be his future wife.

It is the privilege of the betrothed lover, as it is also his duty, to give advice to the fair one who now implicitly confides in him. Should he detect a fault, should he observe failings which he would wish removed or amended, let him avail himself of this season, so favorable for the frank interchange of thought between the betrothed pair, to urge their correction. He will find a ready listener; and any judicious counsel offered to her by him will now be gratefully received and remembered in after life. After marriage it may be too late; for advice on trivial points of conduct may then not improbably be resented by the wife as an unnecessary interference: now, the fair and loving creature is disposed like pliant wax in his hands to mould herself to his reasonable wishes in all things.


Conduct of the Lady during her Betrothal.

A lady is not expected to keep aloof from society on her engagement, nor to debar herself from the customary attentions and courtesies of her male acquaintances generally; but she should, while accepting them cheerfully, maintain such a prudent reserve, as to intimate that they are viewed by her as mere acts of ordinary courtesy and friendship. In all places of public amusement—at balls, the opera, &c.—for a lady to be seen with any other cavalier than her avowed lover in close attendance upon her would expose her to the imputation of flirtation.  She will naturally take pains at such a period to observe the taste of her lover in regard to her costume, and strive carefully to follow it, for all men desire to have their taste and wishes on such apparent trifles gratified. She should at the same time observe much delicacy in regard to dress, and be careful to avoid any unseemly display of her charms: lovers are naturally jealous of observation under such circumstances. It is a mistake not seldom made by women, to suppose their suitors will be pleased by the glowing admiration expressed by other men for the object of their passion. Most lovers, on the contrary, we believe, would prefer to withdraw their prize from general observation until the happy moment for their union has arrived.


Conduct of the Gentleman towards the Family of his Betrothed.

The lover, having now secured his position, should use discretion and tact in his intercourse with the lady’s family, and take care that his visits be not deemed too frequent—so as to be really inconvenient to them. He should accommodate himself as much as possible to their habits and ways, and be ever ready and attentive to consult their wishes. Marked attention, and in most cases affectionate kindness, to the lady’s mother ought to be shown: such respectful homage will secure for him many advantages in his present position. He must not, however, presume to take his stand yet as a member of the family, nor exhibit an obtrusive familiarity in manner and conversation. Should a disruption of the engagement from some unexpected cause ensue, it is obvious that any such premature assumption would lead to very embarrassing results. In short, his conduct should be such as to win for himself the esteem and affection of all the family, and dispose them ever to welcome and desire his presence, rather than regard him as an intruder.


Conduct of the Lady on Retiring from her Engagement.

Should this step unhappily be found necessary on the lady’s part, the truth should be spoken, and the reasons frankly given: there must be no room left for the suspicion of its having originated in caprice or injustice. The case should be so put that the gentleman himself must see and acknowledge the justice of the painful decision arrived at. Incompatible habits, ungentlemanly actions, anything tending to diminish that respect for the lover which should be felt for the husband; inconstancy, ill-governed temper—all which, not to mention other obvious objections—are to be considered as sufficient reasons for terminating an engagement. The communication should be made as tenderly as possible: room may be left in mere venial cases for reformation; but all that is done must be so managed that not the slightest shadow of fickleness or want of faith may rest upon the character of the lady. It must be remembered, however, that the termination of an engagement by a lady has the privilege of passing unchallenged,--a lady not being bound to declare any other reason than her will. Nevertheless she owes it to her own reputation that her decision should rest on a sufficient foundation, and be unmistakably pronounced.


Conduct of the Gentleman on Retiring from his Engagement.

We hardly know how to approach this portion of our subject. The reasons must be strong indeed that can sufficiently justify a man, placed in the position of an accepted suitor, in severing the ties by which he has bound himself to a lady with the avowed intention of making her his wife. His reasons for breaking off his engagement must be such as will not merely satisfy his own conscience, but will justify him in the eyes of the world. If the fault be on the lady’s side, great reserve and delicacy will be observed by any man of honor. If, on the other hand, the imperative force of circumstances, such as loss of fortune, or some other unexpected calamity to himself, may be the cause, then must the reason be clearly and fully explained, in such a manner as to soothe the painful feelings which such a result must necessarily occasion to the lady and her friends. It is scarcely necessary to point out the necessity for observing great caution in all that relates to the antecedents of an engagement that has been broken off; especially the return on either side of presents and of all letters that have passed.

This last allusion brings us to the consideration of



Letter-writing is one great test of ability and cultivation, as respects both sexes. The imperfections of education may be to some extent concealed or glossed over in conversation, but cannot fail to stand out conspicuously in a letter. An ill-written letter infallibly betrays the vulgarity and ignorance indicative of a mean social position.

But there is something more to be guarded against than even bad writing and worse spelling in a correspondence: _saying too much_--writing that kind of matter which will not bear to be read by other eyes than those for which it was originally intended. That this is too frequently done is amply proved by the love letters often read in a court of law, the most affecting passages from which occasion “roars of laughter” and the derisive comments of merry-making counsel.  Occurrences of this kind prove how frequently letters are not returned or burnt when an affair of the heart is broken off. Correspondence between lovers should at all events be tempered with discretion; and, on the lady’s part particularly, her affectionate expressions should not degenerate into a silly style of fondness.

It is as well to remark here, that in correspondence between a couple not actually engaged, the use of Christian names in addressing each other should be avoided.


Demeanor of the Suitor during Courtship.

The manners of a gentleman are ever characterized by urbanity and a becoming consideration for the feelings and wishes of others, and by a readiness to practice self-denial. But the very nature of courtship requires the fullest exercise of these excellent qualities on his part. The lover should carefully accommodate his tone and bearing, whether cheerful or serious, to the mood for the time of his lady-love, whose slightest wish must be his law. In his assiduities to her he must allow of no stint; though hindered by time, distance, or fatigue, he must strive to make his professional and social duties bend to his homage at the shrine of love. All this can be done, moreover, by a man of excellent sense with perfect propriety. Indeed, the world will not only commend him for such devoted gallantry, but will be pretty sure to censure him for any short-coming in his performance of such devoirs.

It is, perhaps, needless to observe that at such a period a gentleman should be scrupulously neat, without appearing particular, in his attire. We shall not attempt to prescribe what he should wear, as that must, of course, depend on the times of the day when his visits are paid, and other circumstances, such as meeting a party of friends, going to the theatre, &c., with the lady.


Should a Courtship be Short or Long?

The answer to this question must depend on the previous acquaintanceship, connection, or relationship of the parties, as well as on their present circumstances, and the position of their parents.  In case of relationship or old acquaintanceship subsisting between the families, when the courtship, declaration, and engagement have followed each other rapidly, a short wooing is preferable to a long one, should other circumstances not create an obstacle. Indeed, as a general rule, we are disposed strongly to recommend a short courtship.  A man is never well settled in the saddle of his fortunes until he be married. He wants spring, purpose, and aim; and, above all, he wants a home as the centre of his efforts. Some portion of inconvenience, therefore, may be risked to obtain this; in fact, it often occurs that by waiting too long the freshness of life is worn off, and that the generous glow of early feelings becomes tamed down to lukewarmness by a too prudent delaying; while a slight sacrifice of ambition or self-indulgence on the part of the gentleman, and a little descent from pride of station on the lady’s side, might have ensured years of satisfied love and happy wedded life.

On the other hand, we would recommend a long courtship as advisable when—the friends on both sides favoring the match—it happens that the fortune of neither party will prudently allow an immediate marriage. The gentleman, we will suppose, has his way to make in his profession or business, and is desirous not to involve the object of his affection in the distressing inconvenience, if not the misery, of straitened means. He reflects that for a lady it is an actual degradation, however love may ennoble the motive of her submission, to descend from her former footing in society. He feels, therefore, that this risk ought not to be incurred. For, although the noble and loving spirit of a wife might enable her to bear up cheerfully against misfortune, and by her endearments soothe the broken spirit of her husband; yet the lover who would willfully, at the outset of wedded life, expose his devoted helpmate to the ordeal of poverty, would be deservedly scouted as selfish and unworthy. These, then, are among the circumstances which warrant a lengthened engagement, and it should be the endeavor of the lady’s friends to approve such cautious delay, and do all they can to assist the lover in his efforts to abridge it.  The lady’s father should regard the lover in the light of another son added to his family, and spare no pains to promote his interests in life, while the lady’s mother should do everything in her power, by those small attentions which a mother understands so well, to make the protracted engagement agreeable to him, and as endurable as possible to her daughter.





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