Sally Holloway, Oxford Brookes University
If there was one thing Georgians loved, it was the very idea of love. The Georgian era, from the coronation of George I in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830, saw a celebration of love and marriage in popular culture, including in bestselling novels such as Pamela by Samuel Richardson or Virtue Rewarded (1740), which reaches its peak with the heroine’s marriage to her master, Mr B.
Making a socially beneficial match that was also based on love and affection was the most important game men and women would ever play. How they experienced this emotionally charged process is the subject of my book: The Game of Love in Georgian England.
In a time of rapid changes in the way we form our own attachments, it might be good to shake things up and look to the past for some guidance. Here are five dating trends of Georgians that could shape the process of finding love.
1. Go analog
The Georgian era was the great era of epistolary writing, couples courting each other exchanging a veritable torrent of romantic missives. Some have found that practicing writing helps them express feelings that they would not dare to verbalize in person. As valuable sources of intimacy, introspection, and self-disclosure, a flurry of love letters might even outweigh face-to-face encounters.
Letters were treated as precious vessels for love to be touched, kissed, sprayed with perfume, and used to inspire romantic verses. They were often carried in a person’s pockets and hidden under their pillow to inspire dreams while they slept at night.
Many have saved their love letters to read over and over again, cherishing them as treasured evidence of a relationship and a significant moment in their lives. (And, if applicable, significant physical evidence of the engagement in court.)
2. Share a good book
The period saw a boom in the number of titles in print, the novel emerging as a new genre, and an ever-increasing number of men and women who could read and write. As a result, books have become popular romantic gifts.
Some women used books to try to get a man to express his feelings more easily. Feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft sent a volume of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s best-selling novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) to her lover William Godwin in 1796, with the request that he “dwell upon your own feelings – that is, give me an overview of your heart”.
The savviest lovers would annotate their books, highlighting the passages with which they agreed the most, thus ensuring that they found a spouse with similar intellect, interests and outlook on life.
3. Make crafts
Georgian women have spent hours crafting delicately designed gifts for their suitors. A woman might make her lover a handkerchief, waistcoat, watch chain, watch paper, and ruffles as a token of her affection. The act demonstrated both her virtue and her accomplishments as a seamstress, while showing her investment in a relationship through the time and work she put into it. It also allowed him to claim a man when he wore his designs in public.
4. Say it with hair
What’s so personal about literally giving someone part of their body as a gift?
Hair held special significance as a token because – like eternal love – it did not fade or decay over time. Giving a man a lock of hair was a sure sign that you were getting married soon. As Margaret Dashwood surmised in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), Willoughby and Marianne were certain to “marry very soon, for he has a lock of her hair”. Georgians put strands of hair into an assortment of jewelry including buttons, brooches, lockets, bracelets and rings, which were braided, sprinkled with tiny seed beads and even chopped up to make delicate hair paintings .
It wasn’t always hair off your head either. Aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb sent an envelope of pubic hair to her lover Lord Byron during their torrid affair in 1812, and Yorkshire heiress Anne Lister stored pubic hair collected from her lovers in a cabinet, which she kept as “curiosities”.
Poorer rural couples engaged in a tradition known as ‘bundling’ which was practiced throughout the British Isles. It was a couple lying together in the wife’s family home – fully clothed – sometimes separated by a wooden board, or with the wife’s petticoat tied at the bottom with a knot. The ritual helped couples bond by spending time alone and staying up late to talk, without necessarily engaging in sex.
And yet so did many young couples – illegitimacy rates rose sharply over the century and up to a third of brides were already pregnant on their wedding day in England.
These various words, tokens, and acts of love provided men and women with a vital way to get to know each other, test their compatibility, and build greater intimacy before marriage. The ultimate goal was a happy and contented union with a partner of similar rank and fortune. He provided a crucial pathway to that other key goal then — and indeed for many relationships today — lasting happiness.
Sally Holloway, Vice-Chancellor’s Scholar in History and Art History, Oxford Brookes University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Stay up to date with all the information.
Browse the news, 1 email per day.
Subscribe to Qrius