The Ins And Outs Of Victorian Dating

Published February 22, 2017
Updated December 15, 2017
Published February 22, 2017
Updated December 15, 2017

Engagement & Marriage In The Victorian Era

Engagement And Marriage During The Victorian Era

Even if the flirtations — covert or overt — yielded a match, more work lay ahead. Indeed, the path to the marriage bed had as many rules and conventions as courting did.

First and foremost, women were expected to be virgins on their wedding night, and sex before marriage was forbidden. Second, a woman did not have to accept the first proposal offered to her. In fact, even if she wanted to marry the man who had proposed, she was allowed and maybe even encouraged to make it a little harder for him — especially if her family had wealth that he wanted.

Upon the formalization of an engagement — which often went unannounced for a time, lest someone call it off and humiliate the family — the betrothed had more freedom to spend time together.

For six months to two years, the couple would prepare for the wedding and perhaps get to know one another a little better. They could take walks alone, hold hands, and indulge in the occasional — very chaste — kiss. They could likewise be alone together when visiting each other’s estates, but they had to separate by bedtime.

Of course, if Victorian dramas are any indication, how often that worked out was perhaps only known by the domestic staff who would rise early in the morning to light the fires, only to discover the lovers entangled — having not had the chance to return to their respective rooms before sunrise.

Once the pair married, they had completed the full circle of the dating ritual and thus had permission to spend time alone, talk to one another, and fornicate freely.

Of course, given that the upperclass also tended to live in grand houses with the aforementioned domestic staff and frequently hosted parties or other social gatherings, just how much they were ever truly alone with one another is debatable.

Perhaps those fan-signals remained relevant well into a marriage — half a wave of a fan accompanied by an eye roll probably meant, “Let’s take this party to the bedchamber.”


Want to learn more about the Victorian obsession with purity? Learn about the bathing machines that they invented to carry women to and from the beach. Then, check out this archaic 1930s collection of dating tips for single females.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.