The Proper (and safe) Way to Terminate a Victorian American Courtship

The Proper (and safe) Way to Terminate a Victorian American Courtship

We’ve seen the financial, legal, and emotional costs of a courtship gone wrong and culminating in a suit for breach of promise. In Victorian America, where such a consequence was possible if not common enough (to scare a young swain or two), advice of how to break up an unhealthy courtship–or cancel a planned wedding–must have been given by mothers, fathers, society matrons, and “Dear Abby’s” of the day.

How did the trusted recommend a would-be bride (or groom) go about breaking off a courtship or engagement? What methods were considered safest as well as most decent?

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Breaking Up Is Never Easy. image

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PROPER DECORUM DURING COURTSHIP

TRIFLING WITH A MAN’S FEELINGS

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Some young ladies pride themselves upon the conquests which they make, and would not scruple to sacrifice the happiness of an estimable person to their reprehensible vanity. let this be far from you. If you see clearly that you have become an object of especial regard to a gentleman, and do not wish to encourage his addresses, treat him honorably and humanely, as you hope to be used with generosity by the person who may engage your own heart. Do not let him linger in suspense; but take the earliest opportunity of carefully making known your feelings on the subject. (1881)

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~ Manners and Morals of Victorian America by Wayne Erbsen, p 30

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TERMINATING COURTSHIP

_The leisure for repentance is far more wisely chosen before, than after marriage._

It has been well said, that the young man who is a good son and brother will be a good husband; therefore it would be wise to accept an invitation to visit in the home of the one who seeks you as his mate. Mark well the consideration with which he treats his mother and sisters, his father and brothers, and judge whether it is assumed or natural. If he is one who demands much waiting upon at home, be sure he will expect the same service of you; and if you are not prepared to give it, or are not perfectly sure you can reform him in this respect, call a halt, and give frankly your reasons for saying no to his proposal. The leisure for repentance is far more wisely chosen before, than after marriage.

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~ What a Young Wife Ought to Know by Mrs. Emma F. Angell Drake, M.D., published in London, and Preface signed by the author in Denver, Colorado, United States, on February 1st, 1901, pp 63-64.

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Reverend George W. Hudson, a Methodist minister, self-published in 1883 a book titled The Marriage Guide for Young Men: A Manual of  Courtship and Marriage. This book with an original 338 pages has survived the ensuing years and is available in its entirety as a free eBook here and here (I recommend this 2nd one as it has page #219 in a readable form where the first does not; it’s possible the eBook reader will require both for a complete documentation) and in paperback here.

Not credited - From People's Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) Transferred from en.wikipedia Original uploader was Whbonney at en.wikipedia. Public Domain.

Phrenology Chart from 1883. Not credited – From People’s Cyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883) Transferred from en.wikipedia Original uploader was Whbonney at en.wikipedia. Public Domain.

While much of Rev. Hudson’s work is antiquated (phrenology, dated societal expectations, and much more), it’s a valuable resource and a peek into the era. It shows what influential people taught (at least this one Reverend) as the right way to court, the best way to search for a wife, how to choose a spouse wisely. [Note: parts of Hudson’s book will no doubt offend some. He was a man of strong opinion; forceful, adamant, intolerant. His view of Christianity was most restrictive.]–but much of his ranting (he would likely state it is a sermon) is at the end of the book.

Mid-book, he wrote (p.134):

If after a calm survey, you feel that you have made a mistake, or that she has deceived you, would bring disaster upon you both, then stop where you are; and tell her frankly, give her your reasons, as well as you can; do not marry her though she threaten all sorts of things; better that you become involved in a breach of promise suit.

Seems like sound advice. He also cautions a man cannot make a clean break with a woman he continues to court. Once the decision has been made and voiced, make it permanent. Cease courting. Don’t drag it out into misery.

He does caution (p. 135):

do not break with her in a fit of anger, and take up with another hastily, for revenge; you will, very likely, ruin yourself and her too, if you do. Heal the breach; apologize, if you have offended; overlook her fault, if she be the offender; do not ask her to humble herself too low; be content if she promise to give offence no more. Let no slight difficulty separate you and the one whom you have deliberately chosen to become your wife. [sic]

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PROPOSALS OF MARRIAGE

I see where allowing a courtship to go on for too long could bring a couple to this point with “expectations”… only to find the young lady reticent. No wonder etiquette books of the day cautioned young ladies to treat a man’s feelings with care.

THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT

The offer of a man’s heart and hand, is the greatest compliment he can pay you, however undesirable to you these gifts may be. (1838)

~ Manners and Morals of Victorian America by Wayne Erbsen, p 110

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Courtship =

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Remember that courtship in the American Victorian era had one purpose and one purpose only–marriage.

Courtship, properly, has but one object, viz., marriage; for it is nothing more nor less than love-making, and, no young man has a right to proffer his love to a young lady, nor ask hers in return, except with the intention of making her his wife.

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[Note: it’s important to reference that in Victorian America, “love-making”, with or without the dash did not refer to sexual intimacies as it does today. Love-making simply meant what the rest of Reverend Hudson’s statement means–courtship, allowing the other person’s (as well as one’s own) tender feelings to become involved, spending time together, giving gifts, love letters, building expectation that the relationship is going well, etc.] This is the subject of my next post!

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~ Reverend George W. Hudson, The Marriage Guide for Young Men: A Manual of  Courtship and Marriage, 1883, p. 57

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Advice was distributed in the form of lessons in etiquette to prepare young ladies to refuse an offer of marriage. But it also seems young men were cautioned that the first time a lady says no she might not actually mean no, “…diffidence or uncertainty as to her own feelings may sometimes influence a lady to reply in the negative, and after consideration cause her to regret that reply. (1882)” [Source]

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_I am most honored by your offer, yet I must decline..._

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Young ladies were taught to be prepared to say no, and do so in a gracious manner. But sometimes proposals came too soon when she hadn’t anticipated it and hadn’t yet made up her mind that the young man in question wasn’t a good choice for her.

JUST SAY “NO”

No lady worth any gentleman’s regard will say “no” twice to a suit which she intends ultimately to receive with favor. (1882)

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REFUSING AN OFFER OF MARRIAGE

In refusing, the lady ought to convey her full sense of the high honor intended her by the gentleman, and to add, seriously but not offensively, that it is not in accordance with her inclination, or that circumstances compel her to give an unfavorable answer. (1882)

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~ Manners and Morals of Victorian America by Wayne Erbsen, p 111

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BREAKING AN ENGAGEMENT

BREAKING AN ENGAGEMENT

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Sometimes it is necessary to break off an engagement. Many circumstances will justify this. Indeed, anything which may occur or be discovered which shall promise to render the marriage an unsuitable or unhappy one is and should be accepted as justification for such a rupture. Still breaking an engagement is always a serious and distressing thing, and ought not to be contemplated without absolute and just reasons.

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Whichever is the acting party in the matter must necessarily feel his or her position one of great delicacy and embarrassment. The step must be taken firmly yet gently, and everything done to soften the blow to the other party. It is generally best to break an engagement by letter. By this means one can express  himself or herself more clearly, and give the true reasons for his or her course much better than in a personal interview. The letter breaking the engagement should be accompanied by everything in the way of portraits, letters or gifts which have been received during the engagement.

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Dear John,

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ACKNOWLEDGING SUCH LETTER

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Such a letter should be acknowledged in a dignified manner, and no efforts should be made or measures be taken to change the decision of the writer unless it is manifest that the or she is greatly  mistaken in his or her premises. A similar return of letters, portraits and gifts should be made. (bold face and italics added)

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Source: DECORUM: A practical treatise on Etiquette & Dress of the Best American Society 1879, published by Westvaco [1979]. pp 203-204

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Obviously, not all break-ups resulted in a suit for breach of promise. Some probably needed to, when the actions of one party or the other were heinous, deceitful, or purposefully destructive. But as the Reverend and doctor and culled sources (above) suggest, breaking up might not be the easiest thing to do, but if marriage would be the greater damage to the other, it’s only wise to make a stand. Whether issued in person or in writing, a private communication that the courtship (or engagement) is over seems to be the common consensus.

What are your thoughts on the advice given historically to young people during the Victorian American period? Do you know of sources that recommend additional methods or necessities?

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Up next! Definition of Love Making was Rated G in 19th Century

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Courting in Public Parks: NY, NY, May 1893 Victorian Mourning Etiquette–on Sweet Americana Sweethearts Masks and Victorian Attitudes (about courtship)–on Romancing The Genres A Proper Victorian Courtship Victorian American Romance and Breach of Promise Brown’s Matrimonial Method (on Romancing The Genres) Victorian Era Valentine’s Day (courtship etiquette) First Historical Use of term “Correspondence Courtship” Old Fashioned Notions about Marriageable Women  Victorian Leap Year Traditions, Part 1 (etiquette for proposals and refusals and acceptances)  Etiquette of Conversation (19th Century U.S.A.) America’s Victorian Era Love Letters  Courtship, Old West Style The Spinster Book: 1901 (And Men Are Like Cats…) Street Car Etiquette (1889)–on Sweet Americana Sweethearts Victorian Dancing Etiquette

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Used paperback copies of Manners and Morals of Victorian America

Copyright © 2016 Kristin Holt, LC

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