By Lindsay Clark (appearing in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice as Lydia Bennet)
For a girl to be allowed to go to a ball, her parents had to consider her old enough to “come out.” Her first steps in the world thus marked a stage in her life, the stage when she could hope to get engaged and be married.
The débutantes (French for ‘female beginner’) were young ladies who had reached an age of maturity, completed an education, and were ready to be introduced into society. This meant the girl was eligible to marry, and the purpose of “coming out into society” was to display her to bachelors and their families for suitability. The age of maturity was not based on years. Parents considered their daughter’s physical and emotional development individually; a girl might be ready at fifteen, her twin sister at sixteen, depending on when she outgrew the awkwardness of adolescence. A completed education, and the quality of it, was also extremely important if the girl hoped for a brilliant match. An accomplished lady spoke several languages, played piano and sang, painted in watercolors and oils, did needlepoint, memorized every member of the monarchy, peerage, and gentry, including family background, and learned classical history and geography. She also needed to be an elegant hostess, poised, and beautiful, while giving birth to as many children as possible. A single woman at thirty was a hopeless spinster.
For young ladies, as for young gentlemen, there was the additional problem of working out who was the appropriate family member to target in the courtship game. Doubtless, daughters who were being primed by parents for a very suitable marriage would be discouraged from smiling enticingly at the younger son of a family if the elder son was available and first in line for a generous inheritance. One wonders how on earth a young girl starting on her first round of balls could hope to work out who was eligible and who was not, especially since it would be very bad form to enquire about a young gentleman’s fortune to his face!
It was thus natural only to allow the younger sisters to come out once the elder were married. House parties and balls were a good opportunity for fathers and eager mothers to parade their young daughters around like horses up for sale at the stockyards. The young women (around seventeen years old) would be dressed in the latest fashion, jewelled in extravagant pieces and educated in the art of snagging a husband. The girls would be introduced to the men in attendance either by the host, their mother or a friend.
A lady could never appear eager or approach a man, especially if she had never been formally introduced to him before. There was a format that needed to be followed and strict unwritten rules that governed everyone, from the royalty to the laboring poor.
Her dancing needed to be precise and angelic, her manner needed to be demure and educated and her appearance needed to capture the man’s attention. Low necklines exposing the cleavage was not unheard of either. But snagging a young man was not always the easiest thing to manage.
Unmarried young ladies and gentlemen could walk outside or go for carriage rides together, particularly in neutral territory, without the inhibiting supervision of a chaperone. Taking the air together, positioned alongside one another and conversing in private, was not regarded as damaging to their reputation, provided their behavior was not openly “vulgar”. Similarly, public balls and assemblies meant that there was no host in charge who felt personally responsible for the welfare of his younger guests. The public right of entry into these entertainments might even provide opportunities for an unknown gentleman to ask a young lady to dance, supposing the master of ceremonies had made the required introductions.
One could socialize with members of the opposite sex at house parties where card games such as Casino (Sense and Sensibility) Quadrille (Emma) and Speculation (Mansfield Park) were among those which were popular in the 1800s. Other amusements included charades, musical performances and guided tours of the host’s public rooms and gardens. Nervous newcomers to this sort of party could look to an increasing number of books being published at that time about Conduct and Morality which offered all sorts of advice as to appropriate behaviour in social interaction. Not all young ladies appreciated such guidance. Dr Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women, first published in 1766, are received with little enthusiasm by the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice; nor do the girls appreciate Mr. Collins’ reading from the text or developing his own rules of conduct on their behalf!
There were an even larger number of prohibitive rules which governed the behavior of young ladies. It is evident that these too were focused on the preservation of the girl’s good name. A young lady was initially expected to leave a calling card, rather than to make an actual visit, when paying a visit to a higher-born acquaintance; she was never to wear
pearls or diamonds in the morning and she was never to call on a gentleman unless it was on a business matter. Breaking these three rules would run the risk of her seeming to be either a brash social climber (in the first case) or a lady of loose reputation (in the second and third examples).
Rules of appropriate dress were also very important to observe, since they provided coded information which could be very useful. In the early 1800s, the fashionable courtship dress for young ladies was a pale, high-waisted frock which fastened down the back, and was made of thin muslin. Ladies might wear a thinly boned corset and a long slip underneath the low-cut frock. A young lady might wear a sleeveless top or a waist-length jacket (spencer) as well, and would inevitably wear a bonnet if walking outside.
Only a handful of girls met all the criteria in any given season. The bachelors and their families understood the impossibly high standards that were set, and many noble gentlemen married common girls, who had not yet been presented at court but carried themselves better. These common girls would have “come out” at smaller balls, or country dances, and relied on their families and friends to make connections and move them up the social strata. A beautiful and talented girl might find a wealthy patroness, perhaps a dowager, to take her to London and show her off. Certainly the noble débutantes would have looked down their noses at these common girls, but also been jealous of them, especially when they landed a brilliant match.
When a young lady was “out” she immediately started receiving invitations to all the events. A popular girl would be highly sought after, and gentlemen would “call” on her. This could be as simple as leaving their card. The men would make themselves available at balls, requesting turns on the dance floor, or invite her father or guardian to visit (hoping she would come with him), a walk (chaperoned), or dinner with each other’s families. These men were known as prospective suitors, and a dating process known as courting would follow. Some girls went through the first season with a fiancé already lined up, often arranged by parents for dynastic or monetary reasons. Courting could go on for years, including many different suitors, or be quite short, followed in a couple months by engagement and then marriage.
There was much to gain and even more to lose when choosing a marriage partner. The stakes were very high, since any scandal attached to the business of courtship and marriage affected the good name of the innocent as well as those who broke the rules. As we learn, the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice are all tarnished by their sister Lydia’s reckless actions.