Courtship and Marriage in the Regency Period

By Laura Wardle (appearing as Mrs. Bennet in BYU’s Pride and Prejudice)

“Sir James Martin had been drawn in by that young lady to pay her some attention; and as he is a man of fortune, it was easy to see HER views extended to marriage. It is well know that Miss M. is absolutely on the catch for a husband…”  ~ Jane Austen, from her novel Lady Susan

"Courtship" by Felix Friedrich Von Ende, 1856

“Courtship” by Felix Friedrich Von Ende, 1856

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the idea of marrying for love was gaining ground, although it was considered déclassé to demonstrate too much passion for one’s spouse. A man proposed to the woman of his choice, but parental approval of the engagement, especially for the woman, still needed to be obtained; for a father could withhold a fortune from a daughter, whereas it was out of his power to prevent a son from inheriting his estate.

Courtship was a complicated business for the more privileged members of society in England during Jane Austen’s time. A son of a noble family—even one with a “womanizer” name for himself—might successfully court a merchant’s daughter, if her fortune was great enough, and her reputation beyond question. He might indeed, be put under pressure by his parents to do so, in order to bring in a huge boost to the family’s wealth.

However, a nobleman’s daughter must remember that she would not be allowed to marry a merchant, because the family’s great estates might then fall under the control of a dealer in trade, and the family name and continuity might be lost. In those days, people who were born into the higher classes regarded themselves as more established and important than people who had only recently become wealthy. Running a business and being “in trade” was thought of as earning “new money” in contrast to being rich with “old money” from property, which had been held within the family for a long time. In Pride and Prejudice, The Bingleys are an example of the nouveau riche family; they are wealthy and respectable but not of the same status as Mr. Darcy.

Jane Austen herself, as a clergyman’s daughter, did not hold sufficient promise of land or dowry to attract a noble suitor. However, it would have been important for her to make a match worthy of her mother’s distinguished relations and her father’s scholarly and religious status in their community. Her attractive vitality did win her the interest of more than one suitable young man during her courtship days, but despite the temptation of a proposal from a well-born, if awkward, young man of property, she was not prepared to endure “the misery of being bound without love,” and therefore chose to reject the offer.

In the early 1800s, there were certain manners and customs in courtship, which were vital for young ladies and gentlemen to obey if they were to be accepted as potential participants within high society’s marriage market. The underlying principle, which informed these codes, was that a young person displayed her or his availability and attractions to appropriate members of the opposite sex effectively, yet without deception, vulgarity or exploitation.

Young ladies and gentlemen of the Regency period must carefully adhere to  rules appropriate behavior during courtship.

Young ladies and gentlemen of the Regency period must carefully adhere to rules appropriate behavior during courtship.

We now turn to look at actual rules of etiquette between young ladies and gentlemen in the 1800s. The protocol of what was “done” and “not done” must have seemed extremely complicated to any young person with the intention to socialize faultlessly. In terms of day-to-day socializing, a gentleman needed to establish that he was paying attention to the appropriate daughter of a family, since it was bad form to take an interest in a younger sister “still in the school room” who had not yet started on the seasonal rounds of balls and dances. This was particularly frowned upon if the young girl had an older sister who was “out”, available for courtship and not yet spoken for.

A lady must not be kept standing and talking in the street; a gentleman must turn and walk with the young lady if she indicated that she was willing to converse. This escorting might be necessary for her safety if her well-born status was apparent to any criminal member of the lower classes who might be tempted to rob or “dishonor” her in some way. Harriet Smith is subjected to just such an attack in Emma.

Additional “rules of engagement” during courtship include protocol for dancing at a ball. If a gentleman and lady danced more than two sets together (a set consisted of 2 dances and approximately 15 minute duration) they would be considered engaged by society.  Mr. Collins’ intention to stay close to Elizabeth during the Netherfield Ball is a public declaration of his intentions toward her.

Letters were only sent to one to whom you were engaged. In order to assure adherence to this code of conduct, Darcy hand delivers his letter to Elizabeth. Jane & Bingley ultimately rip up the letters they are writing to each other because, despite their desire to communicate, it would be untoward to send letters to one another.  In Sense and Sensibility Marianne’s daily letters to Willoughby give rise to the assumption by her sister Elinor and others that Marianne is engaged to Willoughby.

Before an engagement, couples could not converse privately, be alone in a room, travel unchaperoned in a carriage or call one another by their Christian names. Another example of gentlemanly behavior was that a gentleman must always be introduced to a lady, since it was presumed to be an honor to meet her—never the other way round. These three rules serve to indicate the importance of protecting a virtuous young lady’s reputation by avoiding inappropriate interactions.

The first time most couples were alone was during the actual proposal. Engagement rings were not necessarily given as a symbol of the lady’s acceptance.  A woman’s power of refusal was her only control in the situation. Rarely did a woman refuse the proposal (except in the case of Elizabeth Bennet with both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy). Mr. Collins points out that Elizabeth is not likely to receive another proposal if she refuses him. Occasionally, a woman would break the engagement, but it was frowned upon for a gentleman to break the engagement. (Society’s disapproval of his breaking the engagement is why Edward Ferrars keeps his word to Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility.)

Once the woman accepts the proposal, the gentleman then asks the bride’s father for permission to marry her. Once the bride’s father approved, the marriage articles were drawn up. This contract defined the distribution of wealth and property in the marriage and what would happen to the wife and children if the husband met an early death. Occasionally, a jointure became part of the articles.  A jointure stated that the wife would receive a guaranteed portion of her husband’s property upon his death.

A poetic caricature of courtship, 1805.

A Receipt for Courtship, 1805.


“The Manners and Customs of life in Jane Austen’s time – OR how to win the mating game!”

“The Marriage Mart”

“In Courtship a Man Pursues a Woman”

“Courtship During the Regency Period”

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