To the Regency ton, etiquette was everything. Society had rules for the most random things--down to how women should wear their hats (did you know that if you took your hat off, you weren't supposed to hold it so people could see the lining? You had to tuck it under your arm or hold it with the lining aimed at the ground).
The most intricate and complex rules of Regency etiquette had to do with courtship and the behavior of young women--and woe betide the Society miss who broke any of this rules! Getting drummed out of Society was the least heinous penalty involved; the worst would be getting forced into marriage with some man she loathed because she was silly enough to appear overly affectionate. When writing a traditional Regency romance, it's difficult for an author to work within the confines of all these silly customs. After all, how did romance blossom between a young man and a young woman if they couldn't even call each other by their first names? But that's the beauty of a traditional Regency--you get to make your hero and heroine fall in love despite the ton and Society's rules.
Society is, in a lot of way, a major character in any Regency romance. That's because Society is at the heart of almost every obstacle facing the lovers' relationship. That conflict begins and ends with Society's strict etiquette about behavior. I'm going to list the most important of those rules, and then at the end of this blog post I'll post the primary source material I've used for this article so that Regency authors can go straight to the source. Some sources I'll quote directly throughout this post.
First, and most important, a young unmarried woman has to display the strictest decorum in public and especially in regards to men. She never went out without a chaperone, usually a woman who was either much older or married herself. It was considered improper for a woman to walk alone in a public place (like in town) or to ride unescorted in a public carriage. (She could, however, take her maid if she was just going to pay a duty call or shopping.) She never attended parties or social events without a chaperone. And most particularly, a woman could never be alone in the company of a man.
While these rules seem--and are--excessive to twenty-first century writers, at the time they were necessary to protect young women entering society. In the blatant sales atmosphere of the Marriage Mart, a young woman's greatest asset was her virginity, to put it bluntly. By following all the rules of public behavior, that virgin state couldn't be called into question. And while we'd like to think that young women didn't always obey these rules about chaperones (mostly because it's really hard to ditch those chaperones in order to have a tete a tete with the hero in some quiet, dark place), unfortunately that's not the case.
Sources beginning with 1811's Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces by 'A Lady of Distinction,' all the way to Paula Byrne's article in Cambridge University Press' Jane Austen in Context (2006) :
Polite society in Austen's time was predicated upon strict standards of decorum, particularly for women. Chaperoning was of vital importance for young women of marriageable age. It was not acceptable for a young unmarried woman to be alone in the company of a gentleman (save for close family friends).
Second,once a young couple started off in their heavily chaperoned courtship, the rules for behavior tightened around them. Mirror of Graces sets that up in contemporary fashion:
At no time ought a woman to volunteer shaking hands with a male acquaintance, who holds not any particular bond of esteem with regard to herself or family.A touch, a pressure of the hands, are the only external signs a woman can give of entertaining a particular regard for certain individuals. As to the salute. the pressure of the lips; that is an interchange of affectionate greeting or tender farewell, sacred to the dearest connections alone.Our parent, our brothers, our near kindred, our husband, our lover, ready to become our husband, our bosom's inmate, the friend of our heart's care; to them are exclusively consecrated the lips of delicacy.
So no hand-shaking and no kissing. That would seem to nip all romance in the bud right from the get go. Additionally, they couldn't even refer to each other by their first names. The use of first names was reserved for members of the family and close acquaintances. Even married couples referred to themselves formally in public -- like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. If a young man referred to a girl he was interested in by her first name, he would have been considered vulgar. Once a couple was engaged, then in private (or as private as they could get) then they might actually be able to whisper a daring "Robert" or "Ellen"--but not until.
Oddly enough, a courting couple also could not correspond or exchange gifts. The prohibition against unmarried women accepting gifts from men extended until well into the twentieth century. Why do men send candy and flowers on Valentine's Day? Because beginning in the Victorian era until after the first World War, only candy and flowers were socially acceptable gifts from a man to a woman he was interested in. (On Valentine's Day in the Regency era, cards were exchanged and tradition held that the first man a girl saw that morning was the man she would marry) The first gift of value a man gave to the woman he loved was usually her wedding ring. Surprisingly, the betrothal or engagement ring wasn't a common thing. Hazel Jones, in her book Jane Austen and Marriage (2009 Continuum Books)informs us that:
Engagement rings were not given as binding tokens to mark an accepted proposal but some lovers of the period did give and exchange rings, often inscribed with a sentimental message - Amitié and Restez comme vous êtes (Stay just as you are) were popular. Cleverly arranged gemstones formed acrostics, like 'Dearest' spelt out by a diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire and turquoise. The sentiment expressed (in rings given between lovers) was usually innocuous enough to constitute no firm commitment, a safe option when a man could not honorably break an engagement, and might face an action for breach of promise if he did, and when a woman would be considered a jilt if she backed out.
The posy rings are highly collectible now and very rare, just as an aside. As for correspondence, if an unmarried woman wrote a letter to a young man it was considered a breach of propriety. Once a couple was engaged, of course, they could correspond in a genteel and properly restrained manner.
And behind all the special rules of conduct during the courtship remained the expected standard behavior of young ladies during the Regency era--all the little sticky things that are so incomprehensible to us. That behavior was set out in 'conduct books'--tomes written by men (and a surprising number of those writers were ministers, I might add) chock full of sticky-sweet and highly misogynistic sentiments about what makes a woman beautiful. A few of these jewels might give you some perspective.
Dr. John Gregory, A Father's Legacy To His Daughters 1774: Be ever cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of the company. But if you have any learning, keep it a profound secret especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts and a cultivated understanding.
James Fordyce Sermons To Young Women 1767: I am astonished at the folly of many women who are still reproaching their husbands for leaving them alone, for preferring this or that company to theirs, when, to speak the truth, they have themselves in a great measure to blame... had you behaved to them with more respectful observance...studying their humours, overlooking their mistakes, submitting to their opinions in matters indifferent...giving soft answers to hasty words, complaining as seldom as possible...your house might be the abode of domestic bliss.
Yep. If that doesn't establish the attitudes of Regency society toward women and their perceived proper place, I don't know what will. (Fordyce is infamously mentioned by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Collins offers to read from his work to the Bennet sisters after his first dinner at Longbourne.)
Women had to wait for men to make the first move. They couldn't express interest in a young man openly, and had to resort to the time-honored methods of using go-betweens (a friend or her brother) to drop a hint to the fellow in question. They couldn't even dance with the same man more than twice in the same night--I'll get into the etiquette of the ballroom in a later post. If I go into that now, there won't be another post on the front page of the blog this one will be so long. And until the man made his intentions known--i.e. proposed to the young lady and was accepted--the girl had to behave as if she had no clue he was interested at all. She definitely couldn't confess to him that she loved him. She couldn't indicate by sign, expression or behavior that she was aware of any interest on his part in her person. (Which, if you think about it, goes a long way to explain Jane Bennet's behavior toward Mr. Bingley in the beginning.)
So when you're writing a traditional Regency romance, these rules and customs must play a big part in the establishment of your story. On one hand, working with and around these things is a pain. As I said earlier--it's really hard to write a love scene between two people who can't be alone together, touch each other, or use each other's first name.
But on the other hand, that's where the specific and significant beauty of the genre comes into play--an aspect of the time that sets it apart from other romance genres. In the ton, everyone knows the rules. The smart people obey those rules--ostensibly. Your heroine might not saunter off down Bond Street unchaperoned (a huge no-no in particular since that's where the gentleman's clubs were) but she's probably not averse to taking the air on the terrace during a ball and sneaking off into the garden for a little discreet flirtation. And if a girl is lucky enough to have a chaperone who's terminally sleepy in the afternoons, a lot can be said between her and her lover with every evidence of propriety. Just like teenagers today, who (if they're like mine) find a way to weasel out of parental restrictions to do what they want, your Regency heroine is likewise looking for a way to break the rules--as long as she doesn't get caught. And when Society forbids you to touch, how much more erotic are those long dances at the ball?
The key to working within the confines of Regency social mores is to use them to raise the stakes for your characters. Once a writer discovers a way to do that, the romantic elements of a traditional Regency take on a little bit of a contemporary edge.
And that's what lovers of Regency romance really adore.
Some source materials and links:
Jane Austen's World -- Social Customs During The Regency Era -- a comprehensive list of links regarding multiple facets of Regency Society, Etiquette and Life
Niceties and Courtesies: Manners and Customs in the Time of Jane Austen
The Laws of Etiquette by Unknown (1837)-- a contemporary guide to etiquette by a gentleman of the era--has some fabulous anecdotes about famous Regency figures like Beau Brummel
Michele Sinclair's website--full of info and links about Regency England
Hazel Jones, Jane Austen & Marriage Continuum Books (2009)
Maggie Lane, Jane Austen's World Carlton Books (2005)
Robert B. Shoemaker Gender in English Society 1650-1850 Pearson Education Limited (1998)
A Lady of Distinction, Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (orig published in 1811) R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Jane Austen in Context Cambridge University Press (2005)
Teresa l. Hamlin and Sharon Laudermilk, The Regency Companion Garland Publishing (1989)