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Victorian Couples Embraced Romance

Victorian couples of all configurations embraced romance. Our nineteenth-century predecessors often get a bad rap for being dour, unromantic and downright stern. And it’s true that several of these photos appear to be hostage situations. But most of these Victorian Couples suggest a different side of the narrative.

Many people still married for reasons other than love. Money, power and social status were a few favorites, just as they are today. But through the 19th century, putting romantic love at the top of the list became more popular. Following are a few reasons for the trend.

How Love Conquered Marriage

Many historians, sociologists and anthropologists maintain that romantic love is a recent Western trend. In Marriage, A History, How Love Conquered Marriage, historian Stephanie Coontz writes:

“For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage.”

According to Coontz, people fell in love throughout history.

“But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main nreason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.” (p. 15)

In some cultures throughout history love was thought to be incompatible with marriage. Some societies thought love was good if it developed after marriage or it was factored in with more serious considerations. Even where love was honored, it was often not over emphasized.

“Couples were not to put their feelings for each other above more important commitments, such as their ties to parents, siblings, cousins, neighbors, or God.

In ancient India, falling inn love before marriage was seen as a disruptive, almost antisocial act. The Greeks thought lovesickness was a type of insanity, a view that was adopted by medieval commentators in Europe. In the Middle Ages, the French defined love as a ‘derangement’ of the mind…” (p. 16)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Fell Hard

Queen Victoria was a trendsetter on so many levels. She redefined Britain’s monarchy. Her values, interests and ideas also shaped domestic life. From welcoming pets into her home as part of her family, to decorating Christmas trees, to becoming the Empress of India. Victoria was forever breaking new ground. She also proposed marriage to the love of her life, Prince Albert and wore white to her wedding.

When King Leopold of the Belgians, her uncle on her mother’s side, introduced Victoria to Prince Albert she fell in love. In her diary, she described Albert as “extremely handsome” and possessing a charm ‘which is most delightful.”

Victoria’s diaries show that she was deeply in love and wanted nothing more than to be with Albert. Based on Albert’s letters to Victoria, he felt the same way.

“I need not tell you that since we left, all my thoughts have been with you at Windsor, and that your image fills my whole soul…Even in my dreams I never imagined that I should find so much love on earth.”

Victoria proposed to him in October of 1839, after he had been at Windsor for a week. She wrote in her diary:

“I said to him that I thought he must be aware why I wished him to come here, and that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wished.”

They were married less than four months later, on February 10, 1840.

“I never, never spent such an evening!”

“My dearest, dearest, dear Albert, his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before!

“His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness – really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a husband…This was the happiest day of my life!”

Author Annie Swan Made Readers Swoon

Romantic fiction was hugely popular through the eighteen hundreds, as it is today. Annie Shephard Swan (1859-1943) was one of the top-selling genre authors of her time. Educated at Edinburgh Ladies’ College, she started her career with children’s books. Her second novel, Aldersyde, published in 1883 launched her to success. She wrote 162 novels under her own name and at least forty under the male pseudonym David Lyall, as well as numerous journalistic articles.

According to Cambridge.org Annie Swan’s Penny Stories sold 140,000 copies in the first week.

“Her autobiography My Life (1934), written at the zenith of her popularity, was reprinted six times within the first year of publication. Its readers, who came from all social classes, included Queen Mary and Mr E. Laffray, a prisoner in Pentonville jail. Much of this popularity was due to the development of mass literacy during her lifetime.”

One of Annie Swan’s massively successful books was Courtship and Marriage: And the Gentle Art of Home-making. While it spelled out a woman’s obligations in the building of home and family, it gave her agency to make her own choices in her romantic life.

“The modest, sensible, womanly girl, who is not yet extinct, in spite of sundry croakers, will know much better than anybody can tell her how to adjust her own conduct at this crisis in her life . Her own innate delicacy and niceness of perception will guide her how to act, and if the attentions be acceptable to her she will give just the right meed of encouragement, so that the course of true love may run smoothly towards consummation.

Of course the usual squalls and cross currents must be looked for – else would that delightful period of life be robbed of its chief zest and charm, to say nothing of the unhappy novelist’s occupation, which would undoubtedly be gone for ever.”

Despite her enormous commercial success, many critics dismissed her body of work as overly sentimental. Nevertheless, Annie Swan mirrored the wave of romantic love embraced by Victorian couples.

Personal Ads Foreshadowed Dating Apps

Matrimonial advertisements of the 1800s and early 1900s presented new opportunities for Victorian couples to form. These personal ads ran the gamut from prim to racy and were considered improper by many. But as society was loosening its tight corsets, they offered women increased agency in courting. Many of the ads were shamelessly direct in the wants and demands of the females who placed them.

For people who were not finding appropriate mates in their normal social circles, matrimonial ads were a great way to increase their reach.

Dr Alun Withey, a historian at the University of Exeter, in Devon stumbled on personal ads from the late 1800s while researching the history of facial hair. According to Exeter’s site, hundreds of anonymous messages between Victorian couples were posted in the paper, often with pseudonyms, such as lovely dimples, cad, lion and kitten. 

According Dr Withey on the University of Exeter website, the ads were posted by middle and upper-class men and women hoping to join other Victorian Couples in romance. They suggest that London in the late 19th century was a ‘hotbed of sexual tensions’ and that the Victorians were far from being straight laced and prudish.

“Without access to telephones, and with face-to-face contact or even letters often too dangerous, the small ads were the only way for unchaperoned lovers to communicate and arrange. Some appear to be meeting illicitly, because they are married or because families would have disapproved of their suitors.” 

“CAD: utterly miserable and brokenhearted. I must see you my darling. Please write and fix time and place, at all risks. Can pass house if necessary unseen, in close carriage”.

“LION TO LITTLE DARLING. Is it to be, as you say, I am never to see you again? Oh, I trust they will be kind to you. I could part with the last drop of blood I have rather than to see you hurt. My being there will cause them to think what is not true. I shall go abroad. Good bye darling for ever, goodbye”.

“Regret it so much. So foolish – couldn’t help it – so completely. “Thy bright smile haunts me still”. Just like – eh! Oh, lovely dimples, when hall I?”

In matters of the romantic heart, it seems little has changed.

Some Women Shunned Romance

Victorian spinster replies surprised editors of Tit-bits magazine in a competition held in 1889. Entrants had to answer the question: Why are you still single? The tsunami of irreverent responses made it impossible to choose one winner. Instead, editors published a full page of hilarious retorts.

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