Guest post by Abigail Reynolds, author of Mr. Darcy's Undoing
Courting in the Regency period was strictly circumscribed by inflexible rules of behavior, especially for women. Most fans of Regency-set novels are already familiar with them and they have been well-documented elsewhere, so I’ll just give a quick review here. A single woman may never be alone with a man. Physical contact was limited to touching gloved hands at a dance or accepting a gentleman’s arm when walking. She could not receive letters or gifts from a man to whom she was not at least engaged. First names could not be used before engagement, and only privately thereafter. A lady could never show interest in a gentleman. It was improper for an unmarried lady to walk alone or ride unescorted in public.
Lovers of Jane Austen’s novels should already be shaking their heads. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet frequently goes out walking alone. She meets privately with Mr. Darcy on several occasions – in the library at Netherfield when he refuses to look up from his book, on two of his visits to the Hunsford parsonage, and their long walks together in the grove of Rosings Park. After she refuses his proposal, Darcy goes out of his way to meet her in private to give her one of those letters that single women weren’t allowed to receive. That’s a lot of broken rules. Given that Jane Austen speaks from knowledge of the period, it’s a reasonable conclusion that those inflexible rules of behavior were a bit more flexible than is commonly claimed.
Once a couple was engaged, the rules changed. Regency engagements were considered binding, more like a modern civil marriage than a modern engagement. If the gentleman ended an engagement, he could be brought to court for breach of promise. Regardless of how an engagement ended, the lady involved was considered ruined. Despite the common modern assumption that Regency engagements were just as chaste as earlier courtship, society clearly assumed that an engaged woman would go a lot further than holding gloved hands. In general, as long as an engaged couple was discreet, most people would turn a blind eye to any goings-on.
I’m sure there are a few readers out there sputtering with disbelief. It’s hard to find evidence one way or another about how engaged couples behaved in private, although there were a striking number of healthy babies born after 5 months of matrimony. Here is one pretty conclusive piece of evidence about kissing during engagement, something many modern readers think of as still forbidden. The etiquette book, Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces, published in 1811 by 'A Lady of Distinction,’ says otherwise. “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” [boldface is mine]. Pretty clear – engaged couples can kiss.
Not only that, but close reading of the second proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice strongly suggests that Darcy kisses Elizabeth. As a single lady herself, Jane Austen couldn’t use words like kiss, touch, or lips, which makes describing a kiss challenging, but she could say, “[Darcy} expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do” … and it isn’t until the next sentence that “he told her of feelings.” So if he wasn’t talking about feelings before that, he was presumably, ahem, expressing himself in some other manner than using words.
Regency courting etiquette can create many plot possibilities. In my book, Mr. Darcy's Undoing, Darcy faces yet a different courting dilemma. He is still in love with Elizabeth, but she is engaged to another man, her neighbor, Mr. Covington. Fortunately for Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth is quite chaste in her engagement to Mr. Covington, but he is still caught in the dilemma of the unbreakable engagement. He can’t bear to see her marry another man, but trying to win her away from him was also unacceptable since it would lead to the ruin of her reputation – and they both know it. I’m not going to give away the plot by telling you how they resolve this dilemma, but it’s quite a tale.
Thanks for inviting me!