The Real Rules of Courtship: Dating in the Regency Era

As you follow the calculated matchmaking in British period dramas, ever wonder what the courtship scene was really like? Historian Dr. Sally Holloway from Oxford Brookes University explains actual courtship etiquette. From love letters being passed among family members, to the exchange of risqué gifts, and women’s one essential power play, Holloway offers surprising details on the ins and outs of love in the early 1800s.


  1. 1.

    The Makings of a Good Match

    Image of Regency era promenade

    Some key considerations helped high society couples “get it right” when finding their life partner. First up, finances: a family’s fortunes would be furthered if a daughter married well. Another guideline was finding compatibility rather than romance, which might be fleeting. (Divorce was nearly impossible.) “Even though you had this ideology of marrying for love being enormously important, it didn’t mean you would just wed anyone,” says Holloway. “People were still marrying very closely within their own social circles. … It wasn’t uncommon for first cousins to marry. Cousins were people you’d known a long time. You’d be aware of their temperament. They’d have the same family background, similar upbringing, and parity of status. All features of a good match. And the marriage of cousins could also keep property within a family.”

  2. 2.

    Where and How Regency Couples Met

    Image of Georgian period ball

    Young men and women from landed families moved through a defined list of social spaces where they could meet eligible partners. While friends might host a private tea or dinner where couples could get to know each other, “the 18th century had brought new venues created specifically for politely mingling in public: assembly rooms, pleasure gardens, concerts, and so on,” says Holloway. Even then, family or friends made an official introduction before the pair could speak to each other. “When a young man was first presented to a woman, she might curtsy or smile, but they wouldn’t yet touch or shake hands because that was far more intimate. Once introduced, the couple might talk to display their polite manners and knowledge of civilized codes of behavior. Conduct books [published at the time] advised young women to listen intently, to grant men their full attention, and to not speak too much.”

  3. 3.

    How Early Courtship Progressed—or Didn’t

    Scanned 1881 engraving of gentleman joining a family in the parlor for refreshments.

    Young people needed family consent to continue seeing each other. “Matches were either shepherded along or curtailed by family and friends, depending on their perceived suitability,” say Holloway. “It was essential that the courtship progressed with the full knowledge and approval of a person’s friends and family.”

    It was men who played the active role in showing enthusiasm and interest, while women waited to be pursued. Yet “one of the most important tools at a young lady’s disposal during courtship was the power of refusal, to discourage a gentleman’s advances, decline to dance with him, refuse to embark in correspondence with him, and turn down any proposal of marriage,” says Holloway. “It was generally believed that during courtship itself, women held all of the power, sitting in judgment over suitors trying to win their hand. But as soon as they were married, the scales tipped the other way.”

  4. 4.

    The Need for Chaperones

    Vintage engraving from 1862 showing a young woman and her chaperone meeting a young gentleman.

    A couple’s first date (in fact all their dates) required a chaperone. Since an unmarried lady should never find herself alone with a man, courting was a very public affair. “The purpose of a chaperone was to safeguard a woman’s modesty and reputation, shield her from the dangers of seduction, and protect her dowry against fortune hunters, rakes, and charlatans,” says Holloway. “Any family member could act as chaperone. It was typically a mother or aunt, but female friends sometimes occupied this role, too.”

    Is it conceivable that unmarried couples only found themselves alone when the gentleman finally proposed? “That may have been the ideal, though in practice, couples seized every opportunity to snatch some time alone together,” says Holloway. “We have plenty of examples in couples’ letters where they describe themselves sneaking off to the back parlor to steal kisses to the great amusement of their family.”

  5. 5.

    Guidelines for Conversation

    Image of Regency era couple conversing

    The advice in conduct manuals was that conversations between unmarried couples be discreet. “They advised young ladies to avoid reporting gossip or scandal, not to speak ill of others in case they appear mean-spirited, and not to engage in any discussion of religion. And that was the same for men. They were both to avoid disagreeable subjects,” says Holloway. “They should also avoid interrupting others, not ramble, not lie and to listen more than they spoke—that for women in particular.”

    No Christian names were used while dating. “You would initially address one another as sir, my lord, or madam, depending on rank, and then progress to Mr. and Miss So-and-so, or Lord and Lady So-and-so,” says Holloway. “To use a person’s Christian name during courtship was a special mark of intimacy. And we can often see the moment in their letters when someone asked to be called by their first name, signaling that a relationship was becoming much more serious and, in fact, might later progress to pet names and things like my dearest love or my dearest life.”

  6. 6.

    Exchanging Love Letters

    Image of Georgian period courtship

    As more people could read and write, the volume of love letters increased until it became a crucial aspect of courting. “Men had to formally request a correspondence and women accepted or declined entering this more serious stage,” says Holloway. “Accepting signaled a couple was on the road to engagement.” A love letter was a serious matter, valuable because of what sentiments it contained but also as a material object itself. “You’d smell it; it was perfumed. You’d press your lips to it. It was something that had touched the writer’s hands and then touched your hands,” says Holloway.

    What was written in these letters? “Women’s letters are marked by their modesty, their reserve,” says Holloway. “In contrast, men’s letters ruminated at enormous length about the nature of love, the depth of their feeling, and many included poems. Men’s correspondence was much more effusive because it was their responsibility to secure a match.” Yet effusive or not, these letters were curiously not private. “Letters would be passed around in a family or between friends,” says Holloway. “Men often sent a letter unsealed so a family member could read it first to check it was suitable. There were some passages in gentlemen’s letters addressed directly to a woman’s aunt or guardian or mother.”

  7. 7.

    Courtship Gifts Conveying Devotion

    Embroidered garters from 18th century at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts
    18th century garters. Gift of Philip Lehman in memory of his wife Carrie L. Lehman to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

    Couples exchanged a wide range of romantic gifts while courting. “The vast majority were given by men,” says Holloway. “Women did give gifts, but the onus was not so much on them to do so. When they did, they gave distinct types of objects—perhaps ruffles or waistcoats they’d made by hand, or a handkerchief embroidered with their hair and their suitor’s hair, literally combining two bodies in a single item.” Men might give a lady specially mixed perfume, miniatures, a silhouette, or book with passages underlined,” says Holloway. “He might present a book saying, ‘Look what I’ve underlined on page 42. Do you agree?’ which was a way to test whether they were literally on the same page.”

    A courtship’s progress could be tracked through the particular object given. “A lock of hair was one of the more symbolically important gifts because it was literally cut from the body,” says Holloway. Other gifts worn against a woman’s body were also intensely romantic—or even racy. “Gloves were symbolic of obtaining a woman’s hand in marriage,” says Holloway. “Garters was the most erotic gift a man might purchase for a woman—extremely intimate because they held up her stockings. Worn inside her dress, the garters often had messages embroidered on them like, ‘I die where I cling.’ They were very suggestive.”

  8. 8.

    The Length of Courtship—and How it Might End

    Illustration of young Regency era couple marrying in church.

    Well-off couples might court for a few months or a few years before they wed. “At a minimum, a few months so they could ascertain whether or not they were well-suited. The longest ones I’ve found were seven years,” say Holloway. “But the disadvantage of waiting that long was the increased risk that things wouldn’t work out. It posed enormous risk for a woman’s reputation if the relationship were broken off before reaching the altar.”

    What did a well-mannered breakup look like? “A man was expected to end a courtship as cleanly and quickly as he could if he found it wasn’t possible to marry; for example, if his father refused the match,” says Holloway. “And then a couple would return any letters or tokens they’d received. You might burn the letters, but more commonly you’d return them to show that that person no longer had any claim over you. It’s returning this material debris of a relationship that’s enormously important in signaling it was firmly over.”


Historian Dr. Sally Holloway
Dr. Sally Holloway is a historian of gender, emotions, and material culture in 18th and 19th century Britain, and a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in History & History of Art at Oxford Brookes University. She is the author of The Game of Love in Georgian England (Oxford, 2019), and a regular contributor to TV and radio, including A Very British Romance (BBC Four) and the hit podcasts You’re Dead to Me and Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.


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