If there was one thing Georgians loved, it was the very idea of love. The Georgian era, from the coronation of George I in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830, saw a celebration of love and marriage in popular culture, including in bestselling novels like Samuel Richardson’s. Pamela, or virtue rewarded (1740), which climaxes with the heroine’s marriage to her master, Mr B.
Making a socially advantageous match that was also based on love and affection was the highest stakes game men and women would ever play. How they experienced this emotionally tense process is the subject of my book: The game of love in Georgian England.
In an era of rapid changes in the way we form our own attachments, it would be good to turn things around and look to the past for some advice. Here are five Georgian dating trends that could shape the process of finding love.
1. Go analog
The Georgian era was the great age of letter writing, with engaged couples exchanging a veritable torrent of romantic missives. Some found that the practice of writing helped them express feelings that they would not dare to verbalize in person. As valuable sources of intimacy, introspection, and self-disclosure, a flurry of love letters might even outnumber in-person encounters.
The cards were treated as precious vessels for love: to be touched, kissed, sprayed with perfume, and used to inspire romantic verse. They were often carried in a person’s pockets and hidden under the pillow to inspire dreams while they slept.
Many saved their love letters to reread them over and over again, storing them away as precious evidence of a relationship and a momentous moment in their lives. (And if it comes down to it, important physical evidence of commitment in court.)
2. Share a good book
The period saw a boom in the number of titles in print, with the novel emerging as a new genre and an increasing number of men and women able to read and write. As a result, the books became popular romantic gifts.
Some women used books to try to make it easier for a man to express his feelings. Feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft sent a volume of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s best-selling novel July, or The new Eloisa (1761) to her lover William Godwin in 1796, with the request that he “stop at your own feelings, that is, give me a bird’s-eye view of your heart”.
The most astute lovers marked their books by highlighting the passages with which they most agreed, thus ensuring that they found a spouse with a similar intellect, interests, and outlook on life.
3. Do crafts
Georgian women spent hours making delicately crafted gifts for their suitors. A woman can make her lover a handkerchief, a vest, a watch chain, a watch paper, and ruffles as tokens of her affection. The act demonstrated her virtue and accomplishments as a seamstress, while showing her investment in a relationship through the time and work she put into it. She also allowed him to claim a man when she wore her creations in public.
4. Say it with hair
What could be as personal as literally giving someone a part of your body as a gift?
Hair had a special meaning as a symbol since, like eternal love, it did not fade or deteriorate over time. Giving a man a lock of your hair was a sure sign that you would soon marry. As Margaret Dashwood surmised in Jane Austen’s book Sense and Sensibility (1811), Willoughby and Marianne were sure that “they would be married very soon, for he has a lock of her hair.” Georgians placed strands of hair into a variety of jewelry, including buttons, brooches, medallions, bracelets, and rings, which were braided, studded with tiny seed pearls, and even cut to make delicate hairstyle paintings.
It wasn’t always hair on your head, either. The aristocrat Lady Caroline Lamb sent an envelope of pubic hair to her lover Lord Byron during their torrid affair in 1812, and the Yorkshire heiress Anne Lister stored pubic hair collected from her female lovers in a cupboard, which she kept as “curiosities”.
5. Bundle up
Poorer rural couples became involved in a tradition known as “packaging”, which was practiced in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. It involved a couple sleeping together in the woman’s family home, fully clothed, sometimes separated by a plank of wood, or with the woman’s skirt tied at the bottom in a knot. The ritual helped couples bond by spending time alone and talking late, without necessarily committing to sex.
And yet many young couples did too: illegitimacy rates went up steeply throughout the century and up to a third of brides in England were already pregnant his wedding day.
These various words, displays, and acts of love provided a vital means for men and women to meet each other, test their compatibility, and build greater intimacy before marriage. The ultimate goal was a contented and happy union with a partner of similar rank and fortune. It provided a crucial path toward that other key goal of the age, and indeed for many relationships today: lasting happiness.