“Some other girl’s mediocre brother”: Rejected Men in Nineteenth-Century English Culture

Leighton,_Edmund_Blair_-_Off_-_1899The title of this blogpost comes from one of my very favourite things I’ve found in my years spent researching Victorian marriage, engagement, courtship, and romantic culture in England. It is a little book entitled Shall Girl’s Propose?, written in 1893 by an author who gives himself the moniker of ‘a speculative bachelor.’ The premise of the book is simple— it succinctly outlines the process of late nineteenth-century courtship and engagement while mocking romantic culture and making absurdist suggestions for how it might be improved. The book is equally playful and incisive in its observations of proposal and engagement, especially regarding gender dynamics of the period. For example, on the titular topic of women proposing, our speculative bachelor writes,

I have been wondering all my life why it is that, in the matter of initiative, a coarse, unattractive young man should have the privilege to ask any unmarried woman in the whole world to marry him, while his refined and so much more accomplished sister must make no motion toward any choice of her own, except to sit still and wait for some other girl’s mediocre brother to make a proposal to her.

While this passage, on its face, laments women’s lack of autonomy because of society denying them the ability to actively pursue their desired spouse, it also speaks to a power in their necessitated passivity. It speaks to women being in a position to pass (even harsh) judgement on men who must come to them, share their romantic sentiments in a very vulnerable way, and ask for their hands in marriage. While men were required to take these emotional and social risks, nineteenth-century women, in a rare shift in power dynamic, held the power of acceptance or rejection, even humiliation.

As most in the middle class throughout the nineteenth century married within their immediate social, professional, or even family circles, proposals were a favourite topic of gossip and opened men up to scrutiny as intended husbands not only from women, but also family and friends. The potential for embarrassment and shame in the aftermath of a proposal if one was rejected was so great for men that many etiquette manuals of the time (primarily those written by men) devoted particular admonishments for women who might use a man’s words and actions during a proposal against him. The author of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, for instance, did not mince words when it condemned proposal gossip among women as barbaric— “boasting of proposals is a savage custom, akin to wearing scalps.”

Going on, the author of Shall Girls Propose? claims that even the best and most attractive women were required to choose from “six to twelve offers at most in a lifetime”—even if none of those options were particularly attractive. Compared to our modern experiences with engagements, this is a shockingly high level of rejection.

However, the idea that women would receive more than a proposal or two in their lifetime was the norm. Various sources from throughout the century suggest that women received anywhere from three or four proposals to several dozen. Sometimes they were received in quick succession—often when word got out in a community or social circle that an eligible young lady was considering one proposal, any other interested party took that as his last opportunity to throw his hat into the ring before she accepted, thus creating nuptial feeding frenzies.

Our speculative bachelor goes on to describe another cultural peccadillo pertaining to women’s response to proposals—throughout the nineteenth century, an amalgamation of popularly held ideas such as female modesty, conventions of vetting and testing potential husbands, and the experience or feigning of fear and surprise resulted in women refusing initial proposals, even if they were interested or intending to accept. He describes,

To refuse, and yet not dismiss your appeal, requires on their part no little tact and philosophy. Most girls think that if you capture them easily, you will be led to esteem them lightly. They are apt, therefore, to throw obstacles in your way and make you struggle for their hand. Doing this diplomatically, so that they shall not lose you at last, often requires a high degree of art.

This type of “no” coupled with definite refusals resulted in a very high instance of dismissal for men who needed to steel themselves against the sting of rejection. Managing suitors, weighing options, and fielding proposals from left, right, and centre certainly affected the lives and experiences of nineteenth-century Englishwomen in no insignificant way; however, today we turn our attention to those “coarse, unattractive young men” and “mediocre brothers” turned hopeful and rejected bridegrooms— “[those] who can’t get a chance to try.”

Prerequisites to Proposals: Look Before You Leap 

Throughout the 19th century, the entire burden of proposing marriage fell to men, and they were keenly aware of how serious a task they were undertaking, especially within the middle class. It was a widely held belief that a man wasn’t complete until he was supporting a wife and family. At the same time, men and women were advised to take into account a wide range of practical criteria, in addition to the presence of romantic love, when choosing a potential spouse.

The confluence of these ideas meant that the rejection of a marriage proposal could signify sentiments beyond a lack of reciprocal love. It was often experienced as a commentary on a man’s ability as a potential husband, and therefore, a man. A rejection could occur on the basis of class, financial holdings, his character, etc., all of which would have come as a blow to the all-important Victorian reputation. All of this social and cultural weight culminated in the proposal, which the author of The Marriage That Will Suit You and How to Enjoy It (1859) described as, “a vast moment (…) one on which may hang your life-long happiness.”

While fluctuating slightly throughout the nineteenth century, the average age of English couples getting married was around 28 for men and 25 to 26 for women in the middle class. Men tended to be a bit older when they married because they needed to have the financial stability to rent a proper home, furnish that home, hire at least one member of staff, and maintain a wife (custom dictated) in the same lifestyle she would be leaving in her father’s home. In addition, he would need to have the finances to provide for the impending family that would result from his nuptials.

Etiquette manuals of the time harp on this particular point ubiquitously and ad nauseam with examples ranging from simple metaphor (“The man who cannot buy a cage, ought not to attempt to keep a bird”) to Dr. John Kirton lambasting the practice in his 1883 book Happy Homes and How to Make Them:

To marry without provisions is to say the least of it WRONG, and ought therefore to be condemned.

That not being quite strong enough for Dr. Kirton, to fully impress upon the point he yells, in all capital letters, to the women of England:

NEVER CONSENT TO HAVE THE DAY OF YOUR WEDDING FIXED UNTIL YOU HAVE GOOD EVIDENCE THAT YOU ARE TO HAVE A FURNISHED HOME OF YOUR OWN TO GO TO (…) LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP.

While some men proposed on the prospect of having financial stability in the foreseeable future—men in university, apprenticeships, or other professional training—those who were accepted almost always had a previous close connection to the bride’s family, either as family friends or relations, or through having a professional connection. For instance, it was very common for daughters of doctors to marry their fathers’ trainees. Ideally it was recommended that a man would be in a position to propose and then take a year to get everything prepared, including accommodation and savings, before the wedding. Too-long engagements were considered hazardous and to be avoided.

In addition to the requisite funds, there were other requirements men were advised to self-evaluate in order to claim himself ready for marriage. In a chapter titled “Qualifications for Married Life” in his book A New Light on Love, Courtship, and Marriage (1894), the author sets seven qualifications for a man questioning if he is ready for marriage:

1. He must be of proper age, meaning twenty-one at the very least
2. He must have sufficient means
3. He must be of a sound mind
4. He must be of a sound body
5. He must have a good domestic disposition
6. He must have good habits
7. He must have high moral principles

In addition to reciprocated love, these are the criteria by which men were evaluated by potential spouses and formed the basis on which they would be either accepted or rejected.

The Victorian Marrying Man

241359627_567107208051476_8687593156737928633_nMen in possession of these attributes (or, perhaps more likely, self assured they were in possession of them) had the impetus to take on either the persona of a bachelor or of a “marrying man.” The nineteenth century “marrying man” was serious about getting married and had the ability to do so. The use of the term “marrying man” inherently states direct action and a clear goal of matrimony—seeking a wife deliberately.

Whether claimed or implied by actions, the label of being a “marrying man” put men in a vulnerable social position. It is a label that, associated with a man’s name, would immediately compel those around him to size him up as a potential husband. It also implied that he was actively courting and entering encounters with women with a specific goal in mind. While technically applicable to any man looking to settle down, in nineteenth-century literature, media, and common usage, “marrying man” was most often used to describe two types of men—the first was a young, wealthy, good-looking, sometimes landed gentleman looking both for a companion and woman to run his household. It was also used mockingly to describe a man usually overly keen to get married or cluelessly proposing to women well out of his league.

To put it in Austenian terms, in Pride and Prejudice, both Mr. Bingley and Mr. Collins might be described as “marrying men,” though obviously with contrasting associations. Typically this second type of man was also otherwise socially or physically less than desirable—unattractive, socially awkward, or too old.

A good example of this is Mrs. Harriet Gordon Smythies’ novel The Marrying Man (1841), in which the titular character is the curmudgeonly and old Mr. Burridge, who convinces himself that his teenage neighbour, Jessy, must be in love with him after she tolerates his company on several occasions. The narrative follows Burridge’s bumbling attempts to court Jessy—by cornering her into conversation and giving her gifts such as a hideous bright yellow shawl and “obsolete lolly-pops” for Christmas. Throughout the book, he is unconscious of his own absurdity and vulgarity in the eyes of all those around him, including Jessy herself.

This literary construct of the “marrying man” is representative of ideas surrounding single and seeking men pervasive throughout the nineteenth century. It is a representative caricature of how society viewed them and how they were often sorted into the two categories of desirable and esteemed or pitiable, mockable, and even repugnant depending on the evaluator.

In addition to advice on the broader requirements of character, pedigree, and financial stability, in order to help men appeal to potential wives—and prevent any embarrassment in their presence—etiquette manuals offered endless directives for every conceivable minutiae of interacting with the opposite sex. An example from Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen (1876) reads:

Do not smoke in the presence of ladies, and never stand with your back to the fire,
nor put your feet on the rungs of a chair, nor loll back on sofas, nor yawn, nor read
aloud without being asked to do so, nor put your elbows on a table, nor drum
tunes with your fingers, nor indulge in any of those minor vulgarities which may
render you disagreeable to others.

With anxieties about gossip and the preoccupation that he may have “minor vulgarities” rendering him “disagreeable to others,” it’s no wonder that the overly timid and shy suitor was a popular figure in the nineteenth-century zeitgeist. When it came to proposing, such men might have opted for proposing by letter, which was not uncommon throughout the century, though looked down upon in general.

Popping the Question and The Many Types of “No”

241296898_385060559913271_3238499374290822323_nFor those braving an in-person proposal, they would need to brace themselves for rejection. Most of them would receive at least an initial “no.”

Now, there were many kinds of “no” this could be. The first would be prompted by modesty and shyness. It could be that the young woman wanted to consult her parents and interrogate her own feelings before committing, which was considered a very sensible thing to do. It could also mean that she was testing the young man’s commitment and that upon a second or third proposal she might accept him.

In a lecture on courtship in 1860, Rev. Joseph Bush addressed this scenario by recommending to men, “If a young woman should ever say no to you, give her seven days to consider of it; and if then she still persists in a positive and permanent no, take it as final.”

Some women, it was often thought, simply needed more convincing of a lover’s suit, and men often redoubled efforts to prove their love and capabilities in consequence. As put in Whom to Marry (1894), “It is a great mistake for a man to be discouraged by a first refusal. A girl likes to be ardently sought in marriage. It flatters her vanity.” This was the most common “no” and one that was typically transformed into a “yes” in due course. Therefore many men could take heart and were often braced for the initial refusal and ready to work to change the mind of his intended.

Strategies for turning a “no” to a “yes” ranged from dignified reasoning, assurances of love, and promises of happiness to the less dignified grovelling, as exhibited by the character of Mr. Cheesacre in Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? (1864), whose “whimpering” and “blubbering” after being rejected eventually caused proposee Mrs. Greenow to snap embarrassedly, “Mr. Cheesacre, don’t make a fool of yourself. Get up.”

How to deal with a rejected proposal was something covered extensively in advisory literature of the time; men were coached on how to make women change their minds, but also how to look for the signs of a genuine “no” and how to walk away with dignity and magnanimity. Put by one author, “[his conduct] should be characterised by extreme delicacy and a chivalrous resolve to avoid occasioning any possible annoyance or uneasiness to the fair author of his pain.”

As proposals required men to commit and declare their feelings, intentions, and desires, the resulting intimacy was inherently uncomfortable for both parties. The shame and stigma associated with a rejected proposal was so great that many books advised that men go travelling to physically remove themselves from their social context in the aftermath. This is a practice mirrored in nineteenth-century fiction, where you see the majority of rejected men culled off by sending them to faraway lands or into military service to avoid the awkwardness of their proximity to the main love plot.

For obvious reasons, few rejected men reflected on their rejected status in writing. However, the documentary evidence reveals the experience of a rejected proposal as fear and anxiety inducing, as well as humiliating. The figure of the rejected man featured heavily in Victorian culture and, with the almost ubiquity of experience, men often found camaraderie in their shared rejection. The rejected man featured heavily in fiction, poetry, music, and a particularly brutal and macabre genre of popular jokes.

The following are jokes that were published in periodicals in the 1890s:

“When a girl says just ‘no,’ there may be some brightness in the future; but when she says,
‘I will always feel like a sister towards you,’ it’s time to hunt up a clothes line and a good substantial crossbeam.”

He: “Don’t you think you could love me a little if you knew that I would die for you?”
She: “Possibly, if you would give me proof satisfactory to a coroner’s jury.”

“You must have said something awful funny to Miss Snyder over in the corner, because I
heard her laughing so.”
“I didn’t think it funny,” retorted Bones; “I asked her to marry me.”

The vein of self-depreciation and pity running through the narrative of the rejected man echoes a sense of victimisation both by individual women and by society more broadly. As a result, it seems that there were at least some men who saw securing a wife as a numbers game, and they were systematic in working through their friend groups, communities, and siblings’ friends.

The serial proposing—and therefore rejected—man was a pest found in many social circles and oft complained about. The practice of proposal-spamming was more common than one might assume. An article in an issue of the periodical Cupid detailing exactly the practice of proposing to multiple women in quick succession offers the following audacious example:

One of the most curious proposals of which I have heard was that made by a widower to a maid,
wherein he begged her acceptance of his suit; but, half expecting it might fail, urged in a
postscript in the concluding paragraph that, if an acceptance on her part was wholly out of the
question, she should help him to intercede on behalf of the same labour from her sister! The result
of this extraordinary plea was a double feature, of necessity.

This stunning example of a dual rejection suggests a brazenness that we can only assume shielded the proposer of the shame that plagued some other rejected men. It is not known whether he was ever able to seal the deal. However, we can only assume that his bold swing only served to harm his chances of a “yes” going forward. Perhaps he was relegated to perpetual bachelorhood—one of the many so-called failed Victorian men categorised as “those who won’t get a chance to try.”

Maggie Kalenak is currently a fourth year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Girton College. Her work focuses on romantic culture, as well as courtship, engagement, and marriage in nineteenth-century England. Her methodology emphasises material culture, history of emotions, and sensory history studies. She is available for consultancy.

Sources

(A) Speculative Bachelor, Shall Girls Propose? And Other Papers on Love and Marriage. London: Gay and Bird, 27 King William St., West Strand, 1893.

Bush, Rev. Joseph. ‘Courtship and Marriage: A Lecture.’ Published by Request. London: John Mason and York: Lawson and Groves, 1860.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin Books, 2006

Cupid (1891)

Davidoff, Lenore and Hall, Catherine. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class 1750-1850, London: Routledge, 1987.

Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1894.

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Birth to Deathbed. London: Harper Perennial, 2004.

Is Marriage A Failure? With Apologies to Mrs. Mona Caird. A Series of Sketches in “Mona”— Tint by Ernest G. Reynolds and Some Rhymes NOT Without Reason Specially Written by Samuel K. Cowan M.A. London: Angus Thomas, 1889.

Levine, Philippa. ‘“So Few Prizes and So Many Blanks”: Marriage and Feminism in Later Nineteenth-Century England,’ Journal of British Studies. Vol.28, No.2 (April 1989), 150-174.

Mill, Sydney. New Light on Love, Courtship and Marriage. Belfast: Belfast Publishing Co., 110 Royal Avenue, 1894.

Smythies, Harriet Maria Gordon. The Marrying Man, A Novel. London: T.C. Newby, 72 Mortimer Street, 1841.

Tit-Bits Magazine (1893)

Trollope, Anthony. Can You Forgive Her? London: Penguin Books, 2004 (1864).

Wheeler, Maud. Whom to Marry or All About Love and Matrimony. London: The Roxburghe Press, 1894.

Images

(Top) Off. Edmund Blair Leighton, 1889. Manchester Art Gallery.

(Center) Cover of The Marrying Man, 1841. Photo courtesy of Maggie Kalenak. 

(Bottom) A vinegar valentine. Photo courtesy of Maggie Kalenak. 

Review: A History of Courtship by Tania O’Donnell

 

51Iv62jqdOL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_Tania O’Donnell, A History of Courtship: 800 Years of Seduction Techniques (Pen & Sword; Barnsley, 2017).

Have you ever wondered why we give flowers to people we like? About the origins of the rhyme ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’? How people in the past dressed to catch the eye? Why the girls in costume dramas always have to have an older lady in tow? Or generally how our forebears went about signalling their intent and making a move? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then Tania O’Donnell’s History of Courtship may be the book for you.

O’Donnell focuses on, mainly British, sometimes American, and certainly Western, courtship, from the development of courtly love in the twelfth century up to (and including) the nineteenth century. The twentieth century is avoided on the basis that its sweeping technological and social changes made courtship a very different game, which is perhaps true, but I would have loved to see the story taken from Tristan and Isolde to the early rock’n’roll which retold their tale so many times.

Nevertheless, A History of Courtship leaps nimbly between periods, from the court poets and troubadours of Europe in the Middle Ages to the dangers of Tudor England, and from the grubby London of the Restoration to the more familiar romantic settings of Regency ballrooms and Victorian studies. The book gives only a superficial sense of how courtship may have changed between these periods but this is understandable given its thematic, rather than chronological, organization. It may even be justified given O’Donnell’s awareness that people themselves change rather less than customs over time and that even some of these have a cyclical existence.

Thematically, A History of Courtship illustrates an impressive range of romantic tropes (love at first sight, childhood sweethearts, kidnapping, elopement, proposal, marriage, scandal) using an equally impressive range of sources (clothing, cosmetics, legislation, letters, songs, poems, plays, diaries, sermons, gifts). The book is well illustrated with apposite selections, which speak to the depth of the author’s immersion in, and the breadth of her knowledge on, her subject. Although this is a slender, accessible volume, these provide something unique the more academic reader can appreciate as readily as the more casual. I found the intricate “lover’s knot” created by a hapless nineteenth century Pennsylvanian Quaker for the unrequiting object of his affections particularly intriguing.

O’Donnell, however, does not concentrate purely on the sweeter side of courtship at the expense of its, sometimes more visceral, reality. Regular readers of this blog will be quite satisfied with the quantities of scandal, prostitution, venereal disease, and ‘Vinegar’ Valentine’s cards in evidence. There is even a lengthy extract from the works of our late patron, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Whilst not entirely alleviating the biases of the more traditional sources, O’Donnell’s approach also helps to draw out some of the leaner evidence on illiterate, poor or gay courtships.

Finally, O’Donnell offers a way of looking at the past that might help shed some light on our own lives. With the benefit of a little perspective, she seems to suggest, perhaps we should not rush to judgement in the present. Certainly, we should be grateful for the relative freedoms we enjoy today and should be cautious of viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Above all, we should celebrate our courtships and not let them end at marriage. Seductive arguments.

Dr. John V.P. Jenkins 

Love and Hate in the 19th Century: Say It With Flowers

language_of_flowers_by_alphonse_mucha

Language of Flowers. Aphonse Mucha, 1900.

Although floriography existed in the ancient world and throughout the Renaissance, it hit its height of popularity in the nineteenth century. Mary Wartley Montagu is credited with bringing it to England in the early eighteenth century from her travels to the Ottoman Empire, where the court was fascinated with tulips. Tulipomania had come and gone a hundred years before, but European interest in botany was just beginning, contributing in no small part to the success of guides to the language of flowers.

Several such guides were available throughout the nineteenth century, many of them embellished with illustrations or even poetry. Hundreds of editions were sold around the world, and the craze influenced popular culture, with floriography appearing in books by Austen and the Brontes. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood used it extensively in many of their paintings, using the symbolism of the flowers to communicate themes to their audience in a language they would understand.

In a society as relatively repressed as Victorian Britain, floriography must have presented tantalizing possibility. One could say anything without saying anything at all. Rather involved love affairs could take place almost entirely with flowers. Whole conversations could be had in a single bouquet. It had the added benefit that it would have been a hobby for the genteel; it required a certain degree of literacy, knowledge of botany, and means with which to obtain the plants necessary to communicate one’s message. While one might pass daisies (“I share your sentiment”) every day, African Marigolds (“vulgar minds”) or Helmet Flowers (“knight-errantry”) might present a greater challenge.

Interestingly enough, for every plant with a positive meaning, there is at least one more with a severely negative one. Reading Kate Greenaway’s The Language of Flowers (1884), it is reassuring that those courted by people they didn’t fancy could put them off without being outwardly rude, from Red Balsam (“touch me not”) to the rather frightening Wild Tansy (“I declare war against you”).

Whether you’re researching a book, decoding a painting, or just looking for a Valentine’s idea for your loved one (or worst enemy), floriography is good fun. Here are some lists of my favorites. Scroll to the bottom for links to some nineteenth century guides you can read in full online or download for your e-reader. Have fun!

A Beginner’s Guide to the Language of Flowers

“When nature laughs out in all the triumph of Spring, it may be said, without a metaphor, that, in her thousand varieties of flowers, we see the sweetest of her smiles; that, through them, we comprehend the exultation of her joys; and that, by them, she wafts her songs of thanksgiving to the heaven above her, which repays her tribute of gratitude with looks of love. Yes, flowers have their language. Theirs is an oratory that speaks in perfumed silence, and there is tenderness, and passion, and even light-heartedness of mirth, in the variegated beauty of their vocabularly.” – Frederic Schoberl, 1834.

3275986767_d4dd7fb33d_b

Positive

Almond (flowering) Hope
Ambrosia Love returned
Arbor Vitae* Unchanging Friendship. Live for me.
Cloves Dignity
Clover, four-leaved Be mine
Coreopsis Arkansa Love at first sight
Coriander Hidden worth
Corn Riches
Daffodil Regard
Daisy, Garden I share your sentiments
Forget Me Not Forget Me Not
Ivy Fidelity. Marriage.
Lemon blossoms Fidelity
Mallow, Syrian Consumed by love
Oak Tree Hospitality
Oak Leaves Bravery
Pine-apple You are perfect
Potato Benevolence
Ranunculus You are radiant with charms
Snowdrop Hope
Strawberry Tree Esteem and Love
Tulip, Red Declaration of love
Tulip, Variegated Beautiful eyes
Tulip, Yellow Hopeless love
Venice Sumach Intellectual excellence
Walnut Intellect. Strategem.
Water Lily Purity of heart
1870s_vinegar_valentine_snake_proposal_declined

A “Vinegar Valentine” from the 1870s

Negative

Achillea Millefolia War
Aconite (Wolfsbane) Misanthropy
Adonis, Flos Painful recollections
Agnus Castus Coldness. Indifference.
Almond (common) Stupidity. Indiscretion.
Amaranth (cockscomb) Foppery
Apple, Thorn Deceitful charms
Asphodel My regrets follow you to the grave.
Bachelor’s Buttons Celibacy
Balsam, Red Touch me not
Barberry Sourness of temper
Basil Hatred
Bay leaf I change but in death.
Bay (Rose) Rhododendron Danger. Beware.
Belladonna Silence
Belvedere I declare against you
Bilberry Treachery
Birdsfoot Trefoil Revenge
Blue-flowered Green Valerian Rupture
Burdock Touch me not.
Butterfly Weed Let me go.
Carnation, Striped Refusal
Carnation, Yellow Disdain
Chequered Fritillary Persecution
China or Indian Pink Aversion
Citron Ill-natured beauty
Clotbur Rudeness. Pertinacity.
Coltsfood Justice shall be done
Columbine Folly
Convulvulus, Major Extinguished hopes
Creeping Cereus Horror
Crowfoot Ingratitude
Cypress Death. Mourning.
Dragonwort Horror
Enchanter’s Nightshade Witchcraft. Sorcery.
Flytrap Deceit
Fool’s Parsley Silliness
Frog Ophrys Disgust
Fuller’s Teasel Misanthropy
Fumitory Spleen
Garden Anemone Forsaken
Hand Flower Tree Warning
Hellebore Scandal
Hemlock You will be my death
Hydrangea Heartlessness
Japan Rose Beauty is your only attraction
Leaves (dead) Melancholy
Lavender Distrust
Lily, Yellow Falsehood
Licorice, Wild I declare against you
Lobelia Malevolence
Mandrake Horror
Milfoil War
Mosses Ennui
Mourning Bride Unfortunate attachment
Moving Plant Agitation
Mushroom Suspicion
Nettle, Burning Slander
Pennyroyal Flee away
Raspberry Remorse
Rose, York and Lancaster War
Rue Disdain
Saint John’s Wort Animosity
Spiked Willow Herb Pretension
Tamarisk Crime
Tansy (Wild) I declare war against you
Thistle, Scotch Retaliation
Trefoil Revenge
White Rose (dried) Death preferable to loss of innocence
Whortleberry Treason
Wormwood Absence
My love in her garden. Victorian Valentine card

Victorian Valentine by Kate Greenaway

Sexy

African Marigold Vulgar minds
Darnel (ray grass) Vice
Dittany of Crete, White Passion
Dragon Plant Snare
Everlasting Pea Lasting Pleasure
Fleur-de-Lis Flame. I burn.
Geranium, Lemon Unexpected meeting
Geranium, Nutmeg Expected meeting
Grass Submission
Jasmine, Spanish Sensuality
Linden or Lime Trees Conjugal Love
Orange Flowers Bridal festivities
Peach Blossom I am your captive
Quince Temptation
Rose, Carolina Love is dangerous
Rose, Dog Pleasure and pain
Tuberose Dangerous pleasures
Vine Intoxication

 

mechanical_valentine_06

Weird

Aloe Grief. Religious superstition
Cereus (Creeping) Modest genius
Christmas Rose Relieve my anxiety.
Cistus, Gum I shall die to-morrow
Colchicum, of Meadow Saffron My best days are past.
Dandelion Rustic Oracle
Helmet Flower (Monkshood) Knight-errantry
Houseleek Domestic industry
Indian Cress Warlike trophy
Lady’s Slipper Win me and wear me
Lint I feel my obligations
Oats The witching soul of music
Passion Flower Religious superstition
Persimon Bury me amid Nature’s beauties
Poppy, White. Sleep. My bane. My antidote.
Prickly Pear Satire
Violet, Yellow Rural happiness

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Greenaway, Kate. The Language of Flowers (1884)

Schoberl, Frederic. The Language of Flowers; With Illustrative Poetry (1834)

Tyas, Robert. The Sentiment of Flowers; or, Language of Flora (1836)

*Arbor Vitae was also slang for penis at this time.

 

Flirtation, Victorian Style: The Secret Language of Fans

A reclining lady with a fan

A reclining lady with a fan. Eleuterio Pagliano, 1876.

Before the Victorian era, fans were prohibitively expensive and were most commonly used in the royal courts of Denmark and France. English women wanting them in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were obliged to buy them imported. Fortunately for the thriftier ladies of fashion, the mass production of the Industrial Revolution soon made them available to the wider public.

The popularity of fans during the Victorian period was due in no small part to French fan-maker, Duvelleroy. When his first London shop opened on Regent Street in 1860, sales were propelled by the shop’s proprietor, Duvelleroy’s son, Jules, who encouraged the development of the language of fans through guides he published in leaflets. Some of these signals had been used before, but many of them he invented.

The “language” was a set of signals ladies could give with the fans to communicate with their suitors without speaking to them. While it is true that certain signals had been in use in the royal courts of Europe before Jules Duvelleroy captured the imagination of his shoppers, the much expanded set of signals he fostered started out as little more than a clever marketing gimmick. It was romantic, flirtatious, and ladies loved it.

The next time you’re at a ball and you would like to alert your chaperone that you need to use the facilities without accidentally becoming engaged, here’s a helpful guide to some of the most common fan signals:

Yes:    Touch your right cheek with your fan and leave it there.
No:    Touch your left cheek with your fan and leave it there.
I’m married:    Fan yourself slowly.
I’m engaged:    Fan yourself quickly.
I desire to be acquainted with you:    Place the fan in your left hand in front of your face.
Follow me:    Place the fan in your right hand in front of your face.
Wait for me:    Open your fan wide.
You have won my affection:    Place the fan over your heart.
Do you love me?:    Present the fan closed to them.
I love you:    Draw the fan across your cheek.
Kiss me:    Press a half-open fan to your lips.
I love someone else:    Twirl the fan in your right hand.
We are being watched:    Twirl the fan in your left hand.
You are cruel:    Open and close the fan several times.
I hate you:    Draw the fan through your hand.
Forgive me:    Hold the fan open in both hands.
I am sorry:    Draw the fan across your eyes.
Go away:    Hold the fan over your left ear.
Do not be so imprudent:    Make “threatening movements” with closed fan.
Do not betray our secret:    Cover left ear with fan.
We will be friends:    Drop the fan.

It is unclear how many ladies actually used fan signals to successfully communicate with their suitors. Even in this short list, there is ample opportunity for misunderstanding, and one can only guess how the gentlemen were expected to respond without holding fans of their own. We can only hope those not blessed with an expressive gaze were able to communicate by blinking in code or perhaps with rapid eyebrows movements! It’s easy to imagine a young suitor, totally baffled by the curious fan movements of his beloved, misunderstanding or giving up completely. Heaven help the poor lady who drops the thing or itches her ear with it and ruins her chances with someone by accident.

Duvelleroy05

Art nouveau advertisement for Duvelleroy by Gendrot, 1905.

In spite of the potential for misunderstanding, the popularity of fans endured throughout the nineteenth century. Beautiful fans were status symbols and they were an essential accessory for stuffy halls and ballrooms. Duvelleroy enjoyed another surge in popularity when they later embraced art nouveau with new shapes and hand painted designs.

Duvelleroy is still open today, in fact, and you can read about their history and see some of their stunning fans from the last two hundred years here.

Jessica Cale

Sources

MacColl, Gail and McD. Wallace, Carol. To Marry an English Lord.
Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain.
Willett Cunnington, C. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century.
Duvelleroy, History.