With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, it’s pretty hard to ignore all the red hearts and sentimentality currently about, especially if you haven’t found “Mr. Right”, who, for many of us, bears a striking resemblance to one Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley. Well, if you think it’s difficult to find a man like Mr. Darcy in the twenty-first century, just imagine attempting it in the nineteenth, where propriety was demanded at all times—especially during courtship.
In Regency England, a woman’s sole occupation was to attract a husband. It sounds easy enough, but, in actuality, it was a bit more complicated than one might think. For one thing, there were rules to follow, each designed to protect and preserve a lady’s reputation and standing in Society. Not only was it unacceptable for a respectable woman to seek employment of any kind, it was scandalous for an unmarried lady to appear in public without a chaperone, or to openly express an interest in a gentleman. Propriety dictated she must wait patiently for the prospective suitor to express his admiration for her, never the other way around.
Should a promising gentleman just happen to express his interest, however…well, there were a few more rules to follow. Intimate touching, for instance, was not permitted, nor was familiarity of address—meaning the gentleman and lady in question were required to address each other formally at all times, never by their Christian names. Letter writing was not allowed, nor was gift giving; and under no circumstances was the couple to be left alone together. That would lead to implications of marital intent.
So, what could a courting Regency couple do? Well, to be honest, not much; there was, however, walking and dancing. On a walk—carefully chaperoned, of course—the couple could easily engage in discreet conversation by lagging behind the rest of their party. As dancing usually required a man and woman to hold hands at frequent intervals throughout the set, it provided an acceptable way for them to engage in physical contact, under the watchful eyes of an entire assembly, of course. It also provided another opportunity for partners to converse discreetly.
As a writer, however, I sometimes find my characters, who often have very strong minds of their own, ignoring propriety. The following passage is a very short excerpt from my novel-in-progress, In Doubt of Mr. Darcy. It’s a pretty good example of what wouldn’t be acceptable between an unmarried couple (especially in the darkened back hall of an assembly room)! I hope you enjoy it.
As she made to move past him a second time, Darcy reached out and captured one of her hands in his own. Elizabeth inhaled sharply at the contact.
“Miss Bennet,” he said lowly, “I would never wish to keep you from your family, but I have a request I would make of you, if you would be so generous as to hear me.” Here, he increased the pressure upon her hand and swallowed audibly once more. When she did not object, but remained silent, he continued. “Will you grant me the honour of dancing the next with you; that is, if you are not otherwise engaged?”
Elizabeth could do nothing but stare at his hand, which held her own so firmly that she could not think beyond the wondrous impropriety of it. The exquisite warmth of his touch rapidly suffused her gloved fingertips, the length of her arm, her entire body. It tantalised and tempted her in ways she had always been forbidden to consider. She dared not raise her eyes to look upon his face, nor into the depths of his own eyes. From past instances, she knew his piercing gaze was most likely trained upon her with an intensity that would only serve to discompose her completely. She parted her lips, but words failed her utterly.
Since Lydia’s shameful elopement had Elizabeth endeavoured to forget him, but without success. She had endured months of continued disappointment and regret, and it was only very recently—the matter of no more than a few short days—that she felt she had finally begun to make some sort of progress, however slight, in tempering her longing for this impossible man before her.
She could not but be furious with herself for her body’s treacherous reaction to Darcy’s nearness. A burning indignation, not only for his presumptive forwardness and impropriety, but also for his lengthy absence and previous disregard simmered in the pit of her stomach. Why had he sought her out alone in a darkened hall after he had essentially deserted her months ago without so much as a parting word!
In an effort to calm her rising temper, as well as regulate other, far more disturbing sensations within her body, Elizabeth took a deep breath and attempted to pull her hand from Darcy’s firm grasp, but to no avail. Her cheeks, much like her hand, burned; her shock from her failure to free herself acute. “I need not remind you that we are in public, sir,” she admonished in a low, slightly unsteady voice. “I do not wish to be the subject of another scandal, nor provide fodder for any of the gossips in attendance. I am sorry, but my dance card is full.”
Many thanks for reading!