According to Cassell's, when a Victorian gentleman wishes to propose, he first "ascertains the state of a lady's feelings towards himself before he makes a positive declaration of his love." He then had to seek out a blessing from the lady's father before the engagement was official.
Before he obtained this blessing, the couple had to suspend communication and "live towards each other as perfect strangers for the time" [source: Cassell]. This could be a while, as getting this blessing meant settling financial matters. A gentleman presented his own financial situation, and the family would present what fortune a lady had. A lady would generally get a portion of her fortune for her own use, and then the principal was put in a trust — the interest of which could go to the husband. Once official, if one party chose to break an engagement, the other could sue for damages [source: Pool].
Assuming it all worked out, engaged people had to behave themselves before the happy event. The lady still needed chaperones with her as she was never to go out alone with her fiancé. Furthermore, the couple mustn't retreat from a group to whisper together or do anything to "excite smiles and comments" from others [source: Cassell]. Cassell's unequivocally declares that such "absurd" behavior "is a violation of propriety." Indeed, it was considered "excessively vulgar" for an engaged woman to clasp her hand on her fiancé's arm. No wonder Victorian couples often sought short engagements.
Author's Note: 10 Ridiculous Victorian Etiquette Rules
In Whit Stillman's film "Metropolitan," the protagonist argues that "nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near ridiculous from today's perspective," to which another replies, "Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen's perspective would look even worse?" As an admirer of Jane Austen, I'm not one to necessarily dismiss the importance of a social rule simply because it seems ridiculous out of context of time and culture. It's easy to (and often nearly impossible not to) laugh at foregone customs. But examining these customs will tell you a lot about a culture and what has changed, for better or for worse.
More Great Links
- Carpenter, Lucien O. "Universal Dancing Master." VictorianWeb.Org. 1880. (April 29, 2015) http://www.victorianweb.org/history/Etiquette.html
- Cassell, Ltd. "Cassell's Household Guide: Being a Complete Encyclopedia of Domestic and Social Economy, and Forming a Guide to Every Department of Practical Life." Cassell, Ltd., 1869. (April 23, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=L0sCAAAAQAAJ
- Goodman, Ruth. "How to Be a Victorian." Liveright Publishing Corp. 2013.
- King, Greg. "Twilight of Splendor: The Court of Queen Victoria During Her Diamond Jubilee Year." John Wiley & Sons. June 4, 2007. (April 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=tNa57nc2S0wC
- Phegley, Jennifer. "Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England." ABC-CLIO. Nov. 30, 2011. (April 29, 2015) https://books.google.com/books?id=jYL9cPE_M5EC
- Pool, Daniel. "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew." Simon & Schuster. 1993.
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