While writing my award-winning novel, Dark Persuasion, I spent a fair amount of time researching Victorian courting, wedding preparations, weddings, and honeymoons.  The entire process felt so romantic to me that I focused quite a bit on the wedding between my heroine and hero. Below are a few excerpts from previous blogs that I’ve written regarding that research.  I hope you enjoy!

The Wedding Trousseau

The French word trousseau refers, of course, to a bride’s bundle of personal possessions amassed prior to the wedding that include undergarments and clothing. Late in the 19th and early 20th century, a collection of household wares (tablecloths, towels, linens, etc.) were also included.

Below is an excerpt from a website entitled the Vintage Connection describing a typical trousseau around 1884. It would include the following: “… a dozen chemises trimmed with embroidery or insertions, a dozen nightdresses, six well-trimmed combinations, a dozen drawers, nine trimmed petticoats, one French petticoat, nine camisoles, six vests, five flannel petticoats, two dressing gowns, three-bed jackets, a dozen pairs of fine-quality Lisle stockings, three pairs of silk stockings, two dozen handkerchiefs, a pair of French corsets, a bustle, a satin nightdress and a lace-trimmed sachet.”

The Wedding

Everything in the Victorian era seemed to be dictated by proper etiquette. Weddings were no different. There were rules about fashion, the time to wed, and the reception. Here are a few short, but interesting facts.

If the bride married in a church, a gown with a long train and a veil of the same length was the style of the era. The veil remained over the bride’s face until after the wedding ceremony. I’ve read conflicting statements regarding kissing at the altar, but I allowed a smooch anyway for my characters.

Pure white had not yet become the standard of choice in wedding dresses even though Queen Victoria started the rage. Colors varied. Bridesmaids often wore the same color of dress as the bride.

Superstitions abounded. There were rhymes about what day of the week was best to wed, the color of a bride’s dress, and, of course, the famous saying: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a lucky sixpence in your shoe.”  Each item had a meaning and purpose like the sixpence, which was meant to bless the wedding with wealth and prosperity.  No one married on Sunday, but the other days all had meaning:

Marry on Monday for health
 Tuesday for wealth
 Wednesday the best day of all
 Thursday for crosses
 Friday for losses
Saturday for no luck at all.

(Obtained from the website The Victorian Wedding)

After the service, the tossing of rice, grain, or birdseed was used for good luck when it came to fertility. If it were a wealthy couple, a carriage drawn by four white horses waited for the bride and groom after the service to take them to the reception. The reception was usually held at the bride’s home. Weddings took place in the morning around 11 o’clock, and the reception consisted of a wedding breakfast.

An area for a receiving line would have been set up for the bride and groom at the reception. Brides were addressed first, unless the guest only knew the groom. In that instance, the groom would introduce the bride. I must laugh when I discovered that the bride was never congratulated, as the honor of marriage was conferred upon her already for agreeing to marry the groom. (Lucky spinster finally finds a husband, I guess.)

Guests enjoyed their breakfast, but there was no entertainment at the reception. Evening receptions, with dancing, only occurred at lavish wedding affairs. After the reception, the bride changed into another dress for her honeymoon journey. Only the groom and the best man knew the location, which by tradition was a well-kept secret.

There are many websites regarding Victorian-era weddings. The link in this post has quite a bit of detail. However, the Victorian era spanned many years, as you know, so traditions changed somewhat as the years progressed.

Such is the romance of the Victorian ages.

Contributed by Vicki Hopkins, Author

It’s the years of the huge skirts!  Get out of the way men, women need room to navigate.  I mean, who came up with this idea?  A man?  A woman?  I’m too lazy to research that point, but nevertheless, whoever decided that skirts needed to have a huge circumference didn’t realize they were putting women’s lives in danger.   The cartoons are enough to make you chuckle and the horror of going up in flames or dying from arsenic poisoning because you wore green were female hazards. Here are a few good articles thanks to Racked to give you historical background on fashionable hazards.

A History of Women Who Burned to Death in Flammable Dresses

The History of Green Dye Is a History of Death


So authors and readers alike, if you read a historical romance set in these eras, you can wonder if they wore any of the fashions below. You can also wonder if they lived to tell about it.

Years ago, I stumbled across the book Victorian Women by Joan Perkin and realized that it was a treasure chest of information about the Victorian era and the challenges Victorian women faced.
Studying the contents has been an eye-opening experience. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in moving beyond the romance of the era and into reality. What is unique about the book, is that it contains text from women who lived during that time period, expressing what it was like to be a woman in a man’s world. Joan Perkins includes the lives of all women, in the upper class, middle class, and working-class, to give the reader a complete picture. To be a woman in the Victorian era was frankly unromantic. Here are a few of the many items that I found informative:
  • The importance of class and gender in the Victorian era played a large role in a woman’s life. A quotation from Alexander Walker, a physiologist, in the mid-1800s had this to say about women. “It is evident that the man, possessing reasoning faculties, muscular power, and courage to employ it, is qualified for being a protector: the woman, being little capable of reasoning, feeble, and timid, requires protection. Under such circumstances, the man naturally governs; the woman as naturally obeys.” The general male opinion regarding the female sex was void of respect. Women, however, as general, didn’t buy into the fact that they were inferior to the male species. Wives who only gave birth to girls were considered failures in their marriages. A male child was considered far better not only to produce an heir for the upper class but to produce workers for the family of the working-class.
  • No formal schooling existed for children until the eighteen-eighties. Upper-class women were taught at home by governesses and tutors. The middle-upper class taught their children at home or paid for private schooling or boarding school. The lower-class women were self-taught or remained illiterate. I am astonished from my own ancestry research on my family in the Manchester, UK area in the nineteenth century how many of my ancestors put an “X” as their mark on documents such as marriage certificates.
  • On one spectrum, the Victorian era was one of prudish ideals. Sex, menstruation, and masturbation were never discussed in the upper and middle classes. Most women entered marriage completely ignorant regarding sexual relations or the female reproduction system. Sex was considered a marital duty in order to produce children and should never be a pleasurable experience for a woman. Ignorance was a means used to keep daughters pure until marriage.
  • Up until the age of 21, men and women needed parental consent to marry. Marriage for the upper classes, of course, was arranged for wealth and power. Charlotte Bronte thought that romantic awakening was romantic folly. Women shouldn’t fall in love till the offer of marriage had been given, the wedding ceremony over, and the first half-year of marriage had passed. Middle-class women married men that received their parents’ approval. Finding a husband could be difficult. In eighteen fifty-one, there were 500,000 more women than men in England, and by nineteen-eleven, the number rose to 1.5 million.
  • The lower-class women lived entirely different lives. In the 19th century over a third of women were pregnant when they got married. The farming community “indulged freely in fornication and adultery.”
  • A double standard existed in all three classes. Men were not criticized for fornication or illicit sex before or during a marriage, but women were held to different rules.
  • The mortality rates were astounding in childbirth. One in two hundred women died giving birth. Most women had an average of nine children. There were crude and ineffective means of birth control, and abortion was a crime. Many poor women, however, attempted to abort babies and died in the process.
  • Once married, a woman’s property belonged to a man. Any wages a woman earned during the marriage belonged to her husband. It wasn’t until eighteen-eighty-two that an Act of Parliament finally gave a married woman the right to her property at the time of marriage or earned during the marriage.
  • Underpants were not worn before the eighteen-forties. Now you know.
  • There are interesting chapters regarding what women did during the Victorian era regarding entertainment and domestic life for all classes.
  • We romanticize the Victorian era far too much. A wife was the property of the husband. Once again, the double standard held where he could be unfaithful, but the wife could not. Divorce came by Private Acts of Parliament before eighteen-fifty-seven and was very costly and difficult to obtain. Men could divorce their wives for adultery; women could not divorce only on the grounds of adultery, but it had to be accompanied by either physical cruelty, bigamy, or incest. Custody of children went to the fathers, and the rights to see the children after a divorce could be curtailed or forbidden for the mother.
  • The husband had the right “to give moderate correction” if she did not obey. Wife abuse occurred in all classes of society. Women had very little recourse against husbands who beat them and leaving was often not an option. Not until eighteen-seventy-eight were women able to separate from abusive husbands and receive some type of maintenance from their spouses. Because divorce was difficult to obtain, married partners would often separate and go their way. Alternatives would be living with another lover out of wedlock or committing bigamy.
  • Most women outlived their husbands by many years, and widowhood for women in all classes could be a devastating and difficult time. One in four individuals over sixty-five were considered paupers and ended up their lives in workhouses or asylums. Unless they had family members who could afford to care for them, widows needed to turn to other means in order to support themselves. If they were savvy enough, they may take in boarders, clean houses, or find other menial jobs in order to survive.
  • There were a growing number of women who preferred spinsterhood rather than marriage because they were free to handle their money, make their decisions, and keep their illegitimate children. Middle-class women had more opportunities to pursue skilled jobs, but they were paid a pittance in comparison to their male counterparts. Lower-class women often worked long hours in factories and other jobs, and sometimes resorted to prostitution.
The book is filled with many details from women of the past that will shock you regarding the hardships and inequality they faced. However, there are truly inspirational stories, too, about those women who worked to bring about equality and change for women.
As an author, I realize that I am guilty of writing about an era and purposely ignoring the hardships that Victorian women endured. Perhaps as modern ladies, we are merely enamored by men in ascots who look dashing, rich, and handsome. We love our dukes and titled men, the fancy houses, and the lavish lifestyles and fashions. These are the fantasy men we have chosen to fall in love with between the pages, and the lovers we have given our heroines.
However, the aristocracy of England during the Victorian era only accounted for two percent of the population. Another small percentage included the upper-middle-class, which consisted of fifteen percent of the population. These were families such as businessmen and tradesmen, who could adequately support their families.
To write about the other eighty-three percent of the population would be depressing to most readers. Frankly, I do not think that women care to read about suffering women in romance books. I know when I wrote about the hardships of one poor French woman in eighteen-seventy in my first book, The Price of Innocence, I was severely criticized in reviews for writing a “miserable story.” However, let’s be honest with ourselves. Lives for women during that time period were for the most part miserable, which thankfully gave rise to changes in law and attitudes.

 

vladimir-pervunensky-a-ball-20051-e1269940274323“The advantage of the ball in the upper classes is, that it brings young people together for a sensible and innocent recreation, and takes them away from the silly, if not bad ones; that it gives them exercise, and that the general effect of the beauty, elegance, and brilliance of a ball is to elevate rather than deprave the mind.”

The quote above comes from my favorite discovery, which is a book entitled, “The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen” by an unknown author, originally published in 1872. Frankly, it’s a hoot to read, filled with, “thoughts, hints, and anecdotes concerning social observances, nice points of taste and good manners, and the art of making one’s self agreeable.

Because of the information about life in Victorian times, I thought that I would occasionally write a post about the tidbits found between its pages. It’s a tedious read of over 319 pages in print. Subjects covered are good breeding, education, cultivation of taste, reason, the art of speech, knowledge of English literature, moral character, temper, hospitality, good manners, birth, wealth, rank, and distinction. If you’re interested in purchasing the book, it is available on Amazon, but I’ll warn you that it’s a bit of a task to read. For authors, it’s a wealth of information.

The chapter on balls humorously begins with the following quote.  “Balls are the paradise of daughters, the purgatory of chaperons, and the pandemonium of paterfamilias.”  It goes on to say it’s a father’s nightmare because daughters need new dresses and the brougham won’t be available the night of the affair. Of course, there is always the hope one’s daughter might return engaged. Balls are apparently better entertainment for young men rather than drinking and gambling and a form of good exercise. There are differences between attending a ball and giving a ball.

In order to give a ball during the season, one must be sure to have a big enough room. Overcrowding is not good for comfortable dancing. One hundred or more attendees constitute a large ball, and below that number, it is simply a ball. Under fifty, and you’re only attending a dance. Numbers must be proportionate to the size of the rooms, as one must be able to move around in order to meet new acquaintances. The standards for an agreeable ball are good ventilation, good arrangement, a good floor to dance upon, good music, a good supper, and good company. Remember that the beauty of the dresses worn by the young ladies is only enhanced with good lighting.

As far as music, here are the recommendations. Four musicians are enough for a private ball. A piano and violin are the mainstays. Dances should be arranged beforehand, as well as pre-printed dance cards for the ladies. A small pencil should be attached to the end of each card. Out of twenty-one dances, seven should be quadrilles, three of which may be lancers, along with seven waltzes, four galops, a polka, and some sort of other dance.

Of course, every ball has its wallflower. A young lady, even a plain one, maybe a good dancer and should always have some partners. The right of introduction rests on the lady and gentleman of the house, but a chaperon may introduce a gentleman to her charge. How a lady refuses a dance must be done carefully. One should not lie that she has a headache to get out of dancing with a partner. A man should never press her to dance after one refusal. A man should ask by saying, “May I have the pleasure of dancing this waltz with you?” Just because she dances with you at a ball, it does not mean that she cares to have a relationship. On the Continent, a man should never dance twice with the same lady if she is unmarried. In England, men may choose one or two partners and dance with them through the evening without expecting to commit to marriage. And this part, I really love, and I quote. “The well-bred and amiable man will sacrifice himself to those plain, ill-dressed, dull-looking beings who cling to the wall, unsought and despairing. After all, he will not regret his good nature.”

Wallflowers receiving an invitation to dance usually give the best conversation, dance the best, and show great gratitude for the attention. At the end of every dance, a man offers his right arm to his partner, walks the room with her, and asks if she will take refreshment.

There is quite a bit more about holding a ball, attending a ball, eating at a ball, and the proper manners desired.

I hope you enjoyed this peek into 1872. Now close your eyes and imagine that handsome man in the cravat coming your way. Will you accept his invitation to dance or politely turn him down? Since I’m the wallflower type, no doubt I’ll do my best to make an impression. However, I don’t know how to do the quadrille or galop.  Do you have any idea?