19th Century Nitty-Gritty: Dating Advice from the Age of Little Women

5 min read

By Melissa Rayner

There’s a reason books like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and A Room with a View have proudly stood the test of time. There’s something magical about the courtship process, something so timelessly romantic that we’re still hooked on these classic tomes more than a century later.

Ladies, do you long to be wooed? Find yourself wishing you could find your very own Mr. Darcy? Heck, would you even settle for Heathcliff?

Gents, are you pursuing someone who rebuffs your attempts at every turn? Close to giving up on the one your heart desires, because nothing ever turns out in your favor?

Oh, ye, who are love-lorn, unrequited in your affections, or otherwise lacking in the love department, take heed! We need only look at the nineteenth century to solve all your woes. So, come hither, and let’s look to the age of courtship, old-fashioned values, and “mellifluous song.”

Today’s society places way too much emphasis on love at first sight. It didn’t work for Romeo and Juliet, and it probably hasn’t worked for you either. “With a little delay and assiduity combined,” you can, in fact, turn a no into a yes. Take it from this short advice column full of advice for British youngsters in 1888 (taken from 19th Century UK Periodicals). Be like the wild bird, and your chick will surely “exact homage before marriage.”

taken by storm

It’s true, if you want a nineteenth century kind of love, you really do need to look to the skies. Birds have all kinds of great and romantic advice, if you just pay a little attention. Take the tale of Cock Robin for instance. When he fell in love with Jenny-Wren, he offered her all he had, and then some. She was grateful for it and accepted his proposal but not all the unnecessary gifts that came with it.

Another lesson to be learned from these two:  They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but it seems to work on women as well (at least, women of the feathered variety).

cock robinSo read this sweet excerpt from their story below (taken from Nineteenth Century Collections Online), and ignore the fact that the full title of this charming children’s book is “Courtship, Marriage, Death, and Burial of Cock Robin.”

Robin Redbreast lost his heart : He was a gallant bird; He doffed his hat to Jenny, And thus to her he said : ” My dearest Jenny-Wren, If you will but -be mine, You shall dine on cherry-pie, And drink nice currant-wine. I’ll dress you like a Goldfinch, Or like a Peacock gay ; So, if you’ll have me, Jenny, Let us appoint the day.” Jenny blushed behind her fan, And thus declared her mind : ” Then let it be to-morrow, Bob : I take your offer kind. Cherry-pie is very good, So is currant-wine, But I’ll wear my russet gown. And never dress too fine.

Let’s carry on with some non-avian advice from a Presbyterian youth pastor (again from Nineteenth Century Collections Online):  Respect the balance of power. Just as he claims that it is not a lady’s place to initiate the pursuit, it is not a man’s place to tease out her answer before he even asks the question. Put your heart completely on the line, or be coy, as the case may be–it’s totally romantic.SULLIED

But it’s not just the Protestants who have written long and detailed decrees on courtship and marriage, the Catholics have just as much to say on the topic (yet again, taken from Nineteenth Century Collections Online). A certain French priest was so renown for his international conferences on the matter, his advice was translated into multiple languages. His best advice for you? Remember why we are so compelled to court and love one another in the first place.


And finally, because for some reason the best advice on this matter comes from 19th Century UK Periodicals, remember that love is about the journey–in specific, the chase. If your courtship moves too quickly, so too will your bout with happiness. Remember, the pursuit is the absolute best part–so take it slow for maximum pleasure.

the pursuit

The last bit of advice? Take all the previous advice to heart! Happy courting 🙂

listen to my advice!


  • child marriageCOURTSHIP.” Our Young Folk’s Weekly Budget 26 May 1888: 331. 19th Century UK Periodicals. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • Illus. Henry Stannard. Courtship, Marriage, Death and Burial of Cock Robin. London: Frederick Warne & Co., [ca.1880]. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • MARRIAGE.” The Lady’s Newspaper & Pictorial Times 8 Apr. 1854: 217. 19th Century UK Periodicals. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • Monsabre, Jacques Marie Louis. Marriage. New York; Cincinnati; Chicago: Benziger Brothers, 1890. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.
  • Parker, Joel. Courtship and Marriage. Philadelphia: Perkins and Purves, 1845. Nineteenth Century Collections Online. Web. 22 Oct. 2014.



Melissa for Caricature (2)About the Author

Melissa is obsessed with books, birds, and bonbons. She is a new mom and holds an MA in Applied Sociology. She also writes fiction and skips about the interweb as Emlyn Chand.



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