Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Old-Fashioned" Courtship?

I'm in the mood to write about courtship again, which means I'm likely to be long-winded.

Here's a pro-courtship article that's a pretty good summary of the major points and arguments marshaled in its favor. One of those is that courtship is just a return to the good old-fashioned methods followed before the advent of dating, without going all the way back to arranged marriages which are assumed to be the default.

Now, the entire history of the world is a pretty broad swath to be dealing with, and I'll not attempt to argue it one way or the other whether most marriages have been arranged over time. I'm not a sociologist.

Instead, I'll just narrow it down to something more familiar, and most likely to be used as a comparison: the customs of Anglo-American society in the 19th century. To be familiar with those, one does not need to scour dusty records, one just needs to be an avid reader of 19th century novels. After all, no one has a stronger interest in portraying the mores and customs of their time accurately than a writer telling a realistic story for the entertainment of their contemporaries. (Though the success of modern moviemakers in grasping the finer details is a more doubtful.)

So, according to the article, courtship involves a young man approaching a girl's father to begin the process, an express purpose of considering one another as spouses, protection of the girl from getting emotionally involved with a young man not serious about marriage, and counsel and guidance from the parents, especially the girl's father, who is the final authority.

Does Mr. Darcy need guidance from Mr. Bennett?
For that matter, does Elizabeth?

But this bears very little resemblance to how relationships unfold in the stories that have actually come down to us. There is not the slightest indication of a young man approaching a father before pursuing a relationship with a girl. Rather, there were many social and community events at which young people were expected to mingle, dance, chat, and, well, flirt. It was not unheard of for couples to go off and spend some time by themselves, say, riding in a carriage, or to pair off and wander into the shrubbery. A young man might visit at a girl's house, but it might be unclear whether he was calling on the girl or just hanging about . There was a sort of filtering process that occurred here, in that persons considered utterly improper were socially ostracized (not that this prevented unsuitable matches entirely), but no requirement of formal consent before developing a relationship.

Flirtations that did not lead to marriage happened frequently, though there was a complex code about how far one might decently go without serious intentions, and much room for misunderstanding. There was an expectation that a serious relationship would lead to marriage pretty directly, though, so we do not usually have long years as a couple before deciding to marry--things went on or were over, unless the couple was too young or too poor to marry. After the match was settled between the young people, a decent fellow would get consent from the girl's father--though in most cases this seems to have been a formality. Parents and other relatives might work to promote matches they thought advantageous (almost always having to do with either money or social rank) but were not overtly involved. Engagements were taken very seriously, and breaking one was both difficult and disgraceful.

There's also the factor that these are the practices of people of some means. What glimpses we see of the lower classes suggests that they were even less formal. A girl who "went out to service" (most lower-class girls) had no one but herself to look after her honor, let alone her heart.

Anyway, while this had advantages and disadvantages and is obviously different from modern dating, it is also quite different from modern courtship. Above all, it carries not a whiff of "emotional purity," and while the father has a role, it is mostly as a figurehead, unless he wants to be thoroughly skewered as a domestic tyrant. All the best heroines have their own hearts and heads well in hand and can (and indeed must) learn to tell a rake from an honorable fellow, at least before things get too carried away.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

Two comments:

1. But don't let actual facts get in the way of your theology of human relationships. ;)

2. It is my opinion that the original "Courtship" proponents, including Douglas Phillips and Greg Harris, came to their positions, not through an attempt to recreate the Nineteenth Century; but because they were Reconstructionists heavily influenced by Rousas Rushdoony.

Thus, you will find that Phillips' Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy resemble nothing so much as the Code of Hammurabi.

(Some of my belief in this was based on my wife's experience in Jonathan Lindvall's group, wherein he expressly attempted to recreate the "betrothal" system of the Old Testament.

Now, whether they actually did anything like "Courtship" or "Betrothal" as we hear about them today is an interesting question...

Wendy said...

I'm always interested in your thoughts on this, not least because "courtship" is something I only heard about as an adult. I read "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" after I was married (and then wondered if it would work).

So far our slant seems to be talking to our kids about how to recognize a person's character and what to look for in a spouse.

I guess we'll see how that turns out!

Queen of Carrots said...


I think talking with kids about character and marriage is an excellent idea.

I also think that watching BBC miniseries of 19th century novels is an excellent basis for such discussions.

I have, of course, NO ulterior motives in this approach.