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Valentine’s Day: The product of Victorian courtship in England?

Professor Jennifer Phegley signs copies of her newly released book “Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England” for fans.
Professor Jennifer Phegley signs copies of her newly released book “Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England” for fans.

Victorian courtship and online dating may seem unrelated, but English Department Chair and Professor of English Language and Literature Jennifer Phegley has related the two together.

Phegley’s lecture at the Central Branch of the Kansas City Public Library on Thursday nightindulged a 200-strong crowd with references to her newly released book “Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England.”

Phegley claiming that the “prim and proper” characteristics of the Victorian era are “in need of some serious revision.”.

Paying particular attention to matrimonial dating notices in the Victorian era, Phelgey puts a modern spin on the topic by referencing the surging popularity of dating websites like eHarmony and Match.com.

Modern dating sites have their roots in the 19th century and the growth of print journalism.

“Advertising for love,” Phegley said, is a phenomenon that sprouted from the “growing numbers of displaced people in urban society.”

As a result, people were matched based on how their profiles advertised themselves to the unknown public.

Also at this time, Phegley mentions the introduction of “companionate marriage,” a love-based consensual marriage, a far cry from the parentally-controlled economic transactions of old.

The model for this newly-developing marriage came from an unusual source, the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. This union was promoted as a “love match” and a ”marriage of equals”.” Cartoons of the time parodied the gender role reversal associated with this female proposal as a symbol of the rising influence and control of women through the medium of courtship and marriage.

Phegley also analyzed courtship courting manuals, love-letter writing manuals and etiquette rule-books that dealt with the issue of bridging class-barriers as women proceeded to “do the courting.”

The Penny Post promoted the growing demand for Valentine’s letters, and soon correspondence columns sprung up in the newspapers, with Cupid’s Letterbag (1852-`55) encouraging women to “assume a less frigid manner” and signaled a change for periodicals into an interactive form.

As reader demand grew, The London Journal ads became more detailed, with trades, class and ranging incomes becoming key features for males to promote, while women often claimed large inheritance and “domestic abilities.”

Somewhat surprisingly, a comedic Victorian newspaper personal advertised “A future husband seen through the medium of repugnance,” where a lack of attractiveness would see a man as “no less an ogre to her”.

However, the new abnormal forms of courtship were often regarded as scandalous, and Charles Dickens criticized the “self-promotion and untrustworthiness” of such women. Nevertheless, popularity grew, giving rise to private matchmakers, and eventually, the modern-day dating industry.

This business-like attitude revolutionized the nation and helped England to gain greater self-determination, as Phegley fittingly puts it, “for better or for worse.”

lharman@unews.com

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