Expectations placed on young people of the aristocracy and the gentry were quite high. A young man was “expected” to make a match that would bring wealth or position to his family name. First, a gentleman was often several years older than his potential mate. For example, Fitzwilliam Darcy is eight and twenty years of age, while Elizabeth Bennet is twenty. In fact, Elizabeth and Jane Bennet are very close to being “on the shelf.” Girls made their Society debut at age sixteen. Gentlemen at age one and twenty. Several logical reasons affected these unspoken rules of courtship. For example, childbirth was a difficult time for women. Dangers were aplenty. It was believed that a young wife could withstand the need to produce the necessary “heir and a spare.” For the gentleman, twenty-one was the age at which a man could enter a contract without his father’s permission. One must recall that an engagement required a written contract during the Regency Period. Men without financial prospects often waited to marry in order to establish their careers and earn enough money to support a wife and children. Therefore, it was not uncommon for a man to marry at age 30 and for his wife to be between 16 and 20 years of age.
To meet the “perfect” or “not-so-perfect” mate, one attended dances (private balls and public assemblies) or other socials. Family and friends were a source of potential mates. When someone of interest appeared, finding private time to learn more of one another was difficult. A young lady was expected to chaperoned at all times. Dancing was one of the few activities in which the couple could participate and hold a conversation. However, a couple could dance no more than two 30 minute sets, otherwise, the couple would be thought to have an understanding in place, meaning they were considered engaged.
Apart from dancing, young people attended family parties or functions. At such social events, one was expected to be sociable with everyone in attendance. Again, spending time alone together was nearly nonexistent. Walking out or riding together required proper chaperones. Marianne Dashwood risks her reputation in Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” by riding alone in Mr. Willoughby’s gig, and in “Northanger Abbey,” Catherine Morland is very upset when John Thorpe maneuvers her into his gig alone.
A couple could not even correspond until they were officially engaged. Marianne pushes the lines of propriety when she writes Willoughby. Her letters are why Elinor assumes that Marianne is engaged to Willoughby.
Actually, the first time most couples were alone was during the actual proposal. Engagement rings were not necessarily given as a symbol of the lady’s acceptance. A woman’s power of refusal was her only control in the situation. Henry Tilney says as such in “Northanger Abbey.” Rarely did a woman refuse the proposal (except in the case of Elizabeth Bennet with both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy). If one recalls, Mr. Collins points out that Elizabeth is not likely to receive another proposal if she refuses him. Occasionally, a woman would break the engagement, but it was frowned upon for a gentleman to break the engagement. Society’s disapproval of his breaking the engagement is why Edward Ferrars keeps his word to Lucy Steele in “Sense and Sensibility.”
Once the proposal is accepted by the woman, the gentleman then asks the bride’s father for permission to marry her. Once the bride’s father approved, the marriage articles were drawn up. This contract defined the distribution of wealth and property in the marriage and what would happen to the wife and children if the husband met an early death. Occasionally, a jointure became part of the articles. A jointure stated that the wife would receive a guaranteed portion of her husband’s property upon his death.