Victorians were all about decorum, and courtship and marriage were no exception to that regimented approach to married life. Though mostly cringeworthy by today's standards, their customs are worth examining, finds Therese Oneill, author of the new book Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners. She does so with the caveat, however, that she's not hating on Victorians. "They had 150 years less knowledge than we do," she says. "We have no right to rag on them for that. It's far more interesting to me that, usually, when the Victorians had an offensive, crazy, sexist practice by today's standards, they usually had a practical reason behind it." Read on for some of the most head-scratching pieces of marriage advice from the era, and the interesting rationales behind them.
1. First, downplay your talents
Victorian women didn't have careers, but even in special cases where they had God-given talents—being an opera singer or writing children's storybooks about the Bible—they weren't considered marriage material, Oneill explains. "For a wife to work was to declare that her husband was incompetent and could not provide for his family," says Oneill.
2. Get "the talk" from mom on your wedding day
A proper Victorian lady wouldn't be expecting anything more than a "lovely snuggle" on her wedding night, says Oneill, and if a courtship was done respectably, she adds, a newlywed wife and husband barely knew each other. The (almost entirely male) marriage experts of the day were unanimous in the belief that "a mother was downright cruel to send her daughter off to her nuptial bed without telling her what awaited her," says Oneill. They didn't tell mothers what to say, Oneill adds, but they warned that a bride could be traumatized if unprepared.
3. Don't make love purely for pleasure or fun
Doing so led to diseases like cancer, or at least that's what some Victorian-era experts thought. "These doctors very seldom cited anything remotely connected to science for their beliefs, but they didn't need to," says Oneill. "Most of the people who bought their books, thought being punished by God and nature for transgressing their designs made perfect sense."
4. Don't make love when you're feeling absent-minded...
The thinking was that a child conceived during a less-than-exciting encounter would itself be dull and absent-minded. "As evidence, they pointed to how many great men in history, like Da Vinci, were bastards," says Oneill. "As bastards it was assumed they were conceived in passion, making their father's seed more acute than in normal situations."
5. ...or under the influence of alcohol
"It was even more dangerous to try and conceive if drunk," says Oneill, "that's how 'idiocy and numerous nervous maladies' were transferred to the child."
6. Don't nag your husband or ask too much of him
"Nagging, like whining in kids, is a side effect of being powerless. In a world where a woman was at the mercy of her husband's mood and decisions, she might find a lot to complain about," says Oneill. But nevermind all that: American reformer William Jay, reflecting on a Christian marriage, wrote during the early 19th century that women must not complain, even if there's reason to, because the man's authority "is the consequence of the sin of your own [female] sex."
7. Always look presentable for your husband
Women were encouraged to look fashionable, "but not too fashionable so that she strained her husband's pocketbook or appeared to be putting on airs," says Oneill. This included personal hygiene: Being tidy was expected, but being "too clean" could make others uncomfortable "to be in the presence of someone so fastidious."
8. Don't wear makeup
By the same token, wives were expected to look "alluring, but not too alluring," says Oneill. "Nothing would humiliate a man more than for his wife to appear of easy virtue." Makeup was discouraged (that's one more thing a husband has to pay for!) but "a pale even skin tone, rosy lips, and sparkling eyes" were valued in a woman.
9. Keep quiet about your husband's philandering
If a Victorian wife learned that her husband had been unfaithful, the advice of the day warranted discretion. The reasoning? "It's in a man's nature to go searching for a new version of the girl you used to be before you bore him seven children and made the comforts of his home the envy of the neighborhood," explains Oneill. Slighted wives could take solace in the fact that they were still the Mrs., the one he would always have to take care of first, says Oneill. "Those were the unspoken rules of Victorian cheating."
*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com
*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors