rules and suggestions for courtship and romance occupy most of the space
in Victorian etiquette and letter writing books. Near the end of the
section there is generally one curt letter of refusal to a marriage
The rules and suggestions for courtship and romance occupy most of the
space in Victorian etiquette and letter writing books. There are usually flowery forms for
written proposals from the suitor as well as a plethora of gushing acceptances from the
bride-elect. Near the end of the section there is generally one curt letter of refusal to
a marriage proposal. Usually the tone of the letter is vague and contains assurances that
the honored lady thanks the gentleman for his offer but she cannot accept his proposal.
The Victorian precept that a lady "never explains or complains" is followed
Letters of Refusal
Surprisingly, the 1879 edition of The Worchester Letter Writer by the
publishing house of Dick & Fitzgerald of New York presents more letter forms for
refusing a proposal than it presents for encouraging a suitor! To readers today the index
titles for these letters sound wildly humorous. Consider the titles "Refusal on the
grounds of dislike", "Refusal on the grounds of unsteadiness of the
suitor", and "Refusal on the grounds that the suitor is much younger than
the grounds of dislike"
Upon careful thought, however,
these letters can be seen to be sober testimony to the general tenor of society in the
third quarter of nineteenth century America. The short paragraph headed "Refusal on
the grounds of dislike" is important information to a historian today for what it
reveals about the life of men in 1879. That such a letter was not absurd to include in a
serious work is mute testimony to the number of young men who "failed" in the
world. The contents of the letter are brief:
"Sir. -- I am astonished at your temerity, or, rather, your impudence. The man who
assisted in effecting a brother's ruin, is not a suitable partner for his sister; and a
moment's reflection might have convinced you that your agency in the matter to which I
allude, has earned for you, not the love, but the unchangeable dislike of..."
"Refusal on the grounds of
unsteadiness of the suitor"
Further evidence that young men of 1879 America were going
"astray" is found in the letter entitled "Refusal on the grounds of
unsteadiness of the suitor":
There was a time when your addresses would have flattered and pleased me, but that time
has long since passed away. Your conduct during the last two years has been made known to
me, and, viewing you in the light of a dangerous man, I do not desire anymore intimate
acquaintance. I could not reasonably expect happiness from a union with an individual who
has destroyed the mental quiet of more than one young person, by his total disregard for
what is due to the weaker by the stronger sex..."
Indeed, men of the period seem to have had such a predilection for
going astray that the "courtship" section also includes a lengthy epistle
entitled "Remonstrance of a young lady against the reckless life of her future
husband". The lady writes to her future husband that the company he is keeping of
late is "fast" and that his associates are "prejudicial to his future
prospects" in business and also, since possessed of greater fortunes than has he, are
luring him into a life beyond his means.
"Let me beseech you to abandon company which can only unsettle your disposition and
destroy your future prospects," she begs.
My dear Lloyd. --
In all these letters we catch a glimpse of what was relatively new in
America -- a young educated man with a living to earn, probably separated from his family
and living on his own in a city. In nineteenth century America a young man was reared to
look to his mother and sisters for moral guidance and away from these influences he was
culturally unprepared to take a strong moral stand on his own. As a "victim" of
the new technology, the town worker had more leisure than had even his recent ancestors.
In search of ways to occupy his evenings when his pocket money was limited, he often fell
in with other fellows like himself. It is curious that the same letter writing volume
contains a form for a letter between young men-about-town which has the seeds for disaster
on which the three foregoing letters touch:
"My dear Lloyd. -- Half a dozen good fellows, together with your humble servant,
propose devoting a few hours on Wednesday evening to a little social chit-chat, etc.,
enlivened by the imbibitions of sundry bottles of wine. I trust you will be present on that
occasion... believe me, we shall have a right merry party."
"Refusal on the grounds
that the suitor is much younger than herself"
What course was left for the young man who had strayed? If he had
acquired a taste for high living and the suitable young women were refusing his advances,
perhaps he could find a wealthy widow. At least enough young men had to be trying that
route in order to justify the letter manual's inclusion of "Refusal on the grounds
that the suitor is much younger than herself". The text is interesting enough to be
cited at length:
"Dear Sir. -- My objections to the proposal contained in your letter, though few in
number, demand some attention and, I am well assured, cannot be overcome. You are
twenty-six years of age, I am forty-five. I have a son seventeen years of age, and
consequently too far advanced to learn filial duty from one not much his senior. As to my
little fortune, I consider myself merely the trustee for my children.... When you can
convince me that, in point of age, fortune, and morals, you are such a person as I can,
without reproach, take for my husband, and constitute the guardian of my children, I shall
cease to suspect, that motives not the most honorable have induced you to play the lover
to a woman sufficiently old to be your mother. I hope I have said enough to make you
ashamed of your conduct..."
"But to accept or decline"
The young men of 1879 stood between two ways of life in a time of great change in America. They were exposed to temptations unknown to most of their fathers in a society more restrictive than that which their sons would enjoy. Women were at even more of a disadvantage in that restrictive society as they still could not seek out men or make "the first move." Their prerogative was, as was often quoted, "but to accept or decline". Armed with The Worchester Letter Writer, at least they could express their refusal in a more forthright way than had the previous generation.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Heather Palmer, has served as the Curator of three historic house museums and was also
the Historian of Blair House, the President's Guest House. She lectures at colleges and
publishes articles in the fields of 18th and 19th century women's lives, clothing and
needlework, and in the area of material culture. She does free-lance editorial work and