The curious history of Regency dating

Katie Dancey-Downs 27 January 2022

As fans prepare for the return of the hit netflix show Bridgerton, we take a look at the shrouded dating past of the Victorian upper-classes

Bridgerton season two is around the corner, but ahead of the flings, frocks, and frissons, is a newly released paperback, The Curious History of Dating by Nichi Hodgson. This book breaks down romance across every period, starting in Regency ballrooms, romping through the war years, and bursting into the Tinder dates of today.

So, just how much has changed since (the albeit fictional) Daphne said, “I burn for you”? Over a Zoom interview, author, journalist, and co-host of the Bisexual Brunch podcast, Nichi Hodgson, delves into the details.

Back in the Regency period, Nichi says, there was a huge pressure for women to be virtuous. Bridgerton might not be historically accurate to the detail, but it is to the sentiment.

“The idea that you were in preservation of something that other people could harm, it's quite difficult to imagine what a weight that was to a woman,” she says.

Add to that the pressure of chaperones. Women were never left alone with a man and an older woman would always be present. Even your letters could be read.

Marriage wasn’t seen as a private enterprise either. Your family got married with you. Our screens and books might focus on upper class Regency romance, but Nichi says that families would make the choices for working class matches too.

“People really believed that women couldn't make the decisions for themselves and therefore needed steering by older relatives,” Nichi says.

"People really believed that women couldn't make the decisions for themselves and therefore needed steering by older relatives"

As we await Bridgerton season two, the rumours point to a storyline about Anthony Bridgerton. Based on the real history of dating, what can we expect? Nichi’s prediction is a focus on fortune hunting and carrying the family line.

“This is the awkward thing about marriage in that period,” she says. “You know that it's not a love match. If you’re a man, you've got to try and assess the character of the people that are put before you and see— are they just after my money?”

But whatever the case, Anthony Bridgerton is likely to have more freedom in his choices than any of his sisters.

The game changers

According to Nichi, one of the biggest upheavals in the world of dating was more rights for women. Marriage laws are stronger. Women can make their own money—unlike their Bridgerton-era ancestors whose inherited money went to their husbands.

And something else has changed how we date. Technology.

“That idea that a computer might know better than you about what's good for you, is a very significant change to how we think about who will match us,” Nichi says.

Nichi imagines a scenario where Bridgerton characters could scroll through Tinder or have Match.com accounts. What might their profiles look like?

She suggests Daphne Bridgerton’s might read: “Lady of a sweet and proper demeanour, looking for true love.”

The men’s bios might focus more on what they had to offer: “Gentleman, esquire, educated, solvent. Looking for a fair maiden to be wife and mother.”

These dating profiles aren’t as fictional as they seem. Men of the 18th Century posted Lonely Hearts ads looking for spouses, although the cost and time commitment didn’t make this a popular dating option.

“The dating profiles that we have today are actually truncated versions of personal ads,” Nichi says. “So there is a continuity there.”

Dating for LGBTQI+ people has gone through a world of change too. In the book, Nichi explores the rules of each era, finding each other, and the varying levels of acceptance. Even back in Victorian England, people in towns like London and Brighton were attending drag balls and private dinners, with a heavy code of secrecy.

"Even back in Victorian England, people in towns like London and Brighton were attending drag balls and private dinners, with a heavy code of secrecy"

“New ideas that were coming from science were changing people's minds about sexuality,” Nichi says.

“People always say that the Victorians were very prudish, and that's not true at all. The Victorians were totally obsessed with sex—everything was very codified.”

Love in the present

Now, Nichi says, we’re in an era of flux.

“Women can work, women can own property, women can have children by themselves if they want… But society is not supporting them to necessarily make those liberated choices all the time,” the author says.

Nichi was driven to write The Curious History of Dating following her own run of bad matches. She loves learning from history, and thought delving into the story of romance past could shed some light on modern love.

As she researched the book in the British Library, she invited matches from her dating apps to meet her, like the roll call of suitors that women of the past had brought before them. After many dates and dancing, one of those suitors made the final cut.

“Now I'm married to him. I live in this house that we have together, with our little sausage dog. So, for me, studying the history did actually lead to love,” Nichi says.

In writing the book, Nichi has found fascinating details that are omitted from history classes. She believes that if we understand our past, we also understand our present and future. She hopes readers will have the same experience.

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