Courting in late Georgian and Regency England wasn't for the faint of heart. Courting was serious business and the business was all about making the best match possible. In a time when being married was a woman's career, landing the richest man with the highest social station wasn't just a matter of bragging rights, it set the tone for the rest of a woman's life.
During the whirlwind of the London Season in the spring, ladies were introduced to society with the intent of finding a husband. Balls played an important part in the courting process. These dances weren't the prom, but a marriage market where a young lady might finally get a chance to dance with a young man, and have a conversation with him without the chaperon hovering around. Individual dances like those portrayed in Pride and Prejudice could last a long time, and depending on the dance, there could be a lot of standing around and waiting as the numerous couples sashayed up and down the line. All this standing around offered a good chance for a man and woman to get to know one another or to decide they weren't a good fit. Since a woman was only allowed to dance with a man twice before people started whispering that they were engaged, she had to decide fast. Think speed dating with the rest of your life hanging in the balance.
So, did a young couple who were a good fit wander off to the garden, slip upstairs and find a deserted room? No. This wasn’t a frat party, and if a lady wanted to keep her reputation, which she needed to land a good man, she was careful to stay in a public place at all times. Also, her chaperone wasn’t likely to let her out of her sight, so even if the open garden doors were calling, a smart lady ignored the call. Hanky panky was for after marriage when the heir and the spare were safely in the nursery. Until then, it was all good girl all the time. Also, it wasn’t just the woman’s reputation hanging in the balance, but those of her sisters and her family. Remember Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and how her running off with Mr. Wickham risked ruining her sisters’ chances of finding husbands? There was a lot riding on a woman’s good behavior.
A ball was also a good time to look over the prospective candidates, learn who was who and how much money they possessed. Women were on the market just as much as the men, so advertising their own wealth was a smart move. Balls were excellent places for women to wear their finest dresses and flaunt the goods. It was in a woman’s best interest to cultivate the pick of the gentlemen and not get stuck with last Season’s leftovers. Love might conquer all, but it rarely landed a poor woman a man of means.
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