DEAR MISS MANNERS: When I watch movies or read books from previous times, such as Jane Austen's stories, the characters always seem to know each other incredibly little before being engaged. A request to dance seems to be a declaration of love in itself.
Is this historically accurate? I understand these matters were probably often arranged, but what was the etiquette for those who were allowed a bit of wiggle room when choosing a future husband/wife? Did they really know each other so little before tying the knot?
GENTLE READER: Not so fast, please.
As Miss Manners recalls, Emma Woodhouse was already related to Mr. Knightley, who was her sister's brother-in-law and an intimate family friend. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram were brought up together. Anne Elliot spent eight years pining for Captain Wentworth, the sweetheart of her teens. Even the impetuous Marianne Dashwood was slow in coming to appreciate and accept Colonel Brandon. And of course Elizabeth Bennet rejected Mr. Darcy, despite his fortune, until she understood his true nature.
It takes each of these heroines a volume to decide. So perhaps you are thinking of Miss Austen herself, who entered into a rash engagement, only to repent the following day.
This is not to say that courtship, if one can still call it that, was the same then as it is now. Marriage was almost the only respectable and (usually) tolerable career for ladies; so the sooner it was settled as a source of financial support, the better. Parental supervision was unabashed, and opportunities to meet strangers were limited. So the chances of marrying someone known to the family and not entirely unapproved were much greater than those of marrying an unknown dancing partner.
Still, human nature was recognizable. Indulgent fathers allowed their daughters to choose, within reason, and the daughters of dictatorial fathers knew how to drive them crazy until they were too worn down to hold out. Couples ran away together, strangers declared love at first sight, married people bolted, as the term was, early deaths facilitated serial marriage, and presumably everyone lived happily or unhappily ever after.