Long before Helen Gurley Brown, Oprah, or Dear Abby dished out a single bit of dating advice, there was Hester Chapone, who declared in a 1773 bestseller that “all your happiness in this world … will probably depend on the companion you fix to for life.” The “conduct books” of Chapone and her contemporaries were the go-to source of advice for young women in the 18th- and early-19th centuries—the pre-Victorian era commonly referred to as the Regency era for its distinct style. They advised the ladies on how to make friends, hold a conversation, and, of course, find “a perfect match” (as the ladies of Bridgerton would put it). Below are 11 no-fail rules for Regency romance success from the well-thumbed advice books of the age.
1. Dress as feminine as possible.
“I am sorry to say it, this distinction of sex seems to be very little regarded by our modern fine ladies,” notes one advice book. “They think, by this means,”—by wearing men’s clothing—“to recommend themselves more effectually to the love and admiration of the men; in which, (if I may believe your papa and uncle) they are greatly mistaken.”
2. Find someone like you …
Or, in Regency-speak: “Among the qualifications which influence the probability of connubial comfort, a reasonable similarity of disposition between the two parties is one of especial moment.”
3. … but not just a friend.
“Nothing can more tend to destroy peace of mind, than platonic attachments,” writes Mary Wollstonecraft, the era’s foremost feminist thinker. “If a woman’s heart is disengaged, she should not give way to a pleasing delusion, and imagine she will be satisfied with the friendship of a man she admires.”
4. Don’t date a philosopher …
“Take not a man absorpt in study; the philosopher is not a man of this world,” advises William Kenrick. “He will hold thee inferior to his profound wisdom.”
5. … or a poet.
“When a Man talks of honourable Love, you may, with an honest Pleasure hear his Story; but, if he flies into Raptures; calls you an Angel, or a Goddess; vows to stab himself, like a Hero; or to die at your Feet, like a Slave; he no more than dissembles,” warns Wetenhall Wilkes. “If you cannot help believing him, only recollect the old Phrase, Violent Things can never last.”
6. Don’t actually fall in love.
“Its pleasures are neither solid nor constant,” writes the Marquise de Lambert. “As soon as [love] comes to be felt, fly that instant, and hearken not to the complaints of your heart.”
7. But if you do fall in love, don’t hide it.
“Attempt no prudery; he will behold your bosom panting through the thin, slight veil, and the hypocrisy will disgust,” says John Bennett.
8. Certainly don’t say how much you love the object of your affection.
“Let me advise you never to discover to him the full extent of your love, no, not although you marry him,” writes John Gregory. “That sufficiently shows your preference, which is all he is intitled [sic] to know.”
9. Forgive your beau’s little faults …
Even the noblest of character “may be guilty of little sallies of peevishness, or ill humour,” admits one conduct book. One should not take “the shadow for the substance—an irretrievable mistake, pregnant with innumerable consequent evils!”
10. … but remember men don’t change.
“Among various absurd and mischievous lessons which young women were accustomed in the last age to learn from dramatic representations,” warns Thomas Gisbourne, “one of the most absurd and mischievous was this: that a man of vicious character was particularly likely, when once reformed, to make a good and exemplary husband.”
11. There’s nothing wrong with being single.
For all the importance she placed on marriage, Hester Chapone knew one ageless secret to a fulfilling life: “Do not be afraid of a single life. A worthy woman is never destitute of valuable friends, who in a great measure supply to her the want of nearer connections.”