With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, now is perhaps a good time to have a quick look at how our ancestors conducted themselves when it came to flirtation. While we tend to think of the Victorians as a rather severe, staid bunch, they were (of course) just as subject to the tempestuous passions of the heart as we are today – although they had some curious ways of showing it. Try some of these upon the object of your desire if you wish, but do not be surprised if you get odd looks rather than outbursts of affection in return!
A Victorian lady who innocently thought her parasol a utilitarian device for shading her face from the sun may have found herself the object of unsolicited ardor during her perambulation through the park. The manner in which a parasol was held carried a plethora of meanings to the practiced flirt – so much so, in fact, that a parasol could barely be held at all without it conveying some message to amorous onlookers in the know. To carry the parasol aloft in the left hand indicated that you desired to know someone better. To do the same in the right chastised suitors for their eagerness. Letting it rest upon the left or right cheeks meant ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ respectively, while dropping it upon the ground was an out and out declaration of love (which must have led the clumsy into awkward situations). Even those who carried folded parasols were not safe from unintentional flirting – to fold the parasol was an order for a suitor to leave immediately, carrying it over the shoulder accused observers of cruelty, and swinging it at the sides meant either that you were married or engaged (depending upon which side you swung the instrument at). There were a great many different meanings, which one can only imagine caused a great deal of confusion at the time given that one cannot always be aware of the position of one’s parasol. However, the Victorians did not discuss the affairs of the heart openly (to do so was considered vulgar), rendering such secret languages necessary. These became increasingly complex.
One of the most detailed and complicated of these secret love-languages was the Language of Flowers. Quite a beautiful idea, this involved flowers being assigned a meaning and presented to the beloved, who would get a delicious sense of secret communication alongside the simple pleasure brought by beautiful blooms. The language grew in popularity, with new flowers and new meanings added until the list was extremely extensive. Some of the meanings were far more risqué than we’d expect of a Victorian device – presenting a lover with pea blossom, for example, was an exhortation for them to meet your for an assignation by moonlight, while Spanish jasmine indicated that you found them headily sensual and aconite told of unbridled sexual lust. However, it must be remembered that the Victorians, although disinclined to discuss matters of the bedroom, were subject to much the same lusts and passions as we are – if not more so. Indeed, Queen Victoria herself wrote feverishly in her diaries of how much she enjoyed her husband’s body, while research done by Dr Clelia Mosher in the Victorian era indicates that, far from being sexually restrained, Victorian women relished and enjoyed sex perhaps more than their modern counterparts. Their men were no different. Notably, it was during the Victorian era that a good many intimately contracted diseases took hold. Those innocent-looking flowers clearly have a lot to answer for.
It is said that the eyes speak volumes. The Victorians appear to have taken this rather literally. While a cheeky wink is still seen as flirtatious today, the Victorians had such an extensive repertoire of eyelid-based communication that one cannot help but wonder if their continuous blinking caused them to bump into things. Winking with the right eye indicated love, while the left indicated hate. So far so good. From then on, however, the language becomes complex and, one assumes, likely to put the face of the beloved through such contortions as to render them quite unattractive. For example, raising the eyebrows and placing the right forefinger to the left eye meant ‘You are handsome, kiss me’, while winking first one eye and then the other in rapid succession was a complicated way of issuing a simple ‘Yes’.
After a long day of being chased by amorous parasol-observers through the park, mortally offending a maiden aunt by offering her a seemingly innocent posy of flowers, and accidentally declaring eternal hatred for her fiancé when a speck of dust got into her eye, the beleaguered Victorian lady may have longed to simply lean out of a window and watch the world go by from the peace and security of her home. However, even this act was fraught with meaning. The position in which one held oneself relative to the window and (especially) the way in which one moved one’s hands while at the window cast amorous or scornful judgment upon any who passed. A lady resting with the forefinger of her left hand on her chin informed anyone who happened to glance at her window that she desired an acquaintance, and heaven forfend if she clasped her hands – to do so was to announce her engagement.
Victorian flirtation was undeniably complicated and prone to confusion. However, in a world which blushed to hear the word ‘pregnancy’, such subterfuge was necessary. One may even suppose that the element of secrecy added a certain spice to the proceedings which is lacking in the more overt flirtation of modern times. Nonetheless, to our eyes the innumerable Victorian flirt-codes (in addition to the above, hats, scarves, gloves, fans, and even postage stamps to name but a few could convey hidden meanings) seem faintly ridiculous. Having said this, constructing a floral Valentine using the Victorian language of flowers could be a thoughtful, crafty, and romantic way in which to surprise your significant other. Just be sure to choose your blooms carefully…