I’ve always been a romantic. It probably has something to do with growing up watching BBC costume dramas. It might sound old-fashioned – but I’ve always been into the whole hearts, love letters and serious woo-ing side of things. Call me baby, buy me some red roses and a box of Milk Tray and I’m yours forever. (Just kidding, I’m actually more of a Ferrero Rocher kind of gal).
But recently I’ve started to question if romance even applies to today’s swipe-based dating scene. After a bad break-up several years ago, I embarked on a string of terrible dates - from the media guy who dumped me on Valentine’s Day (ouch), to the older man who invited me to tea when, really, he meant sex in his office. I was left down, disillusioned and determined to try something new.
Those friends of mine who were also out in the dating trenches had similar tales of woe. Nearly everyone we met either seemed commitment-phobic or wasn't honest about their relationship/casual goals. But, like me, my friends also admitted to either having one eye on the next swipe, or sticking with someone because the other options might not be much better. What a modern dating mess, right?
As a sex and relationships writer, I’m used to researching dating tips, but I started to wonder whether romance had been this hard for our great-grandparents, and their grandparents before them. Ok, so obviously it would be naive to glorify any era that included repressive gender roles and patriarchy, especially when it comes to things like women's rights (think not being allowed to vote, inherit your own property, or go to college or university). And that's before you even consider the appalling reality for same-sex romance.
But I did wonder if finding out about how dating went down in the past might give me some much-needed inspo. At first, I read books about society and courtship, starting with Jane Austen’s era, the Regency Period. For me, Austen novels epitomise the idea of true courtship – that careful pursuit of someone who would become your beloved – and I was curious to see if her stories of how men and women coupled-up would work in real life today.
I moved on to the Victorians and their funny ways with "tussie mussies" (scented flowers people gave to their admirers, which also covered up the stench of 19th Century England). I kept my reading to the UK, except for when I discovered how other countries influenced our courtship – such as with the 1950s Americans’ concept of "going steady" or "being exclusive".
Over the next six months, in between library sessions, I continued my search for love, secretly applying old-school tips on approximately 60 dates. These are the five nuggets of advice I carried out... with a 2019 spin:
Be really upfront
Today, it seems nothing says “red flag” like asking someone if they want marriage and kids on the first date. But history doesn’t agree. In fact, it’s packed with examples of how being direct about what you’re looking for on date one increases your chances of getting what you want long-term.
Take the Georgians, for example. They were head-over-heels for lonely hearts-style ads published in The Times, which included short, straight-to-the-point descriptions of what they were looking for in a partner. In one dusty letter I read: "Lady, 24, of a forthright nature and considerable beauty, requires gentleman of a gallant disposition with 5,000 a year."
In a more recent 20th Century example, it turns out that the first "speed-daters" weren’t commitment-shy singletons looking for a good time – but actually the congregation of a Beverly Hills rabbi who had been implored to help them find spouses.
It made me realise that my see-where-it-goes thinking might not be doing me any favours. Instead, I decided to be more clear about what I wanted from dating (and not just rely on app filters to do that job). It’s why I started casually sounding out my dates from the off. Asking about their career goals was a natural conversation stepping stone to asking about their personal ones – and it worked. Some guys were just looking for fun, or as one put it “a good time, not a long time". A few shared that they one day wanted marriage and/or kids – something I hoped for in the future, too.
Sure, I made it obvious I wasn’t asking if they saw this with me, specifically, but something in the way they said it — with assertion, hesitation, or way too much eagerness — gave me more of an inkling as to whether we might be on the same page. I came to the conclusion that the guy who was comfortable with discussing his future with me was the type of guy I should be dating – even if it didn’t feel like a true love match at this point. It was only date one, after all.
Think outside the “drinks?” box
During my research, I came across Live Alone And Like It, a 1936 guide to single life for women written by a journalist named Marjorie Hillis. It gave tips on everything from using the “wireless” (radio) and phoning a friend when you’re tempted to “over-contact” someone you’d just started dating, to treating yourself to “breakfast in bed” (think self-care 1930s-style). But, for me, Marjorie's most helpful piece of advice read: “The best rule is to make your invitations worth accepting – and not to care what the man thinks so long as he comes.” Sounds like a double win to me.
Because of my job, people in the past have pigeon-holed me as 'sex-crazed' which has made me careful not to suggest date ideas which might contain sexual references – even if it was just a film with lots of sexy scenes. It’s why I always suggested drinks with anyone I planned a date with because it seemed a safer option, even if it was expensive - and often boring.
But, after reading Marjorie’s words, I felt inspired to suggest things I found pleasurable: boxing sessions, cheesy films, long walks. It might sound simple but I thought if anyone enjoyed themselves as much I did, it must be a sign of compatibility - a better test than relying on a dating app, perhaps. And if they didn’t share my passion, then I could work out whether I was willing to compromise. So the guy who complained about sweating too much in boxing and the one who got his phone out a lot in the cinema didn’t make the cut. But the one who made me laugh so much we ended up getting lost on a long canal walk remained in my WhatsApp list.
Don't over-invest too soon
At the beginning of the First World War, young women and soldiers at the Front exchanged flirtatious letters and got it on with multiple partners during breaks from fighting. It seemed traditional monogamous rules went out the window when no one knew who would return from the fighting.
And it wasn’t a secret either, as a 1915 letter I found in the British Library from a soldier called Geoffrey to 17-year-old Edith spelled out. “Darling, you now have a real life lonely soldier somewhere in France. Only he’s not very lonely. Also it’s beastly conceited to imagine you hadn’t got several others.”
I never thought I would have the emotional capacity for dating multiple people at the same time. But as psychologist Emma Kenny tells me: “Refining the qualities we like about a partner comes from spending time with a variety of potential suitors – including sexually. Remaining initially open to multiple possibilities at the start means you draw from experience when choosing a long-term partner – and are more likely to make a better choice for yourself.”
I decided to go for it, and think of it as 'trialling' – not cheating. Having four potential 'suitors' on the go during the early stage prevented me from getting over-invested in anyone who didn't feel the same too quickly. Comparing the behaviour of different dates at once was also useful for spotting who was game-playing (the narcissistic actor), who was just not that into me (the aloof guy), and who made me feel good about myself (the guy who made an effort to actually plan dates).
Dance, dance, dance
Despite Strictly’s unwavering popularity (we love you Stacey!), we might as well be living in the least dance-savvy age. Club culture is vibrant but it's not often you see a couple waltzing across a sweaty dancefloor.
But we’re missing a trick. From reading about the Georgian balls (where hands could only be touched through gloves after a formal introduction) right through to the jazz dance clubs of the Roaring '20s, it appears dancing has not only got us through the tough times, it’s also been a significant aphrodisiac. I reckon one of the reasons millennials like me and my mates are in the midst of a so-called 'sex recession' and having fewer relationships, is because we’re dancing together less.
Growing up, comments about my short legs crushed my confidence, and in the years that followed, I’d only ever get on a dance floor if I was inebriated. Until one guy (yep, the one who planned our dates) called Ferdie (aka Ferdose) asked me to an outdoor salsa class on our third date. I was so nervous but within an hour we were twisting and grinding our bodies together. It seemed skin-tinglingly awks to touch someone I hadn’t yet kissed, and yet equally it was way more sexy than going straight in for the lips.
As psychosexual therapist Kate Moyle told me: “Dancing with a partner is great because it involves using your body to communicate and connect. Add eye contact into the mix– something that gets lost in modern life with us all staring at our screens – and you can understand why it’s such a turn-on."
Turns out, Ferdie could move. I realised I was curious to find out more about him and, so, a fourth date was arranged.
Call the chaperone
When I pictured “genteel (19th Century-speak for polite and gracious) ladies and their chaperones”, I’d think of rebellious young women finding ways to steal a kiss behind a killjoy aunt’s back. But after reading etiquette manuals like Mrs Humphreys' Manners for Men (1897), I learnt that in the 18th and 19th Centuries, chaperones weren't just there to police female behaviour (sigh), they’d also give an assessment of the person chatting their ‘ward’ up - analysing their intentions and compatibility.
More than today’s equivalent of a wingman/woman – chaperonage is about added care for your emotional well-being, not just helping you to pull in the first place.
So when I later invited Ferdie to a summer music festival – I made sure my 'chaperone’ - a uni friend, Tom, who’d seen me through several heartbreaks - could assess him there too. By this point, I’d tried the other old-school tips out on him and found out that Ferdie also wanted a relationship, and didn’t judge me when we went to a naked restaurant (yes, really) for our fifth date.
During the next three days, through the sequins, cider and sodden English weather, we all hung out. Tom knew that guys were often attracted to the stereotype of me as an "up-for-anything" sex writer, and didn’t get that I was actually a down-to-earth Northern girl looking for a no-nonsense man. So he spent the next few days trying to get Ferdie to open up about his real intentions, who he’d dated in the past, whether he was ready for a solid relationship with someone – questions I just couldn’t ask yet, but wanted to know.
As my chaperone, Tom saw me not care about wearing make-up or dodgy raincoats in front of Ferdie, and watched me laugh with him over terrible falafel at 3am, or first thing on a hungover morning. Slightly awkwardly, we were all camping together in the same tent, which made for some hasty exits from Tom in the morning! Even though it was clear I had feelings for Ferdie, it was Tom’s final nod – guided by his friendly questioning and his pledge to never let me choose another bad egg – which gave me the confidence to say yes to letting myself fall for Ferdie.
Let's get one thing clear: I have no desire to return to a time when women were basically the property of the man they married. I'm an independent woman with a career I love, but I did get some interesting – and helpful – tips from the historical sources I read on my dating journey. Mainly when it comes to maintaining high standards – both in how you treat others, and what you accept for yourself. While we no longer have to follow sexist etiquette manuals, it might just be that prioritising manners (say, a thank you message after a date) and respect is crucial when it comes to calling out negative dating behaviour like ghosting and orbiting.
It also reminded me that it’s ok to want more for yourself when it comes to love. By being open about commitment, showing my true self on dates, and taking my time, I strengthened my self-esteem, which had been worn away after a series of disappointments and knockbacks.
So did the project lead me to love? Yes, it did. Ferdie and I got engaged earlier this month. Whether it was my new approach or just good old-fashioned fate that brought us together, I can’t be entirely sure. What I do know is that dating the old-fashioned way taught me a lot. I learnt to stay true to my romantic ideals, stopped feeling apologetic about wanting to find someone special, and started caring about my own feelings – a lesson to be truly valued, whatever your relationship status.