When a woman married, all that she owned, and anything she earned after the marriage, became the property of her husband. Divorce could be obtained only by a private Act of Parliament, at great expense. The situation eased slightly after the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which set up matrimonial courts.
A husband could divorce his wife on the ground of a single act of adultery, whereas she had to prove him guilty of other offences such as cruelty, as well as adultery, and she was very unlikely to be granted custody of their children. The court proceedings were widely and pruriently reported in the popular press. The status of married women gradually improved; from 1870 a woman could keep £200 of her own earnings – just enough to live on, with care – and from 1884 she had the same rights over property as an unmarried woman, and could carry on a trade or business independently. Her rights to custody of her children improved, too, but it was not until 1923 that adultery by her husband was sufficient ground for a wife to seek divorce.
Etiquette rules for the lady
Following are some rules of conduct a proper female must adhere to:
- She never approached people of higher rank, unless being introduced by a mutual friend. People of lesser rank were always introduced to people of higher rank, and then only if the higherranking person had given his/her permission. Even after being introduced, the person of higher rank did not have to maintain the acquaintance. They could ignore, or 'cut' the person of lower rank.
- A single woman never addressed a gentleman without an introduction.
- A single woman never walked out alone. Her chaperone had to be older and preferably married. If she had progressed to the stage of courtship in which she walked out with a gentleman, they always walked apart. A gentleman could offer his hand over rough spots, the only contact he was allowed with a woman who was not his fiance.
- Proper women never rode alone in a closed carriage with a man who wasn't a relative.
- She would never call upon an unmarried gentleman at his place of residence. She couldn't receive a man at home if she was alone. Another family member had to be present in the room.
- A gentlewoman never looked back after anyone in the street, or turned to stare at others at church, the opera, etc.
- No impure conversations were held in front of single women. No sexual contact was allowed before marriage. Innocence was demanded by men from girls in his class, and most especially from his future wife. Intelligence was not encouraged, nor was any interest in politics.
- Etiquette played its part in Victorian clothing. It was considered 'good etiquette' to dress appropriately to ones age, and position in society.
- A lady cannot refuse the invitation of a gentleman to dance, unless she has already accepted that of another, for she would be guilty of an incivility which might occasion trouble; she would, moreover, seem to show contempt for him whom she refused, and would expose herself to receive in secret an ill compliment from the mistress of the house.
- Married or young ladies, cannot leave a ballroom or any other party, alone. The former should be accompanied by one or two other married ladies, and the latter by their mother, or by a lady to represent her.
- Victorian girls were trained early on in life to prepare herself for a life dedicated to home and family if she married, and charity if she didn't. And young ladies, though advised on the importance of catching a man, were warned not to be too liberal in display of their charms. Meekness and modesty were considered beautiful virtues.
- Conversation is not to talk continually, but to listen and speak in our turn. And as for the Gentlemen, they should be seen and not smelled. They should use but very little perfume, as too much of it is in bad taste.
- A lady, when crossing the street, must raise her dress a bit above the ankle while holding the folds of her gown together in her right hand and drawing them toward the right. It was considered vulgar to raise the dress with both hands as it would show too much ankle, but was tolerated for a moment when the mud is very deep.
- As told by The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility. A young lady should be expected to shine in the art of conversation, but not too brightly. Etiquette books of the era concentrate on the voice, rather than the content of speech, encouraging her to cultivate that distinct but subdued tone.
- When introduced to a man, a lady should never offer her hand, merely bow politely and say, "I am happy to make your acquaintance." While courting, a gentleman caller might bring only certain gifts such as flowers, candy or a book. A woman could not offer a gentleman any present at all until he had extended one to her, and then something artistic, handmade and inexpensive was permissible.
- A gentleman may delicately kiss a lady's hand, the forehead, or at most, the cheek.