Learn how to date like Jane Austen

Catch the Lantern's Catch the Lantern’s “Emma,” running through Oct. 27. Credit: Mark Garvin

The weekend will be a dream come true for local Janeites (read: exuberant fans of Jane Austen), as the Lantern Theater Company’s Jane Austen Festival swings into full promenade. The fest includes Michael Bloom’s adaption of “Emma,” running all month, along with the wine tastings, English country dance lessons and tea ritual demonstrations happening Oct. 11-15.

On Saturday, local Janeite extraordinaire Margaret C. Sullivan, author of “The Jane Austen Handbook,” will lead a discussion on etiquette and manners in the early 19th century.

We asked Sullivan about Victorian era dating — a complicated endeavor, as it turns out.

How would you ask someone on a date in Jane Austen’s England?

Well, they didn’t have dates per se. They would go to public and private balls. Anyone could buy a ticket to a public ball. People who were more upper class – or thought they were – would avoid the public ones.

So, you would ask someone to a ball, not on a date?

No. You wouldn’t ask them to go with you. You went on your own, basically, in order to find someone to eventually marry.

And how did you let this person know you were interested?

If you were a man, you would ask them to dance. If you asked her twice, everyone knew you were interested. If you asked her a third time, she and her family would likely expect a marriage proposal.

When could you be alone with her?

Once you were engaged.

Even just to talk?


That seems rather impractical.

But extremely practical for the period, because you couldn’t prove that you only talked without a witness, and that might be enough for someone to question what happened. The stakes were just so high, especially for the women. Virginity was so highly prized that even an untoward rumor could cause a woman to be considered damaged goods.

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