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Love's Labour’s Lost

Will you be my (Victorian) valentine?

By Elaine Robbins

Stumped about how to express your affection to your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day? Fear not: Help is on the way. “Love’s Messenger: Courtship in the Victorian Age,” a new exhibition at Sebastapol House State Historic Site, offers ideas for contemporary Cupids from a more subtle romantic era.

Back before we learned that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, men and women actually shared not only a common planet, but also a common language of courtship. Fans, calling cards, flowers and engraved coins all held specific meanings that both parties understood. Here’s a sampling of the tips the exhibit has to offer:

Gentlemen:

  • Say it with flowers. Red roses, of course, are an enduring and beautiful symbol of love. But to Victorians, the semaphore of flowers extended far beyond red roses. Lily of the valley stood for “a return to happiness,” ivy meant “fidelity and friendship.” Whatever you do, skip the yellow chrysanthemums. They symbolize “slighted love.”
  • Slow down. In the words of the Irish poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith, “Love must be taken by stratagem, not by force.” Take the huggy buggy, for instance. No, we’re not talking about a Victorian diaper wagon. When a Victorian gentleman wanted to get close to a lady, he’d invite her for a ride in this coach. The seat was so narrow, he’d have to put his arm around the woman to drive the horses. Of course, it isn’t easy to pull off this maneuver in an SUV or a pickup. But use your imagination, gentlemen. It’s your most attractive asset.

Ladies:

  • Try a little subtlety. A Victorian woman could express dozens of sentiments with the slightest flicker of a fan. If she held her fan in front of her face in her left hand, it meant: “I want to meet you.” Moved ever so slightly down to her left ear, it said: “I wish to get rid of you.” Of course, you may be eager to tell your date exactly what you think, but try to restrain yourself. A well-bred Victorian lady, in receiving a man’s affections, was neither too eager nor too reserved.
  • Leave him a note. No, I don’t mean stick a Post-It note on the fridge saying, “Supper’s in the oven.” Victorian men and women would write their beloved a note, seal it in a lovely envelope, and leave it in a stump or a hollow log while out on a walk. The object of their affections would come along later to retrieve the note from a prearranged spot. Now that’s romantic.

What’s the point of all the subterfuge, you may ask? “A blatant show of affection wasn’t proper,” says Georgia Davis, site manager at Sebastapol House and co-curator of the exhibit. “So you had to be more creative.”

And who knows? One day your romantic efforts may be rewarded when your lady finally closes her fan and holds it to her heart. What in the world will it mean? “You have won my love.”

“Love’s Messenger” runs through the end of May at Sebastapol House, an 1856 restored Greek Revival House in Seguin. A reception for the exhibit will be held there on Valentine’s Day starting at 5 p.m. For more information, call (830) 379-4833, e-mail: sebas topol.house@tpwd.state.tx.us, or go online to: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/sebastop).

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