Those Dull Victorians? Well, no, not really

8th October 2010
How dull it must have been to be young in Victorian times. Or at least that is something we often hear people say. After all, the Victorians had no cell-phones or social networking sites, no text messages or ringtones to have fun with or flirt with. How on earth did young people, or anybody for that matter, tell the world about their feelings, their doubts and anxieties, their loves and passions? How did they have any fun?

Well, don’t be fooled. The Victorians, like many of the generations that preceded them, had a whole secret coded language by which they would communicate their intentions and feelings to each other. Including romantic ones. And it was every bit as sophisticated, if not more so, than anything we might have today.

The know-how of the Victorians

How did they do it? Through symbolic associations, visual imagery: flowers, jewellery, clothing, fans, hats. Almost everything that was visible or on display could be used to communicate sentiments and passionate desires. Let’s just take a look a one tiny aspect of this fascinating subject – with help from a gorgeous painting from the era. One of my favourites, its title is ‘Choosing.’ It's by the great English painter George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904).
painting of young woman with flowers, sniffing, in profile
'Chosing' by G.F.Watts - and the young actress Ellen Terry.
banner image of queen victoria face with red text, black background

Symbolic Flowers

The model here is the actress Ellen Terry, the darling of the Victorian stage and a noted Shakespearean actress. She was highly regarded in her own lifetime for her portraying of roles such as Portia, Beatrice or Lady MacBeth. If this painting is anything to go by, you can see how she would have lit up the stage with her presence. She was also the artist’s wife for a short time and in this painting it is said that she is wearing her own brown silk wedding-dress designed for her by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt.

The young lady is taking in the scent of some Camellia flowers, holding them gently with her right hand. Camellias were regarded as symbolising admiration, perfection. While in her left hand are some violets - perhaps ones she would have picked a moment earlier.


She is deciding what might be the most appropriate flowers to wear perhaps in a posy or corsage (flowers worn on the wrist or bodice). Perhaps she is considering including some in a hatband or an arrangement in a vase. If she chooses the Camellias she will be proclaiming to the world her confidence and perhaps not a little vanity.

Everyone would know and recognise this statement. She would, in a sense, be aloof and unavailable for any man who happened to take a shine to her. Unless, that is, he could match her style. A challenge. If she were to choose the violets, however, she would be announcing quite the opposite - her modesty and faithfulness. She might be seeking, therefore, to draw the interest of those perhaps seeking a more lasting and meaningful rapport.

I wonder. Being young, carefree and not at all dull, she would have probably gone for the Camellias. No shrinking violet among the Victorians, Dame Ellen Terry. What do you think?
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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