My Freaky Valentine – Romance the Victorian Way
Posted on: 12/02/2018 with tags: historical fiction, historical novel, 19th Century, Victorian
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Victorians invented Christmas.
Well; one Victorian in particular, by the name of Charles Dickens. But where did they stand on the next red letter day on the calendar, the one that pops up after boozeless, carbless, joyless January, to remind us that our hearts still beat warmly under all those jumpers?
Valentine’s Day, originally the feast day of a Roman martyr, began to gain traction way before Victorian times. It became associated with courtly love in the circle of Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that the feast day became associated with romantic love and the exchange of tokens between loved-up couples. These included hand-written cards known as ‘Valentines’.
The Victorians seized on this tradition, mass producing Valentine’s cards. Hundreds of examples exist of syrupy, sickly-sweet designs featuring – as you might expect – kittens, cupids, lovesick shepherdesses and the like.
But what you might not have expected are the poisonous missives, known as ‘Vinegar Valentines’ that were also mass-produced to be sent to singletons. These cards featured grotesque illustrations accompanied by nasty little verses especially tailored to point out the recipient’s failings. As if it wasn’t bad enough to be blanked by Cupid, Victorian spinsters and bachelors could expect a Vinegar Valentine to land on the doormat on February 14th.
Vinegar Valentines were often intended to be improving, highlighting various character flaws. One, intended for a womanizing man, read:
‘I’m not attracted by your glitter,
For well I know how very bitter,
My life would be, if I should take,
You for my spouse, a rattlesnake,
Oh no, I’d not accept a ring.
Or ever more ‘twould prove a sting’
Another, more specific, was designed for a man who had become rather too friendly with the barmaids of the public house:
‘Tis very mean and bad of you,
Flirting with barmaids as you do;
The girls are silly there’s no doubt,
To waste this time on such a lout;
Go find some better recreation,
And leave them to their occupation’
But sometimes the targets of vitriol were blameless. ‘Found, a man’s brain, containing much meanness, a moderate portion of folly, and very little intellect’ read one card. And on some occasions the recipient was guilty of no more than being single. A spinster woman could expect a salutation like this one:
‘You’re safely lodged upon the shelf, and there you’ll be for life.’
It’s no more, no less than early, analogue trolling.
The Victorian era was one of contrasts. Buttoned up morality marched alongside widespread prostitution, burgeoning industrial wealth with abject poverty, It’s interesting to know that this dichotomy applied to Valentine’s Day too.
Marina Fiorato’s latest novel Crimson and Bone, is out now in paperback and ebook.