Courtship rituals have long been an interest of mine, in their many peculiar permutations and, Hallmarked-out, I decided I’d do a little reading up on them. Started on Valentine’s eve, actually. I appreciate the irony of sitting in reading about courtship on that particular date – with a lack thereof. With all the fuss (and furore if, heaven forefend, a man should forget the date), I was intrigued to discover that, in modern-day West civilisation, we get let off remarkably lightly.
The card is bought, the flowers arranged, the champagne on ice, the restaurant is booked, the jewellery glitters, the perfume is sweet, and the chocolates so pretty in their heart-shaped gold-wrapped box. You’ve done it: every tradition fulfilled, every symbol of a romance that time will not fade, and every token of love everlasting is there to see. You could do no more.
But, really, you could. Flowers, cards, jewellery, chocolate, dinner, champagne, and perfume are perfectly nice. They’re pretty and pleasant – a delightful way to say ‘I love you’ – but in romance of yore, they would have won you neither maiden nor squire.
Devotion required a little more than a bunch of flowers, a card, and some chocolates. It had to be proved via feats of remarkable invention and questionable sense. You could, for example, raise a rooster til it was 11 months old then chop off its head, cut out its heart and eat it. If you could get hold of a wild duck or dove, your intended would be equally impressed, though only if you pointed at the ground and held their shoulder while you swallowed it. It would take a little more if all you could get your hands on was an owl – to impress with an owl’s heart, you’d have to cut it out, dry it, and carry it round in your pocket. Attempting to woo a gentleman, a lady could win him by secreting a teaspoonful of ground fingernail into his beer. He would have to come by the web of a wild gander’s foot to dry, crush into a powder, and sprinkle in the coffee of the woman whose affections he sought to ensure she would both marry him and stay faithful. To make himself irresistible, a gentleman could pull out some of a lady’s hair, hide the dried tongue of a dove in his bedroom, or chew a piece of gristle while standing on his head. Continuing the livestock theme, if you and your friends wish to know who will marry first, put a cat on a quilt and fling it up in the air. Whoever it lands nearest will marry first. Or have her eyes scratched out. If you meet THE ONE at a party, whisper his or her name twenty times (it has to be done in front of him or her so try to find a way to work it into the conversation) then before you go to sleep (most likely alone) wish twenty times that you’ll be together forevermore and you shall. Assuming the muttering hasn’t put them off. Should you have any concerns about your husband’s fidelity, simply cut a lemon in half, rub the pieces on the four corners of your bed then put them under your pillow. If you dream of him, he is faithful; if you don’t then all this Valentine palaver is for naught. Should you want to prove your undying devotion to your husband, run three times round the block with your mouth full of water. If you succeed, he will know that your affections are true. Presumably, choking, asphyxiating or spitting it all over him for making you take part in such a ridiculous activity when you’ve already made your feelings perfectly clear proves he’s better off without you.
Going to such bizarre and strenuous lengths to prove one’s feelings does sound more impressive than stopping by the shop on the way home to pick up some flowers, but I’m not sure that all the muttering, gargling, heart-swallowing, hair-pulling, and cat-flinging is indicative of devotion so much as serious disturbance. Ground fingernails and gander’s foot don’t sound half as appetising as champagne and chocolates; and if we all sought out an owl, duck, dove, goose, or rooster to fillet every Valentine’s, they’d soon become endangered species. Personally, I’d rather not come across the dried tongue of a dove in a man’s bedroom and would be perfectly happy with a card. I suppose it depends on just what sort of feelings you wish to convince your beloved.