Beware the Allure of a Handsome Waistcoat: A Cautionary Tale

Posted: August 10, 2012

The Lady's Magazine, March 1775

“To Mrs Grey” reads the salutation; and there is it, my interest is roused, my curiosity kindled. For Mrs Grey is ‘The Matron’, resident agony aunt who offered sound advice and instruction to the readers of The Lady’s Magazine, a periodical marketed directly to a middle-class female readership which ran for 62 years from 1770-1832.

Over the course of seventeen years (1774 – 1794), Mrs Grey bestowed comforting advice, maternal wisdom and sound instruction to readers who wrote in sharing their grievances and problems. Others like the colourful ‘S. Vainlove’ whose letter was printed in the March 1775 issue, shared personal experiences to act as warnings to fellow readers that they might safeguard themselves against suffering the same slight, injustice or fate.

Vainlove’s letter offers a comical and amusing insight into the social politics of courtship in the eighteenth century. Attending an assembly where she believed she would “only meet with genteel people”, this vivacious young lady refused one suitor’s hand (he was “plain-dressed”, you see) for another “who was remarkably elegant, having the smartest Barré-waistcoat on to be conceived, with a sword-knot equally in taste”. Indeed, “his cloaths were quite the thing”. Whirring around the assembly room on the arm of this well dressed, elegant young man, Vainlove felt the envy of all the other women in the room. She had secured “an object of admiration”.

The Lady's Magazine, March 1775

At the end of the evening, as the young gentleman led her to the awaiting carriage, pressing a note into her hand at their departure, Vainlove was giddy with that youthful excitement that accompanies welcome attentions from the opposite sex. Of course, she had no doubt that the note would “contain a declaration of his passion” and endured the agonising , “most tedious and impatient” journey home she had ever suffered. You can imagine her suspense and the feeling of nervous excitement when she finally arrived home and could consume in privacy the declaration of love and admiration she knew the note would convey. I’m sure that you too, dear readers, are filled with eager anticipation, and so, I will allow the words of Vainlove herself to impart the revelation:

“I found – oh horrid! How shall I tell you? – I found a bill of his shop. – He was…a nasty Tallow Chandler in the city – I actually turned sick at the recollections of the civilities I had received from the greasy creature”.

I found myself chuckling at this outburst of indignation. I imagine that the young, vivacious and flirtatious Vainlove must have felt extremely indignant, slighted and insulted at the presumptions of a man whom she believed was so far beneath her, being only a lowly candle maker (it’s equally amusing to reflect that tallow, fat from cows and sheep, was used to produce the cheapest candles and smelt rather unpleasant; I will leave you to ponder on that thought and make what you will of it.)

The Lady's Magazine, 1831

As today, women (and men) sometimes choose to submit letters to advice columns under pseudonyms. I wonder whether ‘S. Vainlove’ is just that; serving the dual purpose of maintaining the slighted woman’s anonymity whilst acting as self-recognition of her superficiality.

To add insult to injury, Vainlove later learned that the man whom she had rejected for being so plainly dressed was a successful merchant and the son of nobility with a “handsome estate”. And therein lies the moral of the tale – beware superficiality in yourself and others, for a fine dress does not always make for a fine match.

The entire run of The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1832), and other complimentary titles,will be available in our forthcoming Eighteenth Century Journals V resource.

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