Topographer Edward Wedlake Brayley (1773 – 1854) compiled Regency-era social customs he gleaned from past road-trip publication notes. In this new book, he approaches Valentine’s Day rituals with mixed emotions. A pity the celebrations of the day do not spring from chivalrous motives, he laments, nor do they encourage courteous behavior as they ought.
Indeed, Valentine’s Day customs tend to inspire far more dangerous feelings:
“..as they tend too early to awaken those strong desires which nature has implanted in the human heart, but which are far better developed by exuberant health than by an inflamed imagination.”
— Popular Pastimes, being a selection of picturesque representations of the customs & amusements of Great Britain, etc. by Edward Wedlake Brayley (1816)
February 14th was the day illiterate and superstitious pagans believed birds chose their mates. Brayley puzzles over the assignment of a venerable saint to a day associated with such an earthy theme as mating. It is not surprising, he surmised, that Chaucer would transfer the practice from birds to men.
Consider how foolish the latter become on Valentine’s Day.
A near-contemporary of Chaucer, the Monk of Bury, composed a Valentine poem to Queen Catherine, Henry V’s consort. Brayley does not find much to fault with Lydgate’s method of currying political favor. Curious that he passes over one particularly tantalizing compliment the monk pays to his queen: “but I love one whiche excellith all.”
The general practice of sending valentines, Brayley surmises, seems to have arisen when the Hanoverians came to the throne. Such greetings early on consisted of the following:
“..slight engravings (from emblematical designs expressive of affection), printed on one side of a sheet of letter paper, and coloured; but others are curiously cut, or stamped, into different forms, chiefly of true lovers’ knots, hearts, darts, altars, lace-work..”
By the time of the Regency, valentines had become far more intricate. Brayley marvels at how the paper is contrived in such a manner as to resemble baskets of flowers, nosegays and birds; in particular the dove of Venus.
For an example of the cut paper valentine of the day, see this lovely post on the matter.
Things go downhill, however, once the sender attaches a verse to the confection. Some of these messages are witty, Brayley admits. Others, he notes with strong disapproval, are down-right ridiculous. He further complains that the post office must be made to transport such nonsense all ’round the country, further compounding the folly of the day.
Even worse, valentines are expensive. A valentine greeting can range from a few shillings to upwards of a guinea. Those who can least afford the time and money (serving maids) are precisely the ones who indulge in the practice of sending valentines the most.
“.. yet no inconsiderable portion of these articles are sold to young men, whose education and stations in life would seem to have kept them far removed from such kinds of folly (!)”
Valentine’s Day Scrooge.