…and so [Henry] was dawdling through some months of his life – sometimes flirting with the nothing-loth Miss Duncombe, sometimes plaguing, and sometimes delighting his mother, at all times taking care to please himself – when he first saw Ruth Hilton, and a new, passionate, hearty feeling shot through his whole being. He did not know why he was so fascinated by her. She was very beautiful, but he had seen others equally beautiful, and with many more agaceries calculated to set off the effect of their charms.
We think of the Victorian era as a time of strict social mores which regulated most aspects of men’s and women’s behavior. Numerous published handbooks outlined proper etiquette in every social situation. So how was a woman on the hunt for a husband supposed to stand out among the crowd of sensible, demure, proper ladies?
Simple: she flirted. As the plethora of period movies and historical fiction have taught us, flirtation was a generally acceptable means of attracting a member of the opposite sex. Yet even flirtation came with limits. Pass these limits and a young lady could be in serious danger of being labelled a “coquette” and using her “agaceries” or coquetries to attract a man’s attention. This would be one step too far over the line of respectability.
Coquette is a French word meaning a woman who does anything she can to gain the attention of men, without really caring a whit for them. In literature, we generally dislike the coquettes, as they draw our hero’s attentions away from the heroine.
In Ruth, our heroine is certainly no coquette (unlike Miss Duncombe, it seems). It is this very quality that makes her stand out for Henry Bellingham. He is attracted by her innocence and lack of flirtatious guile. But will her innocence get her into more trouble than being a knowing flirt? We’ll have to see.
What other famous coquettes can you think of? Here are some that come to my mind…
- Cynthia in Wives and Daughters
- Fanny Thornton in North and South (or at least she thinks she is!)
- Mary Crawford in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park
- Caroline Bingley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
- Blanche Ingram in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre