The Casanova Code By Donna MacMeans Was Inspired By Victorian-Era Personal Ads

Historical romance author Donna MacMeans is known for writing sultry Victorian romances. In her latest release, The Casanova Code, heroine Edwina Hargrove finds the rakish Ashton Trewelyn through a personal ad he places in a local newspaper. We were surprised to find that personal ads were a common way for men and women to meet during the era. The author told us that she was actually inspired by some Victorian personal ads that she found on Advertising for Love, a blog that is run by Pam Epstein. Today, the author shares some actual Victorian personals with us, as well as how the courtship worked.

A young lady of 18, wealthy, pretty and agreeable, wants a husband. Not finding any one of her acquaintance who suits her, she has concluded to take this method of discovering one. The happy gentleman must be wealthy, stylish, handsome and fascinating. None other need apply. Address within three days, giving name and full particulars, and enclosing carte de visite, Carrie Howard, Station D, New York.

June 5, 1863

Searching for Mr. Right is as old as time, but the methods of finding that elusive beast have changed through the years. Today, singles can utilize not only introductions by friends in their search for the perfect mate, but also social networks, online dating services, and the brief cryptic personal ads in the back of alternative newspapers. I would guess that of all those options, the last one listed — cryptic personal ads — would carry the lowest level of confidence as to its reliability, but that was not always the case. Before the invention of the computer and perhaps even more important, the internet, if a man or woman couldnʼt find love through the traditional intervention of family or friends, they could turn their search to a broader spectrum — the newspaper personal ads.

Personal ads seeking courtship began appearing in newspapers in the late seventeenth century, about fifty years after the invention of the modern newspaper. While finding love in the want ads was not endorsed as an socially acceptable means to find a mate, for those without the proper family connections, or if one of the parties was beyond the customary age of marriage, the ads offered hope that a potential relationship could still be found.

Much of this changed in the nineteenth century when the industrial revolution brought more men and women into the cities and away from their families. They became responsible for their own connections and used whatever means was available.

Liederkranz Ball — Beautiful young girl with rosy cheeks and bright blue eyes under black mask and laughs like a siren: wore wine-colored satin domino, pearl headdress and jewelry; white camellias; waltzed like a fairy with tall Spanish gentleman; gentleman of high social reputation asks the liberty of an honorable introduction. Address Strictly Honorable, Herald uptown office.

Feb. 16, 1879

Personal advertisements were also used to convey information between two people who should not be corresponding according to the dictates of society. The sensitive nature of the notices combined with the public forum of a newspaper led correspondents to write their ads in a code that they assumed (sometimes incorrectly) was known only to the intended reader. Reference to some of these advertisements, referred to as “the agonies” due to the nature of lamented love, can be found in Sherlock Holmes novels.

Victorian personal ads inspired the premise for my new series of Victorian historical romance. Convinced that some personal ads are designed to lure unsuspecting women into dire circumstances, a group of women calling themselves the Rake Patrol, attempt to warn the respondents before they are seduced in a nefarious scheme. Of course, the best laid schemes donʼt always go according to plan. Watch for the first in the Rake Patrol series, The Casanova Code, which was released on June 5.

The ads reproduced above are actual personal ads and were taken from an article written by Pam Epstein and published in the New York Times February 13, 2010. Ms. Epstein is a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University who writes the blog Advertising for Love.

 - Donna MacMeans

You can pick up a copy of The Casanova Code in stores now! For more Victorian-set love stories, check out our Everything Romance Page.