I cannot be the only modern reader to have been completely wrong-footed by the passage in Bram Stoker’s Dracula where Lucy is receiving Quincy P. Morris, who has just delivered her second marriage proposal in one day. ‘And then, my dear,’ Lucy writes to her faithful correspondent, ‘before I could say a word he began pouring out a perfect torrent of love-making.’
Maybe later, I remember thinking, after she’s said yes and he’s obtained her father’s approval, but mid-proposal? In the drawing room? That’s a little precipitate even for an American, surely?
I swiftly gathered that in Victorian English, to make love to a beautiful woman is to ardently yet respectfully protest your passion, rather than to ardently ravish her on the drawing room carpet. Yet the incident highlights, I think, how difficult it is to imagine the manners of a former age, even with a detailed realist novel to fall back upon.
Take the way the gallants of the eighteenth century used to ‘salute’ a woman, not by jerking their hands to their foreheads and down again, as the modern usage would have it, but by kissing them on the lips. Three hundred-odd years ago, we were regarded as ‘the kissing nation’ all through Europe – even by the French – but manners have changed so much since it’s impossible now to reconstruct whether this was a perfunctory greeting – a mere dry peck – or something more lascivious. The danger of the former turning into the latter is clear from William Wycherley’s comedy, The Country Wife, where the foolish Sparkish urges his fiancee Alithea to salute his friend Harcourt – to kiss and make up – unaware that all the while Harcourt has been seeming to plead Sparkish’s love for Alithea, he has in fact been protesting his own. ‘What, invite your wife to kiss men?’ exclaims another, much more jealous character. ‘Monstrous!’ Yet kissing was socially common, though undeniably occasionally embarrassing or unpleasant – especially in Eliza Haywood’s novel The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless, where an unwelcome suitor is described as giving the heroine, mid-speech ‘a kiss, the smack of which might be heard three rooms off’.
Perhaps the best clue to how all this kissing worked is provided by Lucy Lockit in John Gay’s proto-musical The Beggar’s Opera, filmed by the BBC in the eighties with Roger Daltrey of The Who wenching most enthusiastically as the dashing and wildly promiscuous highwayman Captain MacHeath, while the ladies seem nothing loth. Upbraiding her for having fallen in love with MacHeath, her father says ‘Ah, Lucy! thy education might have put thee more upon thy guard: for a girl in the bar of an ale-house is always besieged.’ Lucy responds with a song:
When young at the bar you first taught me to score
And bid me be free with my lips, and no more,
I was kissed by the parson, the squire and the sot;
When the guest was departed, the kiss was forgot.
But his kiss was so sweet, and so closely he pressed,
That I languished and pined till I granted the rest.
That, at least, clarifies the sort of thing that was expected of a barmaid – kisses were free, so long as they didn’t go further. But when you factor in the many gradations of class and respectability that eighteenth century society existed on, and the even greater number of kisses – mournful, respectful, dutiful, passionate, soft, hard, light, deep, not to mention matters of individual technique – it soon becomes impossible to be exactly sure how any kiss, fictional or otherwise, would have been. Which is where imagination (and personal experience) has to come in.