Two hundred years ago, a brief article was published in La Belle Assemblée, entitled "Love’s Telegraph." Though it was actually published in the November "number" for that year, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss it in observation of the upcoming Valentine’s Day holiday.
Regardless of its title, this article seems to have been more about a method to telegraph one’s marital state, or one’s intentions in that direction, rather than a true telegraph of love. And lest you think there was no telegraph during the Regency, a bit about that, as well.
The telegraph with which most of us are familiar today is the electrical telegraph, for which experiments were in progress two years before the Regency began. Such experiments continued across Europe, throughout the Regency, conducted by a number of scientists and engineers, though the electrical telegraph did not come into commercial use in England until the reign of Queen Victoria. The word "telegraph" was first used in France in the 1790s, but telegraphs had been in use for many centuries prior to the eighteenth. In fact, a dramatic and visually stunning example of the use of a telegraph was the sweeping scene of the lighting of the bonfire beacons in Peter Jackson‘s magnificent film, The Return of the King.
The word "telegraph" is from the Greek, a combination of tele, meaning "far off," with graph, meaning "writing" or "to write," thus, "far away writing." Before the electrical telegraph completely appropriated the term "telegraph," the optical telegraph had been in use since at least the time of the Greeks themselves. Messages could be communicated by way of reflected light, smoke signals, or beacon fires, as in The Return of the King. Or, in the case of the Regency "love telegraph," by the finger upon which one chose to wear a ring or the hand by which one chose to give or receive a gift.
In the November 1811 number of La Belle Assemblée, Being Bell’s Court and Fashionable Magazine, Addressed Particularly to the Ladies, on page 274, was published the following article:
LOVE’S TELEGRAPH. — If a gentleman wants a wife, he wears a ring on the first finger of the left hand; if he be engaged, he wears it on the second finger; if married, on the third; and on the fourth if he never intends to be married. When a lady is disengaged, she wears a hoop or diamond on the first finger; if engaged, she wears a hoop or diamond on the second finger; if married, on the third, and on the fourth if she intends to die a maid. When a gentleman presents a flower, a fan, or a trinket, to a lady, with the left hand, it is, on his part, an overture of regard; should she receive it with the left hand, it is considered as an acceptance of his esteem; but if with the right hand, it is a refusal of the offer. — Thus, by a few simple tokens, explained by a rule, the passion of love is expressed; and through the medium of the Telegraph, the most diffident and timid man may, without difficulty, communicate his sentiments of regard for a lady, and (in case his offer should be declined) avoid experiencing the mortification of an explicit refusal.
It should be noted that this was not the first instance of the publication of this article. It had been published previously, in Volume 12 of The Spirit of the Public Journals for 1808. Being an Impartial Selection of the Most Ingenious ESSAYS and JEUX D’ESPRITS that Appear in the Newspapers and Other Publications. It was stated that this earlier version had been taken from the Morning Chronicle. In that version, the source was attributed to " … a considerable provincial town … " where " … a new system of signals has been introduced, which are rendered subservient to the affections of the heart and the obligations of parties … ." The provincial town alluded to in the article might have been Bath, Bristol, Manchester or York, all sizeable provincial towns during this period. However, any mention of the provinces was excluded when the article was re-published for London readers in La Belle Assemblée. Such was the case when the same article was re-published in America the following year, in both Boston and New York.
The types of periodicals in which this article was published suggest it was included for entertainment value rather than intended as actual rules of etiquette for proper social interaction between men and women. This same article was re-published many times over the next century, and by mid-century it was often described as an "American custom," since the earlier, original publications in England had become lost to living memory. It is very difficult to know if men and women anywhere in Regency England followed the precepts laid out in Love’s Telegraph. In all probability, some circle of people in that original "considerable provincial town" did abide by these rules, or they would not have remained in use long enough to gain the attention of whoever reported them for the first time in the Morning Chronicle. However, by the time Love’s Telegraph was published in La Belle Assemblée, it had become an amusing anecdote, something to divert the ladies who read it before they moved on to the fashion pages.
There is no corroborative evidence in contemporary diaries or journals to indicate that ladies or gentlemen wore rings on specific fingers to signify their marital status, or offered or accepted a gift with a specific hand to signal acceptance or refusal of romantic regard. Any language works only for those parties who are fully cognizant of its vocabulary and its rules. Unless everyone in the ton was willing to conform, "Love’s Telegraph" was doomed to failure as a means of determining the marital intent of its members. Which is not to say there may not have been a group of people somewhere, in that unknown provincial town, who followed those rules, and were able to "telegraph" to others of their circle their marital status or intent and their acceptance or refusal of romantic regard by the manner of their receipt of gifts. No rules were given for widows or widowers, so it is presumed that they were not expected to use the love telegraph. But nor were any rules given for the wearing of rings on the right hand, so perhaps that hand was the province of the previously married, though there is no documentary evidence to support that conjecture.
The article, Love’s Telegraph, was indeed published in La Belle Assemblée in the autumn of the first year of the Regency. However, it was most probably intended as a curiosity, something to fill some white space on a page and provide a humorous diversion for the magazine’s subscribers. It seems very unlikely it was widely adopted by London society, though it is always possible there were small circles of friends who employed it, perhaps known only to themselves. The love telegraph may have been used by the denizens one of the provincial towns of England, though we do not know which one and most likely never will. However, given all of this, there is no reason Love’s Telegraph could not figure in a Regency romance novel or three. Perhaps a young lady from a provincial town comes to London and it just so happens she is from the town where the love telegraph originated, but does not realize it is not also in use in the metropolis. She is dead set against marriage, and wears a ring on her left pinky to signify that fact. She meets a handsome and charming man, who just happens to wear his signet ring on his left pinky. She assumes, incorrectly, of course, that he does not intend to wed, so she believes she will be quite safe engaging in a light flirtation or a friendship with him. But, he, of course, knows nothing about the love telegraph and has decided she is just the woman for him and sets out to pursue her. Or, perhaps a group of young debutantes reads the article in La Belle Assemblée and do not realize it is merely an anecdote. Who knows what sort of hilarity and confusion might ensue before the happily ever after comes to pass? Dear Regency authors, how might you make use of Love’s Telegraph?
May I wish everyone a most happy and romantic St. Valentine’s Day!