ORWELL, P.E.I. —
While I’ve been on at least a few fun and memorable dates, travelling back in time to 100 years before I was born is certainly among the more noteworthy ones.
I recently found myself walking amid the lavish greenery and mid-1890s architecture of Orwell Corner Historical Village. The year was still 2020, but the provincial heritage site had invited me to partake in an old-timey event dubbed Courting at the Corner.
The idea is to provide couples with an outing that showcases the dating customs of that bygone era. The first event took place on July 23, but I took part in the dress rehearsal a few days prior. To help make it a true courting experience, they also welcomed my fiancée, Grace.
While waiting for date night to begin, we moseyed around the perfect-for-hand-holding gardens and made friends with a few chickens before being met by Kevin MacLean, Orwell Corner’s farmer of 30 years, as well as his trusty horses, Tartan and Urban.
“I’ll be offering carriage rides for the couples,” he said.
Unfortunately, Grace and I didn’t have time before dinner to enjoy a romantic cruise in the summer evening’s light as some of the other couples in attendance had beaten us to it. It looked lovely, so we promised each other we’d be first in line next time we were in that century.
Rachel Hamilton, one of Orwell Corner’s student researchers behind the event, led us into the quaint, wood-panelled hall where we took our seats. An orchestra performed softly through some speakers, and Queen Victoria sat at each table on a small picture stand.
Hamilton proceeded to share with us some insight into era-appropriate courting etiquette. These days, people might ask someone out using phone dating apps or at informal social events, but back then it tended to be a touch more formal.
“Had this been 1895, dinner invitations would have been handwritten on stationery,” she said. “The very wealthy would sometimes have invitations printed.”
They would often be delivered to one’s crush by a servant, as mailing them was thought to be in bad taste. Requesting an RSVP was never necessary, as the invitee would have known to deliver a response within 12 hours, Hamilton said.
“That’s just smart,” Grace said to me. “We should still do that.”
It sure ain’t Tinder.
Several servers started to bring us our meals – ours was served by a young man with curly hair, a COVID-19 face mask and suspenders. After a starter, we enjoyed a classic roast chicken dinner – hopefully, none of our friends from earlier – with glazed parsnips, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes.
Around us, pleasant conversation about this and that was shared between picturesque lovers. Matthew MacRae, acting director of the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation, worked to convince another guest to try the raspberry cordial while his wife, Kathleen, prepared their table for a Guardian photoshoot.
“Maybe I should take my phone out of the shot,” she laughed.
I then gave the chilled and concentrated cordial a try. It’s made on-site using mostly just the raw fruit. Though Island-born and raised, I had never had the drink before, so this was a highlight of my evening.
“This is, like, straight up,” Grace agreed, disregarding the aforementioned formality.
Then, Hamilton got into the juicy stuff – 1890s flirting. There’s an entire language that women would speak using only hand fans to show whether they were interested in a potential suitor, not interested or already taken, she said.
Meanwhile, men had a maximum of three disinterested fan swipes before they were expected to stop asking a woman to dance. They also had an interesting slew of pick-up lines which, with the benefit of hindsight, weren’t that good.
“I have no assistants but deliver the goods myself,” was one.
“Sole owner of Lovers Lane,” was another.
Grace tasked me with writing one for her. As it turns out, pick-up lines have just always been bad.
Eventually, Suspenders served us some caramel bread pudding, after which the crowd in the hall began to dissipate as couples returned home to the future. Grace went outside while I stayed behind to talk with Hamilton and co-organizer Jessica MacLeod, who were very excited about the first official event.
“We are sold out,” MacLeod said.
Because of this, they’ve already confirmed a second Courting at the Corner and they hope to make it a series. They saw the rehearsal as a success, despite a few kinks to work out here and there – none of which I noticed.
“We’re very pleased,” Hamilton said. “Couldn’t have asked for a better evening.”
I gathered my things and headed out to meet Grace, who I found picking flowers near Orwell Corner’s entrance. We shared a quick couple-y moment, so trust me, if the gravel parking lot is just as idyllic as the main event then you know it was a pretty good date.
AT A GLANCE:
- The next Courting at the Corner will take place on Aug. 13.
- The event starts with a carriage ride and then couples are invited into the Orwell Hall for a three-course meal as well as presentations and immersive activities showcasing what dating was like in the 1890s.
- There will be limited seating due to social distancing measures, and tickets are $50 per individual.
Daniel Brown is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.
While Guardian reporter Daniel Brown refers to Grace McCarvill as his fiancé throughout this story, as of later today, she will become his wife in a ceremony on P.E.I. Heartfelt congratulations from your co-workers at The Guardian on your special day.