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The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, by Claire Langhamer

Hilary Hinds praises an account of the social shifts discerned in small ads, smooching and soulmates

Love has a history, and its 20th-century history adds up to a quiet revolution: this is Claire Langhamer’s contention in a wonderfully evocative, nuanced and readable examination of the changing status of romantic love in the middle years of the 20th century. The book traces love’s progress from first encounter, through courtship, to making the commitment of marriage. Along the way, we learn about people’s expectations of love, what made for a suitable partner, how and where people got to know each other better and what kinds of investment, negotiation and exchange were at stakeduring courtship.

Tracing love’s cultural history, whether in the Renaissance sonnet, Jane Austen’s novels or Hollywood romances, is a familiar enough scholarly activity: the materials are, after all, readily to hand on the bookshelf. But The English in Love is not primarily a cultural history, it is a social one: Langhamer is interested in how romantic love was practised by ordinary people, and in the way quite subtle changes to the experience and valuation of this “socially irresponsible” emotion (as Roland Barthes termed it) impacted upon the socially responsible institution of marriage. Her sources are thus not poetic or fictional, but comprise the small ads of the Matrimonial Post, the advice of the “everyday experts” from the Marriage Guidance Council or the problem pages of the Daily Mirror, the stories in Boyfriend magazine and – most memorably – the contributors to the Mass Observation Project of the 1930s onwards. Intended as an anthropology of the English, Mass Observation asked “ordinary” people to keep diaries and write letters about a range of topics of contemporary interest, from anti-Semitism to bathroom behaviour and, not infrequently, respondents were invited to contribute their thoughts on love, intimacy and marriage.

An advertiser in Matrimonial Post was seeking a ‘clean, and if not good looking, at least pleasant man, earning about £5 per week’

It is the space granted to such voices that makes The English in Love such an engaging book. Langhamer gives the Mass Observation material, in particular, room to breathe, allowing respondents’ own words to convey the registers, idioms and rhythms of bygone times. One serviceman wrote about Christmas with his wife in 1940, sitting “by the fire in each other’s arms and reading little poems out or laughing at what Huxley said about vulgarity”. Elsewhere, an 18-year-old, writing in the 1960s, recorded his courting habits; one Saturday night, he went round to his girlfriend’s house to watch television: “I was tired out and fell asleep while we were smooching on the bed-settee.” The citation of Aldous Huxley’s views on vulgarity and the reference to the bed-settee and to “smooching” do as much to conjure the textures of their eras as does the more detailed exposition of social change.

Langhamer is generous and respectful towards the voices she finds in her sources. They are allowed to speak at length, and her attentiveness to the subtle distinctions between their views enables her to convey the complexities, ambiguities and risks of the 20th-century revaluation of romantic love. This results in a book that is eloquent testimony to the importance of both popular and social history, but at times it also left me wishing for more critical attention to cultural form, for diaries and problem pages are also cultural texts with their own generic forms, histories and vocabularies. What did it mean for women to talk about “giving in” (implying surrender) or “giving way” (suggesting personal weakness) to a suitor? Might the problem page not only have reflected changing expectations of love and marriage, but also have helped to shape them? These texts’ distinctive conventions and idioms might have spoken still more clearly if Langhamer had lingered a little more on their cultural resonances as well as their social implications.

Those social implications are, nonetheless, compelling. Langhamer’s case is that the much-vaunted sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was not simply a reaction against a fearful and repressive sexual culture – the one that for Philip Larkin was characterised by “A shame that started at sixteen/And spread to everything”. Rather, this earlier period had already effected an emotional revolution that laid the groundwork for the sexual revolution that followed. Early in the century, romantic love was just one factor in the establishment of heterosexual partnerships. Also important were many more pragmatic considerations; a spinster advertising in the Matrimonial Post in 1930 was interested in meeting a “clean, and if not good looking, at least pleasant man, earning about £5 per week”. It is hard to imagine anyone advertising in The Guardian’s Soulmates column these days coming up with such a modest set of aspirations. Indeed, the very concept of a soulmate is a long way from the more practical criteria governing that Matrimonial Post ad.

By the 1970s, such pragmatism had largely lost its place in the making of relationships. Romantic love had moved centre stage, ousting more practical considerations, until it was deemed the sine qua non of the happy marriage. Love was now less frequently defined as caring for one’s spouse, or making a home together; instead, it was all about self-expression and the quest for fulfilment. This change endowed romantic love with an extraordinary burden to bear: it was now not only the grounds for the making of commitment, but needed to remain palpably present for the relationship still to be experienced as satisfying. And in this, Langhamer suggests, the emotional revolution bore the seeds of its own destruction, for the rooting of a lifelong commitment in the notoriously fickle feeling of being “in love”, and on this alone, was too much for it to bear – hence the decline in marriage rates and the rise in divorce figures from the 1970s onwards.

As we might expect, the convulsions of the Second World War are credited as accelerating this revaluation of romantic love. But what The English in Love does so successfully is to show, through the thoughts of those who experienced the romantic (as well as the social) tumult of those years, why and how the war was so transformative. Courtships were condensed and marriages hastier, partly owing to the sense of urgency precipitated by the possibility of imminent death in battle or air raid. We learn, too, that marriage secured some practical advantages for the woman, at least: it gave her the serviceman’s wife’s allowance, and protected her from being uprooted from her home to undertake war work elsewhere. Yet there were other changes that helped tip the balance from pragmatism towards passion: the decline in the importance of family approval, for example, and the possibilities for physical intimacy opened up by the blackout. As one woman commented: “You could not expect people to put up with all the disadvantages of the black-out and not avail themselves of the advantages”; she concluded – with a certain chirpy relish: “One must take the smooth with the rough!”

The English in Love demonstrates that love does, indeed, have a specifically 20th-century history. More than that, it shows that this was no simple progress narrative from pragmatism to passion, from expediency to emotional authenticity. Langhamer finds plenty of rough as well as smooth across her 50-year period, and her book invites us to contemplate what we might have lost, as well as found, under our current social disposition towards romantic love.

The author

Author Claire Langhamer

Claire Langhamer, senior lecturer in history at the University of Sussex, lives in Brighton “with my 11-year-old daughter and our cat. My partner lives in Norwich and works in Durham. We both spend a lot of time on trains.”

She was born in Somerset and raised in Market Weighton in East Yorkshire. Langhamer says she loves Brighton for “the light, the sea and the way the character of the city changes over the course of the year” and finds “something particularly lovely about British seaside towns in the winter”. However, she misses the East Riding’s “landscape, the accents and culinary habits of the north - scraps with chips, bread cakes rather than bread rolls and crucially dinner at dinnertime.”

Of her early leanings toward learning, Langhamer observes: “Rather than being interested in scholarship, I think I’m interested in people and the complex ways they have understood the world around them. My parents are the key influence here. My dad worked in pig farming and my mum was a nurse: both have a profound respect for education in the widest sense of the word.

“It wasn’t really until I got my job at Sussex that I considered myself to be heading for an academic career. Until then there always seemed the possibility that I might need to do something else. Like many people, I did a number of jobs along the way: cleaning, office work, shop work, postal sorting and even making glasses.

“The fact that I ended up with an academic job is as much down to luck as capability,” she suggests. “Being in the right place at the right time and being supported and encouraged by some lovely people - particularly senior women - really helped. I consider myself extremely lucky to be paid to think, write and discuss ideas.”

Langhamer has won awards for her teaching as well as for her scholarship, and says: “I see teaching and research as inherently linked. The idea that they can be pulled apart into different career trajectories is a problematic one for me. The development of this particular book benefited enormously from the intellectual exchange that is at the centre of everyday teaching practice - at undergraduate as well as postgraduate levels. Teaching can make you re-conceptualise your research; research should make you constantly re-evaluate your teaching.”

Commenting on the widespread appeal of history both inside the academy and among the general public, she observes, “I think one of the things that draws people to history is the simultaneous strangeness and familiarity of the past. Engaging with stories about past lives encourages us to reflect upon our place in the present.”

On the legacy of the original Mass Observation project and its influence on subsequent research, Langhamer notes that “the ‘new’ Mass Observation Project continues to this day. It was established in 1981 as a revival of one aspect of mid-century Mass Observation’s work - the directive questionnaire sent to a panel of volunteer writers. The material it generates is every bit as insightful and historically located as that gathered earlier in the century. Its continuing value to contemporary historians is amply demonstrated in the Observing the Eighties digital project led by historian Lucy Robinson and the Mass Observation team at Sussex.”

As to whether there is a great difference between the kind and quality of data gathered via digital surveys and the handwritten diaries of the original Mass Observation project, Langhamer says, “I think that it is important not to confuse a change in form with a change in significance. Writing ‘digitally’ can be just as painstaking as writing by hand - perhaps more so because of the ability to constantly re-draft. Life writing in whatever form encourages a richness and reflection that offers future historians insights into the feelings and experiences of ordinary people. At the time it was first established in the late 1930s and 1940s, Mass Observation faced significant criticism concerning its research practices and interests. [Social scientist] Mark Abrams, for example, described it as ‘inchoate and uncontrolled’. We see its significance in retrospect and the same may well be true of new forms of life writing today.”

Langhamer has served as an on-screen expert in high-profile television programmes including BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are?, and she admits, “I spend a lot of my non-working time watching television and I will, quite frankly, watch absolutely anything. I’ve found it particularly interesting therefore to get an insight into how television history works. I certainly haven’t enjoyed watching myself, but there is some really interesting history programming around at the moment. I very much enjoyed the recent series on domestic servants presented by Pamela Cox, for example.”

In her spare time, she spends “a lot of time in second hand shops collecting cheap everyday mid-20th century artefacts”.

Karen Shook

The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution

By Claire Langhamer
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780199594436
Published 22 August 2013

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