Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Social History of Love?

Jen Newby reviews Claire Langhamer's new book, The English in Love.

Claire Langhamer's new book uncovers the intimate experiences of hundreds of ordinary men and women during the mid-twentieth century. Much of her research comes from the Mass Observation archive, which holds thousands of diaries contributed by British people. In these anonymous accounts, writers were free to reveal their thoughts uncensored, 'I frequently write to release pent-up emotion of a turbulent sort,' confided one housewife in 1937.

According to Langhamer, the Second World War destabilised the way that people perceived love. One Mass Observation investigator reported that women at a WAAF station chose to live for the moment: 'Conventions of marriage and engagement are thrown to the wind...Here the married women flirt with young pilots, engaged women go gay while their fianc├ęs are away – 'And who can blame them?' Yet others had rather duller wartime love lives, with one male diarist complaining, 'immoral of “fast” women are exceedingly difficult to find'.

"You knew you would marry sooner or later...
The script had already been written."

The post-war era saw greater numbers marrying than ever before, and those born in 1946 became the least likely of any generation to remain single. Marriage loomed over young men and women as part of their inevitable fate. 'In 1960 you knew you would marry, sooner rather than later, in church, have a baby after 2 years and live happily ever after. The script had already been written,' reflected one woman, who married at 19, and later divorced. 

Those who failed to marry were often presented as abnormal. An ad campaign for Wincarnis tonic wine claimed to rejuvenate women over 30 'starved of romance' and Britannic Insurance sold a policy offering protection 'in case you don't marry'.

While teenagers of the post-war years had wider opportunities than ever before to socialise at growing numbers of clubs and groups; at dance halls, cinema dates; work or university; Langhamer points out that they were still hemmed in by traditional romantic expectations. 

Teen magazines like Valentine (1957) and Boyfriend (1959) presented marriage and romance as things for their teenage readers to aspire to. Some people forced themselves to conform. 'I am very anxious to get married some day and have a husband and children, but I don't really like men at all,' one girl confessed to an agony aunt.

Others found this restrictive: 'in those days (1953) young engagements and marriages were the norm – there was nothing else for a girl to do', a female MO diarist concluded. Men, as well as women felt the pressure to wed. 'There's not much else to do after your stop being a teenager. You've got to have a change some time – I more or less just go out drinking now. I don't want to go on doing that', a 19-year-old man told a social investigator in the early 1950s.

'Should I pick a girl who can cook, sew and be a good housewife, or must I wait until I meet the girl who will make my heart thump,' agonised one young man in the 1930s. Yet Langhamer argues that as an 'emotional revolution' progressed between the 1920s and 1970s, the ways in which British people perceived love, courtship, sex, and marriage were transformed, and more and more young men and women hoped to have both a steady spouse and a lover who could make their heart thump!

The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, by Claire Langhamer is published by Oxford University Press (£20) and available from all good bookshops.

This review was first published in Discover Your History magazine.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England: review

'This was a period of drastic, sweeping changes that affected
almost everyone and everything in England.'

Roy and Lesley Adkins's latest book is a beautifully-written compendium of facts, tales and anecdotes about England during Jane Austen's lifetime. However, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England (also published in the US as Jane Austen's England) reveals how difficult – and to modern sensibilities, disgusting – the era was for most women, compared to the cosy upper-middle class existence enjoyed by the novelist.

The Adkins transform their reader into a Georgian eavesdropper, overhearing snippets of talk from inside people's homes as they walk close by overhanging roofs, the eaves, sheltering from inclement weather. Roy and Lesley Adkins paint the realities of life, following Georgians inside their homes, to the theatre, even on to their chamber pots.

For most Georgians life was closer to scenes depicted in
Rowlandson's illustrations than Austen's novels

On this journey through Georgian England, the Adkins have researched accounts by little-known observers of contemporary life, whom we get to know as the book progresses. Their voices narrate the routines and details of daily life, as well as revealing the small incidents and dramas of their own lives. Among them is Nelly Weeton, a governess from northern England, who once witnessed her charge burning to death when her gown caught fire. Her profession makes her an outsider and she is a sharp observer of life.

This is a time when some people never leave their native villages, or travel further than a few miles during their entire lifetime. For women, marriage is crucial, as there are few profitable methods of earning a living. 'Who would employ a female physician?' asks Nelly Weeton. 'Who would listen to a female divine, except to ridicule? I could almost laugh myself at the idea.'

This is also a time of lingering medieval traditions; there is still widespread belief in witches, and physicians arrive equipped with leeches. Women with outstanding debts marry wearing only their shift, so that their new husband will not be liable for their debts, and after giving birth they are 'churched', and spiritually cleansed. Married women endure relentless years of childbirth, and in 1798 a Mrs Banting from Gloucestershire is said to have been delivered of her thirty-second child by the same husband.

People die young, and life is an uncertain thing, with newspapers full of tales of children stolen away by childless couples, or sold as cheap labour, while the deaths of chimney-sweeps, 'climbing boys', while trapped at work, are too unremarkable to make the headlines. The authors highlight the fact that by the time of Jane Austen's death, hardship among the working classes is arguably much worse than during Dickens' time. Despite the dubious safety-net of the workhouse, people were 'literally starving in the streets', and small-scale riots flared up around the country in response to the high price of corn.

Those who managed to find enough to eat would likely be toothless by thirty. As toothpicks constituted the most advance form of dental care, you could end up with 'a mouth as wide as a barn door and two rollers of raw beef bolstered up to guard as it were the approach to his nasty rotten ragged teeth'. The well-off had their teeth replaced with a 'Waterloo' set, gathered from the bodies of soldiers on the battle field or snatched from a corpse in a graveyard closer to home.

(The US edition of Eavesdropping,
published as Jane Austen's England)

Bad breath is accompanied by body odour, and the stink of unwashed clothes. In the 1770s and 80s, women wore horsehair petticoats 'day by day until they were rotten, and...never washed'. Soap was a luxury and a quick scrub in a basin now and then sufficed for most. Jane Austen complained of the hot weather keeping her 'in a continual state of inelegance'.

Eavesdropping is not for those of a squeamish disposition. Roy and Lesley Adkins shatter the idyllic image of Jane Austen's era presented in costume dramas. On her way to the Assembly Rooms in Bath Jane Austen would have seen from her carriage window, not cherubic urchins and handsome gentlemen, but 'the nasty practise of easing nature on the pavement in almost every corner,' and the 'contents of chamber pots' hurled into the street.

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen's England by Roy & Lesley Adkins is published by Little Brown and available from all good bookshops.

Find out more about Roy and Lesley on their website.