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.

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