Monday, January 07, 2013

A History of Love and Popular Romance

We're still waiting for one, as no-one's yet written a detailed history of popular romance fiction which fully explores its relationship to the social context in which it was written. However, Dr Claire Langhamer, at the University of Sussex has
recently completed a manuscript on love and commitment in the mid-twentieth century. This book, Everyday Love. Emotional Revolution in Twentieth Century England  will be published by Oxford University Press in 2013. The project starts from the premise that love has a history: that it has meant different things to different people at different moments of the past and has served different purposes. The book tells the story of love at a crucial point, a moment when the emotional landscape changed dramatically for large numbers of people. It is a story based in Britain, but informed by America, and covers the period from the end of the First World War until the break up of The Beatles. It describes a fundamental shift in the value attached to emotional intimacy within heterosexual encounters as marriage came to be seen less as a religiously sanctioned institution and more as a relationship based on love and sex. Until at least 1970 more people married than ever before and they did so at increasingly younger ages. To the casual observer it was a golden age of marriage. And yet, romantic love, particularly when tied to sexual satisfaction, often proved an unreliable foundation upon which to build marriages: it had the potential to evaporate over time and under pressure. Scratching beneath the surface of the golden age then, the book uncovers a twentieth century of quiet emotional instability. In fact a number of unsettling questions about life and love emerged in this period. What, contemporaries asked, was the correct balance between love, romance and passion and were they even compatible? How central was love to partner selection and did pragmatism also have a role? Could, indeed should, marriages survive in the absence of love? Was falling in love a unique or a repeatable experience? Did one perfect partner or soul mate exist? Could a love affair alone lead to self-fulfilment? Crucially, concerns emerged about how to balance desire, agency and social obligation. If people were not responsible for falling in and out of love, as Mary Grant of the Woman’s Own problem page suggested in 1950, what would happen to lifelong commitment? The book suggests that a matrimonial model based upon the transformative power of love carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. The end of century decline of life long marriage was rooted in the contradictions, tensions, and illogicalities that lay at the heart of mid-century intimacy.
How does this affect popular romance fiction? I don't know, but in 1987 and 1988 Judy Giles interviewed "working-class women who grew up in Britain before the Second World War" (280). She found that
working-class girls aspired to the financial and material security of domesticity and that they perceived romance as 'silliness' liable to jeopardise such aspirations. The anti-heroic, anti-romantic mood of post First World War England with its refusal of sentiment and its retreat into the private worlds of suburban domesticity [...] celebrated precisely those attributes so long valued and practised by 'respectable' working-class women - restraint, cheerful stoicism and prudence [...]. The 'modern' young woman was expected to be robust, sensible and free from the constraints of Victorian 'sentimentality'. Romantic fiction rewarded common-sense, unselfishness and above all cheerfulness - heroines get their men because they have not made 'a fuss'. (282-83).
Nonetheless, romantic fiction was evidently still a bit too romantic for some:
in the 1920s and 30s the acceptable response to the longing expressed in romantic fiction was to read these as 'silly', 'perverted' and 'immature', marginal and potentially threatening to the 'real' experiences of a woman's live which consisted of prudential marriage and the provision of a comfortable, hygienic home in which to sustain a male breadwinner and rear healthy children. [...] Yet, of course, the refusal to recognise or present a narrative centred around passion and romance does not mean these did not exist or were not longed for. The stories which follow [from her interviewees] show both the deployment of an anti-romantic discourse and the forms in which those expediently suppressed desires could be articulated both then and now. (283-84)
  • Giles, Judy. " 'You Meet 'Em and That's It': Working Class Women's Refusal of Romance Between the Wars in Britain." Romance Revisited. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Jackie Stacey. New York: New York UP, 1995. 279-92.

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