Reading The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, which covers relationships, courtship and marriage from 1920 to 1970, with a particular focus on the period around the Second World War, is a powerful reminder that marriage has never been a fixed and stable structure, but has changed regularly, certainly with each 20th-century generation.
Author Claire Langhammer relies chiefly on individual accounts, often painfully frank and honest, looks into the guidance of “agony aunts” and other media reports, and occasionally official reports and studies, to conclude that over the total period of her study there was a significant shift from marriage as primarily an economic relationship – breadwinner support traded for the creation of a comfortable home – towards a more “emotional”, demanding relationship even during the Fifties, which she suggests relationships were much less stable than we commonly suppose, meaning that the freewheeling Sixties were not marked by more demand for continuing love, but rather the transition of marriage into the late teens and early twenties, a reflection both of increasing wealth and less need to save for marriage, but that also that this was seen as an essential, normal step into adulthood.
Langhammer quotes a 1959 survey showing that a quarter of working class brides were teenagers on their wedding day; more than three-quarters were under 25. A telling item in the initial Boyfriend magazine in the same year tells the story of a young woman determined to do something with her life – transform and modernise her aunt’s cafe, which interferes with her love life. But eventually she finds a man who also wants to run a cafe, so they settle down together.
And particularly as the ideology of love spread, many of the same tensions and concerns we recognise in relationships today emerge. One painfully honest ‘case history’ from the Mass Observation Survey from 1949 tells of a 19-year-old woman who has sex with a 24-year-old merchant seaman – although only after he reassures her he’s using a condom. “I agreed then. I didn’t want to but I liked him and he wanted to. He said: ‘You can’t be in love with me unless you will do it.”
The term “hook-up” might not have been invented then, but anyone who thinks they’re a 21st-century phenomenon will be disabused of that notion by the tale of a cinema meeting in 1950s Bolton. The couple met in the street when the girl “looked at me so hard … I turned back and made her acquaintance.” The couple then decided to go to the cinema, and discussed the changing fashion from capes to raincoats. Once inside, they went to the back seats, designed for two, sat quietly for 10 minutes, then her offered her a cigarette, at which she took off her hat, loosened her coat and took off her gloves. “It was when the wild looking man came on screen that gave her the opportunity to appear afraid. She got hold of my hand … I put my left arm around her – she slightly lifted her right arm – so I put my hand around her breast. – I ‘messed around’ all that picture – during the Raft picture when the singing of sentimental love songs started she let go of my hand and started to rub her hand up and down my thigh. I then began to feel the breasts of the girl with my now disengaged hand … She stopped my hand straying too far. We also did some kissing.” (There’s no hint of future meetings…)
Some of the accounts of attitudes towards mixed class, and particularly mixed race relationships are painful to read, particularly given the suffering they must have caused to those in them, although sometimes public reaction to racism is reported as robustly combative. “In the south-western parish of Worle, the vicar’s wife presented parishioners with a six-point code for dealing with black [American] soldiers. Advice included moving away from them in the cinema, crossing the street to avoid them, leaving a shop if they entered, and certainly never entertaining a romantic liaison. Her sense of shared standards was presumably punctured by the reported fury of her audience. ‘I was disgusted, and so were most of the women there,’ one woman told the Sunday Pictorial. ‘We have no intention of agreeing to her decree.”
You might think “textspeak” is new, but during the War there was a whole code for lovers’ letters. Sticking the stamp on sideways was code for affection, as was SWALK “sealed with a loving kiss” written on the back. Other codes included ITALY “I love and trust you”, BOLTOP “better on lips than on paper”, BURMA “be undressed and ready my angel”, and the really blunt BYYGGI “brace yourself, you’re gonna get it”.
This is a highly readable telling account, which might not change your ideas about the Thirties or the Sixties, but offers a far from stereotypical view of the social history of the decades in between. And it will leave you thinking how much human damage religious, social and legal strictures about human relationships have done. If it’s a bit short on analysis, it’s long on humanity.