History and an Emotional Revolution

By Laura Vivanco on

The period covered by Claire Langhamer's new book, The English in Love: The Intimate Story of An Emotional Revolution is probably not quite "historical" by the standards of popular romance fiction since it looks at the years from "1920-1970" (4) but reading it made me consider beliefs about love in relation to both historical romances and the history of popular romance.

Langhamer argues that

there is something distinctive about the ways in which love, sex, and marriage were interwoven within mid-century England. This is not to suggest that love had no significance for ordinary people prior to the twentieth century or that there was somehow 'more' love in this period than ever before. [...] Romantic love is hardly a modern invention. (11)


While it would be inaccurate to suggest that pre-twentieth-century marriages were characterized by lovelessness, love was not always deemed sufficient reason to marry. [...] By the 1950s emotion alone was increasingly enough. (13)

Thinking about love as an emotion which "has a history. It has meant different things to different people at different moments and has served different purposes" (Langhamer 4) has obvious implications for historical romances.

Historical fiction, I suspect, always keeps one eye on the present even as it looks backwards in order to depict the past. Sometimes the eye looking back sees little more than picturesque clothes and quaint customs and the result is "wallpaper" historical fiction; at others a whole-hearted attempt is made to depict a time and place with its own mentalit├ęs (I put that in the plural because societies are not homogenous, and there are likely to be significant differences in the worldviews of people of different social classes etc).


In recent years historical research has taken an 'emotional turn', driven by an assertion that feeling is shaped by time and culture. 'Emotions themselves are extremely plastic,' observes the medievalist Barbara Rosenwein, 'it is very hard to maintain, except at an abstract level that emotions are everywhere the same. (Langhamer 7-8)

another of my suspicions is that it is still more difficult to create a work of historical fiction which is accurate in its depiction of a society's attitudes than one in which, for example, details of clothing have been meticulously researched, partly because because beliefs are much less tangible than old fabrics and less visible than fashion prints but also because the beliefs and attitudes of the author and intended readers may get in the way. I suspect, too, that this might be a bit more likely to true in historical romance than in other kinds of historical fiction because the heroes and heroines of romances are usually people the reader is meant to find admirable and/or "sympathetic" and that probably means they're expected to have attitudes similar to those of the reader. Furthermore, readers of romances usually want the novels to be romantic and they may well define that by their own standards rather than by those of the historical period in which the book is set.

Characters whose attitudes seem closer to those of a modern reader than to those of their own time are not necessarily anachronistic. After all, as mentioned, societies are not homogeneous and it's possible that romance authors are more likely to write about characters whose beliefs are somewhat unusual yet might still have been held by someone living in that period. There's a limit, though, to quite how far "before their time" someone can be and still seem authentic, and there are also implications for such an individual's status in their society.

One way round this might be for authors of historical fiction to concentrate on periods which are not so very far from our own, so that the gap between their attitudes towards love and ours seems easier to bridge. I wonder if that might be one factor underlying the popularity of Regency romances.


Attitudes towards love and marriage would appear to have changed quite rapidly however, even within the past century. One indication of this is provided by lonely hearts columns:

What the modern reader might see as endearingly modest romantic aspirations were not unusual amongst Post clients in the 1920s and 1930s. The successful execution of gendered roles was of apparently more importance than looks and the capacity for passion. A 5 foot 6 inch tall widower felt it important to include his skills as a motor car driver, pony and pig breeder, and experimental fruit grower before self-describing as 'kind and cheery ... and not too ugly'. A commitment to domesticity was paramount: both spinster and bachelor clients requested 'homely' individuals. Steadiness was a much sought-after attribute.

After the Second World War personality traits became more important within the pages of the Post. Women clients now looked for a sense of humour, loyalty and kindness whilst men requested affectionate and loving women. 'Normality' and 'ordinariness' was also much in demand. By 1955, the language of emotional intimacy had shifted. It was not unheard of for those who advertised to suggest that they were looking for a soulmate. We can begin to discern a more introspective model of romantic taste which placed emotional connection at its heart. Changed understandings of love - of its everyday status, meaning, and power - underpinned this model. Within this context, love had the capacity to transform the self. Indeed, a capacity for transcendence came to be a marker of emotional authenticity. (23-24)

I can't help but wonder how these changes affected popular romance fiction. Langhamer notes that

historian Judy Giles explains: 'in the 1920s and 1930s 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 life which consisted of prudential marriage and the provision of a comfortable, hygienic home in which to sustain a male breadwinner and rear healthy children.' (54)

Of course romantic fiction isn't homogenous and there's always been a mixture of the really escapist and unrealistic (like E. M. Hull's The Sheik) and the more down-to-earth, which is perhaps more likely to emphasise shared backgrounds and outlooks.  I wonder if, in a way, the more escapist side of the genre came to seem more emotionally realistic as the century moved on and people adopted more idealistic views about transcendent love within marriage. As far as the present is concerned, Langhamer's suggestion that

At the beginning and at the end of the twentieth century sex and love constituted separate, though often interlocking, spheres. The mid-century achievement was to entwine them. (49)

makes me wonder whether romance fiction which equates passion with true love seems increasingly unrealistic in the context of 21st-century attitudes towards love, sex and marriage. Also, given that Langhamer's study is about the English in love, and the centre of romance publishing seems to have moved from London to North America, I wonder whether there are significantly different ideas about love in the US and UK.


Langhamer, Claire. The English in Love: The Intimate Story of An Emotional Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. [Excerpt here and reviews from Times Higher EducationThe Telegraph, The Economist and The Guardian.]