In The English in Love, Langhamer charts a key change in the history of an emotion. She belongs to a growing international movement of scholars who are demonstrating that emotions—once thought to be universal and unchanging—are, at least in part, contingent upon history and culture. Her examination of how twentieth-century English couples transformed the meaning and experience of heterosexual love offers an excellent case study of how emotions can change across time.
In the early years of the century, love and marriage were often defined in pragmatic terms. Individuals might choose mates based on their “suitability”—their incomes and ability to provide domestic security. Love and sex were an undeniable part of these marriages, but lovability [End Page 227] or attractiveness was often determined by practical and material considerations. In the years after World War II, however, love came to be based not on pragmatism but on passion and personality. The very meaning of to love underwent a significant change—from describing an individual’s willingness to care for and help a partner to signifying emotional intimacy and a sense of shared understanding and compatibility. By the end of the twentieth century, love had become the central reason to marry and the only reason to stay married. Its absence justified divorce; its central role in modern definitions of self-fulfillment also justified its pursuit outside the bounds of marriage. Ironically, the emergence of this passionate type of love spurred both a rise in divorce rates and a decline in marriage rates.
Langhamer makes several key points about this transformation, but two in particular stand out. First, the disruptions of World War II, which radically undermined traditional assumptions about courting and marriage, had long-range consequences. Some of the young people deployed far from home enjoyed new freedom and privacy as they courted. Long-standing dating rituals, such as evening promenades, became less practical given the blackout conditions that prevailed. Moreover, people tended to wed more quickly, often dispensing with the criteria that their parents had used for assessing potential mates. The war fundamentally reshaped both the path to, and the contours of, marriage. This finding leads to Langhamer’s second point: The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s did not cause people to rethink love and commitment; rather, the transformed meaning of love, forged in the shadow of war, ultimately led to a reassessment of sexual mores. As love became the chief rationale for marriage, its absence became a compelling reason for separation—and sometimes a powerful motivation for two people who were unable to wed to “live in sin” instead. As Langhamer argues, “The institution of formal marriage could not always contain the understandings of love and partnership that took hold in the 1940s and 1950s” (208).
To support her case for this “emotional revolution,” Langhamer relies on an array of sources from “Agony Aunt” advice columns to advertisements and movies. Her most remarkable evidence comes from the Mass-Observation Archive, a project started in 1937 by a group of intellectuals. It went into hiatus during the 1960s but was revived in the 1980s and is currently housed at the University of Sussex. The project’s investigators gathered data through surveys and observation and recruited ordinary people to document their lives in diaries. They focused not just on love but on everything from “the shouts and gestures of motorists” to the “[d]istribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke.” Langhamer, a trustee of the archive, presents this resource as a goldmine for scholars in a variety of disciplines, from history to sociology, psychology, and anthropology. It certainly has proven so for her; these rich sources make her argument both intellectually convincing and [End Page 228] emotionally compelling. Her individual stories of people struggling to marry, stay married, or get divorced are affecting. The juxtaposition of the social prescriptions found in magazine columns and advice manuals with the anecdotes, interviews, and diaries of the Mass-Observation subjects provides a means of understanding the sometimes wide gap...