CHATTO & WINDUS, £12.99 Order for £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Shapely Ankle Preferr'd: A History of the Lonely Hearts, By Francesca Beauman
An affecting account with a GSOH
Monday 14 February 2011
You can't hurry love / No you just have to wait," lamented Diana Ross and the Supremes, echoing the ancients' wisdom for surrendering to the mysteries of the heart.
No such surrender for the determined ancients of England who, ever since the first variation on the Would Like To Meet (WLTM) plea appeared in The Times in 1695, attempted to chivvy the process along with a discreetly-placed advertisement.
The sociologist Anthony Giddens has suggested that advertising for love arose from the "commodification of the self in later modernity". Yet the lonely-hearts column is not a recent invention, as we discover in Francesca Beauman's intriguing "secret history", which mines material across three centuries. The first such advert appeared under the heading "Matrimonial", and employed the language that was to dominate this practice for at least a century: that of men bargaining for women of fortune. "The advertiser is a young Bachelor of 30, of genteel person and address... would be happy to meet with a young Lady or Widow... who is inclined to enter into that happy state, and can command at least £500..."
For a time, the line between fact and fiction became blurred, with many adverts thought to be invented for the entertainment of readers. "A worthy plump, fresh, free and willing Widdow", apparently seeking pleasures of the flesh, and a "gentleman of very considerable fortune... afflicted with an incurable weakness in his knees, occasioned by the kick of an Ostrich in the East Indies", were most probably among them.
The way in which "matrimonials" evolved offers a fascinating social history of Britain, from the influx of economic migrants to London in the 1690s (making the prospect of marriage more complex) to Victorian Britain's rising culture of commerce and advertising and the drop in the male population after the First World War. By 1921, Britain had a surplus of 1.7 million women. One frank advert read: "Lady, fiance killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated in the War".
The "matrimonial" met its death with the birth of the Pill, when marriage and sex were irrevocably disentangled, and the modern "Lonely Heart" was born. This thorough and thoroughly amusing book suggests that what lonely hearts have always needed is a thick skin, a willing heart and, above all, a GSOH.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove