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29 October 2007

The Rise of Love


One the things that fascinates me, historically, is the evolution of love. It's not that people haven't always felt the emotion, we can clearly see from history (mostly tragic history) that love has been a universal human emotion as long as the species has existed (or at least as long as we've had a concept of history and storytelling).

What I'm talking about is the rise of love to the place of prominence it now commands. As modern women, we've been taught that certain things are to be expected (or even taken for granted): We'll marry for love; Who we love will be our business, and our business only; Marriage without love, for purposes such as security or alliance is wrong, even degrading; Sex without love is akin to prostitution (this one some of us are a little less adamant about, but I know LOTS of women who are horrified and offended by the idea that "sometimes you just wana get laid"). These are all ideals that began back in the 18th century and came to full fruition by the end of the Victorian era. The cult of the individual was in vogue, and with it came love.

The transformation of the English family--and indeed of the world they lived in--between the Elizabethan era and the Georgian one that gave rise to this change is all encompassing. Everything changed, and it had to for love to become the end-all-be-all goal of the human species. The feudalistic system in which extended kin relationships dominated the struggle of the aristocratic classes faded away. The "family" one was seeking to protect and to promote was now the extended nuclear family, leaving more time for the head of the family to focus on what would be best for individual members, rather than what those individuals could do to help the family.

There was also a change in the way children were viewed. More and more they were being raised at home, nursed by their mothers (rather than handed over to a wet nurse living some distance away), and viewed as valuable individuals. The mortality rate among infants and young children being what it was, it is easy to understand why parents might not have wanted to grow too attached to these fragile, almost ephemeral, little beings, but the fact is that when they began to be raised at home, and nursed by their mothers, the results were a much lower mortality rate.

The world had evolved to a state where marriages, even among the children of peers, was no longer being used to cement alliances that could mean life or death for an entire family. At the same time, the ideal of love, the idea that marriage was not simply for procreation, but for companionship, was a profound change.

All the wheels had been set in motion for love to be triumphant by the 17th century, and in the 18th we see the ideal of love and marriage being joined in the minds of the populace. By the early 19th century love's place was secure, and to date nothing profound has occurred to unseat it.

For those who wish to dig deeper into this topic, I highly recommend The Rise of the Egalitarian Family and (the more easily obtainable) The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800.

9 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Great post, Kalen! I've been fascinated by the arc or morphing of love and marriage as it played out in the royal affairs I have been researching. Arranged marriages in the royal houses of Europe have extended all the way to Charles and Diana, really. No way did that man marry her for love. If back in the 1970s the then-single Camilla had been deemed "acceptable" (i.e. a virgin) by the queen, a lot of emotional pain and psychological damage might have been alleviated.

And then from time to time there were the royal mistresses (like Nell Gwyn, for example), who really loved Charles II and was utterly faithful to him once she became his mistress; even after his death she told would-be suitors that she would not "lie with a dog where a deer had lain."

I am drawn to the real-life stories where true love conquers all but societal hypocrisy. Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson come to mind. It brings together history, personality, and cultural anthropology.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kalen! As I think I've mentioned before, "The Rise of the Egalitarian Family" is just about my favorite research ever. So wonderful for everything from the overarcing social changes to details such as prohibited degrees of kinship for marriage and the intricacies of marriage settlements. It's fascinating to think about the changing views of love, marriage, and the family and what they'd mean not only for our Georgian/Regency characters but for their parents (I usually find that in working out my characters' past history, I have to think a lot about their parents, even if the parents never appear in the book).

10:27 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Great post Kalen. I'm researching Jane Digby right now, and her whole life was based on finding true love, which for her turned out to be a desert sheik 17 years her junior. This was after her respectable marriage to a man seventeen years her senior (and 2 other marriages along the way). If she had lived in the 18th century or earlier, there would have been no notion of divorce, and she would probably have just toughed it out.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

One of the reasons I love writing books set in the 18th century is that it's the transitional period for the ideal of love. Take for example the differences between how it is portrayed in Pamela and in Sense and Sensibility.

In the first, from the middle of the century, it is almost non-existent. Mr B-- does not marry Pamela because he is in love with her. He marries her because he can not have her any other way (and because she has been a good girl and guarded her virtue; after all, the second half of the tile is "Or Virtue Rewarded").

In Austen's book (indeed in all her books, most of which have a Georgian origin, if not publication date) the characters are rewarded for honoring love. It is the new ideal which is rewarded.

2:35 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

You know, I read somewhere on a news group that a pair of women's shoes from the 15th century were unearthed in a royal grave in China.

The shoes were made from the wife's hair and she'd included a note to her husband that he should keep them with him and she would come and talk to him daily (only her words were much more heartfelt and eloquent, even in translation).

I wonder how often arranged marriages (which I'm sure theirs was) end up being enduring love.

There should be a book on that somewhere.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

From what Stone and Trumbach have to say, most arranged marriages resulted in alliances of toleration, where the couple led essentially separate lives that just happened to be legally bound. But clearly there were cases of love blossoming in arranged marriages. I would guess it was particularly likely if the parents chose well for their children.

6:16 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

This is a fascinating subject Kalen!And the references you gave are definitely going on my Christmas list. The family dynamic is such a rich source of story material and not many people use it. It is interesting to see how the transition from the family being a merger, an honorable name as if the family honor was more important than the actual family; to a concept of family that we can recognize, where the individual members are more important than a name.

7:38 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

...that love has been a universal human emotion as long as the species has existed (or at least as long as we've had a concept of history and storytelling)

Wonderful, thought-provoking post, Kalen.

Love and storytelling; sex and narrative -- such a complicated intertwining.

One of the most important texts to me, particularly as an erotic writer, is Denis de Rougement's Love in the Western World, where he asks the seemingly simple question of why unhappy love has been such a major theme in western literature.

And these days I'm particularly interested in the prose romances of 2nd century AD Greece, which are thought to be the first written narratives of happy-ever-after love.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"One of the reasons I love writing books set in the 18th century is that it's the transitional period for the ideal of love."

I feel exactly the same way, Kalen. And the 18th c. to me offers a richer tapestry of possibilities for women than the 19th c. as the pendulum swung back (and then wayyy back) toward repression and denial of outlets that had previously been more open to women. Then again, good old Rousseau considered only men to be eligible for the perks of the Enlightenment. He thought of women as second-class minds.

But I love the journey of Love from the dynastic to the individual.

5:45 AM  

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