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The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, by Claire Langhamer, OUP, RRP£20/$29.95, 320 pages

We tend to talk of “the nanny state” as if it were a new phenomenon, the product of welfarism, forgetting how comprehensively nannied the English used to be. Just listen to the coverage of some pre-1970s royal ceremony and that measured male BBC voice, simultaneously patronising and obsequious; or read some of the pronouncements on sex and marriage by clerics, magistrates and agony aunts quoted in The English in Love. It was a different sort of nannying to now, more insidious. British subjects (or at least the working classes and all classes of women) were jollied and tut-tutted into the right behaviour, with marriage almost a patriotic duty.

Was everyone as cheerfully compliant as the authorities assumed? Sceptical leftish intellectuals set up Mass Observation in 1937 to achieve a genuine “anthropology of ourselves” by inviting “ordinary people” to write diaries and fill in questionnaires; the archives are housed at Sussex University, where Claire Langhamer teaches history. She uses them as primary sources in examining attitudes to sex and marriage from the 1920s to the 1970s – an extraordinary and paradoxical period which can, she says, be seen both as the golden age of marriage and as holding the seeds of its decline.

Marriage rates rose steadily from the 1930s and steeply after the second world war until, by 1970, 96 per cent of women married before the age of 45. Yet after this they plummeted and, by 2009, had fallen to the lowest level since calculations began in 1862. It is characteristic of The English in Love, however, that we only learn this crucial fact in the last few pages, by which time we may well feel little the wiser as to how and why these contradictory changes happened. Reasons are offered but unsystematically, and we move backwards and forwards in the 50-year period with frustratingly little sense of development.

Langhamer stresses that the second world war was “an emotional watershed” and “cast a long shadow”. A sense of ephemerality – pleasures clutched between spells at the front and from threatened death – hardened into habit, undermining traditions of marital permanence. Increasing postwar prosperity fostered independence, leisure and, eventually, the playpen domain of teenagedom. Improved contraception, easier divorce, greater toleration of extramarital sex, women’s improving status and earning power – all were chickens and eggs in the causal morass.

Also unsettling was the felt requirement for “emotional authenticity”, and “the sexualisation of marriage” that percolated down from Freud, Havelock Ellis and the marriage manuals they inspired. The respective weightings of pragmatism, passion and love were readjusted; “love”, in any case, no longer meant “taking care of” your spouse, but understanding them and cultivating their self-development. “Crucially,” adds Langhamer, “it also meant expecting them to do the same for you.”

Changes in ideas of love promoted sexual change, not vice versa, says Langhamer. At the beginning of the 20th century, sex and love were two separate, if interlocking, spheres, and so too at the end, but for a time they were entwined. But she never develops or corroborates this idea, which is anyway reminiscent of Marcus Collins’s more considered theorising in Modern Love (2003), which views the 20th century as a doomed quest for male/female mutuality.

Langhamer is admirable in her even-handed use of intriguing material but we crave a systematic trajectory through it. Without some sort of nannying, it is hard to get any clearer on why and how marriage, once the expected state for everyone, became just one among many expendable means to self-fulfilment.

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