"I want a fur coat and a villa and a cat": The art and agony of the English marriage

Using details from the huge Mass Observations archive at Sussex University, a new book "The English in Love" charts the changing meaning and reality of marriage since 1945.

Couple in bed.
Since 1945, the model of matrimony has been about more than just companionship and duty. Photograph: Laura Letinsky / Gallery Stock.
The English in Love: the Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution
Claire Langhamer
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £20
 
Claire Langhamer, a trustee of the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University and a lecturer there, has written a wise and important book that deserves the attention of policymakers and opinion-formers as well as historians. Relying on the prodigious data on everyday life and feelings collected by Mass Observation researchers since 1937 but also drawing on other sources, she has scrutinised the ways in which the Second World War wrought lasting changes in English expectations of marriage, evaluations of domesticity, quests for individual fulfilment and marital stability. Her focus is on the intimacies of everyday life from the mid-1930s to the mid-1970s but her book has a thunderous resonance for the 21st century. It is the best sort of history, which makes intelligible the problems of our time and gives a subtle lesson in past and present mistakes.
 
Langhamer presents the 1940s and 1950s as a watershed in emotional intimacy, sexual conduct and gender relations among the English working and middling classes (she writes little about the upper-middle class or higher social altitudes). It was mid-century idealisations of love and new notions about personal fulfilment, rather than a later proliferation of sexual activity, that caused the most far-reaching social changes. She views the 1960s not as the “permissive” decade of journalistic cliché but as “a golden age of romance”, when youth culture was permeated with the peer pressure to marry young.
 
New ideas about matrimony, with their investment in “romantic love”, “sexual satisfaction” and “emotional growth”, invited disillusion and proved to be an unsteady basis for lifelong commitment. “A matrimonial model based upon the transformative power of love carried within it the seeds of its own destruction,” Langhamer argues. “The end-of-century decline of lifelong marriage was rooted in the contradictions, tensions and illogicalities that lay at the heart of midcentury intimacy.”
 
Change was already under way in the 1930s. “A lot of girls,” the Daily Mirror’s agony aunt warned on St Valentine’s Day in 1938, “think that marriage is going to be sentiment and romance and a perpetual petting party, and that they will live in a state of thrills. They are disgruntled and disappointedwhen they find that marriage is work, responsibility, doing their duty and being taken for granted.” Yet a surprising number of men were romantics who believed in “love at first sight” and had sweet dreams of domestic bliss.
 
People married in haste during the Second World War. They were impelled by “the war and the excitement and the Blitz – feeling you might be gone tomorrow”, as one Mass Observation respondent said. “He was going abroad and I wanted him to know that he’d have someone to come back to,” explained a war bride. For those who had survived hardships and peril, “love and marriage” symbolised postwar hopes for a social order that would be more stable, fair and protective than that of the past. In the late 1940s, private emotional intimacies seemed to promise to bind people together and to change society as much as the National Health Service.
 
But in the 15 years after the war, national service, rising prosperity, new workplace habits and diversified recreations destabilised the old courtship practices more lastingly than wartime dislocation. “The willingness to marry for love above all else was strongly linked to economic security,” Langhamer reports. Young people’s rising incomes eroded the need for long courtships. Men who had been called up for national service were enabled – if not induced – to marry by the “family allowances” that the state paid to them. A young national serviceman could afford to marry. His wife would live with her parents for the two years that he was conscripted; she would work full-time and her savings, as well as his pay, would enable them to set up home or buy a house once he was released.
 
The longing for a home of one’s own was all-encompassing. As one commentator explained, “Where almost everything else is ruled from outside, is chancy and likely to knock you down when you least expect it, the home is yours and real.” Those who idealise long-lost working-class communities forget how many people married to escape their parents. David Kynaston, in his recent book Modernity Britain, notes that an attraction of postwar new towns such as Stevenage was their distance from the London slums, where mothers monitored the emotional lives of their daughters and sons and enforced stifling family traditions. He cites the BBC producer Leonard Cottrell’s assessment of the relief felt by working-class wives at putting 30 miles between themselves and “‘Mum’ . . . with her aboriginal warmth, her glutinous, devouring affection. Young wives who had been dominated throughout childhood . . . by these stupid, arrogant, self-pitying matriarchs have suddenly found that they can do without them.”
 
For many young women after the war, the process of “courting” had a similar appeal to escaping to a new town. Langhamer quotes a woman born in the postwar baby boom recalling courtship: “It gave you a sense of independence from your parents, in particular your father who didn’t dare criticise you once you were seriously courting because another, unknown force thought you were perfect.”
 
The contempt for women who made their own sexual choices was pervasive. They were depicted as outcasts or criminals. “One of the most serious results of the new attitude of mind among women,” announced a retired CID officer in a book entitled Women and Crime, “is the behaviour of a steadily growing class of ‘respectable’ girls who deliberately reverse the natural order of sex life. The women belonging to this class are content no longer to be sought by men; they have themselves become the seekers. Setting no price other than a ‘good time’ upon their favours, and putting no check to their eroticism, they constitute an element of serious unrest.”
 
Similarly, the senior judge Lord Denning told the National Marriage Guidance Council in 1950 that the rising divorce rate was attributable to “the emancipation of women”. In fairness, the old prude disliked male sexual freedom equally, and in a speech in 1957 he urged that it should be a criminal offence for a man to undergo a vasectomy, enabling him to enjoy “the gratification of sexual intercourse without any of the responsibilities”. Perhaps Denning thought possession of a condom should be criminalised, too, if he had any logic. Two years later, Geoffrey Fisher, the then archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that “adultery” had “become such a public menace that the time has come when it ought to be made a criminal offence”.
 
The emotional exclusivity prescribed by public moralists diverged from people’s experiences and beliefs. The anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer found that the population was divided between those who believed that “falling in love” was a unique event, culminating in marriage, and those who saw it as a repeatable sensation. His respondents in the early 1950s seldom reckoned infidelity as the worst marital offence. Only a minority believed that adultery should end a marriage and those who considered sexual activity “very important” in marriage were far likelier to consider terminating the marriage on grounds of infidelity than those who considered it “fairly important”.
 
“Should I pick a girl who can cook, sew and be a good housewife, or must I wait until I meet the girl who can make my heart thump?” a young man asked the Daily Mirror in 1947. As marriages became less based on performing the roles of good housewife and good earner and more concerned with thumping hearts, attitudes to infidelity changed. Many more of the cohort whom Gorer interviewed in 1969 emphasised sexual fidelity and jealousy as central to married happiness than those in 1951. While postwar attitudes towards premarital sex relaxed with increased incidences, those towards extramarital affairs became harsher as adultery increased.
 
Langhamer characterises the period between 1945 and 1975 as “a golden age of marriage”. More people “got spliced” than ever before in British demographic history. The notion of marriage as romantic fulfilment, a signal of maturity and a means to liberation became ubiquitous in youth culture. Those born in 1946 were less likely than members of any earlier generation to remain single. By the start of the 1970s, marriage was crucial to young people’s self-definition: most wished to marry early in life. The marriage rate for England and Wales reached its peacetime peak in 1972. Thereafter, the wedding rate plummeted; in 2009 it sank to the lowest level ever recorded.
 
In 1931 the average age at first marriage for women was 25 and for men 27. For the “dedicated follower of fashion” about whom the Kinks sang in the Swinging Sixties, the biggest fad of all was not Carnaby Street finery but marriage. By 1970, the average ages at first marriage had fallen to 22 for women and 24 for men (but by 2009 they had risen by eight years for both sexes).
 
As early as in 1953, the bishop of Sheffield warned that marriage was no longer seen as “a social institution” but was regarded “as a freely entered and freely maintained personal relationship worked out by the persons concerned”. This intensified hopes and stresses and required closer compatibility and emotional adjustment, all of which increased the risk of failure. Moreover, the higher priority given to the needs and welfare of children, often to the detriment of adult feelings, made many marriages unsatisfactory or hopeless. As notions of duty and self-sacrifice declined in matrimonial importance, they increased in the practice of parenthood.
 
The Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce, which reported in 1956, considered that if divorce rates continued to rise, the laws permitting divorce might have to be repealed. The commissioners regarded marriage not as a contract between two individuals but as the spouses’ contract with the state. Marriage was a social institution, they believed, rather than an emotional partnership – intended to promote the greater good of society, rather than the selfish needs of personal happiness. Few young married couples agreed.
 
One of Langhamer’s significant findings is the extent to which the postwar working class identified “ordinariness” as a virtue: there was little of today’s desire to be famous, conspicuous or a celebrity. Ordinariness was a badge proudly worn, denoting that one had no “flash” wealth or unfair advantages.
 
The English in Love is a treasury of quick quotations that tell a huge story. The headmaster who pronounced that “the sexual act is humiliating unless it is accompanied by love” represents the tradition that rejected intercourse as an enjoyable pastime and insisted that it was a gift from a woman to a man, a signifier and a privilege. An aspirational wife who realised too late that her poorly educated husband would never prosper put a lifetime of regret into 11 words: “I want a fur coat and a villa and a cat.” Generations of chauvinists are represented by the father who tells his daughter, “He’ll be a lucky man who marries you,” when she serves him a tin of John West tinned salmon for tea.
 
There are countless talking points, revisionist challenges and shrewd sidelights in Langhamer’s compelling and humane book. She has the confidence to write in clear, honest prose, without the mystifying, polysyllabic jargon in which lesser historians write about sexuality to hide the thinness of their ideas. Her bracing good sense stands in splendid contrast to the nonsense in which the English entangled themselves whenever they approached a bedroom door. “Having a climax is, for a woman, arrived at through feelings of being loved, secure, free from doubts and fears and willing to let herself go,” Woman’s Own advised its readers in 1970. “It is naturally hard to have all these feelings outside marriage – this is biology, not morals!”
 
Richard Davenport-Hines is the author of “An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo” (HarperPress, £9.99)