• Shapely Ankle Preferr’d A History of Lonely Hearts Ad 1695–2010 by Francesca Beauman

    What a great title, for a great idea. We all have friends using the internet to find a bird/bloke/husband/wife. There are those of us writing to men in sandy places, found via the internet; or dating a ‘gorgeous blonde seeking single man’ ; or even marrying a guy/woman sourced through My Single Friend. Although nothing is certain. One friend discussing a disastrous sequence of events with an internet date, made the classic comment on seeing that they had married within a matter of months of their break up, ‘they should come with a Government Health Warning!’ Welcome to the history of the Lonely Hearts Ads.

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    The Lonely Hearts Ads are a microcosm of our social history. Finding a woman (and I am not being sexist here but it used to be the male on the hunt rather than the female) has been at the forefront of man’s mind since we could walk upright (and in all truthfulness before then!), but increasingly procreation has been linked with marriage and latterly love. The woman’s lot in all of this has, up until recently and with some notable exceptions, been a fairly lowly one. This book chronicles the development and gradual emancipation of women in society and their changing roles within personal relationships. The requirements for marriage/love and sex have shifted over the years. Originally Lonely Hearts Ads were seen as something of a joke; a chance to play a practical prank on those advertising for a husband or wife. They were also used to con unsuspecting men as well as women out of money. After all society was a very different place in the 1700 and 1800s as until comparatively recently both sexes were constrained by a moral and social code that made meeting the opposite sex extremely difficult. Since the 1690s advertising for a partner was perceived as deeply dodgy, even though by 1874 there were over 25 newspapers carrying Lonely Hearts Ads. However it was not until the advent of the internet that advertising for a spouse/companion/partner gained real widespread acceptance.

    What I find frustrating about this book, and the author admits to it too, is that there are so few concrete examples of what happened as a result of the ads. The title and subject are so promising but there needs to be meat to the bones. After all we all want to be able to laugh at our foibles particularly on the subject of dating; and we want to believe that it works. The subject matter is a bit like boxing shadows. Admittedly there is murder (Red Barn Murder 1828 ), fraud and near rape (Miss Knowles v Mr Duncan 1890) and a documented case of ‘happy ever after’ between Gertie Judd and John Burnicle who finally married in 1906. There is also real pathos and desperation. In today’s world do we really understand what it was like to be a female and to be considered on the scrapheap at the age of 25? That marriage was the only option if you were a woman? Or to be a male and without any means or valuable income? Perhaps it is just that we expect more today – immediately. After all up until 1875 marriage would result in the transfer of all a woman’s property to her husband who would also have custody of any ensuing children; it was legal to beat or imprison your wife and divorce was almost impossible – between 1670 and 1857 of the 325 divorces all required its own act of Parliament and only four were granted to women.

    Of course as society changed so did the Lonely Hearts Ads. After all they are a direct reflection of our social mores and the events that affect us. None more so than war. I think one of the saddest Lonely Hearts ads was written in 1915 ‘Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the War’; similarly in 1926 in The Matchmaker ‘young widowed lady (Scotch), newly arrived in London, seeks matrimony for the third time, having lost first husband in the war and second husband in aeroplane accident’. And with the Spanish flu epidemic by 1921 Britain had a surplus of 1.2 million women. Not surprisingly Lonely Hearts ads flourished. What other way was there of finding a man?

    Reading this book, which is very well researched, left me feeling sad rather than uplifted as I am not too sure that anything has really altered over the centuries. Over the years the ads have become more explicit certainly, but men are still looking for shap’ly ankles and women are still looking for security. The words have just changed.

    3 winos


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