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Reputation Control .........................................................................................Client William Flew
Shapely Ankle Preferr'd - A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad
If you are finding the marriage market trying, then take comfort in the fact that all today's lonely hearts tend to require of their respondents is a GSOH. Because, in centuries past, one might also have been called upon to demonstrate the rather more demanding attributes of angelic beauty, sweet Breath, good breed and, most alarmingly of all, sound Wind. Doubtless a sensible stipulation but not, one would have thought, a first-date topic.
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But it is less that such antique advertisements were so exacting that surprises the modern reader than that they existed at all. For, though there have been lonely hearts for as long as there have been hearts, 'Lonely Hearts', in their capitalised and capitalist form, feel a far more modern phenomenon; one belonging to an era of computers rather than corsets. But as Francesca Beauman demonstrates in this wonderful history, not so.
The world's first Lonely Heart appeared in the 1695 edition of the appositely named Collection of Improvement of Husbandry and Trade. It was widely derided; then widely imitated. By 1795, even The Times was carrying, just above another advertisement for a cure for venereal disease, a Lonely Hearts advert. One hopes that they were not aiming at the same market.
Given the constrained nature of upper and middle-class courtship in this era, one might have imagined that these advertisements were the preserve of the passionate poor. But far from it: not only did the reading and writing of such advertisements demand literacy, and hence wealth, but the adverts themselves were expensive. It was therefore gentlemen, not working men, who advertised in this way.
It wasn't only advertising for love that was expensive. This was an age when the phrase 'marriage market' was much more than metaphor, and success in it required, as one parody put it, "that eminent & irresistible charm: C-A-S-H". The majority of advertisements in this era, therefore, show an Austenian interest in finances, though the numbers touted are usually rather less than Bingley's "four or five thousand a year".
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Later still, other charms become equally irresistible. As the idea of romantic love gains popularity, adverts begin to demand depth of feeling rather than depth of pocket. By the late Enlightenment era a "feeling heart" emerges as a particularly desirable trait among advertisers. Contrast this with the rambunctious Restoration days, when "feeling" is by no means restricted to hearts: one widow, of Wife of Bath bawdiness, states she is in "great distresse" for "want of a Lancktaradiddledino". Quite.
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Seeing how amatory fashions change is one of this book's many pleasures. In the early years a clear, rather depressing, preference emerges for women who are "chaste", domestic and with the "shapely ankle" of this book's title; whereas by the 1970s, marriage is neglected by both sexes in favour of "companionship", "broadminded friendship" and, as one advert puts it, "electric evenings".
Yet, as Beauman clearly shows, these adverts indicate far more than changes in fashions of courtship. Each one acts as a bellwether of the broader changes of its day. So, the First World War and its subsequent shortage of men results in a great rise in the number, and desperation, of advertisements placed by women. "Will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the War," states one.
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But such adverts are the exception. For the majority of their history, Lonely Hearts have been optimistically exacting of would-be inamoratos, demanding that they possess such desirable qualities as elegance, charm and wit. Precisely the same qualities, in other words, as are possessed by this wonderful book.
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