Hampstead author traces history of modern love life

Francesca Beauman’s lonely hearts ad history gives an insight into the love lives of modern men and women

MANY assume that lonely hearts ads and internet dating are the products of our dislocated contemporary lives.

But as far back as the 1690s, unattached gentlemen in search of suitable mates were placing adverts in newspapers.

Historian Francesca Beauman’s Shapely Ankle Preferr’d (Chatto and Windus, �12.99) charts the fascinating history of these funny, romantic, sometimes tragic quests for love.

Offering a sideways look at social history, the ads also provide a glimpse into the desires of men and women through the centuries.

“I thought it was brilliant that here was a clear manifestation of people’s innermost desires on the front page of a newspaper where people talk about what they are looking for in a man or a woman,” says Beauman, who was brought up in Hampstead but now lives in L.A.

“Anthropological studies about choosing a mate have been done but not, so far, an historical study about how the British choose their husbands and wives and how the idea of romantic love has evolved.”

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The first ads in the late 1690s were driven by the urbanisation of Britain’s population and a legal change that enabled an explosion of newspapers and magazines – all touting for new advertising streams.

“Britain’s cities exploded, suddenly people were away from their families and didn’t know many people. As one advert says: ‘I am a stranger to the metropolis’. They worked very long hours and it was hard to meet people, just as it is today. Lonely hearts were just another service this increasing urban population needed.”

In an era with strict rules about chaperoning single women, men often only glimpsed a pretty face across a street or theatre auditorium, giving rise to ads begging the object of their gaze to get in touch.

With early ads affordable only for the middle, upper classes and successful trades people, most made it clear that marriage was an economic, practical transaction.

The mostly male advertisers revealed their income and expectation of any future wife’s settlement. With surprisingly little emphasis on looks, some stated baldly they needed an heir, someone with “good cow management skills” or, in one case, to be married in time for the harvest.

“It’s a deal – about what each is going to provide the other – and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that if both people get what they want out of it.”

From the outset, lonely hearts ads were read for entertainment. Contemporary commentators found them more interesting than news reports and newspapers put them on their front pages. Beauman believes some were invented to lure readers and advertisers.

“One reason to buy a newspaper was to read these ads. Some were weird and crazy and had entertainment value because they offered the chance to read personal details of someone’s life.”

Eighteenth century men typically wanted women who were “amiable, affectionate, delicate and respectable”. Almost all had to be under 30.

“Superficials change – like desiring a shapely ankle – but the fundamentals of what men and women are looking for depressingly changes very little,” says Beauman, who still stays with her parents Ned and publishing director Nicola when she comes to London.

“Men look for women aged 20 to 30 and women look for men with resources, whether it’s money or property or someone in trade. It’s all about evolution and the exchange of youth for money. Men want women who will be fertile and women want men who will support any ensuing children.”

The few women who placed ads in the 18th and early 19th century were often desperate; widows or orphans seeking a protector from malicious money-grubbing relatives, they pleaded for “anyone who will marry me.”

One exception was the high maintenance 1787 woman who demanded a man who drank “no more than two bottles of claret or one of port at a sitting” and who didn’t “ogle or intrigue by squints and looks with pert misses”.

The rise of the novel, airing tales of romantic relationships, helped place increasing emphasis on romantic love in choosing a mate.

“By the late 19th century, it was becoming more important to people to find their friend and equal rather than someone to share the practicalities of life with.

“By the 1890s, there were 20 newspapers dedicated to lonely hearts ads alone, which clearly filled an enormous need among the middle classes.”

In the late 40s, ads were placed by RAF widows after the Second World War and, in the 60s, the first pleas for gay and lesbian partners and no-strings attached sex appeared.

“You find men advertising in Private Eye or the New Statesmen for sex for fun, juxtaposed with heartbreaking ads saying, ‘I am pregnant, I am desperate I need someone to love.’”

At various times, public anxiety would arise surrounding the potential exploitation of anonymous ads, especially after a murderer, bigamist or con artist had used them to find their victims.

Such ongoing stigma about lonely hearts meant Beauman could unearth little evidence about what happened next.

“There was a veil of secrecy. After meeting and marrying, people would often rewrite history and say they met under more conventional circumstances.”

But she believes the noughties, where rituals of courtship now routinely involve internet dating, has changed the marital landscape.

“These days 60 per cent of ads are placed by women. It’s no longer out of the ordinary and has become a perfectly respectable way to meet people,” says Beauman, a former comedienne and TV presenter who is herself happily married with two children to film director James Bobin.

“We have a human need for connection and someone to share life with and, if the practicalities of modern life make that difficult, then anything that helps us all be less lonely is brilliant.”