Saturday, 18 May 2013

What love means

Thirty years ago, the historian Theodore Zeldin wrote this about love:

‘No one knows quite what love means, no two people have experienced it in quite the same way … Love cannot be counted or measured, but it has to be incorporated into explanations of behaviour and events. One way to elucidate its content is to break it up into the elements of which it may be composed, and to use these as tools for an individual kind of historical exploration. Thus attractiveness is one of those elements. It is possible to rearrange the facts of history so as to make it a central criterion. People can be divided not only into rich and poor, capitalists and workers, lords and commons, but also into those who are attractive and those who are not, for reasons which need not always be associated with material possessions, or social status. The attractive are a class also. Attractiveness is a source both of power and of disadvantages. It can be a snare, an easy label that damns the person to whom it is applied; it is manipulated by unwritten laws; it has its own literature, its manuals on how to make friends and influence people; it has its own aesthetics and ethics; it is as unstable a source of prestige as politics or money; the criteria by which it is judged change drastically with age … Love has its own tyrants, conquests, battles and alliances. It could provide a thread for linking the history of conflict in the past quite as well as the history of war.’

Zeldin’s quote came to mind after I spent an enjoyable day recently at the Great Diary Project, the archive of private citizens’ diaries held at the Bishopsgate Library near Liverpool Street Station (thanks to Luke Parks for helping me find everything I wanted). It seems obvious when you think about it, but many of the diarists, particularly the young ones, are far less concerned about politics, society or the state of the economy than with the progress of their own love lives.

One teenage girl diarist, writing from a private school in Cumbria in the early 1950s, fills her Letts day-a-page desk diaries with lipstick kisses and news of her latest crushes, and has a list of boys’ names at the back against headings like ‘love, hate, passion, friendship, courtship, flintship, marriage’ – a sort of 1950s version of ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’.

Meanwhile, an Oxford undergraduate writes this in his diary of 31 December 1954: ‘S. and I went to New Forest players’ dance. It was quite a good one, and we enjoyed it (at Grand Marine). Afterwards, however, S. wanted me to make love to her - and then we had to have another long chat about things - she has fallen in love w. me, which is rather unfortunate. However, she is realistic & wants to maintain friendship.’

On 29 November 1955 he writes: ‘Rang A. this evening and had a long talk. She sounds so lovely - I am determined to marry her if I possibly can.’ Things then seem to go a bit awry. ‘In rather a temper I penned her an angry note,’ he writes of A. on 6 December 1955. And then on 31 December: ‘A. met me. A meal, then we sat and chatted till a.m. I feel she is a bit restrained about something.’ Fortunately, all is well. The next diary in the archive from the same diarist is inscribed ‘given by darling A.’ – and it’s a two-year diary, so she’s obviously planning to stick around. Phew. Poor S., though.


  1. Hi Joe, I came across your blog through Oh Comely magazine. I loved this post! I don't live too far away from Liverpool Street - the Great Diary Project sounds amazing so I might just have to go and have a nosy!


  2. Thanks a lot Jess - yes it's worth checking out.