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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 February 2007

University of Sussex


This article contributes to the on-going study of modern affective life by exploring the ways in which love was understood, invoked, and deployed within heterosexual courtships. ‘Love’ itself is approached as a highly mutable and flexible concept whose meanings and uses are contingent upon historical moment, gender, status, and generation. Whilst the article does not claim to offer a comprehensive history of love across the central years of the twentieth century, it suggests that some of the everyday meanings and uses of that emotion can be illuminated through consideration of this particular aspect of social life. Rather than placing discursive constructions centre stage, the article uses life history material to effect an analysis embedded in everyday practices. Courtship itself is understood as a transitional stage between youth and adulthood: a life stage during which the meanings and uses of ‘love’ were implicitly or explicitly confronted, where gender relationships were potentially unstable, and where aspiration and desire could conflict in the making of the self. Courtship therefore constituted an important rite of passage which could provide an opportunity to perform, reject, and refine new roles and responsibilities, whilst negotiating future status and identity. The article explores the power dynamics which underlined romantic encounters, but argues that through their everyday practice young women exercised real, if bounded, agency within this sphere of social life.

Research Article
2007 Cambridge University Press

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I would like to thank Carol Dyhouse, Alex Shepard and the anonymous Historical Journal reviewers for their helpful comments in relation to this article. Extracts from the Mass-Observation Archive are reproduced with the permission of the Trustees of the Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex.