‘she drew me for her Valentine’: what was the meaning of love in 18th century England?

What does Valentine’s Day mean for you? Commercialised excess? A symbol of love embodied in hearts, chocolates, teddy bears and flowers? A chance to celebrate physical intimacy (after all, the movie Fifty Shades of Grey opens on 14 February!)?


Heart-shaped valentine card at Metropolitan Museum of Art

 As I’ve discussed in another blog post, romantic and sexual love in the eighteenth century were firmly situated in the context of marriage. A Valentine-love was a potential marriage partner, as William Hutton’s memoir shows. William (bookseller, paper warehouse owner, and historian and writer) was born in 1723 and wrote his autobiography in his old age at the end of the century. He organised his life according to the year, and thus we see his romantic relationships bud – and in several cases wither. Indeed as William explained:

I found that love, like a common flower in the garden, would spring into existence, rise to maturity, and die away.

William says that in 1743:

I began to make a small figure in dress … a young woman chose to fall in love with me, daily sought me out, drew me for her Valentine, talked of matrimony, lamented that I had two years to serve [of his apprenticeship] , mentioned several such-a-ones who solicited her hand, and with what eagerness she had said no. I never answered any of these remarks. At length she asked me to marry her, in plain terms. Thus she took a liberty totally forbidden to her sex, however unreasonably. I asked her “What prospect there could be of future life?” She replied, in the low phrase of her sex, “I will please my eye, if I plague my heart.”

Clearly some young women were more swayed by a fine figure than good prospects! In telling William, though, she frightened him off.

Romantic love was also important and visualised as uniting hearts, that other common symbol of the Valentine; William reflected in 1749:

I became acquainted with another girl; but we were so indifferent to each other, that it was easy to see love never cemented our hearts.

Like so many of his peers, romantic love went hand-in-hand with his ability to provide. He went on to outline his worries:

I had observed such severe penury among the married stockingers, that the thoughts of a wife were horrid, unless I had been in a situation to support one.

Yet, for all the pragmatism, deep feelings were essential – and William obviously sought some passion himself. So he explained that another potential suitor fell by the wayside in 1751 because they didn’t take fire:

I pursued business in a more elevated style, and with more success. In August, my sister came to see me, and brought a young lady, as an intended wife. They staid a few days. She was tolerably handsome, and appeared agreeable. But love is a delicate and shy bird, not always caught at first sight; besides, every thing formal operates against it. We behaved with civility, but neither of us taking fire, the matter died away.

1753 saw his prospects improving and his courtship (if one can call this steady growth of feelings thus) with his wife unfolded:

In November, my friend and next door neighbour, Mr. Grace, being a widower, took his niece, Miss Sarah Cock, from Aston, near Derby, to keep his house. I saw her the night she arrived, and thought her a little, neat, delicate creature, and rather handsome. It was impossible, situated as we were, to avoid an intercourse. Without my having the least idea of courtship, she seemed to dislike me, which caused a shyness on my side, and kept us at a distance.

This was a slow developing love from late 1753 through 1754 and he described it in terms of in respect and honesty at first, rather than valentines and heat:

While conversing with my next-door neighbour, Miss Cock, in November, I remarked that I perceived a growing affection for her, and should take no pains to check it. She did not receive this short declaration with the least disrespect. Our intimacy increased.

By the time Christmas arrived, our hearts had united without efforts on either side. Time had given numberless opportunities of observing each other’s actions, and trying the tenor of conduct by the touch-stone of prudence. Courtship is often a disguise. We had seen each other when disguise was useless. Besides, nature had given to few women a less portion of deceit.

Still romance and heat were combined with the endurance of their love which, crucially, was mutual:

I never courted her, nor she me; yet we, by the close union with which we were cemented, were travelling towards the Temple of Hymen, without conversing upon the subject. Such are the happy effects of reciprocal love.

They married in 1755 and his words here are both moving and delightful; perhaps capturing many people’s idea of love:

Thus was that pure flame kindled which, forty-one years after, gave rise to the following remarks: three months before her death, when she was so afflicted with an asthma that she could neither walk, stand, sit, or lie; but, while on a chair, I was obliged to support her head, I told her that she had never approached me without diffusing a ray of pleasure over the mind, except when any little disagreement had happened between us. She replied, “I can say more than that. You never appeared in my sight, even in anger, without that sight giving me pleasure.” I received the dear remark, as I now write it, with tears.

Is that the meaning of a true Valentine?

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