Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

10. The Romantic Quest

THE notion that marriage is the proper outcome of the close personal preoccupation which we ambiguously call “love” is of course a modern one. I can still remember the astonishment which I felt, at about the age of twenty, when I first learned that this conception had never existed in any other period of history and that it was confined, for all practical purposes, to Britain and the United States. At about the same time I became aware of Romanticism as a literary movement: if I had been asked to define Romanticism I should have done so, I expect, in terms of its lyrical quality and I should certainly have made some reference to the braving of physical dangers in order to win the hand of a fair lady. But why a rather short-lived literary fashion should have given rise, a century later, to a convention affecting actual behaviour, I had no idea. Nor could I have said why the word “romantic” was applied to it. The word “romancing” is sometimes used to mean fabricating stories which are untrue, and the implication is that they are wish-fantasies; so presumably a romantic marriage is the sort of successful love-match which we should all like to have but which few of us do. However, at this date, the idea that marrying for love and living happily ever after was not a thoroughly feasible proposition had scarcely entered my head; and the sinister suspicion that what I called “love” might be something which endured only as long as desire was frustrated had never occurred to me.

Such are the defects of a system of education in which literary movements are discussed solely in terms of “historical influences” and with no reference to the general psychological and social trends of the time; and in which all reference to specifically sexual attitudes is rigidly excluded. This is a book about sexual attitudes and love makes only incidental appearances in it, but it is necessary to pay some attention to romanticism because it reflects a psychological shift of attitude of just the sort which we have been discussing. It represents, in fact, a movement towards matrism; a rather abortive movement, it is true, since it occurred at a time when the majority of persons, after a chaotic period in which little introjection had taken place, were moving towards patrism.

The beginning of the swing back to patrism in England may be dated from the founding, in 1757, of the second Society for the Reformation of Manners. The new movement was officially endorsed by the monarch in the time of George III, who issued a Proclamation against Vice. This trend developed successfully and led to the restrictive period we call Victorianism — rather inaccurately, as a matter of fact, since it reached its peak before Victoria ascended the throne and was on the ebb throughout her reign. I shall discuss the peculiar ethos of this movement in the next chapter.

Parallel with this went a much less extensive matrist movement. Literary critics, thinking in terms of “influences” place the date of the beginning of the Romantic movement anywhere from 1720 to 1790, according to the criteria they choose to employ. But if we treat it as a social manifestation, we can date it quite accurately. We first find the word “romantic” being used by people in an approving sense in 1757 — interestingly enough, since this is precisely the year from which we have dated the patrist reaction also. Before this date romantic was only used in conjunction with such adjectives as bombastic or childish. (192) The word means “like the old romances“, which suggests that people were beginning to turn their minds from a present which seemed disagreeable to a past in which feelings seemed to have been simpler and nobler. This was, of course, unrealistic — the past was never as simple and noble as it appeared in the old romances — and betrays a certain sentimentality and escapism. These “old romances” were the Christianized and sentimentalized versions of the Celtic myths — that is, of the stories of physical violence and sexual passion invented in a fully matrist age. The publication of Percy’s “Reliques” in 1765, and of Macpherson’s Ossianic Poems just afterwards, catered for this new taste and also gave it a powerful stimulus.