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Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America

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In January 1862, Charles Godwin courted Harriet Russell, ultimately unsuccessfully, with the following lines: "Like cadences of inexpressibly sweet music, your kind words came to me: causing every nerve to vibrate as though electrified by some far off strain of heavenly harmony." Almost ten years later, Albert Janin, upon receiving a letter from his beloved Violet Blair, r In January 1862, Charles Godwin courted Harriet Russell, ultimately unsuccessfully, with the following lines: "Like cadences of inexpressibly sweet music, your kind words came to me: causing every nerve to vibrate as though electrified by some far off strain of heavenly harmony." Almost ten years later, Albert Janin, upon receiving a letter from his beloved Violet Blair, responded with, "I kissed your letter over and over again, regardless of the small-pox epidemic at New York, and gave myself up to a carnival of bliss before breaking the envelope." And in October 1883, Dorothea Lummis wrote candidly to her husband Charles, "I like you to want me, dear, and if I were only with you, I would embrace more than the back of your neck, be sure." In Karen Lystra's richly provocative book, Searching the Heart, we hear the voices of Charles, Albert, Dorothea, and nearly one hundred other nineteenth-century Americans emerge from their surprisingly open, intimate, and emotional love letters. While historians of nineteenth-century America have explored a host of private topics, including courtship, marriage, birth control, sexuality, and sex roles, they have consistently neglected the study of romantic love. Lystra fills this gap by describing in vivid detail what it meant to fall in love in Victorian America. Based on a vast array of love letters, the book reveals the existence of a real openness--even playfulness--between male and female lovers which challenges and expands more traditional views of middle-class private life in Victorian America. Lystra refutes the common belief that Victorian men and women held passionlessness as an ideal in their romantic relationships. Enabling us to enter the hidden world of Victorian lovers, the letters they left behind offer genuine proof of the intensity of their most private interactions, feelings, behaviors, and judgments. Lystra discusses how Victorians anthropomorphized love letters, treating them as actual visits from their lovers, insisting on reading them in seclusion, sometimes kissing them (as Albert does with Violet's), and even taking them to bed. She also explores how courtship rituals--which included the setting and passing of tests of love--succeeded in building unique, emotional bonds between lovers, and how middle-class views of romantic love, which encouraged sharing knowledge and intimacy, gave women more power in the home. Through the medium of love letters, Searching the Heart allows us to enter, unnoticed, the Victorian bedroom and parlor. We will leave with a different view of middle-class Victorian America.


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In January 1862, Charles Godwin courted Harriet Russell, ultimately unsuccessfully, with the following lines: "Like cadences of inexpressibly sweet music, your kind words came to me: causing every nerve to vibrate as though electrified by some far off strain of heavenly harmony." Almost ten years later, Albert Janin, upon receiving a letter from his beloved Violet Blair, r In January 1862, Charles Godwin courted Harriet Russell, ultimately unsuccessfully, with the following lines: "Like cadences of inexpressibly sweet music, your kind words came to me: causing every nerve to vibrate as though electrified by some far off strain of heavenly harmony." Almost ten years later, Albert Janin, upon receiving a letter from his beloved Violet Blair, responded with, "I kissed your letter over and over again, regardless of the small-pox epidemic at New York, and gave myself up to a carnival of bliss before breaking the envelope." And in October 1883, Dorothea Lummis wrote candidly to her husband Charles, "I like you to want me, dear, and if I were only with you, I would embrace more than the back of your neck, be sure." In Karen Lystra's richly provocative book, Searching the Heart, we hear the voices of Charles, Albert, Dorothea, and nearly one hundred other nineteenth-century Americans emerge from their surprisingly open, intimate, and emotional love letters. While historians of nineteenth-century America have explored a host of private topics, including courtship, marriage, birth control, sexuality, and sex roles, they have consistently neglected the study of romantic love. Lystra fills this gap by describing in vivid detail what it meant to fall in love in Victorian America. Based on a vast array of love letters, the book reveals the existence of a real openness--even playfulness--between male and female lovers which challenges and expands more traditional views of middle-class private life in Victorian America. Lystra refutes the common belief that Victorian men and women held passionlessness as an ideal in their romantic relationships. Enabling us to enter the hidden world of Victorian lovers, the letters they left behind offer genuine proof of the intensity of their most private interactions, feelings, behaviors, and judgments. Lystra discusses how Victorians anthropomorphized love letters, treating them as actual visits from their lovers, insisting on reading them in seclusion, sometimes kissing them (as Albert does with Violet's), and even taking them to bed. She also explores how courtship rituals--which included the setting and passing of tests of love--succeeded in building unique, emotional bonds between lovers, and how middle-class views of romantic love, which encouraged sharing knowledge and intimacy, gave women more power in the home. Through the medium of love letters, Searching the Heart allows us to enter, unnoticed, the Victorian bedroom and parlor. We will leave with a different view of middle-class Victorian America.

30 review for Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sheryl Tribble

    Thoroughly agree with the basic argument, which is that we can understand a culture much better by reading the letters and private correspondence of the time than by reading etiquette and self-help books and travelogues of the time. The downside, which I believe the author recognizes, is that the people who write letters, and the letters that end up preserved, may or may not represent common attitudes of the time. The author often points out that some of the people whose letters she quotes were Thoroughly agree with the basic argument, which is that we can understand a culture much better by reading the letters and private correspondence of the time than by reading etiquette and self-help books and travelogues of the time. The downside, which I believe the author recognizes, is that the people who write letters, and the letters that end up preserved, may or may not represent common attitudes of the time. The author often points out that some of the people whose letters she quotes were not typical of the time, for this reason or that. I should maybe kick my rating up to five stars; it's four and a half at least. The book is well organized, with each chapter ending with a summary of the authors conclusions. The index looks good, although I haven't used it much, and I like that she has a "Victorian Advice Book" Bibliography. The footnotes are extensive and useful. And I almost think she deserves a star for not quoting Mabel Loomis Todd as a "typical example of a woman of the times whose attitudes will surprise you". I've seen a number of books on similar subjects quote Mabel and David Todd extensively, without sharing just exactly how peculiar the marriage of Mabel and David Todd really was. I get that Mabel and David are a great source of quotes, but typical or representative they were not, at least not on the subjects of marriage or sex or romances. Very readable, and I would certainly recommend this book as a first choice for anyone interested in nineteenth century attitudes on marriage, sex, and romance. Now and again she's intrigued by things I don't find equally interesting, or don't think are as important as she makes them out to be. But even when I disagree with her focus or conclusions, she makes valid points and provides resources for a deeper exploration.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Marla McMackin

    Karen Lystra’s Searching the Heart: Women, Men and Romantic Love in Nineteenth Century America (1989), offers another analysis of this domestic revolution. Relying on Victorian love letters, she illustrates how white, middle-class Americans felt about love, calling attention to the significance of romantic love within a complex sexual culture. Lystra argues that the letters provide as genuine a record as possible of the feelings, behaviors, and judgments as they occurred in relations between the Karen Lystra’s Searching the Heart: Women, Men and Romantic Love in Nineteenth Century America (1989), offers another analysis of this domestic revolution. Relying on Victorian love letters, she illustrates how white, middle-class Americans felt about love, calling attention to the significance of romantic love within a complex sexual culture. Lystra argues that the letters provide as genuine a record as possible of the feelings, behaviors, and judgments as they occurred in relations between the sexes. Her analysis ultimately reveals that Victorians were far less timid – and more talkative – about matters of the heart than previously thought, while recognition of women’s sexual appetites and belief in the mutuality of sexual expression both served as the foundation of romantic love. American middle-class youth began selecting their own partners by at least 1900, and by 1830, romantic love was becoming the necessary condition for marriage. Perhaps most significant for the history of gender, according to Lystra, is that the introduction of romantic love – and by extension, compassionate marriage – bridged a gap between women and men that gave each greater insight into the nature and experience of the opposite sex. Contrary to the image of misunderstanding and distance between nineteenth-century men and women, Lystra argues that both middle-class men and women shared romantic values that encouraged them to seek reciprocal understanding. “This effort was not a fictional artifact but a behavioral reality that had important consequences. In an age when middle-class women had limited economic power, romantic love – not sex – gave women some emotional power over men” (Lystra, p. 9). Lystra found that nineteenth-century middle-class Americans held an extremely high estimation of, almost reverence for, sexual expression as a symbol of love and personal sharing. According to her analysis, Victorian women gave no private indication that they believed in an idea of female passionlessness, despite purity’s central theme in public life. Many married women actually embraced their sexuality. “Many indicated that they accepted themselves as sexual beings…it is clear that they did not consider themselves freaks, deviants, or even strange for having sexual needs or expressing sexual interest to men in private” (Lystra, p. 58). Likewise, their husbands showed no shock, horror, or even mild displeasure at their wives sexual interest, but instead seemed pleased by private expressions of desire. The free expression of sexuality in romantic love, paired with declining birthrates that Lystra calls unprecedented and unmatched, means most couples must have separated sex from procreation. Yet, Lystra argues against the repressive hypothesis that abstinence was the Victorian choice of birth control, instead pointing to a number of other techniques, including diaphragms, condoms, the rhythm method, and coitus interruptus. Lystra illustrates the ways in which men cooperated in the family limitation process. In letters to his wife, Lincoln Clark inquired about her “lady conditions,” and appeared worried about the effectiveness of their birth control techniques. In subsequent letters, Lincoln also asked about his wife’s “special lady health,” and if she was in any “danger.” Albert and Violet Janin shared spirited correspondence about her reproductive health, with Violet expressing fear “because something was a few days late.” In another letter, she revealed that Albert was tracking her menstrual cycle himself as he “miscalculated a certain matter,” which ended up late, causing her anxiety. “Albert was not only an active and cooperative partner in the couple’s family limitation practices but also probably his wife’s chief source of birth control information” (Lystra, p. 83). Lystra attempts to refine the relationship between public advice and private behavior, but instead reiterates previous notions about the sexual complexity of the era. Turing to medical and moral advice books, she divides them into three camps to describe a spectrum of Victorian attitudes toward sexuality. Enthusiasts viewed sex as the key to health and happiness, and encouraged full expression. The moderates separated sex from reproduction and generally only approved of expression as an act of love. The restrictionists called for sexual limitations and restraint, urging that activity be limited to procreation. Despite their stance, all three recognized the sexual appetites of women and emphasized the mutuality of sexual expression, the cornerstones of romantic love. Whether they condemned it, defended it, or exalted it, Victorians talked incessantly about sex. “Any century which had a lively public debate over whether women should be allowed to ride bicycles, with opponents arguing against women cyclists because the seat might become a source of intense female sexual pleasure, is to say the least, erotically sensitized” (Lystra, p. 119).

  3. 4 out of 5

    Janet

    I came across this by accident, cracked it open to the table of contents, and was hooked, just like that. "Searching the Heart" is a fascinating look at how 19th century Americans viewed sex and sexuality, primarily in the Victorian period. The source material is letters between lovers that were (thankfully!) preserved and ended up in archives. Entire courtships are detailed in these missives, some of which are quite explicit, from 21st-century-looking-back-at-the-19th-century point of view. Som I came across this by accident, cracked it open to the table of contents, and was hooked, just like that. "Searching the Heart" is a fascinating look at how 19th century Americans viewed sex and sexuality, primarily in the Victorian period. The source material is letters between lovers that were (thankfully!) preserved and ended up in archives. Entire courtships are detailed in these missives, some of which are quite explicit, from 21st-century-looking-back-at-the-19th-century point of view. Some, I dare say, could almost be mistaken for the sort of online interactions that happen in our own times. That these letters were mostly written between unmarried couples, during or leading up to their engagements, is rather mind blowing, given the common stereotype of prudery that has attached to the peoples of the Victorian age. The author argues that this sterotype is a mistaken one based largely on the evidence of certain medical and theological texts that were not, in 21st century terms, "sex-positive." I see it as somewhat analogous to people 100 years from now believing that the early 21st century was uniformly prudish and afraid of sex based solely on the publications of the fundamentalist Christians and "safe sex" scare campaigns. Basically, she argues, that just because the Victorians weren't talking about sex in public doesn't mean they weren't actively engaged in it, in private, and these letters, from numerous people from varying locations and classes, certainly support her thesis! If you enjoy social history, and particularly the history of intimate relationships, I highly recommend this title. I couldn't put it down!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Robert Tracy

    A superb book on romantic love as it evolved from our Puritan ancestor’s bleak duty centered view of love and marriage to the 19th-century self-interested love between men and women. Of particular value to this reader are the many written letters between lovers. These are ordinary people who relished writing down their love thoughts and did so beautifully. Included are many more literary letters from Nathaniel Hawthorne to his Sophia.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Susie

  6. 4 out of 5

    James Hill Welborn III

  7. 4 out of 5

    Debbie

  8. 4 out of 5

    Lily

  9. 5 out of 5

    Max Daniel

  10. 4 out of 5

    Emily

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jasmine Smith

  12. 5 out of 5

    Leroy

  13. 4 out of 5

    Wendy Wong Schirmer

  14. 5 out of 5

    Candice L. Buchanan

  15. 5 out of 5

    Lauryn.mccarthy

  16. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

  17. 4 out of 5

    Naomi Chance

  18. 4 out of 5

    Elayne Allebest

  19. 5 out of 5

    Natasha Blackthorne

  20. 5 out of 5

    Joan Koster

  21. 4 out of 5

    Lindsay K

  22. 4 out of 5

    Marsha

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kent

  24. 5 out of 5

    Taylor

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jwt Jan50

  26. 4 out of 5

    Jessica

  27. 4 out of 5

    Sydney

  28. 4 out of 5

    G.L. Tysk

  29. 5 out of 5

    Rosalie Welsh

  30. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

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