Love in the time of miracles

The following advice was given to a reader of the popular Italian magazine Grand Hotel who wrote in 1955 with the pseudonym ‘Gone with the wind’, and it manages to capture in a few words, the complex meanings and expectations associated with love and marriage in 1950s Italy.

“It wouldn’t have been very nice of you to marry (the first man) just to have a comfortable life. As for the other one, if he really loved you and had serious intentions, he would be able to persuade his parents to break his obligation. Be careful then dear, (…) neither a marriage of convenience nor a clandestine relationship with a man who is engaged to another. You’ll be left with empty hands and a bitter smile.”

Don’t marry just for material comfort, marry for love. And with regard to the second suitor, surely a marriage arranged by his family was no real obstacle if he really loved her? What seems like fairly straightforward, common sense advice at first actually describes two different views of marriage and two different ‘emotional styles’; one that sees economic security, kinship and community bonds as central to marriage, and the agony aunt’s ‘modern’ ideal of true love as the basis of a lifelong union. ‘Gone with the wind’ was caught between these two conflicting positions, unsure which criteria to use in making her choices.

For the last few months I’ve been reading magazine advice columns, stories and more recently the diaries and memoirs of Italians growing up and coming of age in the 1950s, in an effort to understand how wider social changes affected ordinary life. I’ve come to focus more and more on the themes of courtship and love as these are the subjects that come up continually in the sources I am looking at. Not only are they central to people’s lives – both in a day to day sense and for their long term implications – but through changing the attitudes, experiences and decisions associated with courtship, love and marriage, we can see broader themes in the history of post-war Italy. Decisions like whether to migrate to the city or stay on the land, could be motivated by love or entwined with ideas about marriage. Just as greater opportunities in education and work were giving women greater public roles in society, so gender roles were being gradually redefined within relationships, between dating and engaged couples themselves. Even though – as the excerpt above shows – marriage and courtship were not necessarily motivated by love, the meanings of emotions like love and jealousy themselves were changing, in response to changing ways of living and new cultural influences. I wrote a longer piece on love and courtship in my research for the History of Emotions Blog here; more short pieces will follow soon as I work through my sources – especially the diaries and memoirs – and explore some of these ideas in more detail.


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