Romantic Love in Words and Objects during Courtship and Adultery c. 1730 to 1830

Sally Holloway

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis explores romantic love during premarital and extramarital relationships in England between c. 1730 and 1830. It is situated within the fields of Cultural History, Gender History, the History of Emotions, Marriage, the Life-Cycle and Material Culture. It uses evidence from sixty-eight different relationships, from which twenty-seven were selected for detailed scrutiny. These include both courting and adulterous couples, which have previously been problematically elided by historians. It draws upon a broad source base, including letters, material objects, newspaper reports, novels, ballads, poetry, prints, paintings, religious texts, medical treatises and court records.

After the historiographical introduction in Chapter One, Chapter Two explores the indispensable role played by creating, exchanging and physically handling love tokens on the path to matrimony. Chapter Three reveals the quasi-public nature of love letters, the myriad dichotomies between male and female epistles, and the haptic power of letters as material objects. Chapter Four unearths the secret codes and disappearing ink utilised by adulterous couples, outlining the unique features of the language of forbidden love. Chapter Five challenges preconceptions of romantic love as ‘innate’ or ‘transhistorical’ by outlining the religious, medical and literary developments shaping conceptions and expressions of love. The final two chapters focus on the darker side of love; Chapter Six argues that languishing from heartbreak was redefined as a uniquely female malady from the mid-1750s, while men were expected to resist to maintain their pride and self-control. Chapter Seven charts the evolution of breach of promise actions under the common law, and the objects invoked as ‘proof’ of an attachment.

The thesis recognises that the understanding and expression of romantic love was historically and culturally contingent upon social and cultural shifts. It locates romantic relationships firmly within the material world, as letters and tokens guided couples from initial intimacy to a deeper emotional connection.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
Award date1 Aug 2013
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013


  • Gender
  • Material Culture
  • Cultural History
  • History of Emotions
  • Romantic Love
  • Courtship
  • Adultery
  • Life-Cycle
  • Marriage

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