The culture of romantic love in nineteenth-century Australia

The culture of romantic love in nineteenth-century Australia shared many similarities to that in the United States, Canada and Britain.[29] Romantic love was an emotional, moral, physical and spiritual attraction believed to be a necessary prerequisite to courtship, with companionate marriage as its ideal goal. It was bound up in class consciousness and the demonstration of ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘ladylike’ behaviour.[30] Love was supposed to have an ennobling, morally and spiritually uplifting effect, especially upon the male lover. This notion was both a result of the greater spiritualisation of love in the nineteenth century as well as being part of a wider nineteenth-century belief in progress and perfectibility in all aspects of society, including love and moral character. Physical attraction was enhanced by a lover’s ‘character’ and shared moral and/or religious values.[31] Yet while physical attraction was important and lovers wrote of their yearning for contact, kisses and embraces, the focus of courtship was on the mutual and exclusive disclosure of the self. This process was understood to be the very foundation of romantic intimacy.

In sharing their ‘essence’ with each other, it was expected that romantic love might produce great unhappiness, bitterness and despair as well as ecstasy and a feeling of empathy and completeness. Because marriage was taken for granted as the sole aim and fulfilment of romantic love, almost everything that accompanied married life could potentially be interpreted as an aspect of romantic love. Thus some lovers wrote that they did not necessarily expect love to produce constant happiness after marriage because they distinguished between the emotional elation and physical thrill of ‘infatuation’ in courtship and the steadier, more mundane serenity of married love in which bouts of boredom or apathy might well be expected in the cycles of domestic life.[32]

Much of this was similar to white middle-class British as well as American culture. However, there were a few crucial differences between the United States and Australia. Unlike nineteenth-century American lovers who viewed romantic love as something highly mystical or mysterious,[33] Australians generally tended to have more concrete and prosaic ideas about love. This was partly due to the fact that, unlike American culture, romantic love was not sacralised in Australian culture. The rhetoric of romantic love among Australians was never as intense, sublime or spiritualised as in the United States, neither was romance transformed into a new religion in Australia. Moreover, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where the private correspondence among Australians reveal an eloquence of emotional feelings, the public rhetoric of romantic love has been characterised by awkwardness, self-deprecation and even bathos, in stark contrast to public romantic rhetoric in the United States.

These differences in the rhetoric of romantic love are still recognisable today, but in other respects, Australians have come to develop an increasingly American understanding of romantic consumption as a critical expression of love. This is demonstrated in an article, ‘Money Can Buy You Love’, in the Sydney Morning Herald on 14 February 2005, which argued that ‘Valentine’s Day ... has become less about intimacy than the grand, expensive gesture: the jewellery, the mink coat, the impromptu hot air balloon ride’.[34] In this article, RMIT marketing lecturer Con Stavros observed that:

Marketing has turned Valentine’s Day into the celebration that it is ... If you go back even a decade, people used to just exchange private cards and have some kind of romantic [dinner]. These days the gift has to be public, conspicuous – people [at work] ask each other: ‘What did you get?’[35]

The practice of romantic consumption may have become more extravagant in conspicuous ways at the beginning of the twenty-first century, yet this was something which developed in unevenly gendered ways in the first half of the twentieth century as consumer culture in Australia became Americanised.