When I first started writing my new book, The Curious History of Dating: From Jane Austen to Tinder, back in January 2016, I was single. Last month, I threw the book launch party in my boyfriend’s bar. And today, I work with The Inner Circle dating organization, where I put to positive use my own dating trials and tribulations, as well as my knowledge of historical dating traditions, to help others find genuine, woke relationships.
How did this series of events come to pass? After I published my first book — a BDSM memoir about my life as a professional dominatrix — my dating life had faltered into an unforeseen abyss.
Men I met tended to fall into one of three categories — those who thought I must be mentally unhinged because I lived such an experiment; those who were all too desperate to prostrate themselves before me; and those who I would call "submissive tourists" (that scene in The Wolf on Wall Street has a lot to answer for). I couldn't seem to get anyone to understand that professional domination had been a mere stage of my sexual-professional journey, which held little significance for my future relationship goals. I went from being ghosted to being zombied to being written off as a 'good-time girl;' no relationship stuck.
And even when I didn't reveal my past profession, the problems persisted. It had been seven years since my last serious relationship and I felt about as suited to dating in 2017 as anachronistic Cinderella-alike Amy Adams does to modern life in Enchanted. Soon, I began to wonder if it had always been this hard for our great-great-grandparents — and their grandparents before them. How had they solved the great-date-to-mate conundrum? They'd managed to procreate, after all.
My opportunistic writerly brain saw a light. What if I settled the matter by researching the history of how our forebearers had managed? If it had always been as difficult, I could take comfort from the fact I wasn't really doing anything wrong — and if it hadn't, I could take tips from the past on what might better work.
And so, I holed up in the British Library in London five days a week and began.
Soon, the letters, diaries, magazines and etiquette manuals of the past three centuries became an unguent for my despair. Patterns began to form — of age-old problems and ingenious, timely solutions. And the history of love, which I had oh-so-blithely studied during my undergraduate degree, coyly revealed its lessons — like why Jane Austen’s novels still resonate for readers today, and why a future trend in dating is likely a move towards old-school matchmaking.
Here’s what you wish your history teacher had taught you …
1. Be Upfront About What You're Looking For — And Dare To Ask Others To Be
The Georgians (1714 - 1830) were head over heels for Lonely Hearts ads — which included short, pithy descriptions of the person posting the ad and detailed what they were looking for in a life-partner. The first '90s speed-daters were actually the congregation of a Beverly Hills rabbi who had been implored to help them find spouses. What do these two groups have in common? Both sets of love-hunters were clear about how serious they were from the start, and thought the 'let's see where this goes' line was a complete waste of their time. For proof, check out the text of this Lonely Heart ad I discovered in my research: "Lady, 24, of a forthright nature and considerable beauty, requires gentleman of a gallant disposition with 5000 a year."
We've come to believe that being upfront about wanting marriage and kids comes across as desperate, especially if you’re female. But following the historical example, I started to sound people out very casually (but quite rapidly) as to what they were looking for long-term. And it worked. The people who eventually wanted marriage and kids didn’t have a problem sharing that. And the way in which they said it — with embarrassment, hesitation, or even far too much eagerness — gave me even more information about the gap between their idealized intentions and their readiness to make them happen. I wasn't looking for someone who named our babies by the second date (that would have been terrifying), but rather, someone who had clearly thought about what they wanted out of life and could articulate that with a cool conviction.
2. "Make Your Invitations Worth Accepting"
Live Alone And Like It was a 1937 guide to the single life for women by Marjorie Hillis (the book was re-released for modern audiences in 2009). It gave tips on everything from using the "wireless" or phoning a friend for comfort in order to avoid contacting a man you were not yet engaged to, to stocking a home drinks cabinet without appearing a lush. It pre-dates Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl by several decades, all while making recommendations regarding nightwear (‘a woman who goes to bed as if dressed for a lover is rarely without several’), the etiquette of having dates coming up for nightcaps (‘we know you’re at it") and the argument for not having affairs before 30. Perhaps the most sage piece of wisdom when it came to arranging dates? “The best rule is to make your invitations worth accepting and not to care what the man thinks so long as he comes.”
Hillis' comment really got me thinking. Although I felt no shame or regret about my life as a dominatrix, I had started to become overly cautious in the kinds of events I invited people to, in case they pigeon-holed me as unduly sexual as a result. But one of my key strengths is my open-mindedness. And so, in due course, I began to suggest dates accompany me to plays or talks or dance events where sex was the theme, but not the focus. A few drinks in and the men in question quite quickly gave away their real feelings about the invite, which in turn enabled me to decide if I truly valued their opinion.
3. Know That Chaperones Have Their Place
The First World War put an end to the tradition of romantic chaperones — older female wards who accompanied young unmarried women when they went out in public. After all, running to an air raid shelter only with maiden aunt in tow soon became entirely impractical. But in previous eras, chaperones had been considered essential. From the Lady's Guide to Complete Etiquette of 1800:
'"...no young lady should be seen in public without a chaperone, who, provided that she is or has been married, is considered, whatever her age may be, as thoroughly suitable for the office. This accommodating privilege, it is true, occasionally entails rather ludicrous consequences; as in the case where damsels of mature years make their appearance in a ball-room under the wing of a mentor younger than themselves, but in her capacity of matron perfectly equal in the eyes of society to the responsibility of protecting them."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, chaperones weren't just there to police female behavior — they were also there to give a clear-eyed assessment to their young companions as to whether their paramours had the right intentions, whether they’d be a good fit for the lady, and compatible with her friends and family.
So before I committed to my now-boyfriend, I took him to a festival where my university 'dad' — a friend whose seen me through half a dozen heartbreaks — could assess him. Over the course of three days, through the anoraks and sequins, constant intoxication and sodden English weather, my boyfriend was scrutinized by someone who knew me and my foibles best. His nod helped me gain the confidence to go forth — no mean feat given my last relationship (a long-distance dalliance with an avoidant doctor) had ended cataclysmically after my father died and the doctor dumped me on Valentine's Day.
4. Spread Your Eggs (Metaphorically-Speaking…)
I had always thought the concept of simultaneously dating a handful of people was an American innovation. But at the beginning of the First World War, good British girls exchanged flirtatious letters — and had sexual liaisons on release — with multiple soldiers, with the intention of seeing who returned alive. What's more, everyone knew about it: as a 1917 letter from a soldier to a girl back home noted, “Darling, You now have a real life lonely soldier somewhere in France. Only he’s not very lonely. Also it’s beastly conceited to imagine you hadn’t got several others.”
I suppose in my mind, I had also considered dating several people at the same time a little, well, tacky by British standards. After all, us Brits just get drunk with someone we like down the pub, sleep with them, and then declare them our boyfriend the next morning. That there was a solid, upstanding English heritage to this practice tilted my prejudice.
But while I'd always thought I didn't have the emotional capacity for this kind of dating, in reality, it worked wonders — mainly by stopping me from getting overly attached too soon to anyone I was trialling. It reminded me that my grandmother had once advised my cousin thusly, when she was struggling to choose between suitors: "Try the goods before you buy them, love, because it's hard to get a refund once you've purchased."
5. Avoid Vacationing With A Fling
It seems innocent enough — you're both open about seeing other people and and aren't pretending you have a future together, so why not have a little adult fun in the sun while you're at it? Answer: because there's something about going to an idyllic location where you’re frequently mistaken for a couple that may make you pine for genuine love and invested companionship.
As a Woman’s Weekly from 1914 advised, "Don’t play with Cupid, little girl, by the sea . . . Those darts of his may make but pinpricks, but even pinpricks can hurt, and they leave scars." It advice may sound a bit patronizing, but I found out that this century-old wisdom was true for me when I accepted an invitation from my French fuck-buddy to spend in a week in his homeland with him. After one diatribe too many from him about the uselessness of romantic love, and his imploring me to be his swinging partner when we returned to London — "you’re a great token" — I sent him packing for good.
Despite the popularity of So You Think You Can Dance, we might just be living in the least dance-savvy age since records of formal rhythmic movements began. From Georgian balls (where hands could only be touched through gloves and after a formal introduction) through the jazz-sodden dance clubs of the Twenties (which were among the only places where interracial couples could interact in peace), dancing has always played an important role in romance — and been rightly recognized as among the greatest aphrodisiacs.
But apart from the odd festival or the Christmas party, how many of us dance on a regular basis — let alone in a choreographed flow with a partner?
Like many a seven-year-old, I once harboured fantasies of being a ballerina-cum-musical theatre star. But comments about the girth of my thighs had crushed me and my predilections, and I would only dance while inebriated a couple of times a year — until my now-boyfriend asked me to an outdoor salsa session on our third date. The man could move. And he could move me.
It seemed skin-tinglingly awkward to touch someone I had not yet kissed, which is illogical when you think about it — but it was entirely delightful. And what’s more, with so few men having cottoned on to the greatest seduction rouse of all time, my boyfriend was in demand at the dance, which ever so subtly piqued my jealousy and made me realize I was curious to probe how — and what else — he might undulate.
7. Understand What An Inexplicable Invitation To 'Tea' Might Actually Mean
In Edwardian England, an invitation to tea was the proverbial means of getting someone around for a quickie — but only if you were middle-class and able to pay house calls in the relative discretion of the afternoon. I found that this remained true for some people in our own era, when it came to pass that an MP randomly invited me "for afternoon tea" one day in Parliament. Turned out "tea" was code for "furtive oral sex on the scratchy carpet of his Portcullis House office." Thinking it would, at the very least, make for a great story, I willingly went unto the breach.
But as I struggled with my zip afterwards, he told me he had recently split with his long-term partner and needed a date for the Buckingham Palace Garden Party — but "couldn't possibly take me, doing what I did for a living" (aka sex writing). That was the last time I ever went to tea with an MP. Or for anyone else, for that matter. Who knew an invitation to espresso martinis could be made to sound so comparatively innocent?
8. Let Yourself Be Wooed
This may sound obvious, but for us millennial feminists brought up on a diet of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Daria, and school history lessons on the Suffragettes, allowing oneself to be wooed often feels like the equivalent of giving up the right to vote — or, at the very least, adopting the manipulative rules of The Rules, the best-selling, Oprah-endorsed '90s dating guide, which demanded that you dump a man unless he brought you a romantic gift for your birthday and proposed within a year of dating.
But historically, the most successful relationships generally came about by investing time and effort in the courtship process — with the pursuer accountable while doing it. I found in my research that, with the exception of wartime, the most successful courtship length right up until the 1960s was considered to be two and a half years — six month’s pursuit, and maximum of two years’ engagement, with parents often met moments before embarking on a first date. In the late 1960s, 47 per cent of boys and 34 per cent of girls had met the parents of the person they ended up marrying by the end of the first week in which they’d started going out, according to contemporary researcher Michael Schofield.
Saving for married life and the diminished age expectancy aside, its focus was on the thoughtful planning of activities, plus the winning over of one's friends. Processing this, I soon understood why an invitation to take a stroll up the canal on a sunny day was better intentioned than going to the same place for cocktails three times in a row, each date arranged an hour before. Until the 1940s, you could even sue someone for 'breach of promise' if they broke off your relationship — a law that still exists and is used in some American states today.
As I gleaned these insights, a funny thing happened. During my lunch break and in the evenings, I crammed in dates, applying my newly-acquired insights to our interactions. Mid-way through the writing process, I met my now-boyfriend, who was smart, well-mannered, humble, an amazing dancer, and future and family-oriented. I let him court me and we took our time in becoming an item. When I finally fell in love with him, it nearly derailed the book, so amorously brain-addled was I that I could barely concentrate to finish it up. But, I thought, I must — if only to share my revelations with the countless people that ask me for dating advice.
We learn in school that those we do not study history are condemned to repeat it. Apply it to your dating life and tell me how it goes. Or I'll happily give you your money back...
Main image courtesy of Little, Brown