Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America / Edition 1

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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, 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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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A rich source for understanding the private/public dichotomy at the heart of middle-class Victorian culture.... Lystra's engaging study adds to the literature that rejects the old stereotype of Victorian sexual repression and moves beyond it to advance the more provocative and more problematic argument that women gained power, standing and status through romantic love."—The Nation

"A fascinating and well-crafted work that revises our understanding of Victorian society and argues for the importance of romantic love in shaping American culture....Rich and provocative."—Women's Review of Books

"A fine work on an important area of cultural history, which has received too little scholarly attention in the past."—Patrick Gagnon, Silver Lake College

"A graceful but utterly earnest work of scholarship....These fragments of superheated Victorian prose...give Searching the Heart a sparkle and a glow that one does not often find in an academic monograph."—L.A. Times

"Original, deeply informed, and elegantly written, Searching the Heart enriches and transforms our understanding of highly personal relationships that had powerful social and cultural consequences. Lystra deserves the widest readership among students of nineteenth-century America."—Journal of American History

"Lystra's writing is sharp, and her analysis often shrewd...Lystra has profoundly deepened our understanding of the dynamics of Victorian gender roles."—American Historical Review

"Subtle and reasonable...The joy of this book is that Lystra so gently lets the advocates of older hypotheses steer themselves upon the rocks as she orders her evidence from the love letters to reinforce her arguments that in most cases reflect simple common sense....An eminently sensible and well written book that tells us more about the subject of a certain type of male/female relationships in the nineteenth century than any other book we have."—Reviews in American History

"This strong work is a welcome contribution to the scholarship on the private sphere."—Choice

"Eminently readable."—Publishers Weekly

"Elegant...graceful....A fascinating study of romantic love in America...[Lystra] has truly given us a new view of middle-class America. This is a work that not only takes the nineteenth century seriously, but manages to convey to its readers what it meant to be alive and in love in that century."—Carl Degler, Stanford University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195074765
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/28/1992
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 9.25 (w) x 6.13 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Lystra is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
1 The "Pen Is the Tongue of the Absent": Reading and Writing Nineteenth-Century Love Letters 12
2 Falling in Love: Individualism and the Romantic Self 28
3 "Lie Still and Think of the Empire": Sexuality in Victorian Courtship and Marriage 56
4 Secrecy, Sin, and Sexual Enticement: The Integration of Public and Private Life Worlds 88
5 Blurring Separate Spheres: Sex-Role Boundaries and Behavior 121
6 Testing Romantic Love: Victorian Courtship Rituals and the Dramas of Private Life 157
7 Husbands and Wives: Duty-Bound Roles and Unaccountable Love 192
8 Not for God Only: Patriarchy, Religion, and Romantic Love 227
Notes 259
Manuscript Collections 323
Victorian Advice-Book Bibliography 325
Index 329
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