In The Curious History of Dating writer and columnist Nichi Hodgson charts the ways in which love, lust and family expectations have negotiated the worlds of law, criminal enforcement, etiquette and the powerful social sanctions that are used to govern the act of getting together.

The law and the courts cannot govern the behaviour of couples to the degree legislators and the judiciary would like, but the courtship down the ages has had to respond to both. As Hodgson points out at the start, Austen’s oft-quoted opening to Pride and Prejudice (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’) reflects the tone of The Times’ Lonely Hearts adverts - ads only made possible by the end of the 1662 Licensing Act, which had regulated the press.

For the form dating takes, in many instances one has to work backwards from legislation governing marriage – the acknowledged point of dating through much of the book – for an explanation.

In Hodgson’s account the balance of power that could be achieved in marriage affected dating and engagement. Hence the significance attached by her to the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, and the (mostly) empowering effect of ‘breach of promise’ suits.

The Matrimonial Clauses Act 1937 was a ‘liberalisation’ of the divorce laws, but has an eye-catching list of grounds – seeming to equate non-consummation, being of unsound mind, epilepsy, venereal disease, or being pregnant by another man.

The criminal law was frequently used to control knowledge of contraception and to punish gay and lesbian relationships.

Author: Nichi Hodgson

£12.99, Little Brown

ISBN: 978-1 4721-3806-4

Hodgson recounts Annie Besssant’s prosecution for the publication of a pamphlet on contraception, and the 1938 legislation that banned the open display of contraception in shops. In the 1920s one publisher found himself sentenced to two years with hard labour simply for publishing The Link, a publication that three gay men had met through. Like them, he was guilty of ‘gross indecency’, a term brought in by, but not defined in, 1885 legislation.

Through two world wars, women found their social and sexual conduct policed. By the end of the Great War, the morally conservative ‘Women’s Voluntary Patrols’ that prowled London and garrison/navy towns checking on women’s behaviour around men had been made a branch of the Metropolitan Police. Churchill set up the Markham Committee in 1941 – ostensibly to investigate amenities and welfare in women’s services, but really to check up on their sexual activities.

It is no surprise that the law’s power to govern relationships weakens in the post-war period, when the general picture is one of legal controls lifting. Mary Whitehouse’s attempts in the late-70s and early-80s to use laws on obscenity and blasphemy seem a throwback to a bygone era. Dating agencies, magazines and sex guides exercise a stronger influence on behaviour and relationships. 

As Hodgson notes of the 1970s: ‘If women could plot their own careers, own their own homes and control their own reproductive destiny, it’s little wonder that by the end of the decade divorce was at an all-time high.’

2004’s Civil Partnership Act and Gender Recognition Act largely completes law’s long retreat from artificial control of relationships.

Hodgson covers a lot of ground in 234 pages – this is a pacey, intelligent and authoritative account with bags of wit. It’s not a law book, and likely it was commissioned with our close interest in the nuanced romantic etiquette of the past in mind.

What is interesting is how often the law intrudes in, and steers, the history narrated.

Not least, it strikes me we seem to be entering an age where moral panic is on the rise. And while Hodgson’s narrative does not stretch to this, the prospect of much stricter immigration and nationality controls is already affecting existing relationships and the prospects of others – determining who can or might get together and stay together, and where this can be done.

Clearly, the law has not done with love yet.