With the late eighteenth-century cult of sentiment, the dichotomy between hearth and heart—between orderly matrimony and disordered romance—became all the more poignant. Jane Austen perfectly depicted this world where money and position were of primary importance to women whose livelihood depended on a rich, respectable partner, and where men’s social position depended on income, reputation, and spouse. But where means and respectability did not quite suffice for a deal to be struck, inclination, character compatibility, and attraction mattered, too. All of these selection criteria were to be considered in the cold light of reason, rather than under the suffused light of passion: parents and families were thus considered best placed to pick out possible candidates. At best, the arrangement worked; at worst, misery struck. This is why an old romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet could be recast in the form of sentimental novels considered dangerous to the humoral passions of young girls, or be recycled in modernity by the likes of Stendhal, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. And this is also why the modern newspaper, expressing as it did the growing speed and fragmentation of the age, became an outlet for individual romantic longing.
The values that had sustained the inherited rules of matrimony were changing during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Social mores resisted the shift, but the ideals associated with romantic love were taking center stage at a time when Romantic reactions to a rationalized, industrializing world emphasized the individual, lonely soul. For the Romantic imagination, the marriage of lives should result from the meeting of soulmates. Individual emotions should take precedence in matters of matrimony, because they functioned as a moral compass in one’s life—just as they were becoming the measure of aesthetic value in the realm of art. Sober, rational order was desirable in life, but emotion was just as necessary; likewise, classical proportion still mattered in art, but the sublime was all the rage. Goethe, who, more than anyone in his age, embodied the balance between these two poles, spent his life falling in love: he knew how hard it was to achieve in life what he so beautifully achieved in art, because, in love, emotion and reason often rule at the expense of each other. He did not need to resort to personal ads. But public anonymity must have been very tempting at a time when Romantic ideals were so powerful.
The family is a largely fragmented institution today. And by now, the personal ad industry has grown to play the role the parent once played for all those who hope to participate in the established social order by finding the appropriate person. Its role and identity have radically changed since the early days, along with our conception of what unions and marriage are about. What is striking, though, is what remains the same. For we have inherited from the eighteenth century the hazy perception that emotions belong to the core of individuality, and reason to the outer skin of socialized personhood. Along with this perception, there remains the contraposition of ordered partnership with messy affairs. But what is confusing now is that romance has become conflated with marriage. People still seem to get together for the sake of social status, fortune, profession, religion, clan—all “rational,” external criteria for arranged marriages in the Western past—as well as for the sake of basic compatibility. But to these criteria we have added the romantic sentiment that was so keen in the Romantic age—and that, for so long, was viewed as a force for disorder. Most of us expect our relationships to contain this romance at the very heart of our erotic life. No wonder we have trouble identifying what might work long-term, and no wonder so many people have trouble meeting the “right” person—more often than not having to rely on mere luck.