Niamh Cullen writes: Over the last few weeks and months there has been quite a bit of discussion in the media about how to keep romantic relationships alive during the Covid lockdown. Government advice has ranged from the pragmatic to the inadvertently ridiculous or draconian as governments find themselves having intervene in private life in a way they are no longer used to doing. While the Dutch were allowed to take a “sex buddy” during lockdown, newspapers have taken pleasure in pointing out that Boris Johnson has officially banned sex between non-cohabiting couples in Britain even as stricter measures are eased. Our personal lives are being entirely reshaped ways we could not imagine before the coronavirus pandemic and it is likely that its shadow will remain on our lives for quite some time, even as the strict lockdown measures are beginning to be eased.
Although this kind of world seemed unimaginable to us just a few months ago, it is only since the rolling out of large-scale vaccination programmes and the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s that we in the developed West have been largely able to cast off the fear of infectious disease in our day-to-day lives. Such fears do of course remain in many parts of the world. The chronic diseases which developed nations are now grappling with tend to affect those in middle and old age while the infectious diseases of the past could strike people of any age.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, diseases such as TB, malaria and polio were endemic in many places while epidemics of cholera and flu ravaged the globe at regular intervals. The twentieth century saw three flu pandemics; in 1918, 1957 and 1968, the worst being in 1918. Modern medicine still cannot do much to combat the flu virus, although seasonal vaccines now do a reasonable job in protecting the most vulnerable from infection. Tuberculosis was a much slower killer, and until the development of effective antibiotics it lingered in families and communities for years. The fear of infection was ever present, especially in overcrowded, urban dwellings. For those suffering from malnutrition, even milder illnesses could become serious. For those who survived, recovery was often a gradual process, while severe illness in childhood – polio, meningitis, measles – might leave its mark in the form of disability into adult life.
Disease was also a very ordinary experience. Since it couldn’t always be avoided, people were used to living with it, the long periods of illness and convalescence, the permanent marks that might be left by disease in those who survived. While it certainly shaped family life – the time spent in caring for those who were ill, the loss of a parent, sibling or child to illness, or poverty due to loss of earnings – it also cast a long shadow over romantic and sexual relationships. In my book Love, Honour and Jealousy: An Intimate History of the Italian Economic Miracle, I found that in the romance stories regularly churned out in popular magazines, illness often served to complicate relationships and create romantic tension. These plot lines were especially popular between the late 1940s and mid-1950s, while they began to peter out in the late 1950s.
In 1955, the story “At the borders of love” ran over many months in Grand Hotel magazine. Patrizia had met Alberto, a film director, when he was shooting on location near her home just outside Rome. Both were young and beautiful and their romance seemed perfect until Patrizia discovered that she had a brain lesion which would drive her mad and eventually kill her. Determined to keep the illness a secret so that Alberto would not feel obliged to care for her, she fled Rome without saying a word. Over many months and countless plot twists, Alberto searched for her, and the couple were eventually reunited. Things were not usually so dramatic in real life. At the same time, the magazine’s advice column gives us glimpses of how the same fears, anxieties and concerns stalked many lives.
A letter written to Grand Hotel’s advice column by Melancholic Mimma is typical. Mimma had a disability of some sort – the precise nature of it was never explained – which she kept a secret from her fiancé out of fear that he would leave her. The advice was to be honest: he would surely understand. The magazine’s agony aunt urged tolerance and openness, a sign of changing attitudes towards disability. This kind of letter was all too common though and reflects a society where fear and secrecy surrounded matters of ill health. For many right up to the 1950s, marriage was not primarily, or not only, about love; it was a family and economic arrangement in which women bore children and men provided for them. Prejudices – real or imagined – about physical fitness are perhaps more understandable in this context.
Examples abound in memoirs and diaries too. I came across one heart-breaking story of a young man who was unwell at home for several months with influenza, during the Asian flu pandemic of 1956. Concerned that ill health meant that he would not be able to provide for his fiancée, he resolved to break up with her. What seems especially at odds with our own ideas of love is how both he and his girlfriend were quietly resigned to parting ways, both accepting the necessity of his decision despite their love for each other. The stigma of illness might have been especially strong for a man, in a society where masculinity was associated with strength and a husband was expected to be the sole economic provider for his family.
For other couples, illness might result in a lengthy separation, as the patient recovered either in isolation at home, in hospital or at a convalescent home some distance away. In the 1950s the only means of distance communication was by letter. Some couples exchanged regular correspondence over weeks, months or even years. They grew used to communicating entirely by the written word, and the experience intensifed romantic feelings for some while it dampened them for others. One woman had to spend almost two years apart from her fiancé while he was in a convalescent home recovering from pneumonia. The separation didn’t change their feelings for each other and they married soon afterwards. Others found in contrast that when they were reunited, their loved one was entirely different from the person they remembered, or to whom they imagined they were writing. This was especially true for those who had spent time away from each other in late adolescence. These couples had essentially grown up apart, even though they were officially still a couple. Whether the couples stayed together or not, their relationships were certainly shaped by the experience of being apart. Similar storylines abound in literature and film, certainly up to the mid-twentieth century. In the 2014 film The Wind Rises, a Japanese animated biopic of the life of the aviation engineer Horikoshi, we see the juxtaposition of the expanding possibilities of modern technology in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the utter helplessness of doctors in the face of his wife’s TB.
Such letters and storylines became less and less common in the Italian magazines towards the end of the 1950s as nutrition improved and public health measures reduced the risk from infectious disease. The meaning of marriage was changing too. As it became less of a family and economic matter and more about love and companionship, it was perhaps easier to look past matters of ill health. As medical treatments advanced, including the development of antibiotics for TB, it became less necessary to have people spend long periods in isolation from family and friends, or away from home in convalescence. The spectre of disease largely faded from the everyday reality of most lives, at least until AIDS began to ravage gay communities in the 1980s.
Now again with Covid-19 we find our day-to-day reality shaped by the invisible hand of a virus; over the next few months and perhaps years, new terms like contact tracing and social distancing will be at the fore of our interactions with friends, family, partners and colleagues. Online dating sites and apps are already innovating, with interactions moving even further into virtual spaces to accommodate social distancing. In reality, there is a lengthy history of humankind living with infectious disease and just a few short decades when the threat seemed to recede for most; looking to this long past shows that we are adaptable and resilient, although hopefully also more tolerant as a society than we were in the 1950s.