History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Shapely Ankle Preferr’d: A History of the Lonely Hearts Ad

Hallie Rubenhold browses personal columns of the past

Published: March 25, 2011 at 8:00 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Reviewed by: Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Francesca Beauman
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Price (RRP): £12.99


Sometimes the least likely documents can provide unique historical insights. Francesca Beauman sets out to prove just this, by making a painstaking study of three and a half centuries of the nation’s lonely hearts ads. The results are often as amusing as they are enlightening.

It may come as no surprise to readers that human nature has not changed much since the 17th century. Since the advent of the daily newspaper, men and women have always sought love, companionship, sex, adventure, and wealth by placing and responding to adverts in the personal columns.

While the specific sorts of person they looked for – anything from a pregnant widow to a one legged man – were on occasion bizarre, most wished to find ‘agreeable’, ‘honest’, and generally attractive mates.

Sadly, this turned out to be more difficult than most hoped. While on one hand attempting to construct a picture of an era from the descriptions that appear in these ads, Beauman also admits that a good number of them were placed as pranks. Not only that, but personal columns tended to be the haunt of every one from fraudsters to courtesans to murderers.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the tale of William Corder, who, after shooting his former lover, Maria Marten in 1827, immediately married a woman he had met through a lonely hearts ad.

Beauman points out on several occasions, that in spite of the bad publicity personal ads received, eager men and women were never deterred from pursuing love via the newspaper. Well into the 19th and 20th centuries, letters continued to flood in, especially as the advent of photography meant that claims of youthful beauty and handsomeness could now be verified.

While Shapely Ankle Preferr’d makes for an intriguing, if not eyebrow raising read, it offers only an anecdotal look at the subject matter. One is left wondering just what happened to all of the assorted widows, Indian officers, and ‘young ladies of fortune’ and if they really did manage to find love in the end. 


Hallie Rubenhold is the author of Lady Worsley’s Whim (Vintage, 2009)


Sponsored content