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Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900-1930

By Dan Azoulay

Review By Megan Robertson

October 28, 2013

BC Studies no. 178 Summer 2013  | p. 144-145

In Hearts and Minds, Dan Azoulay includes part of a 1913 letter from a young woman lamenting her lack of companionship: “although I like Vancouver very much I am not acquainted with many people, and there are times when I feel very lonely” (10). Reading this plea for a suitable male correspondent with an eye to eventual marriage, I find myself drawing parallels with our contemporary age of mediated communications. While a century has past since “Lonely in Vancouver” penned her request, navigating the complicated world of social and individual expectations in pursuit of a life partner remains a challenge.

Hearts and Minds provides a well-structured typology of the characteristics of the ideal partner, rules of courtship, and challenges to romance between the start of the twentieth century and the beginning of the First World War. A brief scholarly context, informed largely by recent feminist and gender studies inquiries into historical interactions between men and women (as well as two canonical texts dealing with early twentieth century Canadian relationships — Veronica Strong-Boag’s The New Day Recalled and Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry of War) sets the stage for the examination of primary material: a series of epistolary columns that appeared in two Anglo-Canadian publications between 1904 and 1929. Readers from across the country sent missives to “Prim Rose” at the Family Herald, or the editor of the Western Home Monthly with the hope that their words might appear in print and reach an interested party who could contact the editor for a mailing address.

The typological approach works well here because of the difficultly in conceptualizing “romance.” Here, Azoulay uses this term to refer to what Canadians were looking for in a partner to marry and the socially accepted steps that were to be followed to the altar. From his systematic review of more than 20,000 letters, Azoulay can speak with some authority about what the everyday Canadian of the pre-war era might have looked for in a heterosexual partner (with women hoping for good providers and men of high moral character, and men desiring domesticated and feminine partners). And this, perhaps, is the key strength of Azoulay’s work — while he does not necessarily advance a complex or nuanced thesis, his work does add colour to the “historiographic gaps” (9) of the commonplace experience of life in the early twentieth century and lead to a richer understanding of popular Canadian history.

While the penultimate chapter draws heavily on epistles from Vancouver Island University’s Canadian Letters & Images Project, and addresses the tremendous upheaval in all aspects of life during the 1914-1918 conflict, the final chapter seems limited as the popularity of the two romance and relationship columns waned through the 1920s.

What limits this work for me is a lack of context in certain key areas. For example, Azoulay notes that he “discovered” the collections of letters from the two periodicals “a few years ago” (9), but we are not provided insight into how Azoulay formed his approach: did the collections spur him to ask questions about romance? Or did he arrive at a concern for romance and then begin to seek primary material? Hearts and Minds relies heavily on two archival sources, and it would have been valuable to reproduce an occasional letter to provide a sense of the material context that readers and writers were familiar with at the time. Azoulay does point out the challenges that researchers face when locating historical material related to personal understandings of largely private matters, but I feel that this could have been emphasized in such a way as to give further pause to considering how contemporary exchanges of romantic (electronic) messages might be investigated in the future. The open, accessible, and engaging prose throughout the work encourages reflection — a task that not all scholarly writing achieves.

Hearts and Minds: Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900-1930
By Dan Azoulay
Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2011. 300 pp, $34.95 pb

BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.