HHave you ever wondered if you would have fallen in love with the same people if you lived in a different time? Would you have even met her at a time of different social mobility – and if so, would the relationships have worked out?
We all know that our lives are shaped by sliding door moments or chance encounters; move to another city or not go to that party that night and your timeline will look completely different. But the way society changes from generation to generation is also responsible for who we meet, how we live and how we love.
I wouldn’t have to go far back to reach the days before dating apps: whoops, there my current partner vanishes. If I’d lived in a time when women didn’t go to college: bam, that probably wipes out my chance of meeting my first love (and my second), not to mention my career. And if I would have somehow still met that first boyfriend, could we be stuck in an unhappy marriage with kids?
It was so idle What happened if Daydreams that sparked the idea for my debut novel, when is love. Imagine what would happen if a couple in their 20thth Century: 1947, 1967, and 1987. Every time Violet and Albert meet, they’re always 20 – but the world around them is changing, and they must contend with half a century of differences in gender, class, Ambition and possibilities sidestep enormous social and political changes.
Meant to be. soulmate. The one. Fate, destiny, written in the stars… Many of the love ideas we inherit from popular culture are based on a very absolute romance. But I wanted to write a compelling love story that also acknowledges the role that external circumstances play in shaping our lives and love.
While Violet and Albert always feel that instant, intense connection that can spark between two people—that wonderfully mysterious feeling of accuracy that sometimes strikes – that’s just the beginning. How such a stream becomes something permanent is often to do with timing, with what else is going on in our lives or the world around us; many of us will have experienced the feeling of having met the right person at the wrong time.
To explore the different types of pressures that circumstances can put on a relationship, I gave my characters completely different backgrounds – Violet is a working-class Welsh woman; Albert comes from an upper-class family in Yorkshire. They are brought together in unexpected ways, thanks to shifts in social mobility or moments of upheaval in society. In 1947 the war changed everything; In 1967, university scholarships bring a new mix of students into contact; In 1987, the ecstasy revolution united unequal young people in a new subculture.
I was partially inspired by stories from my own family. My grandmother went to London to work as a telegraph operator in WWII and pulled her out of a working life in Liverpool that she would probably never have left otherwise – I nicked that for my book to catalyze my very different characters together.
Another inspiration was my parents’ love story. They got to know each other at the university in the late 1960s – like my protagonists in the second part of the novel – and, like them, came from very different, albeit not so extreme, class backgrounds. My father came from a wealthy family in Surrey, while my mother was the first person in her family to go to university and was only able to do so because she had a maintenance grant, a system introduced in 1962.
If she had been born just a few years earlier, higher education would not have been financially viable. And without that college experience, my parents would certainly never have met – so I know I only exist because of this 1960’s social engineering!
By extending it from 1947 to the federal elections in 1997 when is love covers a time in history when things were changing, especially for women. The book traces the emancipation of women in the second half of the 20th century and shows how romantic relationships are changing as men and women become more equal. Opportunities in education and employment, as well as sexual freedom and independence, have blossomed for the ambitious Violet over the decades—although, of course, I’m not suggesting that sexism, prejudice, and discrimination will entirely disappear or be easily overcome by the end of the century. (Even if I had brought the lawsuit forward to 2022, you still wouldn’t be able to write anything the optimistic.)
Women’s experiences of war – taking on new and different jobs, traveling to new places, meeting other people – have certainly broadened many horizons and raised women’s expectations. That was the case with my own grandmother. She left her job at the Post Office after she got married, but wanted to go back to work as soon as her children were in school. Her husband hated the idea – her place was at home.
I don’t think he was a bad or controlling man; I’m sure he believed that he was trying to please her, to be a good husband, to take care of her. But that story, just two generations away, certainly got me thinking about how patriarchal gender norms — and limited opportunities for women — must have affected romantic relationships in the past.
Of course, I am aware that such differentiated gender roles would have been unquestioned in the minds of many for a long time. But I still have a hard time understanding the fact that generation after generation women can fall in love with men without the principle of equality underpinning a relationship. I have my character Violet fight the injustice of not having the same opportunities as her partner – to learn, to work, to be taken seriously – to explore how true love is compromised by societal conventions beyond her control could.
That being said, I don’t think we’re all defined solely by our circumstances — and “love-across-the-divide,” where seemingly insurmountable differences in background or opportunity are transcended in the name of love and destiny, always has formed a classic narrative and structure of a love story. Out of Romeo and Juliet to jane eyre to The notebook, we realize and have a great appetite for these stories. In them, love usually conquers all. But it would be naïve to think that even today, circumstances beyond our control—be it class, gender, sexuality, education, or privilege—have no bearing on who we meet and how we love.
“When is love?” is published by Orion
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/holly-williams-what-time-is-love-book-b2088770.html Holly Williams on What Time is Love?: Why real love stories aren’t about fate or purpose