Charles Dickens’ classic novella A Christmas Carol is re-packaged in Mr Magoo’s Christmas Carol, an animated cartoon featuring the loveable, bumbling Mr Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge. In the Christmas past sequence Mr Magoo, as Scrooge, sings a moving duet with his younger self:
A hand for each hand was planned for the world
Why don’t my fingers reach?
Millions of grains of sand in the world
Why such a lonely beach?
Where is a voice to answer me back?
Where are two shoes to click to my clack?
I’m all alone in the world.
Life is a lonely beach for many as the ancient Hebrew psalmist (Psalm 102) discovered. “I am an owl that lives among ruins, I lie awake and have become like a bird, solitary on a roof top.”
Francesca Beauman traces this loneliness at the heart of human life in her delightful book A Shapely Ankle Preferred, a history of lonely hearts ads from 1695. Beginning with letters, like that of a young gentleman in 1695 writing in a popular London pamphlet indicating how he would “willingly match himself to some Good Young Gentlewoman, that has a fortune of three thousand pounds or thereabouts,” she concludes with the Internet and its variety of social pages through which people reach out for love and companionship.
She notes that in the search for love, “the qualities that men believe appeal to women have unquestionably changed considerably over the years: ‘a clear head’ (1777) or ‘of plain person and manners’ (1782) are not on many women’s ‘must- have’ list today.”
By the mid 18th century, income, gentility and respectability were the most desirable traits sought in prospective partners, though some asked for “a shapely ankle” or a “non-dancer”!
This search for companionship, love and marriage, was not limited to any one group of people. Amongst the advertisers were aristocrats, MPs, bus drivers, country squires, city swells, war widows and singles from every social strata. Even 19th and 20th century variations of scammers were not averse to using the lonely hearts ads for their nefarious purposes.
This longing for companionship was exacerbated by the growth of cities that made it harder for people to meet, the demands of work that left little time for social and personal engagement and shifting to new locations, where people often had no one to whom they could turn for friendship and love.
“Life in urbanised society,” continues Beauman, “could be intensely lonely. It was a world made up of strangers and the sense of isolation could overwhelm one.” Modern urban society is the same. “There are people everywhere and yet nowhere. Even our next-door neighbours are often strangers.”
There are pluses of course. Urbanisation brought new freedom, fewer nosy neighbours or interfering relatives. People are freer to create relationships, seek love and establish fresh communal links. The hard part is making that happen.
I discovered this reality some years ago when I spent part of a study leave in New York with a ministry team that took in the Big Apple’s crowded singles bars; testimony to the difficulties women and men face in searching for love and belonging.
Now it’s the Internet’s social pages where, in an age of “sell, sell, sell,” huge numbers “sell” themselves in hope of bringing an end to their loneliness.
“Lonely hearts ads,” concludes Bauman, “are a most public declaration of the most human of desires, love and companionship, desires that in the 21st century are as pronounced as ever, as the battle intensifies against alienation. Lonely-hearts ads are, in essence, an expression of hope. And without hope, what else is there?”
With Pentecost Sunday just passed, St John’s description of the Holy Spirit as friend, ally and helper offers a salutary reminder to the Church that, as a community of the Spirit, it should be a place of hope for all who struggle with life, alienation, loneliness, and a longing for love.