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David Bouchier: The Long-Distance Valentine

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

In February a year ago, when Valentine’s Day appeared on the horizon, we were just beginning to hear rumors about the famous virus. But my wife and I went out to a restaurant on the 14th as we always do, and it was a festive scene packed with couples of all ages. This year it will be different. Couples who do venture out will probably find themselves in a tent in the restaurant car park, wearing masks. It’s not the same.

Long-established couples can celebrate Valentine’s Day at home, because at least one of them has probably learned to cook. But it is a difficult year for young people in the more feverish stage of love. A busy and intimate restaurant is almost essential. It is many, many years since I engaged in anything that could conceivably be called courtship. There were plenty of rules about relationships back then, but keeping six feet apart was definitely not one of them, and nor was wearing a mask. In retrospect we ran some terrible risks.

Valentine’s Day began as a special day for lovers, would-be lovers and sometimes ex-lovers. The original Valentines were handmade and hand written. They were a way of starting or perhaps re-starting a romance from a safe distance. The most fun thing about them was their playful anonymity. You were not supposed to write your name on the card or cards. The idea was to create a sense of secrecy and surprise. It was a transparent secrecy in most cases, but there was always the possibility of getting a card from a genuinely unknown admirer, and trying to guess who he or she was. That is the very essence of romance — mystery. It was a safe yet exciting way of approaching someone previously admired from afar. Would they guess the identity of the sender? It was always possible to drop hints.

Valentine’s Day is now for everyone. You can send cards to your relatives or to your teachers, or to the cat. Valentine cards are mass-produced, and about as personal or as secret as an electricity bill. The ritual of courtship has also been vastly speeded up: blink, and you’ll miss it.

It may be that the epidemic will restore some of the romance to Valentine’s Day by restoring some of the distance. Distance lends enchantment, as Mark Twain so rightly said. In any romantic movie or novel set in the 19th or early 20th centuries — and such stories are enormously popular right now — there is something that keeps the lovers apart. It may be sheer distance, or social convention, or family or money problems. But the fact is that couples had to wait. Tension and drama were built into these slowly-unfolding romances. A long exchange of letters, sometimes going on for years, might built an emotional relationship long before there could be a physical one. These were real letters, not Tweets or Instagrams. There was anticipation, there was mystery. Even Napoleon, who was always busy conquering Europe, found time to write lengthy and affectionate letters to his Josephine, and to many other ladies, while he was on campaign.

By restoring some of that good old Victorian social distance, COVID-19 may even revive the age of romance, at least for this month, or at least until the vaccine finally arrives. One jab, or maybe two, causing the social distance to evaporate and, perhaps, taking the romance with it. There’s no effective treatment without at least some side effects.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.