Five Hundred Years of Friendship on BBC Radio 4

As I moved continents last week, I’ve only just been able to catch up with the first half of Thomas Dixon’s enjoyable and informative Five Hundred Years of Friendship on BBC Radio 4. It’s an ambitious topic to cover in just 11(?) episodes of 15 minutes each, but luckily the programme is supplemented by a special series of blog posts on the History of Emotions blog, which provides plenty of background research.

Last week’s episodes covered the early modern period, up to the end of the eighteenth century, and provided some fascinating snap shots of the friendships of men and women living in these periods, as well as discussion of friendship within work, religion and marriage. I was particularly entertained by the story of Elizabeth Carter and Elizabeth Hatchett, partners in a pawnbroking business, whose promises to bequeath their goods to one another if they should die led to legal proceedings in which the nature of their friendship had to be proven by witnesses attesting to their level of intimacy. See Dr Alexandra Shepard’s blog post for the full story, and listen to the episode here.

I found the episode on religion and friendship especially impressive for its distillation of complex scholarship on the differing stances of the Bible and Protestant religions towards human friendship. The crucial support of religiously inspired friendship for missionaries is something that I have written on with reference to the nineteenth century (for example, see my post on the history of emotions blog), so it was fascinating to hear about an earlier example of this. The doctrinal questions around whether it was right to form intimate relationships with just one or a few friends on earth, when God instructed his children to love everyone – and whether one’s relationships on earth ought to be emotionally cooler than the relationship one experienced with God – were well explained. I hope that these questions will be revisited in the nineteenth-century context, perhaps in tomorrow’s episode on educating children on friendship.

Throughout, Dixon draws apt comparisons with contemporary understandings and uses of friendship, for example, linking its rhetorical use by Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband – both favour ‘friends’ over ‘comrades’ – with the pragmatic and rationalist understanding of political friendship in the eighteenth century (in the episode Webs of Loyalty). The happiest comparison for me though, bringing together my earliest influences of good romantic comedy (from my mum) and 1790s feminism (from my dad), was that between When Harry met Sally and the relationship of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. Leaving us, in last Friday’s episode, with that perennial question: can men and women ever be friends?  

I look forward to this week’s offerings, which promise to be every bit as entertaining and moving.