Excuse Me… What Does “Making Love” Mean?

The phrase of the post’s title pops up in If on a winter’s night a traveler on page 191. How did we get to the point that a woman named Ludmilla is blithely saying she’d make love to a Mr. Flannery? To try giving a plot roundup is not worth the time; it is clear by now that any semblance of plot in this novel is inserted only for metafictional purposes, namely to give Italo Calvino an opportunity to speculate on the meaning of plot, etc., etc.

All you need know is that Ludmilla is the “Other Reader,” a woman who has joined with “You,” the protagonist, in solving a series of literary riddles. But since the aim of the book as a whole is to puzzle over things like “What do words mean?”,  why not tackle one common, blush-inducing phrase that appears in the book?

“Making love” here means to have sex. Right? I don’t have an original Italian copy of traveler so I don’t know what phrase translator William Weaver turned into “making love.” Any Italian speakers out there who can proffer a guess? Maybe “fare l’amore…” Regardless,  I will assume it means what I think it means. But it didn’t always mean sex. Consider the last book I read before traveler, Charles Dickens’ picaresque brick Nicholas Nickleby. Here’s an exchange that could be misunderstood today:

“Here is Miss Nickleby,” observed Sir Mulberry, “wondering why the deuse somebody doesn’t make love to her.”

“No, indeed,” said Kate, looking hastily up, “I” — and then she stopped feeling it would have been better to have said nothing at all.

“I’ll hold any man fifty pounds,” said Sir Mulberry, “that Miss Nickleby can’t look in my face, and tell me she wasn’t thinking so.”

“Done cried the noble gull. “Within ten minutes.”

They aren’t talking about sex, of course. In British literature, from the 18th through the first quarter or so of the 20th century, “making love” was the formal term for flirting. Characters and authors who use “making love” in this way would be scandalized by its modern definition. “Making love” has jarred my attention a number of times in reading the classics. A favorite from the theatrical version of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone:

“He is making love to me! How dare you make love to me when I am so angry with you?”

This phrase gets really interesting as we start approaching an intersection of definitions. Do you remember this line from It’s a Wonderful Life when Mary, pursued by a young George Bailey outside her house, responds to a question from her mother inside the house?

“It’s George Bailey, mother. He’s making mad, passionate love to me!”

The film is from 1946. What does Mary mean when she says it? Probably the script writer meant “flirting” – or at least wanted the studio execs to believe that’s what was meant. But very few adults hearing that line in 1946 would think “flirting” was all that was on George’s mind. Freud and the two world wars are likely to blame for this. Freud taught us that all actions and language are fixated essentially on sex and death. The world wars hammered home the fundamental and perverse fixation humanity had with the latter. Nothing was sacred and everything seemed more brutal, more primal. Authors began exploring a world where within every innocent word  there seemed to lie an undercurrent of violence and passion. What was “making love?” It was flirting. What was flirting, or “love” for that matter? At its root, it was sex, sex, sex.

So where did “making love” pass from one meaning to another? Tough to say, actually. There were several  liminal decades – 1920s through the 1950s – when everyone knew what sex was but nobody was discussing it publicly. Perhaps not coincidently these are the decades that brought us the most influential and groundbreaking literature since Shakespeare. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “making love” was not used to mean sex until 1950. I don’t buy it though. In these decades between definitions, the meaning of “making love” is rarely clear. Consider this line from the 1922 The Great Gatsby with Daisy’s tough husband Tom.

“I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out.”

Is Tom talking about sex or flirting? He is a character brash enough to blurt this sentence meaning the first definition, but he is also jealous enough to get fired up over the second. There is a huge gap between the two, but for a jealous husband it is perhaps a quick jump from one to the other.

The anglophile American Henry James no doubt meant flirting and, more formally and Britishly, “courting” when he wrote this in 1880’s Portrait of a Lady:

“He is making love to Isabel.”

“Making love to her?”

“So I’m told; I don’t know the details,” said the Countess lightly. “But Isabel is pretty safe.”

James didn’t live to see “make love” change definition for British writers. But I think I have unearthed one author who did, and who probably relished a phrase that was full of both pretense and passion. D. H. Lawrence, who is more responsible than any other Brit for crossing the bridge from Victorian to modern British literature is the only author I have found who actually changed definitions of “making love” over his career. Here it is. From 1913’s Sons and Lovers:

Why couldn’t he go to her, make love to her, kiss her?

Okay, little doubt there unless we are assuming a huge breach in the sexual order of operations, sex does not (in early 20th century literature, at least) precede kissing. Find me an example and you’ll get a free bottle of champagne. Now, same author fifteen years later. The infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

‘It seems to me you might leave the labels off sex. We’re free to talk to anybody; so why shouldn’t we be free to make love to any woman who inclines us that way?’

‘There speaks the lascivious Celt,’ said Clifford.

This line was written twenty years before the Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase was ever used to mean sex. I am not going to challenge the OED, but it seems to me this is pretty obviously about having sex and not flirting. But again, this was a liminal era for authors. We may never know for sure.

One Response to “Excuse Me… What Does “Making Love” Mean?”
  1. Tracee says:

    I had the same sense of shock when I read Emma. She’s a young girl finding herself, and figuring out who to marry (after all, isn’t marriage the point of all Jane Austin lit?). She steps into a carriage with a man who proposes to her, but she views him as socially inferior and begins to reject his proposal. Then they “make love”, or more specifically he “makes love” to her. With a young virgin, in a moving carriage, during the middle of a marriage proposal, in a chaste Jane Austen novel… I quickly worked out that that making love means “being in love with”. What helped me figure out the alternate meaning is in that instance, Mr. Elton made love specifically to her hand (kinky?!? / not anatomically possible).

    Personally, I didn’t take the phase to mean so much “flirting” as it means “showing wifely physical affection for” or more modernly “giving PDA”. Like in that example you cited: “How dare you make love to me when I am so angry with you?””, you hear people say that all the time to their spouse when the offender is trying to hug away the momentary anger they caused their partner, just without the creepy idiomatic expression… By the way, I’m enjoying reading about your project, and have added a few books to my reading list as a result.

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