A History of Love Letters
Poor soul! I am sure if I had had a notion of it, I would not have joked her about it for all my money. But then, you know, how should I guess such a thing? I made sure of its being nothing but a common love letter, and you know young people like to be laughed at about them.
Sense and Sensibility
The love letter has been composed and treasured for centuries. Through the years, the letter’s form, media, and content have changed. Its purpose, however, remains the same–to communicate via written word the true and raw emotion of human passion.
The history of love letters begins early on. The love letter’s earliest manifestation may perhaps be the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Letter writing was furthered by Cicero and Pliny, turn-of-the-century Romans who affectionately wrote letters to their wives. As a literary form, the history of love letters probably began in the early Renaissance. The Age of Chivalry produced a series of discreet correspondences that were based on the chaste compliments and excessive self-deprecation of courtly love.
In the early eighteenth century, love letters became much more personal and pure. Missives from this period showed tenderness, charm, and even humor.
As the eighteenth century progressed and romantic ideals were cast aside, love letters, too, were changing. Intellectuals applied their ideas to the art, which they considered not to be trivial, but rather essential to the search for self-knowledge and happiness.
The nineteenth century spawned the great private love letters of Beethovan to his “Immortal Beloved”, as well as the literary romance of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.
Computers, fax machines, and modern transportation have not outdated the art of the love letter. Instead, they have fueled its interest and effect. The history of love letters continues to write itself. Love letters can now be emailed, faxed, and even sent overnight to lovers separated by oceans and continents. Clearly, the love letter has evolved through the ages, still to be treasured and meaningful in the present day.
Although letters play pivotal roles in all of Jane Austen’s works, she rarely attempts to actually spell out the contents of a love letter. One exception to this is Captain Wentworth’s immortal letter to Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, Austen’s final work. Not only does it quickly turn the plot and bring about a satisfactory resolution to the story, it remains today, a standard by which all other love letters can be measured. On par with Mr. Darcy’s passionate proposal, Captain Wentworth’s heartfelt words stand out as some of the most memorable lines, not only in Austen’s novels, but in all of literature.
The private letters of many of Jane Austen’s contemporaries have been published, among them, these, from Regency notables. Written from the battlefield, from a foreign country–even from next door, the theme is the same–love, longing, desire for reunion. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.
General Napoleon Bonaparte To Citizeness Joséphine Bonaparte:
A few days ago I thought I loved you; but since I last saw you I feel I love you a thousand times more. All the time I have known you, I adore you more each day; that just shows how wrong was La Bruyére’s maxim that love comes all at once. Everything in nature has its own life and different stages of growth. I beg you, let me see some of your faults: be less beautiful, less graceful, less kind, less good…
My one and only Josephine, apart from you there is no joy; away from you the world is a desert where I am alone and cannot open my heart. You have taken more than my soul; you are the one thought of my life. When I am tired of the worry of work, when I fear the outcome, when men annoy me, when I am ready to curse being alive, I put my hand on my heart; your portrait hangs there, I look at it, and love brings me perfect happiness…Oh, my adorable wife! I don’t know what fate has in store for me, but if it keeps me apart from you any longer, it will be unbearable! My courage is not enough for that.
Come and join me; before we die let us at least be able to say: “We had so many happy days!”
Percy Bysshe Shelley To Mary Godwin Shelley
Bagni di Lucca, Sunday, 23rd August, 1818
My dearest Mary,
We arrived here last night at twelve o’clock, and it is now before breakfast the next morning. I can of course tell you nothing of the future, and though I shall not close this letter till post-time, yet I do not know exactly when that is. Yet, if you are still very impatient, look along the letter, and you will see another date, when I may have something to relate…Well, but the time presses. I am now going to the banker’s to send you money for the journey, which I shall address to you at Florence, Post Office. Pray come instantly to Este, where I shall be waiting in the utmost anxiety for your arrival… Do you know, dearest, how this letter was written? By scrap and patches and interrupted every minute. The gondola is now coming to take me to the banker’s. Este is a little place and the house found without difficulty. I shall count four days for this letter, one day for packing, four for coming here–and the ninth or tenth day we shall meet.
I am too late for the post, but I send an express to overtake it. Enclosed is an order for fifty pounds. If you know all that I have to do! Dearest love, be well, be happy, come to me. Confide in your own constant and affectionate
P.S. Kiss the blue eyed darlings* for me, and do not let William forget me. Clara cannot
*Their son and baby daughter
John Keats to Fanny Brawne
25 College Street, 13 October 1819
My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my mind for ever so short a time. Upon my soul I can think of nothing else. The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you against the unpromising morning of my Life. My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again–my life seems to stop there–I see no further. You have absorbed me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving–I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love…
Enjoyed this article? Visit our giftshop and escape to the world of Jane Austen.