‘Love Letters’ Anthologizes 2,000 Years of Passion Put to Paper

Lovers have penned their passions to one another for centuries. In Love Letters, the British Library has collected some of the more memorable missives.

02.11.12 9:45 AM ET

Love. No topic in history has been the object of more attention, deliberation, or obsessive analysis. And nowhere has the heart’s whimsy been better documented than in that most intimate of amorous tokens—the love letter. As long as there has been written history, there have been written displays of love. The compulsion to expound on the grips of passion is timeless, it would seem.

Or maybe not. Today the love letter faces extinction, thanks to email, text messages, and tweets. To commemorate the disappearing art form, the British Library has compiled some its most fascinating exemplars into the book Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance.

Over the centuries, of course, the language changed, and the sentiment evolved, but the most fundamental aspects of love endured generation after generation. Among these letters we see a fearful proclamation of love, the agony of unreciprocated love, the skepticism of extramarital love, and the laments of a lover wronged—circumstances well familiar to any person alive today.

Long-Distance Love

Isaias to her husband, Hephaestion, 168 B.C.

Likely a soldier in the Egyptian army, Hephaestion failed to return home to his wife, Isaias, immediately upon the end of an Egyptian conflict with Syria. Isaias responded to the turn of events with a chastising letter that questions his failure to reunite with his family and implores him to hurry home. The less enlightened might even invoke the word “nag” to describe her words:

“You have not given a thought to coming home nor given any regard to our circumstances, knowing how I was short of everything even before you left, not to mention how much time has since passed and such difficult times at that, during which you have sent nothing. And now that Horus, who has delivered your letter, has announced that you have been released, I am utterly distressed.”

The Grand Gesture

Pierre Sala to Marguerite Bullioud, circa 1500

Childhood sweethearts, Marguerite and Pierre—a member of the French court—both eventually married others. But by 1500, both also had become widowed, and Sala set forth to produce not just a love letter but an entire love book to win back his lost young flame. Composed mostly of poems and illustrations, it opens with a letter explaining his intent to her:

“[H]e is constantly reopening and aggravating the incurable wound you inflicted upon him in the past, from which he cannot be healed and which leads him to endure and suffer much sorrow and pain—suffering he gladly bears most uncomplainingly and patiently since it comes from you from whom he would rather receive pain than pleasure and joy from any other, because you alone are his succor, his well-being and his nourishment; you are the only medicine which can cure him, if you so wish.”

The Opportunistic Lover

Earl of Essex to Elizabeth I, 1591

A decade before he was convicted of treason and beheaded, the far younger Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, had gained a particular favor with the 60-ish Queen Elizabeth I, who rewarded his attentions with a series of military appointments. Today, she might be called a cougar, but in the 16th-century English court, she was merely exercising her royal right. Forty-three of Essex’s letters to the queen survive. It was early in their relationship that he wrote her the following:

“While your Majesty gives me leave to say I love you, my fortune is as my affection, unmatchable. If ever you deny me that liberty you may end my life, but never shake my constancy, for were the sweetness of your nature turned into the greatest bitterness that could be, it is not in your power (as great a Queen as you are) to make me love you less.”

The Prerequisites of Love

Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, 1653

Despite the barriers to their eventual marriage—political, financial, corporeal, and geographical—Osborne and Temple, a diplomat and essayist, finally married in 1654 after eight years of courtship. Temple was apparently able to convince his future bride that he possessed the myriad requisite qualities—and lacked the myriad faults—in a husband as she spelled them out for him in a letter a year before the nuptials:

“He must not be a town gallant … that lives in a tavern and an ordinary that cannot imagine how an hour should be spent without company, unless it be sleeping; that makes court to all the women he sees, thinks they believe him, laughs and is laughed at equally. Nor a travelled Monsieur whose head is all feather inside and outside, that can talk of nothing but dances and duels … He must be a fool of no sort, nor peevish, nor ill-natured, nor proud, nor covetous; and to all this must be added, that he must love me and I him, as much as we are capable of loving.”

Extramarital Love

Esther Vanhomrigh to Jonathan Swift, 1714

Known to Swift as Vanessa, a name he gave to her (and used in the famous poem he wrote about her, “Cadenus and Vanessa”), Vanhomrigh was the other woman, keeping up an affair with the famous writer for 13 years even as his marriage to Esther Johnson continued. When the affair finally ended, Vanhomrigh didn’t take the breakup well, to say the least—it is said that she dropped dead from the distress. But it would seem that even early on in the relationship, Vanhomrigh felt embittered by her position in Swift’s life:

“I am sure you’d not condemn any one to suffer what I have done, could you but know it. The reason I write to you is because I cannot tell you, should I see you; for when I begin to complain, then you are angry, and there is something in your look so awful, that it strikes me dumb. Oh that you may but have so much regard for me left, that this complaint may touch your soul with pity.”

A Lover Wronged

Charles Dickens to Catherine Hogarth, 1835

During their engagement in 1835, Dickens wrote to Hogarth emphasizing her hold over his happiness and well-being. That hold would not endure–the marriage was an unhappy one, despite 22 years and 10 children. The union finally fell apart under an avalanche of publicity worthy of an Us magazine cover. They might have seen it coming from the very beginning: signs of future rifts were already present as their wedding approached, coexistent as they were with the throws of young love:

“I am not angry, but I am hurt, for the second time. Possibly you may understand the sense in which I use the word; if so, I hope you never may. If you knew the intensity of the feeling which has led me to forget all my friends and pursuits to spend my days at your side; if you knew but half the anxiety with which I watched your recent illness, the joy with which I hailed your recovery, and the eagerness with which I would promote your happiness, you could more readily understand the extent of the pain so easily inflicted, but so difficult to be forgotten.”

Unreciprocated Love

Charlotte Brontë to Prof. Constantin Heger, 1844

While teaching English abroad in Brussels in 1843, Brontë boarded with Professor Heger and his wife, on the former of whom she developed a helpless crush. After returning to London, she wrote Heger a series of letters, all of them unanswered and four of which have survived, thanks to Heger’s wife, who fished them out of the trash after her husband tore them up and discarded them. All four were written in French, in a seeming ploy to be closer to Heger merely by speaking his native language:

“[T]ruly I find it difficult to be cheerful so long as I think I shall never see you more. You will perceive by the defects in this letter that I am forgetting the French language—yet I read all the French books I can get, and learn daily a portion by heart—but I have never heard French spoken but once since I left Brussels—and then it sounded like music in my ears—every word was most precious to me because it reminded me of you—I love French for your sake with all my heart and soul.”

A Declaration of Love

Gordon Bottomley to Emily Burton, 1899

The prolific playwright Bottomley wrote at least 500 letters to Burton during the 10 years before they married. In one, from 1899, he finally—after four years—summons the courage to tell her he is in love with her, in a desperate effort to escape what today is known as “the friend zone.” Decades later, when Burton died, Bottomley was so heartbroken he did not manage to survive her by so much as a year:

“I can bear no longer to simulate a friendship for you which is less than what I feel; ever since I have known you I have had a thing in my heart to say to you, and in April last I determined to say it some day. For a long time I thought it was my duty to leave this thing unsaid; so I did my duty, and it made me cross and irritable and bad-tempered to everyone, and, I fear, unkind even to you. O, how I hope that I am not estranging you even when I tell you that I love you wholly.”

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Making Babies

Mervyn Peake to his wife, Maeve Gilmore, 1940s

Gilmore was Peake’s student at the Westminster School of Art, but soon became much more. They married in 1937 and spent three happy decades together, until Peake’s early death in 1968. For the duration of their love affair, Peake wrote frequent letters to Gilmore, including one just before she was due to give birth to one of their three children:

“Are you feeling very imminent, Maeve. Do you feel worried or can you detach yourself at all. Oh darling, how I love you. How I love you. Perhaps when this reaches you the little baby will be borne. Oh Maeve. You are in my heart, darling. I am loving you more than I have ever done before. Bless you–oh my sweetheart, bless you. Bless you. I am longing for your release. I am longing for news, and to be with you. Maevie. I am in love. Deeply. Un-endingly, for ever and ever.”

Love Remembered

Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath, circa 1980

The tumultuous love affair between Hughes and Plath has been well-documented, both by the two parties involved and by countless literary fans and historians. No consensus has emerged as to who ultimately bears the blame for the disastrous outcome (Plath famously stuck her head in an oven in 1963), but as this searching poem Hughes addressed to Plath many decades later reveals, the love affair continued to affect him all those decades later:

“One by one we made the public benches  
Sacred to us. What did we talk about?
The University was delay, a sentence
To be borned with & escaped.
Our only life was to come. Suspended
We hung there moving our legs, seeing
The scenery flow past like the silent river,
Were we actually going anywhere?
Were we exploring? Or talking away
Bewilderment, or trying word-shapes
To make hopes visible. We talked.”