February 13, 2012

{Alas, The Love Letter Is No More}

[Reprinted from the Telegraph online, 11 February 2012; article by Anne Sebba on Dr. Andrea Clarke of the British Library and the new book she edited: Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance]


Alas, the love letter is no more - killed by email, Twitter and text
The love that lives for ever is being lost as suitors lay down their pens.


Throughout history, couples have expressed their undying love in handwritten letters. Few people take the trouble to write by hand today, but if anything is preserved at the back of a desk drawer, it is likely to be the handwritten love letter that once upon a time sent someone’s heart shuddering. Letters that reveal raw emotions such as joyous or unrequited love are gold dust for biographers like me. They can be more important as evidence than diaries, which may have been written with an eye to posterity; a letter bares the soul to just one other person.

“What makes them compelling is the emotional bond between sender and recipient,” says Dr Andrea Clarke, curator of Early Modern Historical Manuscripts at the British Library, who looks at other people’s letters every day. She has put together a collection, Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance. The idea for the book came when she worked on the archive of the relatively unknown Yorkshire poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley.

“When I joined the library 12 years ago, the first archive I worked on was his,” Dr Clarke explains. “He was a sick man, incapacitated by crippling ill-health for most of his life, who poured out his heart in hundreds of love letters to the artist Emily Burton. They touched me deeply.” In one letter, written in 1899, Bottomley finally declares his love for Emily: “I love you: I do not know how to say anything else!” He begs her to burn the letter if she cannot reciprocate his feelings. Luckily for us she could, and the declaration is preserved.

Other highlights include what is believed to be the oldest valentine in the English language, written by Margery Brews to John Paston III in February, 1477, in which she addresses him as “my right well beloved Valentine”.
There are also love notes from Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII to each other, found in a book of hours. Anne’s couplet is written beneath an image of the Annunciation in which the Archangel Gabriel is telling the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son. “By association, Anne was telling Henry that she would provide him with the son and heir he so desperately longed for,” explains Clarke.

There is one of Charlotte Brontë’s love letters, written in French to a married professor. His wife retrieved the missive from a bin and stitched it back together after her husband had torn it up. The book features a letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, and Horatio Nelson’s last one to Lady Emma Hamilton. And there is also a poem written by Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath, his wife who committed suicide in 1963. The couple met in 1956 while both were studying in Cambridge, where:

“One by one we made the public benches 
Sacred to us. What did we talk about?”

Many of the missives Clarke has chosen were written on the eve of battle, an especially poignant time for declaring love, or just before a reunion. As the poet Rupert Brooke put it when writing to the actress Cathleen Nesbitt, “my heart goes knocking when I think of (seeing you again)” and “I will kiss you till I kill you”.

Brooke had been immediately captivated by Cathleen after watching her on stage at the Savoy Theatre. He worshipped her great beauty and bombarded her with marriage proposals. On March 18, 1915, on his way to fight in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, he wrote with devastating prescience: “Oh my dear, Life is a very good thing. Thank God I met you. Be happy and be good. You have been good to me. Goodbye, dearest child, Rupert.” He died from blood poisoning, aged 28, on April 23.

A typed memo or email can never convey the same texture as a handwritten letter. “They contain layers of information and reveal much more about a person through the handwriting style, the shape it makes on the paper, as well as the signature itself, often with an array of doodles or drawings,” says Clarke. It is not only that the impact of the words seems magnified when written by hand but letters have sometimes acquired smells (of coffee, perhaps, or tea) or been spattered by tears or mud, which adds enormously to their power.

Clarke has noticed that more love letters appear to have been written by men. Historically, men would have been better educated and considered themselves the decision makers. It would not always have appeared seemly for a woman, whose role was to be the passive recipient of a man’s love, to make amorous declarations. On the other hand, as Dr Clarke concludes: “Perhaps it is simply that women are better at preserving things.” ~


[Reprinted from the Telegraph, 11 February 2012; article by Anne Sebba on Dr. Andrea Clarke of the British Library and the new book she edited: Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance]

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