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Shot to the heart: A love letter can light a fire in a pandemic winter

A historian of love and its discontents on the lost art of the well-crafted billet-doux.

Wikimedia Commons/Globe Staff

Romantic love has taken a hit this past year.

For couples, it’s the unrelenting togetherness of lockdown. Also, the sweatpants. For singles, it’s the hard calculus of trying to meet someone new with a deadly virus going around. How to stoke our hearts’ dying embers in this time of social isolation and all that laundry?

Sally Holloway, a vice chancellor’s research fellow at Oxford Brookes University, in the UK, and an expert in the history of love, courtship, and heartbreak in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, has some ideas.

This Valentine’s Day, she says, is the perfect moment to steal a painstakingly drafted, perfumed page from lovers past, when moral codes imposed their own kind of quarantine and inspired invention, improvisation, and clever machinations in the name of love. I reached Holloway at her home in the Thames Valley, where I imagined her in repose on a chaise longue surrounded by rose petals and gold-dusted bonbons — though really she was in her study with some favorite love letters and her book “The Game of Love in Georgian England” at the ready. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

It feels like a pandemic would be a great time to bring love letters back. What features are shared by the best ones you’ve studied?

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You’re right that people are having to think about how they declare their love in word, in writing, and at a distance, in email and text. Whereas we dash our notes off, in the 18th and 19th centuries people spent hours composing love letters and reading over them. Length was important — you had to show you had put sufficient time into it. Postage was paid by the recipient, so it had to be worth the cost to receive it. Lots and lots of postscripts implied that you just couldn’t tear yourself away from the page.

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The ideal love letter was as neat as possible, on the smoothest, whitest paper you could afford, with expensive gilded edges. You might enclose a gift — pressed flowers, buttons, handkerchiefs with your hair embroidered into them, locks of hair wrapped tight with a ribbon. You were literally sending part of yourself in the post. A recipient might commission hair-work jewelry from the gift, literally bringing your two bodies together when you couldn’t literally be together.

The love letter was a proper treasured object, finished with a kiss — it had touched your lips! — and even a spritz of perfume.

What filled so many pages?

Writers liked to display education and refinement. They quoted from authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Rousseau. They would compare themselves to famous couples like Romeo and Juliet, Heloise and Abelard, Julie and Saint-Preux.

This last, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel “Julie, or the New Heloise,” was published in 1761 and was one of the best-selling novels of the century. It tells the story of a young woman called Julie and her love affair with her tutor, Saint-Preux, and is told through their letters to one another.

The philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft sent the last volume of the novel to her lover William Godwin in 1796 to remind him to “dwell on your own feelings — that is to say, give me a bird’s-eye-view of your heart.” In other words, she hoped that the novel would help him to actualize his feelings and write the kind of love letters that she wanted to receive.

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Do you have an example of one of the fictional couple’s letters?

Here’s a juicy bit from Saint-Preux to Julie after they shared their first kiss:

What have you done, ah! what have you done, my Julie? You meant to reward me and you have undone me. I am drunk, or rather insane. My senses are impaired, all my faculties are deranged by that fatal kiss. You meant to alleviate my sufferings? Cruel woman, you make them sharper. It is poison I have culled from your lips; it festers, it sets my blood afire, it kills me, and your pity is the death of me.

Saucy! Were all letters so heart-thumping?

No. People didn’t discuss sex in their letters, ever. Courtship letters were not private. You could expect friends, mothers, and aunties to read the letters you sent to the object of your affection, so you couldn’t just say anything you wanted. Men in hot pursuit of marriage might say more about the strength of their passion, but women had to be more reticent. In this regard, this period isn’t a golden age. It’s much more equal now, in terms of women expressing themselves.

Mary Wollstonecraft was the exception. She was a rule breaker. She hints at sex in her letters to William Godwin — “so much live fire moving about my features” — alluding to what they’d done the night before.

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That’s hot. I think. And it makes me think that time period was not quite as chaste as we might imagine.

It certainly was not a more chaste time. You can read the letters and think everyone was very romantic and no one was having sex, but a third of brides were pregnant on their wedding day. Women in their diaries write about sneaking off for kisses while their family isn’t looking. Perhaps it adds an extra titillation to hold things back, this air of mystery. You might create a code name, a pet name for your partner that only the two of you would know. People from all walks wrote love letters, but for a certain class, the good bits of letters were in French — or Italian or Greek — so the servants couldn’t read them. Sometimes the juicy bits were in code, especially if it was an affair. There are all these different ways that mystery can add that extra frisson of excitement.

And married couples? How did they keep the thrill alive?

Married couples still sent romantic gifts and wrote letters! The letter still had that romantic power, even if you were right next to someone. There is just something about writing it down and sending part of yourself in a letter.


Kelly Horan can be reached at kelly.horan@globe.com.