Dear Valentine: A Brief History of Great Love Letters

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For as long as people could write, it seems, the more romantic and less self-conscious have been penning love letters. But in the era of texting ("luv u") and tweeting and emailing, the visceral pleasure of a handwritten love letter is largely lost. What grammar school kid even gets an "I like you, do you like me? Check yes or no" note anymore? And sure, an email can explain the depths to which you love your "own dear boy," your "Best Beloved," or your "Dearest Creature," but it just doesn't look the same on the brightly glowing screen as it does scrawled on a scrap of notebook paper.

This Valentine's Day, take a bit of inspiration from these few famous love letters and pen your sweetie a love missive. You can even add an ironic "check yes or no" if you're feeling self-conscious about it.

Love letters spell trouble

Tales of thwarted love capture the human imagination like nothing else. So it's not surprising that the early 12th century story of Pierre Abelard and Héloïse has endured for generations.

Abelard was in his early 30s and one of the most promising philosophers and teachers in medieval Paris; young Héloïse was the clever and academic live-in niece of a respected churchman, Canon Fulbert. Claiming the upkeep of a home and the commute to Paris was too onerous, Abelard appealed to Fulbert: In exchange for room and board, he'd tutor bright Héloïse. Some claim that Abelard knew exactly what he was doing by securing a room with the Canon, but whether it was fate or the crafty work of a besotted suitor, it worked. They soon fell in love and, after a brief period of intense "study" sessions, Héloïse became pregnant. They married in secret and for a short time, it looked like things were going to turn out OK for the illicit pair. But that wouldn't make it a tragedy: With wounded pride and a vengeful heart, Canon Fulbert hired some men to find Abelard and castrate him.

With Abelard a eunuch and her child entrusted to the care of her family, Héloïse was given little choice but to take the vows; she later became prioress of her abbey, while Abelard's career as a philosopher thrived.

Abelard seems to have turned away from sensual love after the incident, but Héloïse continued to pour her romantic love for him into letters: "But if I lose you, what is left to hope for? What reason for continuing on the pilgrimage of life, for which I have no support but you and none in you except the knowledge that you are alive, now that I am forbidden all other pleasures in you and denied even the joy of your presence which from time to time could restore me to myself?"

In the more than 800 years since their deaths, the lovers' story, now the stuff of paintings and poetry, has cemented their place in the pantheon of great lovers. Their letters also remain—although there is some scholarly debate as to whether the two even wrote them. The real question is, as the couple has already passed into legend, does it matter?

Most mysterious love letters

Though he never married—he was, according to one woman he professed his love for, "very ugly and half crazy"—Ludwig Von Beethoven fell in love deeply and often, usually with women who were unattainable (either by reasons of social obligations or because they were already married). While Beethoven wrote a number of love letters, three stand out—the so-called "Immortal Beloved" letters.

beethovenThe three letters, written over two July days in 1812, are all the more stunning because their recipient not only never read them, but has also remained nameless for all history. The letters, addressed only to someone he called "Immortal Beloved," were discovered in his papers after his death.

In the first, dated the morning of Monday, July 6, Beethoven writes: "Love demands everything and is quite right, so it is for me with you, for you with me"¦" In the second, dated that evening, he "weeps" at the thought that the post only goes on Monday and Thursdays early in the morning—because he has already missed the first, his beloved won't receive word from him until Saturday.

The next day, he writes, "I can only live, either altogether with you or not all"¦. Your love made me the happiest and the unhappiest at the same time." He ends the last letter:

"Oh, go on loving me—never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
L
Ever thine.
Ever mine.
Ever ours."

Attempts to conclusively determine the identity of his "Immortal Beloved" have generally come to naught, although some say the most likely candidate is Antonie Bretano, a Viennese woman who, true to Beethoven's form, was already married to a Frankfurt merchant. Others say she was Josephine von Brunsvik, an unhappily married Hungarian aristocrat who'd formed an attachment to Beethoven some years earlier. Still others claim it was the Countess Julia Guicciardi, to whom he'd dedicated his gorgeous "Moonlight Sonata." But no one believes the version put forward by Hollywood director Bernard Rose, in his 1994 Beethoven biopic starring Gary Oldman: That the Immortal Beloved was actually Johanna Reiss, the wife of Beethoven's brother and a woman who, outside the make-believe world, Beethoven actually hated.

The evolution of love

When most people think of Charles Darwin, they don't usually think "˜romance'—the author of Origin of the Species is far more well known for his theory of human evolution than for his reputation as a lover.

It's true that Darwin wasn't exactly sentimental. In 1838, seven years after his momentous voyage to Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle—a trip that planted the seeds of what would become his master work—the scientist decided he'd like to get married.

Darwin came to this decision after drawing up a pro-con list. Under "marry," he wrote, "constant companion" and "better than a dog anyhow." Under "not marry," he wrote, "conversation with clever men at clubs."

Ultimately, the pros outweighed the cons and he became engaged to his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

His love letters aren't sappy, but they do reflect his honest love for Emma and the genuine excitement he felt at his impending nuptials: "How I do hope you shall be happy as I know I shall be," he wrote, just days before their wedding. "My own dearest Emma, I earnestly pray, you may never regret the great and I will add very good, deed you are to perform on the Tuesday: my own dear future wife, God bless you"¦"

The couple had 10 children together and for the most part, their marriage was quite happy; even so, Emma, a devout Christian, worried desperately about what effect Darwin's scientific theories would have on his immortal soul and the souls of people who agreed with him.

Presidential love letters

Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, a noted scholar, and the man who led America through the First World War. He was also a prolific love letter writer.

woodrow-edithDuring and before his first marriage to Ellen Louise Axeson, Wilson wrote hundreds of exceptionally beautiful and passionate love letters. After Ellen died in Wilson's second year in the White House, the president was devastated; but one day, riding about town, as the story goes, he caught sight of a beautiful woman and engineered a way to meet her. Wilson met Edith Bolling Galt (pictured), a Washington widow, and fell in love hard and fast—one Secret Serviceman said he was like a "schoolboy in his first love experience."

While wooing Edith, Wilson penned a series of love letters, some signed "Tiger" (Wilson was a Princeton alum, but this was before the university took on the tiger as its mascot.) In one, Wilson wrote, "You are more wonderful and lovely in my eyes than you ever were before; and my pride and joy and gratitude that you should love me with such a perfect love are beyond all expression, except in some great poem which I cannot write." In another, he pines, "Please go to ride with us this evening, precious little girl, so that I can whisper something in your ear—something of my happiness and love, and accept this, in the meantime, as a piece out of my very heart, which is all yours but cannot be sent as I wish to send it by letter."

Wilson certainly isn't the only American president to turn a bit mushy with a pen—or feather quill—in hand. In President Harry Truman's letters to Bess Wallace before they were married, he writes, "I suppose that I am too crazy about you anyway. Every time I see you I get more so if it is possible. I know I haven't any right to but there are certain things that can't be helped and that is one of them. I wouldn't help it if I could you know."

President Ronald Reagan wrote to Nancy Reagan after 31 years of marriage, "I more than love you, I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I'm waiting for you to return so I can start living again." Their correspondence was published in the 2002 book I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan.

And of course, some of the most famous presidential love letters were between John Adams and his wife, Abigail. Between debating public policy and the direction of American independence, the two exchanged sweet, affectionate, silly, and often deeply affecting endearments: "Dear Miss Saucy," he writes, "I hereby order you to give me as many kisses and as many hours of your company as I shall please to demand, and charge them to my account."

Love letters from HAL

According to London's Daily Telegraph, one of the world's first computers wasn't built to crunch numbers—but to write love letters. In 1952, when scientists wanted to test the capability of Manchester University's Mark One computer, they devised a software program that would have the computer search a database of tender nothings and spit out love verses. The researchers would tack the best ones up to a communal office board, including missives like, "MY LUST TEMPTS YOUR FOND ARDOUR. MY LIKING ARDENTLY CARES FOR YOUR HUNGER." If you're stuck for a sweet something to write to your dear darling, let the Mark One do it for you.

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February 11, 2010 - 9:14am
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