7 Highlights from a 19th Century Book of Sample Love Letters

Advice books in the 19th century had awfully long titles. Take, for example, the subject of this article, The fashionable American letter writer; or, The art of polite correspondence. Containing a variety of plain and elegant letters on business, love, courtship, marriage, relationship, friendship, &c. With forms of complimentary cards. To the whole is prefixed, directions for letter writing, and rules for composition.

Phew. At least it's thorough.

The book provides advice in the form of example letters for all sorts of situations. But it is the many matters of the heart that come across as particularly dated and worthy of unraveling more than a century and a half later. Let's take a look at some of the more stilted professions of adoration.

1. "Letter from a Gentleman to a Lady, disclosing his passion"

Madam,

Those only who have suffered them can tell the unhappy moments of hesitating uncertainty which attend the formation of a resolution to declare the sentiments of affection; I, who have felt their greatest and most acute torments, could not, previous to my experience, have formed the remotest idea of their severity. Every one of those qualities in you which claim my admiration, increased my diffidence, by showing the great risk I run in venturing, perhaps before my affectionate assiduities have made the desired impression on your mind, to make a declaration of the ardent passion I have long since felt for you.

"Acute torments" at the mere prospect of simply telling a girl you fancy her does not speak well of your amorous experience or of your constitution, but I guess if you gussy it up with enough dependent clauses it reads more romantic.

My family connexions (sic) are so well known to you, that I need say nothing of them...

#humblebrag.

He ends the letter with a plea that if his romantic intentions should fall on deaf ears he hopes they can still be friends. A modern sentiment if ever there was one.

The Answer

Sir,

I take the earliest opportunity of acknowledging the receipt of your letter, and the obligations I feel to you for the sentiments expressed in it; and assure you, that whatever may be the event of your solicitations in another quarter, the sentiments of friendship I feel, from a long acquaintance with you, will not be in any manner altered.

She sounds pretty committed to the idea of preserving "the sentiments of friendship," which rarely bodes well romantically.

There are many points besides mere personal regard to be considered; these I must refer to the superior knowledge of my father and brother; and if the result of their inquiries is such as my presentiments suggest, I have no doubt my happiness will be attended to by permission to decide for myself.

Naturally, a female perspective can't be trusted to evaluate a potential suitor, but oh, to be given permission to decide for herself!

At all events, I shall never cease to feel obliged by a preference in itself sufficiently flattering, and rendered still more so by the handsome manner in which it is expressed; and I hope, if my parents should see cause to decline the proposed favour of your alliance, it will not produce such disunion between our families, as to deprive us of friends, who possess a great portion of our esteem and regard.

Well, if nothing else, she likes that he likes her. That's something. And, of course, they will always be "friends."

2. "From a Gentleman to a Young Lady of superior fortune"

This one opens with a similar overstatement of flattery sprinkled with unworthiness. But the highlight comes when this gentleman concedes to his would-be sugar momma that:

Were our circumstances reversed, I should hardly take to myself the credit of doing a generous action, in overlooking the consideration of wealth, and making you an unreserved tender of my hand and fortune.

At least he's honest.

In her reply, she scolds him for assuming a lady's heart will be swayed or stayed by disparity of fortune, but demurs that any decision on the matter should be left up to her father.

3. "From a Gentleman of some fortune, who had seen a Lady in public, to her mother"

He gets to the heart of the matter eventually, but it's the opening paragraph that's worth considering:

I shall be very happy if you are not altogether unacquainted with the name which is at the bottom of this letter, since that will prevent me the necessity of saying some things concerning myself, which had better be heard from others. Hoping that it may be so, I shall not trouble you on that head; but only say, that I have the honour to be of a family not mean, and not wholly without fortune.

I think that's 19th century speak for "Do you know who I am?!"

4. "From a Widow to a Young Gentleman, rejecting his suit"

You are, by your account, two and twenty. I am, by mine, six and forty; you are too young to know the duties of a father. I have a son who is seventeen, and consequently too old to learn the duties of a son from one so little senior to himself.

This sounds like reasonable grounds for rejection—or for a sitcom plot—but our widow is savvy enough to question the motives of a 22-year-old looking to shack up with someone more than double his age. 

[W]hen you can convince me that in point of age, fortune, and morals, you are such a person as I can, without reproach, rake for a husband, and admit as a guardian to my children, I shall cease to think, as I now candidly confess I do, that motives far from honourable, or disinterested love, have influence your application.

Those implied motives: gold-digging.

5. "From a Young Lady, to a Gentleman that courted her whom she could not esteem, but was forced by her Parents to receive his visits, and think on none else for her Husband"

I mean, how many times do you find yourself in this situation? Am I right, ladies?

You may have observed, in the long conversations we have had at those times that we were left together, that some secret hung upon my mind. I was obliged to an ambiguous behaviour, and durst not reveal myself further, because my mother, from a closet near the place where we sat, could both see and hear our conversation. I have strict commands from both my parents to receive you, and am undone for ever, except you will be so kind and generous as to refuse me. Consider, sir, the misery of bestowing yourself upon one who can have no prospect of happiness but from your death.

If admitting that any sign of affection was merely for your parents' benefit doesn't work, try telling him that a marriage would make you wish he was dead. But you know, in a way that makes it sound like you're just looking out for his feelings.

I know it is dreadful enough to a man of your sense to expect nothing but forced civilities in return for tender endearments, and cold esteem for undeserved love. if you will, on this occasion, let reason take the place of passion, I doubt not but fate has in store for you some worthier object of your affection, in recompense of your goodness to the only woman that could be insensible of your merit.

"It's not you, it's me." "I just don't think I have anything to give at this point." "You deserve someone who can really appreciate you."

6. "From a Young Lady to a Gentleman, complaining of indifference"

You don't interrupt a lady when she is coming at you with a string of possibly rhetorical questions. Take it away from the top of the accusations:

Did I not give you my promise to be yours, and had you no other cause for soliciting it than merely to gratify your vanity? A brutal gratification indeed, to triumph over the weakness of a woman, whose greatest fault was, that she loved you. I say loved you; for it was in consequence of that passion, I first contended to become yours. Has your conduct, sir, been consistent with my submission, or with your own solemn professions? Is it consistent with the character of a gentleman, first to obtain a woman’s consent, and afterwards brag that he had discarded her, and found one more agreeable to his wishes? Do not equivocate; I have too convincing proofs your insincerity; I saw you yesterday walking with Miss Benton, and am informed that you have promised marriage to her. Whatever you may think, sir, I have a spirit of disdain, and even resentment, equal to your ingratitude, and can treat the wretch with a proper indifference, who can make so slight a matter of the most solemn promises. Miss Benton may be your wife, but she will receive into her arms a perjured husband nor can ever the superstructure be laying, which is built on such a foundation.

And now to really drive it home:

I leave you to the stings of your own conscience.

The Gentleman's Answer

Predictably, he denies it all:

My dear, I am not what you have represented; I am neither false nor perjured; I never proposed marriage to Miss Benton; I never designed it: and my sole reason for walking with her was, that I had been on a visit to her brother, whom you know is my attorney.

Your attorney's sister, eh? We can't know if he's telling the truth, but he does dive pretty quickly into a diversion tactic:

[T]o convince you of my sincerity, I beg that the day of marriage be next week.

Ah, the old elope-to-win-her-back strategy. And if that still doesn't work, he closes with some air-tight logic:

I have sent a small parcel by the bearer, which I hope you will accept as convincing proof of my integrity.

7. "From a Gentleman to a Lady, whom he accuses of Inconstancy"

You should not suppose, if lovers have lost their sight, that their senses are all banished; and if I refuse to believe my eyes when they show me your inconstancy, you must not wonder that I cannot stop my ears against the accounts of it.

That is a genuinely strong burn.

Pray let us understand one another properly; for I am afraid we are deceiving ourselves all this while. Am I a person whom you esteem, whose fortune you do not despise, and whose pretensions you encourage; or am I a troublesome coxcomb, who fancy myself particularly received by a woman who only laughs at me?

This question feels biased.

He takes issue, it seems, with her "universal coquetry in public" by daring to talk to other men, but ends the letter by imploring that she "not mistake what is the effect of the distraction of my heart, for want of respect for you."

Let's see how she takes it...

The Answer

But although I am really unhappy to find you are so, and the more to find myself to be the occasion, I can hardly impute the unkindness and incivility of your letter to the single cause you would have me.

She seems offended by his attack on her character. Imagine that. She goes one to deny any intentional wrongdoing but concedes:

I did not know that the gaiety of my temper gave you uneasiness; and you ought to have told me of it with less severity. If I am particular in it, I am afraid it is a fault in my natural disposition; but I would have taken some pains to get the better of that, if I had known it was disagreeable to you.

This is a great non-apology. An "I'm sorry if my naturally vivacious and appealing personality threatens you" of sorts. I like it. You go, hypothetical 1839 lady!

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June 9, 2014 - 7:00pm
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