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!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Michael Bowles, Getty Images for Sotheby's
arrow
History
Marie Antoinette's Jewelry Is Up for Sale
Michael Bowles, Getty Images for Sotheby's
Michael Bowles, Getty Images for Sotheby's

Rare jewelry that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and hasn't been seen in public for 200 years will be heading to the auction block this fall, according to The Adventurine.

A diamond parure (jewelry set), three-strand pearl necklace, and other gems that once adorned the last queen of France will be sold on November 12 in Geneva, Switzerland, as part of Sotheby's "Royal Jewels from the Bourbon-Parma Family" auction. The family in question is related by blood to some of Europe's most important rulers, including former kings of France and Spain and emperors of Austria.

A diamond jewelry set
Courtesy of Sotheby's

Although Marie Antoinette was known for her opulent fashion choices, her jewels have scarcely been seen since the French Revolution, The Adventurine reports. The Smithsonian owns a pair of earrings that are believed to contain diamonds from the queen's collection, and a diamond necklace that appeared at a Christie's auction in 1971 "hasn't been seen since." The jewelry magazine notes that many of Marie Antoinette's jewels were dismantled, but a few—like the ones featured in this latest collection—managed to survive.

A pearl necklace
Courtesy of Sotheby's

According to Sotheby's, Marie Antoinette placed all her jewels in a wooden chest in March 1791 and shipped them off to her nephew, the Austrian Emperor, for safekeeping [PDF]. That following year, the royal family was imprisoned, and in 1793 Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVII were executed by guillotine. Their only surviving child, Marie Thérèse de France, retrieved the jewels and later passed them along to her niece, since she had no children of her own. They ultimately ended up with Robert I, the last ruling Duke of Parma in Italy.

The most valuable piece, a pearl pendant featuring a bow made of diamonds, is expected to fetch between $1 million and $2 million, according to the auction house's estimates. In the late 18th century, pearls were just as coveted as diamonds because of their rarity. Marie Antoinette, of course, wore them often.

A diamond and pearl pendant
Courtesy of Sotheby's

"It is one of the most important royal jewelry collections ever to appear on the market and each and every jewel is absolutely imbued with history," Daniela Mascetti, of Sotheby's European jewelry division, said in a statement.

[h/t The Adventurine]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
12 Facts About James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.

1. HE WAS ONLY 9 WHEN HIS FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WAS PUBLISHED.

In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.

2. HE CAUSED A CONTROVERSY AT HIS COLLEGE’S PAPER.

While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.

3. NORA BARNACLE GHOSTED HIM FOR THEIR PLANNED FIRST DATE.

By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.

4. HE HAD REALLY BAD EYES.

While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.

5. HE TAUGHT ENGLISH AT A BERLITZ LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.

6. HE INVESTED IN A MOVIE THEATER.

There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)

7. HE TURNED TO A COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED PUBLISHER TO RELEASE HIS MOST WELL-KNOWN BOOK.

The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.

8. ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS HIS DRINKING BUDDY—AND SOMETIMES HIS BODYGUARD.

Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"

9. HE MET ANOTHER MODERNIST TITAN—AND HAD A TERRIBLE TIME.

Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”

10. HE CREATED A 100-LETTER WORD TO DESCRIBE HIS FEAR OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).

11. HE’S THOUGHT OF AS A LITERARY GENIUS, BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

12. HIS SUPPOSED FINAL WORDS WERE AS ABSTRACT AS HIS WRITING.

Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios