I have been lately contemplating the idea of love letters. I stumbled across a blog, Dirty Laundry, that includes some beautiful and poetic representations of love, including well-known love letters throughout history.
In a different day and age, men had little choice but to woo women through the written word. Distance and circumstance and societal conventions dictated that decorum be maintained in public, but when pen hit paper, all manner of passionate ardor was unleashed. I have been reading Napoleon Bonaparte’s letters to his wife Josephine. They blow my mind, not simply because of the obvious passion that they convey, but because of their context. I love to imagine that while this man was re-arranging the European map and writing world history on the grandest stage, his internal processes and desires and emotions belonged to Josephine. He’s off fighting battles and conquering countries, but in his quiet moments, he is all hers. Wow.
Now perhaps I am over-idealizing what they shared (who me?). Perhaps their children or grandchildren or servants would describe a very different feeling in the Bonaparte household. But certainly they shared more than a genteel affection for one another, more than companionship, or convenience, or complacence. It was, quite clearly, much better than “okay.” Which isn’t to say it was anywhere near perfect by our standards: Josephine was not the only woman receiving amorous offerings from Napoleon, but it certainly appears that no one else compared to the depth of Napoleon’s feelings for his wife.
Or take, for instance, Shakespeare’s sonnets. One of my particular favorites acknowledges that the object of his affection is not perfect, going so far as to enumerate her lesser qualities, and yet his devotion to her is overwhelming nonetheless. And I’m sure, upon hearing that sonnet for the first time, she felt like the most beautiful woman in the world.
I wonder at these odes to love, and I think of sweet love letters I have received. When I was in high school, I had a boyfriend who lived more than 300 miles from me. This was pre-internet, pre-cell phones, pre-cheap calling plans. Sure we talked on the phone, but we also wrote long, long letters to each other. His sentiments were clumsy and, at times, painfully trite, but the feelings were sincere, and I remember reading his letters with trembling fingers and a fluttering heart.
A couple of years later, in college, I met a boy who would later prove to be pretty bad news. Apparently, my intuition must have detected this, because I held him at bay for a while despite his model good-looks and persistent wooing. The day after I met him, and every day thereafter for a week, he sent a courier to my dorm room with flowers, a letter, and a small token… wine glasses, a trinket with my sorority letters on it, a delicate bud vase. His letters were hyperbolic and so ardent they made me blush (and I was well past blushing by that time), but they also touched me. By all accounts, this behavior was entirely out of character for him, which made it all the more endearing.
I wonder what has become of the love letter? Don’t get me wrong, I love the ping-ping! of an incoming text as much the next girl. And the arrival of cell phones has made possible love affairs that would have withered on the vine before their advent. Perhaps we have all become more visual, and sexting and Skype have supplanted the love letter. I don’t discount the fun and engaging and beneficial aspects of modern technology, but I must admit, I miss the love letter.
There is something in words…. in reading another person’s thoughts and knowing that they are for your eyes and yours alone. And love letters needn’t be lengthy tomes proclaiming undying love; sometimes short and sweet and heartfelt gets the job done just as well. Take, for instance, the time a guy I was seeing sent me a text, out of the blue, that simply said, “You are my proof that there is good in the world.” I was breathless.
And love letters don’t have to be sappy to have power and force. Playfully intimate notes that hinge on shared moments or inside jokes always leave me with the warm fuzzies. I mean, laughing together might be the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world, after all.
But the shame of it, in my opinion, is that too many men (I don’t date women, so I have to limit my experience here to men) genuinely don’t seem to know the difference between a text that says, “Thought of you today. Wink, wink, wink.” and one that says “Why is it that when I spend time with other women, I can only compare them to you?” (Points go to an ex of mine for that last one. Nicely done.)
Plus there’s the issue of timing. Timing is everything, as they say, and that bears out with love notes, as well. I had an experience not too long ago in which a man I thought I was dating exclusively happened to mention that he’d gone out on a date. I was stunned and spent the rest of the day wondering what, if anything, I actually meant to him. Then, later that night, he had the unfortunate judgment to send me a text that said, “If you want to booty call me later, I won’t hold it against you.” Ummm….. In a different time or place in our relationship, that might have been cute, but that night? No. Definitely no.
Of course, I don’t want a love letter from just anybody or for some kind of underhanded, manipulative purpose. But I have to argue that, in the right context and from the right person and for the right reasons, a passionate love letter can make your heart soar and your body ache and all your defenses melt away. And I think maybe, just maybe, from all that soaring and aching and melting, can emerge a greater intimacy, one worthy of the best and most enduring love letters.