Review: Love Letters of Great Men

These letters and the short biographical notes reveal some interesting, sometimes amusing details about famous people’s private lives, such as the fact that Mozart and his wife both loved scatological jokes; Robert Burns was a dog (he got two women pregnant while carrying on with his „main“, I guess you’d say, mistress; one of the pregnant women was the mistress’s maid); Napoleon Bonaparte seems to have been very insecure about his wife’s love for him and tortured over it; Charles Darwin made a pro-/con list when he considered marriage, „better than a dog anyhow“ was on the pro- side and „not forced to visit relatives“ in the con side (he subsequently sounded very happy with his choice though, even though he married his first cousin); Robert Browning’s love for Elizabeth Barrett started as a fan’s admiration; Mark Twain’s in-laws had been conductors on the Underground Railroad; Alfred Douglas did not abandon Oscar Wilde after his process, on the contrary, he campaigned in the press against the sentence and petitioned the Queen for clemency.

33809464The letters start with Pliny the Younger and then span the period between the 17th century and the 1910s. No matter the time period, you can recognise the ecstasy and the agony of love, as we’ve felt it in our own lives. I also recognised a number of games and tricks, including some pretty dishonest and downright abusive ones, that men seem to have been using for centuries:

You’re out of my league, but I’m a nice guy, give me a chance:

Were I to consult my merits my humility would chide any shadow of hope; but after a sight of such a face whose whole composition is a smile of good nature, why should I be so unjust as to suspect you of cruelty.

George Farquhar to Anne Oldfield, 1699


It is true that you are not handsome, for you are a woman and think you are not: but this good humour and tenderness for me has a charm that cannot be resisted.

Alexander Pope to Martha Blount, 1714

Disregarding consent:

I am vain enough to conclude that (like most young fellows) a fine lady’s silence is consent and so I write on –

Alexander Pope to Teresa Blount, 1716

my whole existence is devoted to her, even in spite of her. […] My duty is to keep close to her steps, to surround her existence with mine, to serve her as a barrier against all dangers […]

Victor Hugo to Adele Foucher, 1820

Emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping:

Do not put yourself out; run after pleasures; happiness is made for you. The entire world is too glad to be able to please you, and only your husband is very, very unhappy.

Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine, 1796

Resorting to insults when he doesn’t get his way, sour grapes:

Thou art horrid, very awkward, very stupid, a very Cinderella.

Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine, 1796 (8 months after their wedding)

For a few years you may flutter in some frivolous circle. But the time will come when you will sigh for any heart that could be fond and despair of one that can be faithful. […] then you will recall to your memory the passionate heart that you have forfeited, and the genius you have betrayed.

Benjamin Disraeli to Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, 1839

Jealousy and control:

Dear little wife, I have a number of requests to make. I beg you
(3) not to go out walking alone – and preferably not to go out walking at all,
(5) I beg in your conduct not only to be careful of your honour and mine, but also to consider appearances. Do not be angry with me for asking this. You ought to love me even more for thus valuing our honour.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Constanze Mozart, 1789

How have you passed this month? Who have you smil’d with? […] For myself I have been a Martyr the whole time […] You may have altered – if you have not – if you still behave in dancing rooms and other societies as I have seen you – I do not want to live – if you have done so I wish this coming night may be my last.
I cannot live without you, and not only you, but chaste you, virtuous you.

John Keats to Fanny Brawne


Josephine, beware, one fine night the doors will break open and I will be there.

Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine, 1796

There were also some truly touching, sweet, lovely intimate exchanges, such as Schiller’s trembling hopefulness that his beloved may return his feelings and his selfless and genuinely respectful explanation as to why he hadn’t dared reveal his heart sooner:

Could I not become to you what you were to me, then my suffering would have distressed you, and I would have destroyed the most beautiful harmony of our friendship through my confession.

Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller to Charlotte von Lengefeld, 1789

And Pierre Curie’s charmingly awkward courtship of Maria Sklodovska:

I thought of asking your permission to meet you by chance in Freibourg.

Pierre Curie to Maria Sklodovska, 1894

Charles Darwin’s astute observation of the disrespect many men habitually showed for their wives and his witty mockery of it:

I want practice in ill-treatment of the female sex,–I did not observe Lyell had any compunction; I hope to harden my conscience in time: few husbands seem to find it difficult to effect this.

Charles Darwin to Emma Wedgwood

Lieutenant John Lindsay Rapoport, a soldier in WWI, in contrast to a lot of men in this volume, had full security in his beloved’s feelings and faithfulness and no desire to control her. It’s a lovely letter and all the more tragic for being the last thing he ever wrote – he was posted missing a month later and never found.

One thing I am [as] sure of as that I exist: that is that I have all your heart and all your love. So I just want you to enjoy yourself – I love you so much. Have a topping time on the river and at shos, etc, with your friends, won’t you?

Lieutenant John Lindsay Rapoport to his fiancee

Walter Bagehot’s description of being in love is something I keenly recognise:

a wild, delicious excitement which I would not have lost for the world. […] everything has a gloss upon it.

Walter Bagehot to Elizabeth Wilson, 1857

Robert Browning’s letter to his future wife on the morning of their wedding (when she was 40 and he was 34) is worth quoting from:

You will only expect a few words. What will those be? When the heart is full it may run over; but the real fulness stays within… Words can never tell you… how perfectly dear you are to me – perfectly dear to my heart and soul. I look back in every one point, every word and gesture, every letter, every <i>silence</i> – you have been entirely perfect to me – I would not change one word, one look. […] I am all gratitude – and all pride… that my life has been so crowned by you.

Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barrett, 1846

As well as Mark Twain’s wonderfully affectionate words to his wife, eloquent with his apparently deep and lasting lover for her:

Livy darling,
Six years have gone by since I made my first great success in life and won you, and thirty years have passed since Providence made preparation for that happy success by sending you into the world. Every day we live together adds to my confidence, that we can never any more wish to be separated than that we can ever imagine a regret that we were ever joined.

Mark Twain to Olivia Clemens, 1875

I do hope you are all well and having as jolly a time as we are, for I love you, sweetheart, and also, in a measure, the Bays [his small daughter’s word for „babies“].

Mark Twain to Olivia Clemens, 1878

And finally, this lovely confession by Nathaniel Hawthorne to his wife rings so true and sums up love for me:

I think I was always more at ease alone than in anybody’s company, till I knew thee.

Nathanial Hawthorne to Sophia Hawthorne


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