BOOK REVIEW / Peaceful, wise and great: Kenneth Baxter on the singularly enchanting love story revealed in Dorothy Osborne's letters

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THE English Civil War, like all such catastrophic events, divided families and strained loyalties to the breaking point. It likewise produced its romances, one of which is revealed in Dorothy Osborne's delightful letters to her future husband, William Temple, essayist and diplomatist. Theirs was a 'marriage of true minds' which admitted no impediments, including intense political and family pressure.

Her distinguished Royalist parents were in every way affected adversely by the quarrel between King and Parliament. Her father was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Guernsey and obliged, when the island declared for Cromwell, to defend its fort under near starvation siege conditions, supported only by gracious royal promises. Their home, Chicksands Priory in Bedfordshire, was 'sequestrated' and she took refuge with her Puritan brother at Chelsea. There she met Oliver Cromwell's son, Henry, whom, as she teasingly told Temple later, she might have married 'and so become a great person.'

She encountered Temple himself four years later in the Isle of Wight, on her way to see her father, now a retired, sadly disillusioned man. She travelled with her brother who, apparently, scratched on a window a biblical text unflattering to the Parliamentary party. They were arrested, along with Temple who happened to be with them. Dorothy, using her ready wit and her advantages as a personable girl, took the blame, and they were released with a caution.

Not surprisingly, Temple was impressed by both her action and appearance, and so began a courtship which lasted almost seven years. He, too, belonged to a distinguished landed family. His father, a Privy Councillor, seems never to have been quite sure where his sympathies lay; but he and his sons regarded young Temple as an irreligious opportunist. Nor was the girl's father any more enthusiastic, and without his consent she would not contemplate marriage. And there was Henry Cromwell and other family-encouraged suitors in the background.

Temple was despatched on extended travels 'to improve his understanding'; and so their long correspondence began, characterised on her side by the writer's singularly attractive personality. Brief quotation cannot convey the letters' essence: they should be read in their charming entirety - as Macaulay found when he came across them in a biography of Temple. He was enchanted, and Macaulay did not yield to enchantment easily.

The remainder of their story is one of duty and domestic quiet: he the diligent public servant, she his devoted helper and friend of Queen Mary. When Dorothy herself, 'mild Dorothea, peaceful, wise and great,' as her husband's secretary, one Jonathan Swift, called her, died in 1695, Temple apparently destroyed his side of their correspondence.