Have we lost the art of writing love letters?

On Valentine's Day, John Walsh looks at the history of billets doux - and wonders whether they can survive in the digital age

'The frankest and freest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter," wrote Mark Twain in the introduction to his autobiography. "The writer gets his limitless freedom of statement and expression from his sense that no stranger is going to see what he is writing."

The writer is, of course, sorely deluded if he thinks any such thing. Literary history is crammed with the unguarded outpourings of lovers, spouses, lechers and romantics. And today, when one billion Valentine's Day cards will be sent worldwide, we might wonder where the tradition of the passionate avowal came from – and whether it's now dead and gone.

The origins of St Valentine are lost, but one myth suggests he was a priest in third-century Rome who defied the emperor Claudius II, who had outlawed marriage for young men (because he thought single men made better soldiers than married ones). Because Valentine went on marrying young lovers in secret, he was thrown in jail and condemned to death – a martyr for love.

It's thought that he sent a passionate greeting to the jailor's daughter who visited him in his cell, and signed it "from your Valentine".

Though he died in AD270, he was given a saint's day –14 February – in AD498 by Pope Gelasius. It took nearly 1,000 years for the first Valentine to appear – a poem written to his wife in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, while incarcerated in the Tower of London after Agincourt. It's now in the British Library.

British romantics began to celebrate the day in the 17th century. It was in the mid-18th that lovers sent each other handwritten notes or little love tokens.

By the turn of the 19th century, they could express their feelings in pre-printed cards rather than private notes. In America, a woman called Esther Howland started selling mass-produced Valentines – twee conglomerations of hearts, flowers, lace, ribbon, bunny rabbits and glutinous protestations about the sweetness of kisses.

Love letters, however, never needed any help from Valentine's Day and flourished before and despite its existence. The letters of Pliny the Younger offer a warmly human picture of private life in Rome circa AD100, particularly when writing to his adored wife Calpurnia: "You say that you are feeling my absence very much, and your only comfort when I am not there is to hold my writings in your hand and often put them in my place by your side... I too am always reading your letters, and returning to them again and again as if they were new to me – but this only fans the fire of my longing for you. If your letters are so dear to me, you can imagine how I delight in your company. Do write as often as you can, although you give me pleasure mingled with pain."

The first published love correspondence was in the early 12th century between Peter Abelard, a leading French philosopher, and his student Heloise, the beautiful neice of Canon Fulbert of Paris.

Despite the 22-year age gap, they became lovers. The Canon found out and, when Heloise was revealed to be pregnant, sent his kinsmen to Abelard's house where they castrated him. Heloise entered a convent and the lovers never met again. Instead they wrote to each other. Her letters are marvels of frankness and self-abasement: "God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself; I wanted simply you, nothing of yours... I looked for no marriage-bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours. The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter to me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore."

The Tudor period was a dangerous time for written-down expressions of love (or loyalty or religious adherence). Too many seemed to lead to the gallows. Letters of the period are dominated by Henry VIII, whose notes to Anne Boleyn in 1524 are full of yearning and non-regal pleas that, though far away, she should not go off him: "My Mistress and Friend, I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to recommend us to your good grace and not to let absence lessen your affection... For myself the pang of absence is already too great, and when I think of the increase of what I must needs suffer it would be well nigh intolerable but for my firm hope of your unchangeable affection..."

We have to wait for the turn of the 18th century for the modern love letter to appear – a thing of charm and tongue-in-cheek overstatement, like this one in the 1700s from the playwright William Congreve to Mrs Arabella Hunt, a court musician: "Recall to mind what happened last night. That, at least, was a lover's kiss. Its eagerness, its fierceness, its warmth expressed the god its parent. But Oh! its sweetness and its melting softness expressed him more... Convulsions, pantings, murmurings shew'd the mighty disorder within me: the mighty disorder increased by it. For those dear lips shot through my heart, and thro' my bleeding vitals, delicious poison, and an avoidless but yet a charming ruin."

A little later, in 1770s Germany, Johann von Goethe was romancing Charlotte von Stein by insisting that his solitary walks and moody lonesomeness were all because of his fixation on her. It was a trope of the Enlightenment that love didn't confuse and baffle the lover with vague sentiment; on the contrary, it clarified everything: "In you, I have a measure for every woman, for every one; in your love a measure for all that is to be. Not in the sense that the rest of the world seems obscure to me; on the contrary, your love makes it clear; I see quite clearly what men are like and what they plan, wish, do and enjoy; I don't grudge them what they have, and comparing is a secret joy to me, possessing as I do such an imperishable treasure."

Another favourite approach was the whine of masochism, as the lover suffers torments that his lady love may leave him, and receiving her letters becomes a form of torture. As Denis Diderot, the French encyclopaedia compiler, pointed out in his letter to Sophie Volland in 1759: "How impatiently I waited for it! I am sure my hands trembled when opening it. My countenance changed; my voice altered; and unless he were a fool, he who handed it to me would have said – 'That man receives news from his father or mother, or someone else he loves.' I was just at that minute about to send you a letter expressing my great uneasiness. While you are amusing yourself, you forget how much my heart suffers."

This you're-so-cruel approach was also adopted by Napoleon Buonaparte in his letters to Josephine de Beauharnais. Even while he was marauding around Europe, as commander of the French forces in Italy, he was ticking off his new bride (in 1796) for her inattention: "I do not love thee any more; on the contrary, I detest thee. Thou art horrid, very awkward, very stupid, a very Cinderella. Thou dost not write me at all, thou dost not love thy husband; thou knowest the pleasure that thy letters afford him, and thou dost not write him six lines of even haphazard scribble. What do you do, then, all day, Madame? What matter of such importance is it that takes up your time from writing to your very good lover?"

The classic love letters of the last two centuries, however, have been those of poets, playwrights and novelists, and their theme is tiresomely formulaic. Whether it's John Keats worshipping Fanny Brawne ("I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shuddered at it. I shudder no more – I could be martyr'd for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that. I could die for you"), Victor Hugo rhapsodising over Adele Foucher ("When two souls, which have sought each other for however long in the throng, have finally found each other, a union, fiery and pure as they themselves, begins on earth and continues forever in heaven. This union is love, true love..."), or Oscar Wilde in raptures over Bosie Douglas ("What wisdom is to the philosopher, what God is to his saint, you are to me"), the theme has been transcendence – the insistence that the loved one inhabits a higher plane of being than the normal run of mankind. One can feel a sense of relief to read the flagrantly pornographic letters James Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle when they were temporarily parted in 1909. He encouraged her to masturbate while reading them and called her, among a great many other things, his "darling brown-arsed fuckbird".

Do people send each other love letters any more? Or is the exchange of amorous declarations between partners now forever delegated to the insulting greetings card, the fluffy-bunny message in newspaper classifieds, the wholly unpassionate email, the economical salutation of the text message ("yr hairs so lng yr tits so gr8 theres nuthin bout you I don't r8. fanC a shg?")? Probably. But as recipients of real love letters will tell you, they don't have to be the work of Elizabeth Barrett or Lord Byron, or to insist on the beloved's spiritual qualities, to have an effect. Just a recital of her (or his) most shining virtues can do the trick. As St Valentine probably found when sending that note to his jailer's foxy daughter, 1700 years ago.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum