When’s the last time you heard of someone writing a love letter? Has the art of romance been replaced by Facebook and Tinder?
We found something wonderful at lunch the other day – the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in English. (That is, we found it online, not at the back of a filing cabinet).
This missive was written by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston in February 1477. Margery was clearly besotted, declaring that she wouldn’t be in ‘good health of body nor of heart’ until she heard from him.
It seems their marriage wasn’t a certainty – her mother wanted a bigger dowry for her daughter, presumably to make her more appealing to John’s family. But Margery believes that if John loves her, he’ll marry her regardless, writing in delicate medieval script: ‘But if you love me, as I trust verily that you do, you will not leave me therefore’.
Wonderfully, the romance has a happy ending and the couple did marry. Their ardour and hopes are captured in The Paston letters, a collection in the British Library. It’s one of the largest collections of 15th century private correspondence and it gives us a glimpse into the lives of the Pastons, including their ascent from the world of peasants to becoming part of the aristocracy.
(Remarkably, in 2011 the descendants of Margery and John were traced and got to see the original heartfelt letters exchanged between their ancestors.)
But longing and, dare we say it, lust, are as old as history. Take a look at the love poem written by a priestess to the Sumerian king Shu-sin who was marrying her as part of a ritual in the 8th century BC. The poem is a bit racy: ‘in the bedchamber, honey-filled’, writes the amorous priestess, ‘bridegroom you have taken your pleasure of me’. This was in the days before paper, so the world’s earliest love poem was inscribed in clay.
These amazing stories of anticipation, heartache and romance have transcended hundreds, even thousands, of years because they have a physical, tangible form.
The same emotions are swirling around today, but it’s more likely they’re being expressed by being tapped out on a keyboard without ever seeing a sheet of letter-writing paper, let alone a printer. Flirting on Facebook and swiping on Tinder.
What tales, what imaginings, will we leave for future generations? While the digital world has given us an easy way to share our thoughts and store a record of our lives, is it really letting us pass anything on?
Can you imagine your great-great-great grandchildren discovering a rusty box hidden under floorboards, gently brushing off the dust accumulated over hundreds of years, and prising it open to reveal… a log-in name and password for your Facebook account?
Of course, we should continue to capture our lives and store and share them online, but we mustn’t forget the importance of sending actual letters to the people we love. To imagine the person we fell for holding what we’ve written, running their fingers across it and seeing how it catches the sunlight.
If you have wonderful fluid handwriting, a script to make scribes sigh, then yes, buy yourself a fountain pen and ink (perhaps Royal Blue) and write a love letter. Actually sit down and write it. Make it something that you commit to, a declaration of feeling that tapping out a text couldn’t top.
If your handwriting is like mine – that is to say it starts out OK and gets progressively worse, as if a spider is starting to doze off at his writing desk – there’s still beauty to be found in typed letters, too. If you absolutely cannot bring yourself to write a letter, then make a typed one as potent as possible.
Get yourself some really good paper, something with texture and weight, and set your printer to the highest quality possible – choose a suitably classic font (no Comic Sans!) and tell them how you feel. And write the name of your beloved as well as your sign-off by hand.
Who knows what will happen in the future? There may be relationships to come, or this might be the one. You could be writing a letter that your ancestors will read and think about. They won’t know you, but they’ll understand how you felt.
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Previously on The Euroffice Blog…