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Sealed with a XXX: Can emails and texts hold a candle to love letters?

Marsha Hunt prompted a flood of epistolary ardour from  Mick Jagger.

Marsha Hunt prompted a flood of epistolary ardour from Mick Jagger.

  • by Dani Garavelli
 

LIKE rose-scented time capsules tied up with ribbons, they would nestle at the backs of drawers or in dusty attics waiting for future generations to uncover their secrets.

For thousands of years, love letters were the repositories of all the ardent suitor’s hopes and fears. They captured the pain of separation and the joy of reunion in mellifluous phrases which endured long after the troths they pledged were broken, the passions they professed spent.

Today, proclamations of ardour written in the kind of language that makes lovers swoon are a rarity. A recent survey showed just 6 per cent of women (4 per cent of men) commit their feelings to paper, with most preferring to communicate their affection through the more prosaic medium of text (with the number of Xs appended to the message the most reliable indicator of the strength of the sender’s devotion). Yet, as the revelation last week that the top Google search of 2012 was “What is Love?” demonstrates, we are still fascinated by the mysteries of the heart, and letters which chart ­torrid affairs offer us a tantalising ­insight into the hold love, infatuation or sexual obsession has over human beings.

Whether it’s Napoleon lusting for Josephine or Henry VIII pining for Anne Boleyn, such epistles thrill not only because they express an intensity of desire we would like to evoke in others, but because of what they reveal about the personalities of the writers and the social mores of the times in which they were written.

Last week, letters penned by Mick Jagger to his secret lover Marsha Hunt, the star of the musical Hair who was said to have inspired the hit Brown Sugar, were sold for £187,000. Their attraction lies, Hunt says, in Jagger’s lyrical style and in the way they preserve forever that heady moment in the late Sixties when the music scene had exploded and love in its myriad forms seemed to be the answer to everything.

However sensitive, Jagger’s letters were a paean to a fragile, fleeting relationship. The ink was barely dry on them before the rock star had moved on. Years later their relationship had become so acrimonious that Hunt had to fight to prove he was the father of their daughter Karis. But other love letters are tributes to love’s endurance. Take ­Johnny Cash’s tribute to his wife June Carter on her 65th birthday “You still fascinate and inspire me,” he wrote. “You influence me for the better. You are the object of my desire; the earthly reason for my existence.”

Ever since the Egyptians invented ­hieroglyphics, men and women have been expressing their feelings in writing. Then, as now, the tone ranged from ­romantic – “to hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me” – to saucy – “Let me bathe in thy presence, that I may let thee see my beauty in my tunic of finest linen when it is wet.”

So powerfully do love letters ignite our imagination, they have inspired literary works from Cyrano de Bergerac, where literary eloquence is seen as more attractive than good looks or social standing, to The Go-Between where they are portrayed as dark tools of seduction.

Earlier this year, the British Library published the first collection of love letters reproduced in the writers’ own hand. Love Letters: 2,000 Years Of ­Romance allows the reader to vicariously experience giddy affairs, happy marriages and unrequited lusts. It includes De Profundis, the 50,000-word letter written from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, and several from Charlotte Brontë to Professor Constantin Héger, the teacher with whom she was infatuated.

“They [the letters] contain layers of information and reveal much more about a person through the handwriting style, the shape it makes on the paper, as well as the signature itself, often with an array of doodles or drawings,” Dr Andrea Clarke, who edited the book, has said. “Letters have sometimes acquired smells (of coffee, perhaps, or tea) or been spattered by tears or mud, which adds enormously to their power.”

Perhaps the most poignant love letters are those sent from war zones. These are letters that were longed for, fervently kissed and cried over. Interestingly, they are also some of the few love letters still to be written today. While modern squaddies may keep in touch with their girlfriends via Skype, many write letters to be opened only on the event of their deaths. In her book, If You’re Reading This, Sian Price has collated some of these missives. They demonstrate that the selflessness of love remains constant. “My Mary, let the recollection console you that the happiest days of my life have been from your love and affection, and that I die loving only you, and with a fervent hope that our souls may be reunited hereafter and part no more,” Major Arthur Rowley Heyland, who fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, wrote to his wife. Compare this to the letter penned by Guardsman Neil Tony Downes, who died in Afghanistan in 2007. “I hope you have a wonderful and fulfilling life,” he told his girlfriend Jane. “I will love you forever and will see you again when you are old and wrinkly’.

For the most part, modern couples are not keen on putting their thoughts on paper, though many a love affair has been conducted through the internet. Hearts were melted when emails written by Red Sox owner John Henry to Linda Pizzuti were made public earlier this year. “I don’t have any illusions about capturing your heart,” he wrote. “But the world is brighter, better, lighter and warmer when a man imbues a woman he knows – even tabula rasa – with the attributes that I believe reside in you… I am honest. I don’t play games. And I see no reason not to say that I’ve been smitten by you.” Needless to say, with an opener like that, Henry not only captured Linda’s heart but secured her hand.

Even so, it is difficult to believe the sight of a lover’s name in an inbox could quicken the pulse in quite the same way as the sound of a letter dropping on to the mat; or that “U r so fit. LYL [Love you lots]” could have the same impact as the words’ “One by one, we made the public benches/Sacred to us” as written by poet Ted Hughes to Sylvia Plath. Nor are texts and emails likely to be saved, collated and cherished in the way love letters once were. To be cynical, this means the Marsha Hunts of the future will have no stash to sell off when times get rough, but more sentimentally, it means our experiences of love are likely to die with us. Without love letters, there will be no sepia-tinted memories to get maudlin over in our old age; no record of our glory days to be pored over by our grandchildren. Our existences will be framed by the apparently indelible ­history of our Google searches and Amazon purchases, while our grand passions will disappear without trace. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1

 

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