The act of writing itself is like an act of love. There is contact. There is exchange too. We no longer know whether the words come out of the ink onto the page, or whether they emerge from the page itself where they were sleeping, the ink merely giving them colour. —Georges Rodenbach, The Bells of Bruges (1855 – 1898)
Perhaps one of the most lamentable cultural losses over the past century is that of the art of letter writing. “Letters mingle souls,” as the saying goes. And indeed, there is no substitute for the intimacy of a hand-written letter—penned in the unique slant of a loved one’s hand, signed, sealed, and dispatched in the hope that it will indeed reach its intended. A letter correspondence is an enduring treasury of thoughts to be re-visited time and time again—a relic of a rarefied moment in time, a portrait of a soul, the story of a life meted out in chapters. And in the case of the following five love stories, letters became legacy, immortalized for the ages when passion met with pen & paper.
Beethoven & His “Immortal Beloved”
Beethoven never married, but in his early forties, he fell madly in love with a mysterious woman whom he addressed only as “Immortal Beloved” in a brief series of impassioned letters penned over two days but never mailed. These letters—found amongst his personal effects following his death in 1827—read like diary entries, a string of unfettered exclamations and frenzied, fragmented thoughts spurred on by what appears to have been a whirlwind romance. From the soaring heights of infatuation to the despairing depths of doomed love, the unbridled emotions elicited by this fleeting affair undoubtedly infused his later compositions with the passion and intensity for which he is famed. But first, he entrusted his innermost stirrings to pen & paper:
Morning of July 6th, 1812:
My angel, my all, my own self — only a few words today, and that too with pencil (with yours)…
Can our love persist otherwise than through sacrifices, than by not demanding everything? Canst thou change it, that thou are not entirely mine, I not entirely thine? Oh, God, look into beautiful Nature and compose your mind to the inevitable. Love demands everything and is quite right, so it is for me with you, for you with me — only you forget so easily, that I must live for you and for me — were we quite united, you would notice this painful feeling as little as I should . . .
. . . We shall probably soon meet, even today I cannot communicate my remarks to you, which during these days I made about my life — were our hearts close together, I should probably not make any such remarks. My bosom is full, to tell you much — there are moments when I find that speech is nothing at all. Brighten up — remain my true and only treasure, my all, as I to you. The rest the gods must send, what must be for us and shall.
I weep when I think you will probably only receive on Saturday the first news from me — as you too love — yet I love you stronger — but never hide yourself from me. Good night…I must go to bed. Oh God — so near! so far! Is it not a real building of heaven, our Love — but as firm, too, as the citadel of heaven.
Even in bed my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly, awaiting from Fate, whether it will listen to us. I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. Yes, I have determined to wander about for so long far away, until I can fly into your arms and call myself quite at home with you, can send my soul enveloped by yours into the realm of spirits — yes, I regret, it must be. You will get over it all the more as you know my faithfulness to you; never another one can own my heart, never — never! O God, why must one go away from what one loves so, and yet my life in W. as it is now is a miserable life. Your love made me the happiest and unhappiest at the same time. At my actual age I should need some continuity, sameness of life — can that exist under our circumstances? Angel, I just hear that the post goes out every day — and must close therefore, so that you get the L. at once. Be calm — love me — today — yesterday.
What longing in tears for you — You — my Life — my All — farewell. Oh, go on loving me — never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
John Keats & Fanny Brawne
Fanny Brawne was quite literally the girl-next-door. A budding but obscure 23-year-old poet, John Keats moved into the house neighbouring the Brawne Family’s home. He promptly fell in love with their daughter Fanny who, while not a conventional beauty, was possessed of a lively mind, bright blue eyes, and a bewitching smile. She was soon to become his lover, muse, and fiancée. But as fate would have it, Keats’ poverty, coupled with his failing health, prevented them from marrying. Even still, Keats wrote Fanny dozens of letters over the brief remainder of his life, ultimately dying from tuberculosis at the tender age of 26. The following letter, penned, in his prime, is considered one of the most beautiful love letters of all time:
My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else — The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you against the unpromising morning of my Life — My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again — my Life seems to stop there — I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving—I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love — Your note came in just here — I cannot be happier away from you — ’T is richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion — I have shudder’d 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. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet — You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more — the pain would be too great — My Love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.
Yours for ever,
Napoleon Bonaparte & Joséphine de Beauharnais
While famed for his ruthless military conquests, Napoleon no doubt had a softer side. And Joséphine de Beauharnais—a somewhat notorious socialite amongst the salons of Paris—succeeded in finding it. She was charming and elegant, intelligent and refined, coquettish and alluring, and she captured the heart of the young emperor, at least for a time. Amid their flowering romance, he wrote to her:
The charms of the incomparable Joséphine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart…I thought that I loved you months ago, but since my separation from you I feel that I love you a thousand fold more. Each day since I knew you, have I adored you more and more.
Another letter—penned a few months after their marriage when Napoleon was stationed as commander of the French troops in Italy—reads:
Since I left you, I have been constantly depressed. My happiness is to be near you. Incessantly I live over in my memory your caresses, your tears, your affectionate solicitude. The charms of the incomparable Joséphine kindle continually a burning and a glowing flame in my heart. When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you, having only to love you, and to think only of the happiness of so saying, and of proving it to you?
Yet, in the end, Napoleon proved ruthless even with Joséphine. He divorced her ostensibly due to her inability to conceive a child. According to records of the annulment proceedings, Napoleon declared his conviction that the separation was in France’s best interests and expressed nothing but gratitude for the devotion and tenderness of his beloved wife. Joséphine was devastated by the loss. As such, it is said she has died of a broken heart at the age of 50.
John Adams & Abigail Smith
John and Abigail met in 1762 in Weymouth, Massachusetts when John, an up-and-coming local lawyer, accompanied his friend Richard Cranch (who was courting Abigail’s sister, Mary) to the Smith residence for a visit. John came away from the encounter with less than flattering impressions of the Smith family. In a diary entry penned after the trip, he described Abigail’s father as “a crafty, designing man” and the three daughters as “not fond, not frank, not candid.” But given his involvement in the local community and his friendship with Cranch (who eventually married Abigail’s sister), John continued to cross paths with the Smith family and, over time, came to appreciate the keen mind of the bookish Abigail.
They were wed in 1764, and over the next fifty years, they had five children together and exchanged over a thousand letters during prolonged periods apart due to John’s demanding work abroad. These letters serve as a stunningly intimate portrait of the love two people shared for over fifty years—a mature and varied relationship that weathered the seasons of life amidst all of its joys and challenges. From passionate and tender to frustrated and questing, their surviving correspondence paints a portrait of two people who were each other’s closest friends, faithful lovers, and trusted advisers and confidantes. In a letter penned in April 1776 while John was in Philadelphia fighting for American Independence as a member of the Continental Congress, he writes:
Is there no Way for two friendly Souls, to converse together, altho the Bodies are 400 Miles off?— Yes by Letter.— But I want a better Communication. I want to hear you think, or see your Thoughts. The Conclusion of your Letter makes my Heart throb, more than a Cannonade would. You bid me burn your Letters. But I must forget you first.
Twenty years into their marriage, while John was away on business in the Netherlands, Abigail writes:
My Dearest Friend,…should I draw you the picture of my Heart, it would be what I hope you still would Love; tho it contained nothing new; the early possession you obtained there; and the absolute power you have ever maintained over it; leaves not the smallest space unoccupied. I look back to the early days of our acquaintance; and Friendship, as to the days of Love and Innocence; and with an indescribable pleasure I have seen near a score of years roll over our Heads, with an affection heightened and improved by time — nor have the dreary years of absence in the smallest degree effaced from my mind the Image of the dear untitled man to whom I gave my heart.
Albert & Victoria
Albert and Victoria were first cousins. They met in 1836 when Albert journeyed from his native Germany to England for the occasion of the young queen’s 17th birthday. Although she was in no rush to marry, Victoria was instantly taken with Albert, confiding in her diary that she found him “extremely handsome” and was charmed by “his expression, which is most delightful, full of goodness and sweetness and very clever and intelligent.” Albert was evidently struck by Victoria as well, writing to her regularly for the following two years. When they met again in the autumn of 1839, the mutual attraction that had been simmering finally blossomed. Victoria’s diary entry from the evening of his arrival reveals:
It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert, who is beautiful. He really is quite charming, and so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios and slight, but very slight whiskers; a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist. My heart is quite going!
Just four days later, Victoria proposed to Albert (as royal custom dictated), and he accepted. In a note to Victoria penned on the day of the proposal, Albert says:
I am so touched by the evidence of trust that you give me in sending your letters, and by the so affectionate sentiments that you express towards me therein, that I scarcely know how to reply to you. How have I earned so much love and so much warm-hearted kindness? I am still unable to accustom myself to the truth of all that I see and hear and can only believe that Heaven has sent down an angel to me, whose radiance is intended to brighten my life.
Victoria’s diary entry from the same day display equally passionate sentiments:
I said to him that it would make me too happy if he would consent to what I wanted (that he should marry me). We embraced each other over and over again, and he was so kind and so affectionate. Oh, to feel I was, and am, loved by such an angel as Albert was too great a delight to describe. I told him I was quite unworthy of him and kissed his dear hand. Oh! How I adore and love him, I cannot say.
Albert returned to Germany to await their wedding, but distance only fueled the intensity of their affections for one another. In a letter during this time, Albert writes:
Dearest deeply loved Victoria, I need not tell you that since we left, all my thoughts have been with you at Windsor, and that your image fills my whole soul…Even in my dreams I never imagined that I should find so much love on earth. How that moment shines for me still when I was close to you, with your hand in mine. Those days flew by so quickly, but our separation will fly equally so.
And reciprocally, Victoria confides in her journal how much she pines for her distant fiancé:
Oh, how I love him, how intensely, how devotedly, how ardently. I cried and felt so sad. Walked. Cried.
But they were soon wed, and of her wedding night, Victoria reveals:
It was a gratifying and bewildering experience . . . I never, never spent such an evening. His excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness. He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again. His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness — really how can I ever be thankful enough to have such a husband! To lie by his side, and in his arms, and on his dear bosom, and be called by names of tenderness, I have never yet heard used to me before — this was the happiest day of my life. It was bliss beyond belief! When day dawned (for we did not sleep much) and I beheld that beautiful face by my side, it was more than I can express! Oh, was ever woman so blessed as I am.
Victoria was a notoriously tempestuous woman, and their marriage was fraught with high demands and difficulties. But through it all, they remained steadfastly in love. In February 1861, shortly before Albert’s untimely death due to illness, he wrote to a friend:
How many a storm has swept over [our marriage]. Still it continues green and fresh and throws out vigorous roots, from which I can, with gratitude to God, acknowledge that much good will yet be engendered for the world.
As Albert’s health failed due to suspected typhoid, Victoria confided, in her journal, her utter dependence on him:
God bless and ever preserve my precious Albert, my adored Husband! So much is so different this year, nothing festive, we are on a journey and separated from many of our children, and my spirit’s bad. May God mercifully grant that we may long, very long be spared to live together and that I may never survive him.
Following Albert’s death, Victoria fell into a deep depression, secluding herself in the palace and only rarely making public appearances. She wore the black garb of mourning for the remaining forty years of her life.
Druga, Melina. “Lost Art of Letter Writing.” 8 Oct. 2015. MelindaDruga.
Popova, Maria. “Immortal Beloved: Beethoven’s Passionate Love Letters.” BrainPickings <https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/10/12/immortal-beloved-beethoven-love-letters/>.
“Immortal Beloved.” Letters of Note. 10 June 2011.<http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/06/immortal-beloved.html>
Popova, Maria. “John Keats’s Exquisite Love Letter to Fanny Brawne.” BrainPickings <https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/19/john-keats-love-letter-fanny-brawne/>.
“The Ageless Love Story of John & Abigail Adams.” New England Historical Society. <http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/ageless-love-story-john-abigail-adams/>.
Morfin, Marcelina. “The Most Beautiful Love Letters of All Time.” 17 Aug. 2017. Culture Trip. <https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/articles/10-most-beautiful-love-letters-of-all-time/>.
Coffey, Sally. “Queen Victoria & Prince Albert: A Royal Love Story.” The Official Magazine Britain. <https://www.britain-magazine.com/features/royals/queen-victoria-and-prince-albert-a-royal-love-story/>.
Carey, Tanith. “How Queen Victoria’s Real Life Passion…” DailyMail.com https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3816769/How-Queen-Victoria-s-real-life-passion-racier-TV-breathlessly-sensual-letters-reveal.html
Photo of Albert & Victoria: <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-03/prince-albert-and-queen-victoria/6748300>.
“Napoleon divorces Josephine.” History Today. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/napoleon-divorces-josephine