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We have, however, to make an arbitrary selection; we have only those letters that have survived time and chance and those that have been published because the writers were famous people.
It does not follow that they were the best writers of love letters; some man or woman quite forgotten may have written a more perfect letter than any that we possess.
The letters of Charles I and Henrietta Maria show the affection and fidelity of a couple at first unhappy, afterwards steadfast in misfortune; those of another sovereign, Mary II, were written under unique circumstances and by a woman whose whole life revolved round her husband's love.
The vast bulk of available love letters that may justly be termed "famous" would take a lifetime to translate and edit; what is offered here is a selection—into which it is impossible to prevent personal taste from entering—of those that have most personal interest and most dramatic significance.
Variety has also been sought for; in point of period this is not easy to find, the letters chosen fall mostly within the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Love's appetite Did beauty first excite And left imprinted on the air These signatures of good and fair Which since have flowed, flowed forth upon the sense To wonder first, and then to excellence By virtue of divine intelligence. It would be an idle but pleasant amusement to wonder how many love letters have been written since reading and writing were invented, how many sheets of parchment, bark, papyrus, paper have been covered, and with how many millions of amorous words!
What survives must be a very small proportion of this vast output; probably the strangest and most beautiful love letters were those never seen save by the person to whom they were written and are long since dust; it is likely enough that hundreds of thousands of love letters lie at this moment folded away carefully in private possession—letters that would vie, for interest and charm, with any that have survived time and chance and any that have been published.
Lord Derwentwater's letter is a heroic farewell to earthly affection, and those of Saint-vremond and Ninon de Lenclos show love witty and brilliant in old age.
The letters of Robert Burns reveal another aspect of love, the coquettish, artful woman, the flattered, reluctant man; those of Lord Byron are loaded with a theatricality that is none the less a sincere expression of the character of the writer.
The last refinement of ideal married love is seen in the correspondence of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the extreme of cynic sophistication in the letters of Madame du Deffand, the crude arts of an adventuress in Emma Hart's coy missives and the agony of an overwhelming physical passion in the letters of Lord Nelson and in those of Mary Wollstonecraft, an intellectual who had lost her bearings.
The correspondence of Dean Swift with Vanessa reveals the tortured workings of one of the most remarkable minds in English literature, the letters to Lady Steele throw a charming light on a happy marriage, those of Madame de Bonneval illustrate the fastidious dawn of French romanticism, and those of George Sand and Alfred de Musset its fiery noonday.
There are some letters that could not be omitted from any collection of this kind; apart from these and the question of obtaining variety, choice has been made of letters written not only by remarkable people, but in remarkable circumstances.
Our contributors are not all young, handsome or romantic, some are middle-aged, ill and plain-featured, others are old, diseased and wretched, some write while waiting for a happy marriage, others while expecting death on the public scaffold; Dorothy Osborne writes to her future husband, Philip von Koenigsmarck to another man's wife, Julie de Lespinasse, faded, dying, writes to a faithless lover who has married a young wife, Nelson to the woman for whose sake he has sacrificed all, even glory, Emma Hart to a young gallant and an old husband.
The letters have been arranged in chronological order; the sources from which they have been obtained, a brief biography of the writer and an account of the circumstances under which they were written have been prefixed to each section, save in those cases where the letters have been often reprinted and are easily accessible.