Last month, correspondence from the UK’s greatest living playwright Peter Brook were among a haul of over 3,000 letters and personal papers from that have been aquired by the V&A for an enormous sum – £690,000, says the BBC – from the Heritage Lottery Fund and and an undisclosed amount from a donor. It’s a huge amount of money for anyone to pay for what are really little more than bits of paper sent between two people, but Philip Cowell, the curator of the Love Letter Writing Workshop at the Southbank Centre – isn't surprised that we put so much value on letters these days, in an age when we consider ourselves ignored if we don’t receive a response to a text or email in under an hour and the vast majority of mail we receive are bills. Modern life has all, but killed off the art of letter writing and nowhere is that more apparent than in our love lives.
‘We used to agonise over hand written love letters, trust our human messengers to deliver them safely, and then wait for days for our loves to reply. Now we can send the same message in a text and get a reply within seconds,’ Philip tells The Debrief. ‘But has anything actually changed, really? Don’t we still fret and sweat over our phones and those 140 characters, emojis and iMessages, like we used to fret over quills and parchment? I reckon we still love each other as well as we've ever done so. Perhaps even more so – especially with apps like Tinder occupying our minds. The horses look different, but the heart's the same.’
But all of that is good in theory, but what actually happens in reality when you try to reintroduce the lessons learnt from old-school courting communication into the 21st century millenial’s mobile? If things haven’t really changed all that much, then presumably some of the most romantic words of all time will still work their magic? We decided to investigate by sending quotes from some of the most famous love letters in history to prospective Tinder dates to discover if old-school romance really is anathema for the men we meet on hook-up apps. Spoiler: some guys really will put up with all kinds of odd behaviour in order to get their end away. And before you ask, of course I've changed their names.
Test One - George H. Bush to Barbara Bush, 1943
George H. Bush wrote this touching letter to a Barbara Pierce of Rye, New York while he was away during World War II. It’s the only one of many love letters George wrote to his future wife to have survived because she kept it in her engagement scrapbook – the others were lost in one of their many later moves. That’s the problem with love letters – there’s no backing-up system.
‘This should be a very easy letter to write — words should come easily and in short it should be simple for me to tell you how desperately happy I was to open the paper and see the announcement of our engagement, but somehow I can’t possibly say all in a letter I should like to. I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you...’
James: Hi Sophie :-)
Sophie: How lucky our children will be to have a father like you
J: Haha indeed
S: How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day*
S: Milton, Massachusetts
J: That’s quite far away lol I’m in London
S: I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life
You sure you’re not a bot
J: When you coming to meet me then?
S: I can’t possibly say all I should like to
J: What team do you support?
S: Arsenal. You?
Lessons: It looks like Tinder is responsive to romance Bush-style (lol), but is definitely not OK with you supporting the wrong football team.
Test Two Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1940s
This is only one of numerous love letters Frida Kahlo addressed to Diego Rivera in the diary she kept during the 1940s. It speaks of the deep and abiding bond the couple had despite several infidelities (on both sides) and a brief divorce. If a couple’s passion for each other is strong enough to weather that, surely some of that fire can translate to a date on Tinder?
‘Nothing compares to your hands, nothing like the green-gold of your eyes. My body is filled with you for days and days. You are the mirror of the night. The violent flash of lightning. The dampness of the earth. The hollow of your armpits is my shelter. My fingers touch your blood. All my joy is to feel life spring from your flower-fountain that mine keeps to fill all the paths of my nerves which are yours.’
Neil: Hey you (smiley face)
S: You are the mirror of the night. The violent flash of lightning. The dampnes of the earth.
S: The hollow of your armpit is my shelter
Wtf are you on?
S: My fingers touch your blood
Lessons: No matter how intense and painterly you’d like your romance to become, probably best not to mention either blood or armpits within the first ten minutes of meeting someone on Tinder. Useful.
Test Three - Oscar Wilde To Lord Alfred Douglas, 1897
Love letters between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas were eventually read out in the court case that saw Wilde serve two years for indecency and sodomy. This letter to his lover of six years was written just after Wilde was released from prison and had fled to France. Douglas, who was known as ‘Bosie’ to his friends, had a tempestuous relationship and would often argue and break up, but would always reconcile. Sound familiar to anyone?
‘Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world. I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other.’
Mike: How are you?
S: Do remake my ruined life for me
M: Would love to
S: There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us
M: How long have you been single?
S: I feel like it is only with you that I can do anything at all
M: What would you like to do?
S: Meet at Rouen?
M: Where’s Rouen?
S: In North-Western France on the River Seine
Lessons: We’ll get back to you on that one once we’re back from Rouen
Test Four - Napoleon to Josephine, 1796
Only a few days after Napoleon and Josephine were married, he left to command the French army near Italy. Over the course of the next few months, he begged her over and over again to join him in Milan for their honeymoon. Sounds all right to us.
‘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 Josephine 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?’
How are you?
S: My happiness is to be near you
S: When, free from all solicitude, all harassing care, shall I be able to pass all my time with you?
[sends wanking emoji]
Lessons: Nothing kills romance – no matter how French – quite like someone giving themselves a little tug in emoji form. Clever it may be, the genesis of a love that lasts the ages, it is not.
Test four - Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf, 1926
After Virginia Woolf met fellow writer Vita Sackville-West in the early 1920s, the two women began a romantic affair that lasted for a number of years. Eventually, they’d write each other love letters disguised as manuscripts – Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ was written about Sackville-West – but for now, straight up love letters were the order of the day.
‘I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your un-dumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it…
‘It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any the more by giving myself away like this —But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.’
S: But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you
M: Well you certainly know how to put a sentence together
Is this the normal opener?
S: You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.
M: Well Tinder does attract some strange people but you seem to be top of the totem pole
It’s an honour to meet you
[Two minutes pass]
Why are you giving me the hard shoulder now?
I was only joking
S: Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this
M: This is quite intense already
I don’t think you’ve given yourself away as of yet
S: I miss you, in quite a simple desperate human way
M: The wall outside my house is too high
S: You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it
M: If I could I would have you write to me all day, this is truly beautiful
I only feel your giving me this attention for casual sex no strings sex, it’s something I’m not willing to do. Why don’t we have dinner next week?
Lessons: Jackpot. We’ll let you know how dinner goes.
So what can we learn from this little experiment? Well, firstly (and encouragingly), it looks like the assumption that millenials have totally turned our backs on true, unadulterated, old-school romance in favour of sexts, hook-ups and casual flings might not be that accurate or fair. You probably want to steer clear of any mention of blood and armpits, and it's possible that some guys on Tinder will put up with all sorts of weird behaviour to get laid, but old-school romance certainly wasn't the definitive bone killer we thought it would be. One person who wasn't in the least bit surprised was Philip Cowell: ‘I reckon the old-fashioned love letter can still shake things up a bit. Give it a go,’ he tells The Debrief. ‘Replace one text with a letter this week, you'll feel great (and surprise your loved one at the same time). Don't forget a P.S. Everyone loves a P.S.’
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.