History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 October 2008

"Many Loving Kisses" : Love Letters between Spouses

I've always been intrigued by the private self that is revealed by famous people in their letters, particularly those that pass between lovers, and even more tellingly, between spouses. It's become a revelation to me as I research my work-in-progress on notorious royal marriages; the most obnoxious, autocratic, boorish people can become tender and gooey as S'mores when their ink is flowing as rapidly (or lustfully) as their blood.

In 1795, a rising Corsican military man, Napoleon Bonaparte, had become commander of the Army of the Interior and then, through the assistance of his friend Paul Barras, secured a post within an influential department of the Committee for Public Safety in Paris. Napoleon decided that in his quest for status, wealth and power, it was time to find a rich wife. “It is not necessary that our wives should be good looking,” he asserted. Of course, “with a mistress it is different” as an ugly paramour would have failed in her only duty.

He’d had his eye on Barras’s lover and salon hostess, Rose de Beauharnais. Rose’s rapt attention to Napoleon's war stories at dinner one evening cemented Napoleon Bonaparte’s desire for her. He yearned for recognition and her praise had stroked his ego into a lustful frenzy. They became lovers—if not that night, then not too much later. For Rose, the affair was a pleasant diversion, but Napoleon was smitten.

After their first night between the sheets Rose gave him a sketch of herself as a memento. Only hours after leaving her bed, he scribbled a note headed “seven in the morning” and filled with rhapsody.

I awaken full of you. Between your portrait and the memory of our intoxicating night, my senses have no respite. Sweet and incomparable Josephine [by now he had renamed her], what is this strange effect you have upon my heart? What if you were to be angry? What if I were to see you sad or troubled? Then my soul would be shattered by distress. Then your lover would find no peace, no rest. But I find none, either, when I succumb to the profound emotion that overwhelms me, when I draw from your lips, from your heart, a flame that consumes me. Ah, it was last night that I realized that your portrait is not you and that . . .

You will be leaving the city at noon. But I shall see you in three hours. Until then, mio dolce amor, I send you a thousand kisses—but send me none in return, for they set my blood on fire.

But the poet had a pragmatist’s soul. Before pursuing a serious involvement with Josephine, Napoleon visited her notary to inquire about her wealth.

Although Napoleon could not seem to remain sexually faithful to Josephine, she was his acknowledged soulmate. Josephine had enjoyed a passionate affair of her own early on in their marriage, so Napoleon spent the rest of it exacting his revenge by sleeping with just about everything in a petticoat. Nonetheless, when he was off campaigning, he wrote passionate, graphically bawdy letters that never sugarcoated his desire. In fact, one of the words he used to describe a certain part of his wife's anatomy is unprintable in this milieu.

He longed to kiss her heart, then her lower anatomy, then much lower (he emphatically double-underscored the word), referring to her as his “sweet love . . . the pleasure and torment” of his life. “Never had a woman been loved with more devotion, fire, and tenderness.” If she ever left him he’d have lost everything that made life worthwhile. He dreaded losing her and her “adorable person.”

On April 3, 1796, Napoleon wrote: You are the one thought of my life. When I am worried by the pressure of affairs, when I am anxious as to the outcome, when men disgust me, when I am ready to curse life, then I put my hand on my heart, for it beats against your portrait. . . .” Is that why he’s always painted with his right hand shoved under his left lapel?

By what magic have you captivated all my faculties, concentrated in yourself all my conscious existence? It constitutes a kind of death, my sweet, since there is no survival for me except in you.

To live through Josephine—that is the story of my life.
That last sentence can leave one breathless.

In the wake of his decisive victories against the Austrians that winter, his correspondence expressed his eagerness to show her the proof of his “ardent love”; to be in bed with her and once again see her face, and her hair bound into a headscarf à la Creole, and her “little black forest.”

I kiss it a thousand times and wait impatiently for the time when I will be in it. To live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian Fields.

Alexandra of Hesse, known to her family (including her grandmother "Gangan" Queen Victoria) as "Alicky," had fallen in love with Nicholas Romanov, the Russian tsarevich, as early as 1884 when as a little girl she developed a puppy-love crush on the handsome "Nicky." Yet even though she turned down other offers and her family was afraid she'd end up a spinster, Alicky was reluctant to marry Nicky because she would have to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy. However, her older sister Ella (Elizabeth) had married Nicky's uncle Serge and convinced Alicky that her religious qualms should not be an obstacle to her heart's desire. Once she got past that hurdle and gave her heart fully to Nicky (one of the few true love stories among royal marriages--each of them held out for the other), she had no problem pouring out her emotions on paper. During their brief engagement, Alicky discovered that Nicky kept a diary; so she would add her own little notes, in English, beneath his entries.

Nicholas and Alexandra: official engagement photograph, 1894.

Many loving kisses, she would invariably begin. Below is a sample of one of Alicy's early entries:

I dreamed that I was loved, I woke and found it true and thanked God on my knees for it. True Love is the gift which God has given, daily, stronger, deeper, fuller, purer.

And on their wedding night, Alicky wrote in Nicky's diary: At last, united, bound for life, and when this life is ended, we meet again in the other world and remain together for eternity. Yours, yours.

It proved eerily prophetic.

The following morning she wrote in his diary: Never did I believe there could be such utter happiness in this world, such a feeling of unity between two mortal beings. I love you, those three words have my life in them.

Her last sentence also takes my breath away.

I know that Tracy has used love letters in her novels to tremendously compelling effect. Tracy, how did the love letters shape your characters and what was it like to incorporate letters from actual historical personages; how did they feed and/or effect your story? To everyone else, have you used love letters within your stories, or read love letters between real-life lovers and/or spouses to inform your research for your own books? What do you think love letters say about character that can't be shown in other ways?


Blogger Joanna Waugh said...

I love your comment about the reason, perhaps, behind Napoleon's curious habit of posing with his right hand thrust into his jacket. This is the reason I love historical research so much! From now on, whenever I see a portrait of him in that pose, I shall picture his fingers wrapped around Josephine's miniature.

6:25 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Wonderful post! And so timely. Just this past week I had my hero write a letter of apology that was really a love letter and with your inspiration I may continue his letter writing -- a wonderful way to share feelings that are difficult to say -- actually speaking the words being a real challenge for this guy.

I have read my father's love letters to my mother while they were engaged and he was away. They are charming and sweetly circumspect but he gives it all away with his closing which was always Love with the side wise 8 symbol for eternity. Sadly there are no copies of my mothers letters to him.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I have actually had a couple of epistolary relationships (actually better characterized as long-distance ones where we kept in touch by letter/email as opposed to phone). I was with someone for 4 1/2 years who lived on the opposite coast and I saved all our emails (many of which were filled with erotic longing), even buying neat boxes in which to store the printouts as the pages eventually numbered in the thousands. But when our relationship ended (in a letter -- mine to him), I tossed everything because it made me sick to my stomach to re-read them. Instead of the passionate relationship I thought I had, reviewing the letters with a gimlet eye and taking into account all the events of our relationship over those years made me see how shallow it really was, and how it was founded and maintained on the single (rather shaky) pillar of carnality. Nothing wrong with that at all -- as long as it's not the only basis for commonality.

My husband was across the world when we "met" and I saved all our emails as well; they present the picture of us falling in love; my initial hesitation to fall so quickly for a man I'd never met in person (how "Regency"!), and my slow melting as I began to trust more and more (especially after the previous relationship I referred to here) that what he and I had was real and lasting.

7:41 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Like Mary, I read my father's wartime letters to my mother when I was an adolescent -- and they were charming as well, but anything but circumspect. My mother, bless her, realized I'd found the stash and was more amused than anything else.

I read some of Napoleon's letters to Josephine years later, and they joined my dad's as inspiration for the letters Joseph writes from the Bastille to a pregnant Marie-Laure, who's also in confinement -- in bed with toxemia. But Marie-Laure's first timid and then increasingly graphic letters back simply sprang from my own erotic writer's soul.

My favorite part of THE BOOKSELLER'S DAUGHTER, and some readers' as well.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Letters as character development -- perfect, Pam!

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth K. Mahon said...

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Nicky and Alex, ever since I read Nicholas and Alexandra in high school. Despite both their character flaws, I always thought it was so wonderful that it was a real love match and that they stayed in love throughout their marriage (one of the few royal marriages like that).

Darcy's letter to Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice, while not necessarily a love letter per se, always touched me.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

It was indeed a love match, Elizabeth, and for the purposes of my wip, I'm more concerned with (and touched by) the fact that they were devoted spouses and wonderful parents than they fact that they were very misguided rulers. Personally I have an issue with all the pogroms that took place during Nicky's reign -- however, anti-Semitism is ingrained in the tenets of Russian Orthodoxy and it was pretty much ever thus in Russia among all strata of society, from the imperial family to the aristocracy to the peasants/serfs.

With Nicky (and Alicky) as with Napoleon, I'm trying to dig beneath the autocrat for the "human interest" layer of their personal lives (and wives).

9:54 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

One of my favorite letter collections is Magdalena and Balthasar: An Intimate Portrait of Life in 16th Century Europe Revealed in the Letters of a Nuremberg Husband and Wife. The collection is edited by Steven Ozment, one of history professor crushes. I just love this guy. Him and Simon Schama . . .

12:47 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

One of my . . . MY. Why can't I type?

12:48 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, I'm not familiar with those letters, but they sound like an amazing picture of the times. I guess they've been translated from the original German?

I love the love letters sent between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a much-cherished two-volume first edition of them which their son Pen (how great a name is that for the child of two writers?) had published after his father's death. He had actually considered destroying the letters (!!!) but -- thank God -- chose to publish them instead.

Another beautiful courtship story which unfolds through their letters is that of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his wife Olivia. Her father didn't want her to marry him because he was such a rascal and had been involved with so many schemes out West.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

Amanda, this is eerie for me...I just finished "Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise" by Carolly Erickson, and had just been scrounging Wikipedia (I know, I know) reading what they had to say about the Romanovs, who are an historical obsession of mine...I'm starting "The Tsarina's Daughter" also by Erickson, soon.

Great post, to say the least!

6:01 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Jessica, I'm reading Erickson's "Alexandra: The Last Tsarina" right now (in fact I have about 40pp left and promised myself I'd finish it tonight!)

6:04 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the nice mention, Amanda, and for the wonderful letters! I particularly love Napoleon's letters to Josephine. There's one he wrote her around the time of the divorce saying something like (very rough paraphrase) "I'll always love you but in politics the head rules the heart."

I love using letters in my books. Writing a letter from a character's pov is a great way to explore that character. If I can capture their epistolary voice, I feel I really know them (and I love playing with the way a character's epistolary voice changes depending upon whom they're writing to). Similarly, I find letters from real people are a wonderful window into their character. In the A+ extras for the recent edition of "Beneath a Silent Moon," I had fictional letters from Emily Cowper and Harriet Granville, both real people, mixed in with letters from my fictional characters. I've read a lot of Emily Cowper's and Harriet Granville's real letters, so it was fun to try to capture their voices.

When I decided to write new epilogues for "Secrets of a Lady" and "Beneath a Silent Moon," I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to do them in letters. And it didn't take much more thinking for me to decide they'd both be love letters from Charles to Mélanie. With "Beneath" I debated having the letter from Mel, but it made more sense to have it from Charles somehow. I think because he's not someone who expresses his feelings easily, so having him put pen to paper and express his feelings for his wife seemed particularly powerful.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I read (and used) some of Emma Hamilton's letters in "Too Great a Lady" because nothing could chart her development (and her passionate, sometimes near-desperate effusiveness) like her own words. I include fragments of her early letters to Greville when she was barely literate (and even though he dumped her most dishonorably, he saved ALL her letters!) to the letters she wrote to him as she was becoming an educated and cultured young woman in Naples, to the letters she wrote to Sir William Hamilton -- first as a new lover and later as a protective wife -- to the letters she exchanged with Nelson. Emma and Nelson also wrote poems for/to each other, and I used some of that text as well, because who'd-a-thunk that Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson were fairly credible poets?? But it was an age where everyone read poetry and was not discouraged from turning their amateur pens to the medium as a form of expression.

5:42 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Amanda, I have an extra copy if you're interested . . .

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Kathrynn Dennis said...

I've always enjoyed reading real-life love letters from the past. No better way to put you in the place and time and see how somethings, soul-mate love, never change.

Did you see in the Sex and the City movie where Carrie was reading a book in bed with Big called "Famous Love Letters Through History" (or something like that)...and publishers and Amazon reported searches for that book going through the roof...unfortunately, it was fictional and at the time no such book exsisted. I am sure publishers were quick to jump on that and have since published "collections"...

8:53 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen .... oh, yes, thank you! Tell me what I need to do? Want me to send you the postage?

Kathrynn, the S&TC disc just arrived yesterday from Netflix; I didn't see it when it was first released in the cinema. Now I have a stronger reason to look forward to watching it!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I loved that scene in the SATC movie, Kathrynn! And the way they used Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" letter.

11:35 AM  

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