Love Letters Straight From The Heart

Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours. BIG.

Just months after ceremoniously standing Carrie up at the altar, Sex And The City's Mr Big won the famous fictional journalist back with a few well-chosen words.

But although they weren't his carefully crafted words - rather those of Beethoven, and copied from Carrie's favourite anthology, Love Letters Of Great Men - his efforts still seemed to do the trick.

As the credits rolled on the blockbuster film, hundreds of women ran out to purchase the literary equivalent of relationship counselling, only to discover it was fictional (the anthology that is, not the words of Beethoven, Byron and Napoleon).

International publishing house Macmillan caught wind of the women's despair after internet forums were flooded with dismay, and asked former book editor Ursula Doyle to turn the imaginary book into a reality.

"Simple declarations of love can actually become quite dull," Doyle says with a laugh as she recalls spending a month sifting through pages of gushing sentiment at the British Library.

"The ones that really appealed to me were those that also told a bit of story about the relationship," she explains.

With the dedication of a detective, Doyle typed the words 'love and letters' into the libraries' catalogues and began her search.

"I knew that I wanted to include the letters that were in the film which include one from Napoleon to Josephine and another from Beethoven. Apart from that I had free reign."

While she found a smattering of letters from Roman times, the Tudors and Restoration periods, her epistolary explorations really took off as she reached the end of the 18th century.

"I think that was a real peak in letter writing," she says.

"Although admittedly I'm sure a lot haven't survive from before that."

After wading her way through mountains of paper, her final collection includes letters from such famous men as Mozart, Nelson, Keats and Byron.

Doyle says that very often the letters say far more about the author than the subject.

"In the introduction I say that I felt many letters were written for the benefit of the writer rather than the recipient. And that some of them seemed to have grown out of the convention for making declarations of love, rather than deep passion. With some men, there's an awful lot of self-servingness. A sense of, 'Look at how great I am and you're lucky enough to be receiving my prose'. That's why the title Love Letters Of Great Men, is slightly tongue-in-cheek."

One of history's most infamous lovers, Henry VIII sent these lines to his future second wife Anne Boleyn:

"...in my case the anguish of absence is so great that it would be intolerable were it not for the firm hope I have of your indissoluble affection towards me. In order to remind you of it, I sent you the thing which comes nearest that is possible... my picture."

Doyle admits this letter made her laugh.

"Henry's so interested in Anne, that he sends her a picture of himself. The letters I really like are those that tell the real story."

Perhaps the funniest letters in the book are from Napoleon Bonaparte to his wife, Josephine de Beauharnais. By all accounts a beautiful, extravagant yet hard-hearted woman, she refuses to be at his beck and call, despite his most fervent written pleas.

"While he's commanding armies and revolutionising military strategy, he's also chasing Josephine all over Europe," Doyle explains.

On arrival in Milan in 1876, Napoleon wrote the following angry missive to his wife:

"I rush into your apartment, I have left everything to see you, to press you in my arms... you were not there... your husband is very, very unhappy."

Having studied the best, and the worst, of the world of romantic letters, Doyle has a few tips for future Cyranos.

"You don't have to be a great writer to write a great love letter," she says. "Sincerity will always shine through. You can always tell if it comes from the heart."

Watching Sex And The City, she was surprised that Mr Big (played by actor Chris Noth) chose to use Beethoven's words instead of his own.

"I think it's so tragic that he can't find his own voice. In the end he does send her a short email saying, 'You're the one', but obviously he's completely lacking in confidence about being able to express himself. And I just think there's something very sad about that."

These days the love letter is an unusual occurrence, with emails and texts being the preferred methods of communication. But those who pour their hearts out in carefully constructed email pledges of love must beware of having their words forwarded around the internet.

Even so, Doyle points out that such pain would be in keeping with the tradition of love.

"Throughout the letters there is a lot of wailing and plenty of expressions of anguish, desperation and suffering. This book is not about simple happiness, it's about the rollercoaster ride of being in love - which can often be painful. Doing research for this book has made me realise that nothing really changes. People will always fall in love and go through all these emotions, no matter what century they live in."

EXPRESS YOURSELF
If you're planning a love letter of your own, here are some useful do's and don'ts from the masters.

DO
:: Aim to impress: "You know I would with pleasure give up all here and beyond the grave for you," wrote Lord Byron to married Lady Caroline Lamb in 1813.

:: Flatter your subject: "Unlovely objects are all around me, excepting thee; the charms of all the world appear to be translated by thee," wrote William Congreve to Mrs Arabella Hunt in the 17th century.

:: Charm the lady: "Tell me that you are well, tell me that your little son is well, then tell me that your very dog (if you have one) is well. Defraud me of no one thing that pleases you, for whatever that is, it will please me better than anything else can do," wrote Alexander Pope to Lady Wortley Montagu, June 1717.

:: Be amusing: "Do catch them in the air - those 2999 1/2 little kisses from me which are flying about, waiting for someone to snap them up," wrote Mozart to his girlfriend Constanze on June 6, 1871.

:: Wear your heart on your sleeve: "Oh Phoebe, I want thee much. Thou art the only person in the world that ever was necessary to me. Other people have occasionally been more or less agreeable; but I think I was always more at ease alone than in anybody's company, til I knew thee," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne to his wife Sophia in the 19th century.

DON'T

  • Be bitter: "But the time will come when you will sigh for any heart that could be fond; then you will recall to your memory the passionate heart you have forfeited and the genius you have betrayed," wrote Benjamin Disraeli to Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, February 7, 1839.
  • Fawn over the recipient: "[I'd be] Only too happy if she deign sometimes to cast a pitying look upon her slave," wrote Victor Hugo to Adele Foucher, January 1820.
  • Depress your reader: "For myself I have been a Martyr the whole time...I appeal to you by the blood of that Christ you believe in; Do not write to me if you have done anything this month which it would have pained me to have seen," wrote Keats to Fanny Brawne, 1820.
  • Bore them to tears: "Never was a passion more justified by reason than mine. Is it not true, my dear Sophie, that you are very amiable?" wrote Denis Diderot to Sophie Volland, July 1759.
  • Get drunk and start writing: "My good qualities have been so frozen and locked up in a dull constitution at all my former hours, that it is very astonishing to me, now I am drunk to find so much virtue in me," wrote poet and satirist Alexander Pope to Martha Blount in 1714.

Love Letters Of Great Men is published by Macmillan, from $22.99.
 

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