Love Letters of Great Men
Pan Macmillan, 2009
Among the many perils of the modern age, the demise of the letter and the rise of the text message are the source of much intellectual caterwauling. The text message, we are warned, both feeds on and fuels youthful illiteracy. It is a perfunctory, abbreviated staple of modern communication which has, along with email and the telephone, contributed to the death of the letter. Ursula Doyle acknowledges this in the introduction to her collection of The Love Letters of Great Men: “To claim that a text message saying IN PUB FTBL XTR TIME BACK LATR XX [sic] is more genuine, and therefore romantic, than a declaration such as Byron’s that ‘I more than love you and cannot cease to love you’ is obviously nonsense.”
Although Doyle revives the letter, her literary offering exemplifies another acid of modernity: publishers leaping on bandwagons without any sign of intellectual consideration. The success of the “Sex and the City” television series spawned the summer blockbuster of 2008, “Sex and the City: The Movie”, in which the heroine Carrie Bradshaw reads Mr Big, her on-off lover since season one, a huge musty tome from the New York Public Library containing the love letters of great men. After Mr Big stands Carrie up at the altar, he wins her back by bombarding her with daily emails, each containing a love letter of a famous man far greater than he. In the end, modern technology is victorious; Carrie and Big reunite and marry, demonstrating that the words themselves are more significant than their epistolary format.
In the wake of the film’s popularity, publishing houses sought to cash in. The blurb of Love Letters claims that fans “flocked to bookstores to get a copy of the book showcased in the movie … only to find out that it didn’t exist”. If this seems unlikely (my entirely unscientific survey shows that the staff of Waterstones on Notting Hill Gate claims no recollection of such flocks), the commercial confidence of Pan Macmillan in rapidly reproducing Carrie’s reading material was justified. The credibility of “Sex and the City” as a brand endorser is well-evidenced, the logic being that Carrie Bradshaw loves Manolo Blahniks: girls around the world love Manolo Blahniks; Carrie covets an Hèrmes Birkin bag: the world covets the Birkin; Carrie reads love letters of ‘great men’: the world buys Love Letters of Great Men. “Sex and the City” as the focus of aspirational lifestyles extends to reading lists too and the panegyric on the dust-jacket puffs: “Inspired by ‘Sex and the City’, the most romantic book ever” (Daily Mail). So auspicious a provenance helped catapult the first edition of Love Letters of Great Men to Amazon’s number one spot for Essays, Journals and Letters.
But the flimsiness of Doyle’s book is more closely related to Katie Price’s output than to the “Sex and the City” format, fitting into the publishing trend in which brand transcends content. Doyle, herself a senior editor with experience at a number of major publishing houses, does not avoid this fate.
Love Letters of Great Men draws together the romantic epistles of a diverse range of so-called Great Men across a chronological expanse of almost two millennia. It begins with Roman writer Pliny the Younger and ends with three unknown British soldiers of the First World War whose inclusion rests entirely upon their having fought, for little else is known about their characters and civilian lives. The most recent letter in the collection dates from the First World War, presumably due to copyright laws that prohibit the publication of work until at least 70 years after an author’s death, without special dispensation and, usually a fee.
Most of the relationships documented in this collection are done so through a single letter and all are from the male perspective, giving the reader little conclusive primary evidence as to the writers’ lives and loves. Doyle hereby fails precisely where “Sex and the City” succeeds. The television series and film were never consistently feminist, antifeminist or postfeminist but rather they presented a dialogue displaying a range of stances on a range of issues. Love Letters markets itself at women but declines even to showcase their opinions. Letters these are, correspondence they are not.
Doyle supplements each author with a cursory biography which is frequently inadequate to convey what these men have done to qualify them as great or why their relationships might be thought significant. For example, Byron is introduced in his capacity as a womaniser to which his poetry is secondary: “Byron’s behaviour, and his poetry, scandalized large parts of Europe to the extent that in 1924, a hundred years after his death, a petition for a memorial to him in Westminster Abbey was refused by the dean.” This suggests his lasting fame but not its cause; his influence on Romanticism is ignored. Doyle’s potted biographies, though useful, resemble an absurdly abridged Wikipedia; information is offered in a way that is accessible but can distort significance.
Thus the introduction to Charles Darwin’s letter to Emma Wedgwood shortly before they married fails to sufficiently identify the impact she had on his work. “There is speculation,” says Doyle, “that he delayed publishing his theory of evolution out of respect for her religiosity”. This statement hardly captures the extent to which Darwin’s work was affected by his wife’s attentions. Nor does the word “speculation” successfully indicate how far Emma’s concerns about his agnosticism conclusively influenced his writing. Had Darwin not been so sensitive to his wife’s feelings, On the Origin of Species would have seen the light of day 20 years earlier.
Darwin’s letter to Emma Wedgwood is rare among the collection in that it was sent just days before the couple were married. The majority of missives included were written during the courtship phase of a relationship or amid the throes of an extramarital affair. Interestingly, a number of the letters were written by men in their forties, a fitting tribute to “Sex and the City” in which Carrie does not settle upon “The One” until she is in her forties. A remarkable cross-section of periods and people are showcased, and their letters are not all saccharine. Napoleon rages at Josephine, “What do you do then all day, Madame? What matter of such importance is it that takes up your time from writing to your very good lover?” and proceeds to threaten her, “beware, one fine night the doors will break open and I will be there”. Keats’s letter to Fanny Brawne is laced with jealousy and self-pity:
I have been a Martyr the whole time … You may have altered—if you have not—if you still behave in dancing rooms and other societies as I have seen you—I do not want to live-if you have done so I wish this coming night may be my last.
It seems unlikely that Henry VIII’s letter to Anne Boleyn would have qualified for the collection were it not for the macabre light cast by her eventual execution at the hands of her correspondent and soi-disant “servant and friend”. It is ironically the transience of love displayed in the fate of most of the lovers that unites the otherwise disparate collection.
The diversity of contributors to Love Letters of Great Men—from composers to aristocrats and from lawyers to soldiers, with a quorum of professional writers—demonstrates that literary flair is not a prerequisite for romance. The letters of Mozart, Beethoven and Schumann are noteworthy among the collection, Mozart’s for his toilet humour, Beethoven’s for his anonymous addressee, the “Immortal Beloved”, and Schumann’s for the musical description of his joy upon hearing the postman’s horn: “They are real waltzes of yearning to me, these trumpet-blasts, which remind us of something that we do not possess.”
Doyle states her purpose, “to remind today’s Great Men that literary genius is not a requirement for a heartfelt letter—or text message, or email—of love.” Yet men are unlikely to get the message since this book is explicitly marketed at women. Nor can the reader draw meaningful conclusions as to the nature of love that transcends time and space while the evidence is one-sided. By excising women from the picture, Doyle commits her collection to myopia. Reflecting on the content of her chosen love letters, Doyle remarks, “And there is a case for calling this book, ‘Great Men: Going On About Themselves Since AD 61—certainly some of those here would have benefitted from being taken aside and gently told: it’s not All About You.” Sadly her own decision to exclude women make this case more succinctly and prevent her collection from shedding any light on correspondence, rendering it instead a haphazard miscellany of male love isolated from a broader narrative or historical context.
Through her connection with “Sex and the City”, Doyle has succeeded in drawing a wide audience to Love Letters, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the work of Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot. She also brings into focus the human lives of people who are mostly well-known on a more cerebral level. But Love Letters of Great Men is ultimately disappointing for its failure to draw upon the dialogue and analysis of gendered behaviour that made “Sex and the City” popular and groundbreaking. By entirely excluding women from her purview, Doyle denies herself the opportunity to make any statement about relationships between the sexes. Nor is hers an original contribution; the bibliography would suggest that she has compiled her volume entirely from former edited collections of love letters.
Doyle makes a particularly meretricious contribution to that miserable genre which harnesses celebrity in order to dominate the bestsellers list.
Katie Wake , the writers editor for the Oxonian Review, is an MSt student at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, studying the history of the United States.