This page explores the art of letter writing, looking at historical letters and adding some of my own commentaries and fictional letters written in the style of earlier centuries. I find letters from the past fascinating- they act not only as an historical or biographical document, but also give a personal perspective into events and day to life. I like reading letters from ordinary folk, the famous and sometimes infamous! I will be adding more to this page as time goes on.
Here is an introduction to the subject of letter writing from a vintage book I have-Foundations of English Prose, by A.C Ward, G. Bell & Sons LTD, London, 1931.
Below is a link to a BBC web page on The Paston family. These letters are an invaluable source of information about the concerns of a middle class family during the Middle Ages.
Below is one of the Paston letters, February, 1477. It is a love letter; the oldest surviving one of this kind in the English language. That makes it quite special.
On letters of Nineteenth century poets:
We nowadays tend to think of the 1930s as “vintage” and it is true that much of the technology we use today for communication wasn’t yet invented, such as mobile phones, personal computers, tablets and the internet. The telephone of course has been around for quite some time, though many people still could not afford one in their homes. We could then assume that the letter was still the primary way for people who lived some distance away to keep in touch. Yet A.C. Ward expresses concern over the future of the letter “imperilled” by the typewriter and the telephone! He or she could never have imagined a blog such as this one. I doubt A. C Ward lived long enough to see the beginning of this high tech age, which arguably began in the early 1990s.
This is a fictional letter, written by myself, of a 20 year old woman named Clara, living in Vienna in 1804 to her sister, reviewing her experiences of learning to play the Sonata no. 14 in C sharp minor Op.27 No 2 Quasi una Fantasia. Her older (married) sister is called Katerina and her brother in law is called Franz.
In the nineteenth century people would often write long letters to family and friends (who lived some distance away from them) over a period of several weeks. This is such an excerpt from such a letter.
Vienna, July and August 1804.
My dear Katarina,
I trust this letter finds you and Franz well. I think you might remember in my last letter that I was just starting to learn the new C sharp minor sonata. It is a most singular work; truly some of it is very strange indeed. But you know as well as I do that Herr Beethoven likes to shock and surprise us.
The first movement of the Quasi una Fantasia is very beautiful and atmospheric, but very melancholic in mood. I was surprised to find that it does not begin in Allegro as is usual, but in Adagio sostenuto, with just 69 measures, and mesmerising triplets throughout. Another strange thing about this movement is the pedal to be held down throughout, creating a hazy sort of sound and a dreamlike mood.
I had a most peculiar experience playing this movement one evening last week; I had just one set of candles burning in the holder on the pianoforte. The shadows were flickering and outside it was raining heavily. As I played I began to feel quite dizzy; and fancied I could feel a sense of foreboding in the music as though something was going to be revealed. If I were more fanciful I might have said the shadows flickering on the walls were ghosts. It was quite unnerving, so, when I finished I looked at the second movement to see what it was like. You know how I like to perfect the first movement before going on to the next one- a peculiarity of mine I admit. I am still making mistakes in the first movement.
But I digress- I played a few bars of the second movement and it is such a contrast that one cannot imagine what Herr Beethoven must have been thinking! It is a rather jaunty minuet and trio in Allegretto! I played a few bars and it quite restored my spirits and I was able to close the pianoforte lid and retire for the night.
My dear Katarina, I have such exciting news- I am not quite myself still!- I shall tell you more anon…. I think I have perfected both movements quite well now. The second movement is such a change from the first movement- very light and airy and almost cheerful. Now I’m working on the third one which I confess I’m struggling with- the tempo has exceedingly fast arpeggios with many accented notes. It also has- dare I say it- a kind of dangerousness about it. It is a sonata- allegro, with many szorfando notes and fortissimo passages. Mama is not very partial to it because it disturbs her afternoon reading.
Now to my exciting news! I was at a dinner last Monday and an acquaintance of a student of Herr Beethoven’s was present. I was asked to play a little; and he was much taken with my performance. A few days later a letter arrived inviting me to the apartment of Herr Beethoven as he would like to hear me play and would give me a pianoforte lesson for a modest fee. After my begging Mama for one whole afternoon I was allowed to go- for everyone knows the high moral conduct of the Master in regards to young ladies.
As you can imagine I was filled with some trepidation as well as great excitement; the whole carriage ride there I was trembling. When I was led into into Herr Beethoven’s rooms, the great Master was stood at his pianoforte with his back to us shuffling music sheets. He is not much more than I in height, but what he lacks in height is negated by the sheer force of his presence- never have I experienced such a powerful one- his very being fills the whole room.
Oh my dear Katerina, you cannot imagine my nerves as the great Master turned around and he looked at me. Those eyes were of a terrifying beauty; never have I seen such eyes, dark and fathomless. I made a clumsy curtsey as a greeting as I was introduced, then the gentleman closed the door and left us alone. The Master responded by making a “humph” sound and gestured towards his pianoforte, pulling over a chair for me to sit upon, and sat to the side of me on his stool.
He then asked me to play the last movement of the C sharp minor sonata, which I did, rather falteringly at first. He spoke not a word as I played, but fixed those great eyes upon my hands the whole time, nodding slightly now and again and making that “humph” noise.
When I finished I placed my hands on my lap and shyly waited for his opinion, expecting a series of chastisements. But to my surprise he simply nodded, motioned for me to move my chair aside, and said, “You did well, but now…” and launched into the movement with such intense passion and ferocity I was shaken to the core.
When the last note died away the silence that hung in the air was heavy, but with what I could not say. I could not look at him for I was so overcome with the mastery I had seen, nor could I speak. Finally he broke the silence by saying, “Now do you see?” I was so taken aback by the gentleness in his voice after he had unleashed such devastation upon his pianoforte, that I looked up at him, and he laughed at my bemused expression and said, “Now, let us work on your mistakes.”
And what mistakes they were! His laughing broke through my nerves; for it was a kind laughter, not poking fun at me at all, but an acknowledgement of sorts that I was coming to realise what the music should be. He spoke of his urges to perfect and develop the sonata form, to challenge the listener and pianist, to create atmosphere, variety between movements and structures and many other things which I shall tell you about when I visit you next month.
Towards the end I became more at ease, and was able to ask him what it is like to compose works of such beauty and daring. His reply was astonishing- He said it was humbling to be a creative force in music it is a spiritual thing for him. “ Beethoven can compose thank God, but he is not good at much else,” he said. Truly, I shall never forget his kindness and great knowledge. Whatever will he create next? I think even he does not know it.
Your loving sister,
Below is one of Beethoven’s actual letters.
In a man’s letters you know, Madam, his soul lies naked, his letters are only the mirror of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process. Nothing is inverted, nothing distorted, you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives.
The letters of John Keats and Fanny Brawne.
The poet John Keats wrote many letters to his beloved, Fanny Brawne. He burnt her letters to him (for privacy one imagines) before he left for Rome, on the advice of his doctors, in the vain hope he would get better from the Consumption that he was suffering from.
Here are some of John’s letters to Fanny from 1819. Since we have none of her replies to him, I have imagined what she could have written in reply to his letters…..
Postmark: Newport, July 3, 1819, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, Thursday
My dearest Lady — I am glad I had not an opportunity of sending off a Letter which I wrote for you on Tuesday night—’twas too much like one out of Rousseau’s Heloise. I am more reasonable this morning. The morning is the only proper time for me to write to a beautiful Girl whom I love so much: for at night, when the lonely day has closed, and the lonely, silent, unmusical Chamber is waiting to receive me as into a Sepulchre, then believe me my passion gets entirely the sway, then I would not have you see those Rhapsodies which I once thought it impossible I should ever give way to, and which I have often laughed at in another, for fear you should [think me] either too unhappy or perhaps a little mad.
I am now at a very pleasant Cottage window, looking onto a beautiful hilly country, with a glimpse of the sea; the morning is very fine. I do not know how elastic my spirit might be, what pleasure I might have in living here and breathing and wandering as free as a stag about this beautiful Coast if the remembrance of you did not weigh so upon me I have never known any unalloy’d Happiness for many days together: the death or sickness of some one has always spoilt my hours—and now when none such troubles oppress me, it is you must confess very hard that another sort of pain should haunt me.
Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom. Will you confess this in the Letter you must write immediately, and do all you can to console me in it—make it rich as a draught of poppies to intoxicate me—write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain. But however selfish I may feel, I am sure I could never act selfishly: as I told you a day or two before I left Hampstead, I will never return to London if my Fate does not turn up Pam or at least a Court-card. Though I could centre my Happiness in you, I cannot expect to engross your heart so entirely—indeed if I thought you felt as much for me as I do for you at this moment I do not think I could restrain myself from seeing you again tomorrow for the delight of one embrace.
But no—I must live upon hope and Chance. In case of the worst that can happen, I shall still love you—but what hatred shall I have for another!
Some lines I read the other day are continually ringing a peal in my ears:
To see those eyes I prize above mine own
Dart favors on another—
And those sweet lips (yielding immortal nectar)
Be gently press’d by any but myself—
Think, think Francesca, what a cursed thing
It were beyond expression!
Do write immediately. There is no Post from this Place, so you must address Post Office, Newport, Isle of Wight. I know before night I shall curse myself for having sent you so cold a Letter; yet it is better to do it as much in my senses as possible. Be as kind as the distance will permit to your
Present my Compliments to your mother, my love to Margaret and best remembrances to your Brother—if you please so.
Wentworth Place, Hampstead, July 5th, 1819. Saturday.
My dearest John,
Your letter arrived this morning, for which I must return my thanks. After spending some time in fervent expectation of hearing from you, I must admit I was almost afraid you might not have the opportunity to write. I must hope that when autumn arrives I will find you back with us and we will resume our pleasant walks on the Heath. My recollections of such afternoons bring me a mixture of sadness and happiness- my Love dare I hope for such days again? I need not go into detail of the vexations I feel at the horrid people, who at every turn oppose our hopes of happiness. Does it depend upon them whether I see you again? Forgive me my forthrightness, dearest John, but you know how I feel about our situation and rest assured that whatever Fate may deal us, I shall remain obstinate and steadfast in my attachment to you. I am now sitting in the garden looking at the roses you admired and picturing you sitting at your cottage window looking out at the beautifully hilly country with a glimpse of the sea. My mother has taken Samuel and Margaret out to tea. I did not wish to go and pleaded a headache, but really I am well, it was so I might read your letter and think of you. It is a fine afternoon, but made a little less so by your absence- the sky appears a little less blue and the roses less vibrant in their scent, but I dare say I am being silly and selfish- I am certain that you are writing some very fine lines of which I understand that you require some distance from me to compose. Why must you write of my beauty? You know how I feel about such talk. I should not wish your remembrance of me to weigh upon you, but since you asked me to confess that I am very cruel to have caused you such pain which haunts you, I shall oblige you in this. But by doing so I am afraid you will think I do not love you for making you unhappy. I hope that my love for you brings you some comfort and the knowledge that I feel some unhappiness at our separation will show how our hearts are joined in the same feeling. The butterflies in the garden remind me of your three summer days of delight, of which I should like to know more about my Love. I have kissed this letter over and over so that you may touch your lips where mine have been. I hope that you will do the same in your next letter, for then we may be intimate despite the distance which separates us. The memory of my hand in yours and the touch of your lips on mine stay with me. I wish more than ever that such times will be promised to us. I saw a comet in the sky last night as I was drawing the curtains, and rather fancifully I took it as a good sign for us. I informed Samuel and Margaret at breakfast that I had seen a comet shooting across the sky and they were quite disappointed that they had been asleep and not had the opportunity to see it. I did not tell them that upon falling asleep last night I had such a curious dream which I fancy was inspired by seeing the comet. My mother, Samuel and Margaret send their compliments and best remembrances to you. They are all very well. We all enquire after your health.
Yours very affectionately,
July 8th, 1819
My sweet girl,
Your Letter gave me more delight, than any thing in the world but yourself could do; indeed I am almost astonished that any absent one should have that luxurious power over my senses which I feel. Even when I am not thinking of you I receive your influence and a tenderer nature steeling upon me. All my thoughts, my unhappiest days and nights have I find not at all cured me of my love of Beauty, but made it so intense that I am miserable that you are not with me: or rather breathe in that dull sort of patience that cannot be called Life. I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was; I did not believe in it; my Fancy was affraid of it, lest it should burn me up. But if you will fully love me, though there may be some fire, ’twill not be more than we can bear when moistened and bedewed with Pleasures. You mention ‘horrid people’ and ask me whether it depend upon them whether I see you again. Do understand me, my love, in this. I have so much of you in my heart that I must turn Mentor when I see a chance of harm befalling you. I would never see any thing but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps. I would wish to see you among those amusements suitable to your inclinations and spirits; so that our loves might be a delight in the midst of Pleasures agreeable enough, rather than a resource from vexations and cares. But I doubt much, in case of the worst, whether I shall be philosopher enough to follow my own Lessons: if I saw my resolution give you a pain I could not. Why may I not speak of your Beauty, since without that I could never have lov’d you. I cannot conceive any beginning of such love as I have for you but Beauty. There may be a sort of love for which, without the least sneer at it, I have the highest respect and can admire it in others: but it has not the richness, the bloom, the full form, the enchantment of love after my own heart. So let me speak of your Beauty, though to my own endangering; if you could be so cruel to me as to try elsewhere its Power. You say you are afraid I shall think you do not love me – in saying this you make me ache the more to be near you. I am at the diligent use of my faculties here, I do not pass a day without sprawling some blank verse or tagging some rhymes; and here I must confess, that, (since I am on that subject,) I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel. I have seen your Comet, and only wish it was a sign that poor Rice would get well whose illness makes him rather a melancholy companion: and the more so as so to conquer his feelings and hide them from me, with a forc’d Pun. I kiss’d your Writing over in the hope you had indulg’d me by leaving a trace of honey – What was your dream? Tell it me and I will tell you the interpretation threreof.
Ever yours, my love!
Do not accuse me of delay – we have not here any opportunity of sending letters every day. Write speedily.
Wentworth Place, Hampstead, July 10th, 1819. Thursday.
My dear John,
I am so glad that my letter gave you great delight, yet my sweetest, you write of unhappy days and nights and feeling miserable. It is my hope that upon reading this letter your miseries are a little eased. You ask that I “fully” love you and mention “Pleasures” of which it pleases me to think about, but I dare not say more on this subject-propriety does not allow me to speak of it. Rest assured my Love, that I do love you for your own sake and hold you dear in my heart. I should never wish to be cruel to you. Our Loves should be a comfort and delight to us. It gives me a great happiness to read that you wish to be my Mentor. On the subject of amusements suitable to my inclinations, I have been spending some afternoons in the garden reading the volume of poetry you gave me and of an evening diligently employed in my needlework. I have embroidered some new cushions for the front parlour. Margaret admires them greatly and is now learning to embroider herself. She does very well. I am in good health and I trust that you remain well and I hope that poor Mr Rice improves. Let us hope our Comet brings him some good health. I must confess that your writing of my beauty again does not improve my modesty, but I will oblige you by accepting your compliments and permit you to write what is in your nature to express. I know that I cannot persuade you otherwise on this subject, nor to desist in such talk. You are quite naughty in your persistence my Love! I have taken a fine walk today on the Heath. I should like to know about any fine walks you have taken in Shanklin- indulge me by describing them to me, so that I may picture you there and then you will not seem so far away. I scarcely know what to think of my curious dream. I will prevail upon your good judgement to interpret it. I shall describe it as best I am able-I was sitting in the garden and dusk was falling. I was feeling a little sad. My mother came to the window and requested that I come inside. I could not answer her because I was so delighted by a beautiful melody that seemed to come from Heaven. A silver dove flew across the eastern part of the sky to disappear amongst the stars. I awoke with a happier disposition than I had fallen asleep with. There may have been more to it, but this is all I remember- is it not all very odd? Write speedily.
Yours very affectionately,
Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Billet doux.
Nothing is permanent in this life for everything destroys itself in time and very few friends can be counted on. But towards you my dearest friend, my heart will never change and I shall love you for ever more.
From The Great Musicians LP set, 1970, part 8, page 91.