Romance language: It's passion on paper

Lost love letters, packaged in book, give voice again to heartfelt longings


February 13, 2005|By Robert K. Elder | Robert K. Elder,Chicago Tribune

Babbette Hines has spent the last three years rescuing love letters from thrift shops, estate sales and antiques stores.

Recently, she chose from among hundreds of them from over the last two centuries to reprint in Love Letters Lost ($19.95, Princeton Architectural Press). Here she talks about how the form has changed and, reluctantly, about her own love letters.

What do all love letters have in common, for better or worse?

There's an immediate intimacy and honesty to them that really doesn't change. That thread of immediacy and vulnerability hasn't changed. I think that once you cross that line of "I'm going to present myself this way" -- you just have to go with it full-throttle, which I think people don't choose so much in their regular life. I think that's probably the most important element: how truthful and open and vulnerable and bare they are.

What are the common cliches of love letters?

They use a lot of the same language. It doesn't matter how old or how new they are, it's, "I think about you every minute" or, "You dominate my thoughts." It's funny how the language of love really hasn't changed that much. There's only so many ways to say, "I love you."

Did collecting these letters make you more conscious of things in letters you've received?

I think that there's this inevitable comparison with everybody else's relationship: "Are we that passionate or lustful or exciting?"

It's funny because Carlos, who is now my husband, has only written me one love letter in our whole relationship, though we've lived together for most of that. We've been together eight years now, but married last September. At one point though, I was like, "Carlos, all these people are so passionate and so loving and you never write me letters."

So he went away and wrote me a love letter as if he was in World War II. [He wrote]: "The bombs are falling and I'm thinking about you ... if we survive the war, I plan to come home and marry you and buy a little house somewhere." He mailed it to me, so I wouldn't be irritated with him. ... He was totally redeemed in my eyes.

What are the major differences between modern love letters and ones written in World War II, or even 100 years before?

What I found surprising about the older letters is how forthcoming the men were, how passionate on paper, how much they actually revealed. There's this idea now that men are more reserved and women are more into the idea of love, the idea of romance, expressing those sorts of things. The men were crazy; they just laid it out. That's the thing I found most surprising about the older letters -- how forthcoming they were and how passionate and how willing they were to lay it on the line.

There's this one that's really cute one from 1919, and the guy is a terrible speller and obviously barely literate, and he's like, "If you loved me the way you ought to, well then, there wouldn't be a problem. I've given you everything a man can offer, and you need to tell me whether you love me or not."

In my experience, [this is] not that common, or the experience of my women friends in the modern era. It's not usually the man who [says], "If you loved me the way you ought to, then we could be very happy."

With that in mind then, what makes a really good love letter?

What makes a good love letter is a reflection of the person writing the letter and ... that there's somebody worthy of receiving such a letter, that this person is so amazing that it inspires them to new heights of letter-writing skill. That's what's important, that there's this sort of reciprocity, so it involves both partners.

So what makes a cliched or bad letter?

I don't think there's such a thing as a bad love letter; there are certainly dull love letters. But I included those in the book, too, because I wanted to show all the aspects of love. They are about passion, but they are also about the regular, small intimacies that hold a relationship together.

Are the love letters you found overwhelmingly from men, or from women?

They are certainly more from men. But I don't know whether that's because they wrote more, or because women saved them. I don't know if it's true that women are more sentimental. Until I got married, I had every love letter I was ever written, then I thought I should probably get rid of them.

You threw away all your love letters?

I threw out the more recent ones. ... The ones that were still at my family home, I did not go back to my mother's house and throw those away. But the ones I had access to, I did, in fact, throw them away -- which for me is enormous. I can't throw a photograph away, I cannot throw away anything someone has written on. ... I cannot get rid of them, it seems insanely disrespectful.

When I was in high school, I had this boyfriend that was a prolific, prolific love letter writer. He would write obsessively, all the time. And I got so mad at him once, I tore up every single love letter he'd ever written me, but I saved them. So somewhere at my mom's house is a humongous envelope filled with teeny, tiny pieces of paper that were love letters -- which is the difference between the new me and the old me.

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