the case for billets-doux, or love letters


About a year or so ago, I spent a winter volunteering in a local museum’s archives, where I was assigned a box of family correspondence from the 1840s to help catalog and preserve. It was a slow process, not simply because of the fragile condition of the letters, but because I couldn’t resist reading them as I worked.  The urge to read someone’s private mail is irresistible, no matter when the letters were written, and I soon found myself spending a grey afternoon subsumed in the concerns of people who lived over a century ago–a pleasant way to pass the time.

While opening one letter, however, something fell out of the envelope and onto my lap, and what I feared was a large bug turned out to be a lock of black hair tied with a ribbon.  I had stumbled upon several letters of courtship from a young couple shortly after announcing their betrothal, and the lock of hair was from the young man away on a business venture writing home to his beloved.

Love letters, or billets-doux, in French, run the gamut from tender and hopeful, like the ones I held in my hands that afternoon, to the heated and passionate, such as these remarkable lines to her “Master,” from Emily Dickinson:

“I am older–tonight, Master–but the love is the same–so are the moon and the crescent–If it had been God’s will that I might breathe where you breathed–and find the place–myself–at night–if I can never forget that I am not with you–and that sorrow and frost are nearer than I–if I wish with a might I cannot repress–that mine were the Queen’s place–“


One of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” letters.

Scholars still debate who Emily’s “Master” may have been, or even if the letters were ever sent, as it’s possible they were merely drafted in a moment of heightened emotion.

Still, what emotion!   Who would not love to open a hand-written letter to read the words, “that I might breathe where you breathed–”  Why do we repeatedly leave heartfelt sentiment to mass-produced greeting cards?  We may not have the command of language Dickinson did, but certainly one’s own true feelings inked on creamy paper, sealed and mailed, is a gift worth receiving, a treasure to fold and unfold, to be read and reread until decades later it sits quietly in an archive, waiting to finally come to light again some snowy afternoon in February.  Or left unsent, tucked away in a book, journal, or desk drawer for another generation to discover.

And if a lock of hair is too archaic to include, maybe a single dried flower from the shy loves, or an entire bouquet of fresh blooms from the exuberant, so gorgeously captured in this 1770 painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, appropriately titled, billet-doux:

Jean-Honore Fragonard 1770

 So grab some foolscap, and be a fool for love.  May you receive letters of love and endearment, and may you bravely stain the page with your own expressions of deep affection, sent or kept hidden.  Be well.  Be of warm heart.  Spill ink.


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