As the romantics among you will have noticed it will soon be Valentine’s Day. Restaurants and florists around the country are rubbing their hands with glee.
But let me suggest an alternative: books. It’s a flattering gift, and cheaper than diamonds, more lasting than flowers and terribly easy to wrap.
It doesn’t have to be a romantic book. Whether the object of your adoration has an unhealthy interest in 19th century epaulettes or perhaps Berlin cabaret of the 1930s then a well-chosen title will show you were listening and do care. If you weren’t listening, have a quick browse of their bookshelves or Kindle when they are out and determine the direction of their passion (their reading passion, obviously; their true passion will naturally be directed at you). Ask a bookseller (we have four on site at Kew) for advice on the latest title on the topic.
If, however, you were thinking romantic words then how about Yours Always? This is a poignant collection of excerpts from great love letters, with the added benefit of being doomed letters of longing. Just like great poetry and song lyrics, the best work comes from pain and hopelessness. The love reflected in these pages is thwarted, misguided or forbidden. We have Charlotte Bronte to her tutor Professor Heger, Claire Clairmont to Lord Byron (boy that one did not end well), Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, and Elizabeth Taylor to Richard Burton (her words ‘my darling (my still) my husband. I wish I could tell you of my love for you, of my fear, my delight, my pure animal pleasure of you (with you) …’ were written only days before they were to separate for the second time). Literally a case of read it and weep.
A more balanced collection is Love Letters of the Great War which includes both requited and unrequited passions from all sides of the conflict. Some are the letters written home on the eve of battle, possibly the last letter the sweetheart will receive; others are written from home to cheer up, console or in some cases dump the Tommy at the front. There are letters from Churchill and letters from unknown women, all of them heartfelt and touching. Mandy Kirkby has provided a brief context and a sometimes happy ending.
If you feel your own muse coming upon you in epistolary form then we have letter writing sets, beautifully decorated boxes full of fine paper sheets and envelopes decorated in striking designs. I love the Art Deco one but if the object of your affection is of a peripatetic nature then there is one with map designs. Use these to write your own letters. The prose will be of course deathless and the sentiments enduring but if either of these fail (as they sometimes can) they will nevertheless look glorious and – trust me on this – a hand-written letter is something very, very special. Letters last (a cynical me would say potentially longer than relationships). Just promise no emoticons, this is correspondence for grown-ups.
Have you read The Love Charm of Bombs? Not a new book (published 2013) but well worth a read. This is a collection of pieces from five leading writers (Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macauley, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke) writing in and around the Second World War. Using letters, diaries and fiction Laura Feigel bulds a picture of a bizarrely euphoric time when cities under rain of bombs became the setting for intense love affairs.
Finally for a truly comprehensive collection of letters from history look no further than our own compendium In Their Own Words, which includes Catherine Howard’s letter to Thomas Culpepper. Signing off ‘Yours as long as lyffe endures Katheryn’ was possibly not her best decision given she had married King Henry only a few months previously.