The Sad Demise of the Love Letter

The Sad Demise of the Love Letter
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Photo by Rosemary
Photo by Rosemary

“I love you, with all that I have.” A relatively cheering message to flash up on your computer screen, right? Especially if you’re at work, sitting next to Sassy Sophia who, despite constantly professionally outsmarting you, is too much of a humourless control-freak to get a date. Ha ha ha.

The romance fades slightly, however, when you realise that the message has been plucked from 1001LoveLetters.com and your admirer is either a) pervily rubbing their hands together in glee or b) functionally illiterate.

Is this the destiny of love in the digital age? Death to papery, tangible outpourings of yearning? A frenzied click before swiching to the online shopping order? I’d like to say no –I’ve spoken to a few friends who have been blessed with an earmarked and curling love letter in their time – but written declarations of love certainly aren’t encountered as often as they once were.

Perhaps this is why the story of the Australian physicist’s online proposal gained such attention recently. Brendan McMonigal popped the question to his girlfriend in the form of a scientific paper. The document was posted to the site Reddit, incurring international “Isn’t-he-lovely-ing”. Entitled Two Body Interactions: A Longitudinal Study, it outlines the development of their relationship, with a graph plotting the couple’s happiness over time ratio (upward trend, thank goodness). Not a love letter, per se, but some sort written effort to declare passionate feelings. I approve.

Christie (girlfriend and fellow physicist in Sydney) also approved, it seems; the proposal was accepted.

I think I would have been even more pleased by the tale had the proposal remained in the hands of the receiver, albeit whilst she clutched her lab coat sleeves in surprise, or projected one of those eye- wash lab fountains into the air as a mark of jubilation. A sort of end-of-Mamma-Mia meets love-in-a-lab celebration.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that if your boyfriend was original, cool, and clever enough to propose to you like that, you’d want to share it with the world. I’m just not sure that the digital world is a very benevolent nurturer of true love.

Returning, as I do so often, to 1001LoveLetters.com, it’s clear that internet loving is a breeding ground for immediate, disposable affection.

So many people are beginning relationships on Facebook these days that it seems essential to lurk there late at night running through a Spotify playlist carefully designed to attract romantic attention.Once a relationship is secured, Facebook plays Cupid between the two of you and your followers, providing a brand of relationship PR like no other.

Sending even a private romantic message on Facebook poses problems. It’s hard to concentrate on your one-and-only with the constant jostle of green chat dots reminding you of all the other fish in the sea. Typing an intimate message on email may seem more personal, but words can still be erased and perfected, edited over time; moments of sincerity whitewashed over by the clatter of keys.

Love letters should be revisited because they are personal and private. They can be kept forever at the back of a drawer, an eternal record of an emotion at a certain point in time. It doesn’t matter if the drawer also contains a defaced picture of the person concerned, or the debris of the condom wrappers you cheerfully tore open with their successors. As a friend pointed out, no matter what happens in the relationship, one will always be able to hold on to that record of love. It is proof, if you like, that you weren’t completely crazy.

Missives like those of Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry pin down the exactly why love letters work.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry
Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

My love and my darling. It is ten minutes past eight. I must tell you how much I love you at ten minutes past eight on a Sunday evening, January 27th 1918.

This attention to the moment just doesn’t feel the same with emails. With an inbox lying in front of you, everything moves so quickly that the moment gets lost in the constant flurry of activity. Letters command a pause; they command an audience. Flicking through my collection of love letters in which this one of Mansfield’s is included*, it became very clear that, well, flicking was not an option. It’s almost unnerving to read so many striking  juxtaposed so tightly, like watching a concert where Bono and Beyonce are being forced to share a stage.

So I commend Mr McMonigal, for his written statement of love. Maybe it would be nice if we stopped worrying over captioning our couply photos on Facebook, and scrawled something inky and private once in a while. Someone could even do the Post Office a favour and start selling, say, 1001 paper documents on the cheap, to be lovingly encased in an envelope and sent on a romantic trajectory. It means more on paper, after all.

*Love Letters, selected and edited by Peter Washington, Everyman’s Library, 1996

Gwen Smith

About Gwen Smith

Gwen is an English graduate from Durham University. She is currently interning for Litro, writing weekly blogs and helping with publicity and marketing. She also works as a school librarian, which provides her with regular opportunities to compare her dwindling intellect against those of people several years her junior.

Gwen is an English graduate from Durham University. She is currently interning for Litro, writing weekly blogs and helping with publicity and marketing. She also works as a school librarian, which provides her with regular opportunities to compare her dwindling intellect against those of people several years her junior.

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