What delightful reading are The Love Letters of Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, 1652-54. Dorothy Osborne was born in 1627 at the family estate called Chicksands in Bedforshire, England. She was the youngest of ten children, well educated and her family was fairly well situated financially.
I can’t find anything that says how Dorothy and Temple met, only that they had a very long courtship conducted mostly through letters. Neither Temple’s father nor Dorothy’s were keen on the match. Dorothy’s family put pressure on her to marry someone else and threw up every obstacle between her and Temple that they could. It seems, but again is not entirely clear, that the family opposition was to do with politics.
But Dorothy and Temple were in love and in spite of it all, carried on their courtship. We only have Dorothy’s side of the correspondence, unfortunately. Her letters are so lively I can only imagine how equally lively Temple’s must have been. If you want to know how to flirt through the mail you could do much worse than read Dorothy’s letters.
She had no want of suitors and turned them all down. She delighted in telling Temple all about them. No doubt a special kind of lover’s torment. Just see what a tease she could be:
Just now I have news brought me of the death of an old rich knight that has promised me this seven years to marry me whensoever his wife died, and now he’s dead before her, and has left her such a widow, it makes me mad to think on’t, £1200 a year jointure and £20,000 in money and personal estate, and all this I might have had if Mr. Death had been pleased to have taken her instead of him. Well, who can help these things? But since I cannot have him, would you had her! What say you? Shall I speak a good word for you?
And then there is the suitor who, after failing to be able to get her alone, handed her a letter which Dorothy tried hard to avoid receiving but in the end had to take it. She knew what was going to be in the letter and hid it in a pocket. Distressed that Dorothy had tucked it away, her suitor at his first opportunity
confess[ed] to me (in a whispering voice that I could hardly hear myself) that the letter (as my Lord Broghill says) was of great concern to him, and begged I would read it, and give him my answer. I took it up presently, as if I had meant it, but threw it, sealed as it was, into the fire, and told him (as softly as he had spoke to me) I thought that the quickest and best way of answering it. He sat awhile in great disorder, without speaking a word, and so ris and took his leave. Now what think you, shall I ever hear of him more?
Now that is a story that could have come right out of a novel! Oh how I laughed at her boldness.
At one point late in their affair, they have a tiff over something. Dorothy is ready to call the whole relationship off. She doesn’t want to marry anyone else but she tells Temple that he should find some nice, rich woman and forget about her. Temple must have written some desperate and imploring letters judging by Dorothy’s responses. She writes him:
so let me tell you, that if I could help it, I would not love you, and that as long as I live I shall strive against it as against that which had been my ruin, and was certainly sent me as a punishment for my sin. But I shall always have a sense of your misfortunes, equal, if not above, my own.
But the storm quickly blows over and they are a pair of delighted lovers once again:
Say what you will, you cannot but know my heart enough to be assured that I wish myself with you, for my own sake as well as yours. ‘Tis rather that you love to hear me say it often, than that you doubt it; for I am no dissembler.
Besides telling Temple about all her suitors, Dorothy’s letters remind me how lucky I am to be living in 2013. The two of them seem to be sick quite a lot with colds and agues and Dorothy goes a few times to Epsom to drink the waters for her spleen. She often gives Temple a hard time about being sick, exhorting him for her sake to take better care of himself or else:
Would any one in the world, but you, make such haste for a new cold before the old had left him; in a year, too, when mere colds kill as many as a plague used to do? Well, seriously, either resolve to have more care of yourself, or I renounce my friendship.
Dorothy is also always asking for long letters and apologizing when her own are short. And in one letter she writes a little discourse on how to write a good letter:
All letters, methinks, should be free and easy as one’s discourse; not studied as an oration, nor made up of hard words like a charm. ‘Tis an admirable thing to see how some people will labour to find out terms that may obscure a plain sense. Like a gentleman I know, who would never say “the weather grew cold,” but that “winter began to salute us.” I have no patience for such coxcombs, and cannot blame an old uncle of mine that threw the standish at his man’s head because he writ a letter for him where, instead of saying (as his master bid him), “that he would have writ himself, but he had the gout in his hand,” he said, “that the gout in his hand would not permit him to put pen to paper.” The fellow thought he had mended it mightily, and that putting pen to paper was much better than plain writing.
Good advice that, not just for the writing of letters.
Finally the pair were able to overcome their respective family’s objections and declare a formal engagement. Just when it seemed the path was clear for them and the wedding day was near, Dorothy became ill. I will allow Sir Edward Parry, the editor of this 1888 edition that I read and who adds much delightful commentary and opinion to these letters describe what happened:
Her last lover’s letter is written. We are ready for the marriage ceremony, and listen for the wedding march and happy jingle of village bells; or if we may not have these in Puritan days, at least we may hear the pompous magistrate pronounce the blessing of the State over its two happy subjects. But no! There is yet a moment of suspense, a last trial to the lover’s constancy. The bride is taken dangerously ill, so dangerously ill that the doctors rejoice when the disease pronounces itself to be small-pox. Alas!
But Dorothy recovers, though she has lost her looks. Sir Parry tells us that while this is a sad thing for Dorothy, Temple is not in love with her for her beauty. Finally, finally, Dorothy and Temple marry in January 1655.
They had a good life together and Dorothy was actively involved in Temple’s diplomatic career. Sadly, they had only two of their nine children live past infancy. Of the two, their daughter died of smallpox in 1684 at the age of fourteen. Their son, just before taking office as Secretary at War, drowned himself in the Thames for reasons unknown. He was married and survived by his wife and two children.
In 1695 after forty years of married life, Dorothy died at the age of 67. Temple survived her by four years. Dorothy is buried with her husband and children, on the north side of the nave of Westminster Abbey.
If you are looking for a little romance, a good read, and a delightful voice, pick up these letters. You won’t be disappointed.