Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wilt thou be mine love -- aye or no?

The following is a repost from my 2010 archives. Happy Valentine's Day!

In 1819, the poet Charles Lamb wrote of February 14th:  

 "T]his is the day upon which those charming little missives, ycleped Valentines, cross and intercross each other at every street and turning. The weary and all for-spent twopenny postman sinks beneath a load of delicate embarrassments, not his own. It is scarcely credible to what an extent this ephemeral courtship is carried on...to the great enrichment of porters, and detriment of knockers and bell-wires."

Lamb was speaking of a custom that dates to at least the 15th century. The oldest known valentine written in English was discovered among the Paston Letters in the British Library. Margery Brews penned it to her fiancé John Paston in 1477:

"Right reverent and worshipful and my right well-beloved valentine, I recommend me unto you full heartedly, desiring to hear of your welfare, which I beseech Almighty God long for to preserve unto his pleasure and your hearts desire."

Prior to that discovery, the oldest valentines in British possession were those of Charles, Duke of Orleans. The Duke wrote more than sixty to his wife in France over the course of his twenty-five year incarceration in the Tower of London following the Battle of Agincourt in 1415:

"Wilt thou be mine? dear Love, reply--
Sweetly consent or else deny.

Whisper softly, none shall know,

Wilt thou be mine, Love?--aye or no?"

Many examples of Victorian valentines have survived, but what did the earlier ones look like?

Usually homemade, they were hand-painted and decorated with lacy paper, ribbons, gold leaf, satins, silks and exotic feathers. Enterprising publishers took advantage of the craze by printing chapbooks of verses. Publications like The New English Valentine Writer by J. Turner (1784), and Every Ladies Own Valentine Writer by J. Roach (1797) addressed all levels of intimacy and even provided responses to their own poems.
According to Mr. Lamb: "In these little visual interpretations, no emblem is so common as the heart—that little three-cornered exponent of all our hopes and fears…it is twisted and tortured into more allegories and affectations than an opera hat." Some were on the "finest gilt paper with borders--full not of common hearts and heartless allegory, but all the prettiest stories of love from Ovid and older poets..." 

In 1667, Dr. Samuel Pepys wrote: "This morning, came up to my wife's bedside, I being up dressing myself, little Will Mercer to be her Valentine; and brought her name writ upon blue paper in gold letters..." Two days later, Pepys visited Mrs. Pearse and was given a valentine by her little girl. "But here I do first observe," he wrote, "the fashion of drawing mottos as well as names, so that Pearse, who drew my wife, did draw also a motto...'Most courteous and fair'..."

In her article for Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1901, Millicent Olmsted provides a glimpse at a particular style with which we all are familiar--the cut paper valentine. According to Ms. Olmsted, they were "folded and delicately cut with saw-tooth edges, then opened and filled in with written sentiments. The one shown here is very old, ragged, yellow and limp. It was sent to Permillia Wainright in New Jersey, and bears on the back of it her initials and the date, 1783. During the decades, the valentine has fallen to tatters and has lost a narrow outer ring that bore the inscription: "Round is the ring that has no end. So is my love to you, my friend."
(Olmsted goes on to describe a puzzle purse valentine from 1790. To see what it looked like, click on Nancy's Puzzle Purse Valentine. The one Ms. Rosin shows from 1816 fits Olmsted's description. To read the verses, click the Boston Evening Transcript link to Come Be My Valentine, or refer to Olmsted's Cosmopolitan article.)

Other popular valentine designs:  
acrostic -- first letter of each verse spells a vertical word 
 pinprick -- holes were pricked in a pattern with a needle or pin 
 rebus -- pictures drawn to convey a word, like an eye for the word "I" 

It seems odd that, in all Jane Austen's letters and stories, she never refers to Valentine's Day. Most Janeites believe Frank Churchill's gift of a pianoforte to Jane Fairfax in Emma occurred on February 14th, but Austen doesn't say so. Perhaps her opinion of valentines more closely resembled that of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice:

"I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!"
"I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love," said Darcy.
"Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away."

Valentine's Day, Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb, 1819
Love's Labour Found, BBC News, February 14, 2000
Two Letters from Margery Brews to John Paston in February 1477, The ORB:On-Lone Reference Book for Medieval Studies
Victorian Valentines: Part 1, Candice Hern, February 1,2003
Valentine Puzzle Purses, Origami Resource Center
Nancy's Puzzle Purse Valentine
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, the Globe Edition with introduction and notes by G. Gregory. Smith, London 1905, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., p. 465
Chapbooks: Definition and Orgins
Valentine Writers, Victoriana Magazine
The Festival of Love by Millicent Olmsted, Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Illustrated Magazine, Vol. XXX; November 1900-April, 1901; Millicent Olmstead, p. 372-380
"Come Be My Valentine", Boston Evening Transcript, March 20, 1899; p. 7
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918; p.44

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