by Raelene Gorlinsky
Will You Marry Me? - Seven Centuries of Love
edited by Helene Scheu-Riesz
Hardcover, US$14.95, Simon & Schuster
From the book jacket: "This lavishly illustrated tribute includes marriage proposals, spanning seven hundred years, all delivered in the form of love letters. Each of these enchanting missives illustrates the unique sensibilities of the time period in which it was written, from the commanding negotiations of the Gothic age to the beautifully written declarations promising eternal devotion of the Renaissance and beyond."
If you write historical fiction or historical romance, excellent advice is that you read correspondence from the time period you are writing about. That's about the only way to "hear" the voice of people of that time: the way they thought and spoke, the words they used, how they addressed each other, the cadence of their speech. Of course, some of those old letters are formal--business or government documents, for example. But some are personal correspondence between family members or friends--or lovers. Such letters are fascinating and illuminating.
This book contains forty letters, dated from Medieval through Victorian times. Most of them are from royalty, nobility, the wealthy or the famous. Those were the people who knew how to read and write, and whose correspondence was most likely to be preserved.
In 1499, thirteen-year-old Arthur, Prince of Wales, wrote to his betrothed, Catherine of Aragon: "Most illustrious and excellent lady, my dearest spouse ... I have read the sweet letters of your Highness, from which I have easily perceived your entire love for me."
German preacher Adolf Stoecker proposed to his lady in 1894: "Highly Honored Fraulein, I begin this letter with trembling and fear, because your answer to it will bring me the greatest happiness or the most abysmal grief. I fought and wrestled with myself for so long a time, at last after much praying and searching before God, I have found the courage to tell you that I love you with all my heart."
Not quite the way modern lovers would say it, but that's the point--the emotion hasn't changed in five hundred years, but how it was expressed certainly has. And that's what any writer of historical novels needs to study and emulate.