Valentine’s Day is swiftly approaching. We’ve seen a sudden emergence of cute cuddly things holding hearts, scattered along retail shelves. Chocolate roses appearing just in time for someone to desperately grab one, in a vain hope their significant other doesn’t realise they forgot this “most romantic time of year”. We’re going to try to ignore the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day though, and see if we can get something genuinely heart-warming (rather than frantically bought from a late-night convenience store) out of it. I won’t lie: I’m not going to introduce you to some profound meaning of Valentine’s Day (if only because we don’t really know who Saint Valentine was or what he did). We are going back a bit though, just to Chaucer. Apparently Chaucer was the first one recorded to link romantic love and Valentine’s Day in the 14th century. He was celebrating someone’s engagement, reflecting a life time of love rather than just a day. That’s the theme we at Special Collections and Archives are following this Valentine’s Day. Not the epic dramatic love story of fiction, but the genuine long lasting one.
Within our collections we hold the Papers of Sir John Tomlinson Brunner (1842-1919). In the biography on our website, John Brunner comes across as a brilliant business man, astute liberal politician and extremely generous benefactor to the University of Liverpool. While these labels are true and rather impressive (you can see the rest of his papers backing this up within the collection) it does not necessarily lead to the image of a romantic and uxorious man. However, within Brunner/1/3/1 under a rather unassuming title of Letters of Salome Brunner and other family members (1835-1864) we find over a hundred letters from John written to his then fiancé (and later wife) Salome ‘Sally’ Davies. There is a lot of talk about cricket and work, but the frequency of these letters shows a deeply strong desire to keep two people a part of each other’s lives.
The aesthetics of the worn envelope and antiquated handwriting reinforce our modern idea of a love story.
However, it is the content of these letters that is important; to those writing them they would have just been normal letters, not an archaic form of correspondence. These letters may not always have been on Shakespeare’s level, but they were real. The affection this man had for this woman was genuine and can be felt coming from these letters 150 years later. It was strange reading them because, despite knowing they were 150 years old, they made these people seem as though they could be living and breathing somewhere today (although possibly panicked by the 21st century and Liverpool’s lack of trams).
“My dear Sally,
I have your likeness before me tonight so that I can look at you and talk to you almost at the same time.
What a serious face it wears that same likeness, but nobody knows better than I how soon the face of the original can break into a smile, indeed I have almost expected every minute to see a smile on the face in the portrait when I looked at it.
This time last week, lassie I had a chance which however I did not avail myself of, of dreaming of a very pleasant evening spent at Kirkdale, it is very pleasant now to think about it.
The possession of your portrait dear Sally, makes me think of … something we have tacitly agreed not to write about.
The past twelve months have been the happiest, the most rationally happy year of my life, and have taught me more than one thing that will I hope be useful and beneficial to me during the rest of that life.
I have been taught the pleasure of making little sacrifices for the comfort and happiness of others, and I have been taught the danger and folly of relying upon my own strength for the victory over my faults.
How very very far I am yet from completely conquering my faults no one knows so well as I do.
Thinking of you has often and I hope often will again, help me when I want help. Being able to see you almost as I can now will be better still.
I suppose you have been sitting alone [this] evening, as I have – your Mama sitting with Miss Houghton and Harry visiting Mr Smith.
Why did I not press you to pay me a visit here? [?], but you would have wanted to be off again to catch the last train one poor half hour after I came in, and that would have been only tantalising.
Perhaps, as I have often heard that lassie with the earnest face say “It is all for the best, after all, depend upon it John”.
But it is long past bed time, I must bid you good night, and put you [out] of sight and out of mind too, unless you appear in my dreams, till I can see you by day light, and think about without knowing that I ought to be in bed.
I suppose you have not altered your mind about going to chapel with me next Sunday.
And that we are to see Harry and Nell on Saturday Evening.
Please give my love to your Mama and to Nell if you are sending a message to her.
Good night love, may God bless you.
Ref: Brunner 1/3/1/31
Reading these letters made these people real and easy to care about, through their jokes and their quirks.
If you’re wondering what happened to John and Salome, as mentioned before, John and Salome did get married. Also, if it’s any indication from the stacks of letters written when they were married, they lived a generally happy life (Brunner 1/3).
From everyone at Special Collections and Archives we wish you a Happy Valentine’s day, whether you’re doing something terribly cheesy and romantic, ignoring the whole day, or just spending it with those you love in any capacity.