Love Letters from History
Great-great-grandfather Samuel Barr’s graceful cursive seems in itself an art of love
Editor’s preface: If you do not burn your love letters, they may outlive you. Because contributing writer Diana Dinsick’s great-great-grandmother did not heed that caution, the romantic passion of her husband-to-be lived on for 200 years, finally becoming a love story for you to share.
I am a love child.
As an amateur genealogist, I know a lot about my family history. I can trace some lines back 10 or more generations. I can tell you the names of my three-times great-grandparents, and I feel a thrill each time I add another leaf to my family tree. But of all the facts I’ve learned about my ancestors, none is so dear to me as the knowledge that I am the result of a love story begun two centuries ago.
A two-page family letter sparked my interest in my ancestors. Even 50 years ago, its paper was brittle and crumbled with age. Its language and vocabulary are archaic in their formality. But the passion my twice great-grandfather Samuel Barr felt for his fiancée Sibella Bell rings clear over the ages, sketched in a graceful cursive that seems in itself an art of love.
On January 11, 1819, young Samuel took up his pen. Since winter temperatures in central Pennsylvania’s Kishacoquillas Valley can plunge below 20 degrees, the room was likely to be icy cold. A wood fire or coal stove provided his only heat. Maybe he wore a shawl around his shoulders while he wrote, just as Abe Lincoln did.
I picture Samuel as a young man of perhaps 20. He is sitting alone in a quiet room, where a single oil lamp or a candle casts its pale light over the desk before him. For a moment, he stares at the paper, sorting out his thoughts. Then, as feelings well up, he dips his pen in his inkwell and begins to write.
Inestimable Sibella, he writes in salutation. What should we make of these words? He could be signing on with an antiquated form of Dear Sibella. But I like to think otherwise. I see him tipping his hat, expressing his high esteem, to a woman he adores.
Night is here and I seat myself with the intention to beguile the lonesome moments by writing a few lines, he continues, setting the stage.
Customary courtesies follow. He hopes his letter finds her “in exquisite health and perfectly happy.”
But courtesy was not what was on Samuel’s mind or in his heart that night. His focus shifts. He drifts into a reverie. Relives the day of their meeting, at a “giddy” dance. Skips over their two years of dating time and launches into his romantic fantasies.
You’d want to know how their relationship developed.
So do I.
Getting to Yes
Mentally reviewing what I’ve read about dating customs of their time, I try to fill in the blanks.
This couple did not date, in the modern sense of the word. In the early 1800s, in this middle-class environment with its strict sense of propriety, the term date had a disreputable connotation. Couples of their time instead operated within a courtship system; they were engaged in the process of finding a marriage partner. Intimacy before commitment was strictly out of bounds. So Samuel likely did his courting under the watchful eyes of parents and siblings.
But you know how it goes. Things were surely cooking.
Infatuation grows. Hormone levels rise; sexual longing smolders. Strong hands linger, just a moment too long, as boy helps girl step down from her carriage. There are sidelong glances and secretive half-smiles and accidental brushes of elbows. There are chats on the swing and strolls in the garden, as lovers steal away for a few moments alone.
In the literary style of the early 19th century, Samuel lays bare his every emotion. His every word is steeped in drama. Sibella, he writes, has brought him “perfect felicity,” and he reminds her of the day he first proposed marriage.
I requested you to resign yourself unto my arms, he recalls, to be the sweet companion of my bosom. You hesitated, but still I was unwilling to forsake you.
So, I think, Sibella demurred. Facing the same situation, who among us would not struggle with guilt, with fears of what Daddy might say? Who would not test the waters and try to gauge a suitor’s sincerity?
But Samuel persisted, and Sibella acquiesced.
The First Kiss
Our infatuated suitor paints this scene with grace and eloquence. Each word in itself seems the language of love.
Most lively transports at that happy period filled my throbbing breast, he writes. My gratitude to you for your benevolence was unspeakable, and no other way could I express it but by tenderly clasping you in my arms and pressing a kiss from your lips ever sweet to my taste. This welcome compliance impressed upon my mind with sensations which will never be obliterated until the cold hand of death doth seize my frame, the mouldering clay doth hide me from your face forever.
Lips ever sweet to his taste. Hmmm … I felt like a voyeur when I first read this paragraph; I almost tucked away the letter unread. If my ancestors were truly getting physical, shouldn’t I be the last to know?
More to Come
But now they are apart. Duty to his aged parents has called him away. For now, his love’s satisfaction depends on memory and anticipation. Of both those states he waxes poetic, in classic tradition.
Anticipated bliss, he writes, shines in my imagination like bright Aurora when she ascends the eastern summit.
Memory also warms his heart and loins.
You further corroborated by giving your consent to the time in which we will be united in the ties of undiminishing affection and to participate in the enjoyments of conjugal felicity.
I heave a sigh of relief, thinking boundaries may not have been crossed after all. But I’m left with no doubts about what was on Samuel’s mind (and in his heart) that day.
Then, as he writes, every earthly pleasure will be at our command.
Samuel’s words of love fill two sheets of onionskin-paper back and front — leaving room only for two things. One is a postscript, scathingly criticizing a man of the town who has behaved in a dishonorable fashion toward a young lady, leaving her to “suffer the cruel taunts of an unfeeling world.”
I stand in awe. In less than 50 words, a man so young has both conveyed his standard of morality and reassured his bride-to-be of the purity of his intentions.
The folded pages become their own envelope, with Sibella’s name and address in his best artful scripts on one-ninth of a page.
§ § § § §
I reflect upon Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, just six years before Samuel wrote his letter. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” Austen writes, “that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
By all appearances, Samuel Barr suffered from this universal infliction.
Samuel’s dreams did come true. A year after he penned his letter, he and Sibella were united in marriage.
After bearing Samuel 11 children, Sibella died. But in his life after her death, we see how he must have loved her. His second wife bore him twin girls. Stillborn. They were named Sibella and Susan.
Decoding Cursive: A Dying Skill
My children’s generation may be the last in our family line able to read Samuel Barr’s cursive letters.
Cursive handwriting, once a mainstay of communication in America, is vanishing from our classrooms. Now, in states whose Common Core standards don’t require its instruction, many students will be leaving high school without learning to decipher linked-letter writing.
“If students were to stop learning cursive as part of a basic education, then eventually it would become a specialized skill,” says Emily Oland Squires of the Maryland State Archives. “Only learned experts who studied script handwriting would be able to read it.”
That specialization is already happening. Archives coworker Liz Coelho reports receiving a complaint from a high school student, unable to decipher a document on the Archives’ website, who asked that a transcription be provided. Checking the link, Coelho found a letter written in cursive in the 1940s. To her, it was perfectly legible.
“Now I wonder if my sister has to read my letters aloud to my teenage nephews,” Coelho says, “as though the letters had arrived from the old country.”