I'm a sucker for old-fashioned letters and old-fashioned romance, so I felt like a teenager at prom when I happened upon a book called Love Letters of Great Men. I waited all day before cracking it open, eager to sink my teeth into it as if it were the literary equivalent of dark chocolate.
At first I was savoring the letters—these epistles dating as far back as Pliny the Younger almost 2,000 years ago and capturing the words of some of the political and literary greats in the centuries since. I was taken by the beauty of the language, the permanence of the sentiments, and the artistry of the writers as they sought to capture their passion and pin it down with ink and paper. In short, I wanted to love those love letters.
But then something unexpected happened: I started digging up biographical information about a few of these "great men," and suddenly their words sounded less like soaring symphonies and more like discordant clanging.
Robert Burns may have been able to write letters of epic romance, but I can't help but wonder if any of his letters ever went to an unintended recipient, seeing as he was having simultaneous affairs with two different women (neither of whom he married, despite fathering children with both of them).
Napoleon may have written some poignant epistles to his wife while he was away on his military campaigns, but the sweet words sour when you realize that he and Josephine both took lovers while they were apart.
Henry VIII may have written some dramatic words comparing love to the sun, but those sentiments pale when you consider that he went through six wives.1