Call me an old romantic softy, but in an age of texts and tweets you can’t beat a hand written love letter, it has a more personal touch requiring thought and care. It’s all very well declaring your love on Twitter but surely it’s difficult to say all you want to say in 140 characters? You may be surprised to hear that in the archives amongst all the scientific material (reams of calculations, data and diagrams) hides an 18th century love story that was played out over a long distance between a scientist in London and the mystery lady of his affections in Edinburgh.
The scientist in question is Sir Charles Blagden FRS (1748-1820), a physician who became the Secretary of the Royal Society in 1784; perhaps best known for his work on human endurance of extreme air temperatures and experiments on the properties of water. The Royal Society holds extensive volumes of Blagden’s letters, all arranged alphabetically by correspondent, aside for a few letters marked ‘anonymous’; it is here that we find the love letters in question as the identity of the lady is unknown. All we can gather from the letters is that her first name is Becky, and that her surname begins with ‘S’. It is an exchange of just three letters giving us a glimpse of their relationship – a story which provides an interesting insight into the boundaries of social status at the time.
Charles Blagden was born in Wotton under Edge in Gloucestershire but moved north in the 1760s to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, it seems that it was in Scotland where he met Becky.
In the first of the three letters, written by Becky and addressed formally to ‘Sir’, all does not seem rosy, she describes how she doubts his love for her due to recent quarrels:
‘if you had loved me as you pretended you never could have used me so roughly as you have of late in quarrelling me for any little trifle I neglected which is forgetfulness which gives me more pain than it can give you when that happens.’
At the end, Becky asks Blagden to destroy the letter:
‘I beg the favour you would burn this when you have read it and never let it be seen or heard of more.’
A letter follows from Blagden writing from London, addressed ‘My dear B’. In the first half of the letter he stresses the necessity of keeping their connection secret as his family and friends would not approve of his relationship with her and it may therefore jeopardise his substantial inheritance and result in his friends alienating him: ‘The knowledge of my connections with you would injure me with them.’ He goes on to try and persuade her to move from Scotland to London, saying that she can make her living from her needlework but that he would always support her financially. He says that he loves her and expresses his sorrow that he cannot marry her:
‘know becky I will declare to you that I love you as well as ever, that you are in my thoughts at my tenderest moments. That even now the tears stand in my eyes.’
A short reply from Becky follows:
‘Dear sir, I had the pleasure of receiving your letter which has given me more satisfaction than anything has in this long time and indeed has made a great alteration on the issues in my mind.’
She then goes on to say that she hopes to see him soon in Scotland, and will write again in June….and that’s it! We have no more letters on the subject and so Becky leaves us with a bit of a cliff hanger.
Perhaps the story ended here for them too as Blagden’s career and interests following his time at Edinburgh University saw him travelling widely. After completing his degree, Blagden served as a surgeon in the army on the hospital ship HMS Pigot from 1776-1780 before returning to London to become an assistant to Henry Cavendish. He travelled widely in Europe forming close friendships particularly with eminent French scientists including Antoine Lavoisier, Georges Cuvier and Claude Louis Berthollet to name a few.
I wonder what became of Becky and if she ever moved to London and managed to make a living from her needlework. It is perhaps testament to Blagden’s love of Becky that he did not destroy the letter as she requested and that it now rests in the Royal Society.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all our readers, I hope your doormat is heaped with handwritten cards, as receiving a text message along the lines of ‘I LUV U 4EVA’ isn’t quite the same, is it?!