In two slim volumes of collected love letters recently catalogued by the British Library, a young couple in the mid-18th century discuss their private lives, family news and above all, their love for one another. Written between 1758-1762, the couple’s initial correspondence display a certain caution and reveal the discreet nature of their courtship. But over time their letters become longer and more intimate, eventually detailing plans for their wedding. Though purposefully kept anonymous, the correspondents have now been identified as Francis Smyth (1737-1809) and Mary Plumer (1741-1824).
Yet, whilst they were deeply in love, Smyth and Plumer did not always agree – especially when it came to the subject of male fidelity.
In the spring of 1762, Smyth and Plumer discussed the differences between the sexes – particularly in relation to their faithfulness. In a playful but sincere manner, the couple discussed the nature of courtship and cases of jilting, each mentioning friends who had sadly suffered heartbreak. The exchange began after Smyth detailed how a fellow student at Cambridge had been rejected by a woman who took a fancy to another man:
“I have much to tell you of my intimates in college, in the love way I have many stories but one I will tell you…a friend of mine has had a passion for a very pretty lady for many years and had the happiness of meeting with the kindest return to his love. They had many meetings and were as much engaged to all appearance as two people could be…[but] about a week ago a new lover offered, she accepted him and discarded the old one without any concern, who is at present as unhappy as can be.”— Letter 25: Francis Smyth to Mary Plumer, March 31, 1762.
Though sympathetic to this young man’s upset, Plumer protested that men were more inclined to be false than women:
“I am sorry for your friend’s disappointment and to hear that there are such women in the world, but for one of our sex that are false, there are thousands of yours”.— Letter 26: Mary Plumer to Francis Smyth, April 2, 1762.
Francis Smyth was dismayed by Mary Plumer’s generalisation about the unfaithfulness of men:
“I find we must still dispute! How could you blame the men as you do! To knock them down by thousands to one frail female is what I must resent!”— Letter 27: Francis Smyth to Mary Plumer, April 4, 1762.
Yet Mary Plumer was unconvinced and remained sceptical:
“I find you are obliged to take up arms in defence of the thousand poor men I knocked down (as you term it) don’t you believe there are male jilts as well as female? I cannot say I can complain of the inconstancy of your sex to myself…but I have felt for my friends…[and] I will have done with this disagreeable subject...”— Letter 28: Mary Plumer to Francis Smyth, April 5, 1762.
With that, the matter ended.
Their love letters can now be read in full at the British Library.
Violet Horlick is associated with Kings College, London.
This article first appeared on the Untold Lives blog, a publication of the British Library.