'WhatsApps of the 18th century': Contents of French love letters revealed for the first time

Credit: University of Cambridge

The 18th century letters were written to French sailors by their families.
The 18th century letters were written to French sailors by their families. Credit: University of Cambridge

The contents of over one hundred undelivered 18th century love letters have been revealed for the first time.

The letters were sent to French sailors by their families between 1757 and 1758, but were confiscated by Britain's Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War and never opened.

After being studied by a professor at the University of Cambridge 275 years later, the insightful letters have been likened to the WhatsApps and Zoom calls which kept modern families connected during the Covid pandemic.

Professor Renaud Morieux spent months decoding the letters written with poor spelling and often no punctuation and said: “I only ordered the box out of curiosity.

“I realised I was the first person to read these very personal messages since they were written. Their intended recipients didn’t get that chance. It was very emotional.

“These letters are about universal human experiences, they’re not unique to France or the 18th century.

"When we are separated from loved-ones by events beyond our control like the pandemic or wars, we have to work out how to stay in touch, how to reassure, care for people and keep the passion alive.

"Today we have Zoom and WhatsApp. In the 18th century, people only had letters but what they wrote about feels very familiar.”

In 1758, a third of French sailors were detained in Britain, with their families repeatedly trying to contact them to exchange news.

Some of the letters were written poorly and filled all available space on the paper. Credit: University of Cambridge

Marie Dubosc wrote to her husband, the first Lieutenant of the Galatée, a French warship, in 1758.

She wrote: “I could spend the night writing to you … I am your forever faithful wife. Good night, my dear friend. It is midnight. I think it is time for me to rest.”

She did not know where her husband was, he would never receive her letter and they would never meet again.

She died the following year before he was released and the Lieutenant remarried in 1761 when safely back in France.

In 1758, young sailor Nicolas Quesnel's 61-year-old mother, Marguerite sent a message written by an unknown scribe to complain that he was not writing to her.

She wrote: “On the first day of the year you have written to your fiancée […]. I think more about you than you about me. […]

"In any case I wish you a happy new year filled with blessings of the Lord. I think I am for the tomb, I have been ill for three weeks.

"Give my compliments to Varin [a shipmate], it is only his wife who gives me your news.”

Morieux published his findings on Tuesday in the journal Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales.

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