“I could write to you all night long… I am forever faithful to you,” Marie Dubosc wrote in 1758 to her husband, a lieutenant aboard a French warship. It is just one of the beautiful sentences from a pile of forgotten letters intended for French sailors. Unfortunately, her husband, Louis Chambrelan, would never receive the letter. Dubosc died the following year in Le Havre, before Chambrelan could return. He remarried quite quickly once he was safely back on shore in France.
The pile of letters gathered dust in the British National Archives until it caught the attention of Renaud Morieux, a professor at the University of Cambridge. Out of curiosity, he decided to ask permission to look at them. The discovery catapulted him straight into the 18th century, during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). ‘As soon as I lifted the lid of the box, I saw that it contained exceptional documents. My heart was racing,” he said Le Monde.
“Why don’t you write more often?”
The letters were intended for the crew of the Galatea, a French frigate that had sailed from Pauillac, on the Gironde, in March 1758. The ship had to assist the besieged French in their fight against the British in what is now Canada. But their ship was captured in the Atlantic Ocean. The crew was captured and the contents seized. Many sailors died from disease (especially typhoid) and malnutrition, others were lucky to be released.
In any case, keeping in touch with the family was very complicated. But that did not stop those at home from writing down their concerns and making numerous copies, in the hope that one copy would reach their loved one. The letters are sometimes about minor annoyances, such as a mother who blames her son for not writing more often. “I think of you more than you think of me,” wrote Norman Marguerite Lemoyne. But just as often, the love burst from the paper. “Some were very moving,” Morieux said. “I realized I was the first person to read these very personal messages. The recipients weren’t so lucky.’
Dictate to someone else
It is striking, especially for the eighteenth century, that some letters were quite explicit. “I can’t wait to own you,” said a certain Anne Le Cerf. There is discussion about that verb, it can also stand for ‘making love’. Le Cerf signed it with ‘your obedient wife Nanette’, a pet name. It gets juicy when you realize that many women probably couldn’t even write themselves, and had to dictate their sometimes very intimate texts to someone else.
The find is also interesting sociologically. She shows that not only the upper bourgeoisie wrote letters, but also the lower classes. “These texts, with their simple spelling and limited vocabulary, are rare, especially if they are written in the first person,” says Morieux.