Friendship, love and letter-writing

Dr Sally Holloway is a historian of emotions, material culture, and romantic love. She contributed to the research for Five Hundred Years of Friendship, and is an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions. In this blog post she explores how letters mediated and sustained relationships of love and friendship in the eighteenth century. 


Love and friendship during the eighteenth century were inextricably intertwined. The notion that friendships between men and women could blossom into an enduring love provided the central pillar of the idea of companionate marriage. As the philosopher Mary Astell (1666-1731) argued in Some Reflections Upon Marriage in 1700:

He who does not make Friendship the chief inducement to his Choice, and prefer it before any other consideration, does not deserve a good Wife, and therefore should not complain if he goes without one. Now we can never grow weary of our Friends; the longer we have had them the more they are endear’d to us.[1]

The heroine of Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela (1740) similarly noted that ‘Love before Marriage is absolutely necessary’ and that ‘Wives and Husbands are or should be Friends’.[2] Eighteenth-century suitors followed this dictum in writing love letters to female friends who had captured their hearts. Some hoped for ‘an entire assurance of continued Friendship’ until fortune permitted them to ‘oblige you as I ought’ with a romantic suit.[3] The unsteady growth of literacy and flourishing of the culture of letters provided a way for literate friends to maintain and intensify their relationships through the continual exchange of letters.

While friendship could pave the path to matrimony, certain men wrote to complain to their sweethearts when their courtships had stalled at friendship. In the 1740s, the Exeter physician George Gibbs was frustrated when his sweetheart Ann Vicary’s father insisted that ‘I ought not to visit you with any view but of mine Friendship’ because ‘Intimacies of another nature if they are long continued, cannot be broke off without great Uneasiness’. George was thus encouraged to content himself with friendship until he had received his inheritance, granting him parental permission to continue his suit. He comforted himself by maintaining their romantic correspondence, and holding on to his ‘Expectations of one day calling you by a much dearer name than that either of an acquaintance or Friend’.[4]

As women’s courtships progressed towards marriage, they gleefully reported every detail of their romantic escapades in letters to female friends. Elite marriages were not exempt from the frisson of romance, as illustrated by the letters of Georgiana Poyntz (1737-1814) during her courtship with John, first Earl Spencer (1734-83). In 1755, Georgiana wrote a dreamy account of her love to her friend and confidant Theadora Cowper:

now my dear Thea I will own it & never deny it again that I do love Spencer above all men upon Earth…the last glimpse I had of him was to see him in the utmost Perfection for he was on a very fine prancing Grey Horse with a long tail & mane…I wish to god he loved me half as well as I love him. Oh Thea I could write of him for ever & not be tir’d.[5]

While Georgiana could not have written such an explicit account of her attraction to John himself, writing to her friend provided the perfect outlet to rationalise her emotions, verbalise her love, and fantasise about her dashing future husband. The couple were married bedecked in diamonds at his country seat Althorp in Northamptonshire on 20th December 1755.[6]

In return, Georgiana’s letters provided a source of support for Theadora during her ill-fated romance with her first cousin, the poet William Cowper (1731-1800). Georgiana advised her friend in May 1754 that ‘Mamma said I think the best Thing Thea could do would be to marry Billy Cowper if she Can be Contented with a Little. He is a very good young man & I dare say will do very well in the world’.[7] Sadly, the courtship was cut short in 1756 due to her father’s objections, and a melancholic Theadora remained unmarried. Georgiana understood that imposing upon her friend at this time would only add to her pain, recognising that ‘it would be only tormenting you for nothing’ and would ‘add to your Afflictions’.[8] By the time Theadora’s father finally acquiesced to the match in August 1763, the moment had passed, and William declined his offer.[9]

The Two Friends, London, 1786, hand-coloured mezzotint, plate mark 35.3 x 25cm, Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, CT.

Theadora at least had her correspondence with her friend Georgiana as a means of comfort. The virtues of friendships between women were celebrated in prints such as The Two Friends (1786), depicting two fashionably dressed young women composing a letter (Fig. 1). On the table before them are an inkwell and a stack of books. The text rhapsodised,

Friendship thou soft propitious power,
Sweet Regent of the social hour,
Sublime thy Joys not understood,
But by the Virtuous and Good.

The woman on the left helps her friend to compose a letter, which begins, ‘Dear Sir, When last I had the honor [sic] to…’ Her companion wears a white dress printed all over with red hearts, and her eyes glaze over in a lovelorn expression, suggesting that they may be replying to a suitor. The image presents the two friends colluding over the letter, as the more composed woman dressed in blue points to their missive, and puts an arm around the shoulder of her lovelorn accomplice.

While friendships between men and women could blossom into love, women’s faithful friends provided an essential resource in navigating the unpredictable world of courtship. Letters to friends enabled women to fantasise about their suitors, dispense advice, and provide an unerring source of support when their love went awry. The Spectator described the following Biblical maxim as ‘very just as well as very sublime’ in 1711: ‘A faithful Friend is a strong Defence; and he that hath found such an one, hath found a Treasure’.[10]


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[1] Mary Astell, Reflections on Marriage (1706), third edition, p. 93.

[2] Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, ed. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely (Oxford, 2001), Vol. II, pp. 448-9.

[3] Copy of a love letter, undated (early to mid 18th century), Suffolk Record Office, Ipswich, HA11/B1/1/6.

[4] George Gibbs to Ann Vicary, Exmouth, undated (1740s), London Metropolitan Archives, MS/11021/1.

[5] Georgiana Poyntz to Theadora Cowper, 1755, Althorp Collection, BL Add Mss 75691. I am grateful to Hannah Greig for sharing this reference with me.

[6] ‘An Account of Mr. Spencer’s Grand Wedding with Mrs Poyntz wrote by a Lady who had it from a Relation of Mrs Poyntz who saw the Cloaths before they went out of Town’, BL Add Mss 64082 E.

[7] Poyntz to Cowper, May 11th 1754, BL Add Mss 75691.

[8] Spencer to Cowper, June 6th 1756.

[9] See James King, William Cowper: A Biography (Durham, 1986), pp. 21-9.

[10] The Spectator, No. 68, Friday May 18th 1711. Cf. Ecclesiasticus 6:14.