my love for you is deathless

ANNA

This one is really quite simple: I want to be Meredith Duran, when I grow up.

Julia Quinn got me hooked on historical romance. Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels was the first romance to just blow me away. But when I read Meredith’s books I realised what romance had the potential to be, and it thrilled me. It inspired me to push myself as hard and as far as I could in my own writing.

Her worlds are dark and complex. Her characters have wine-stained teeth and opium habits. They’re sometimes vain. They’re always wonderful. Her writing edges onto the literary end of the romance scale, and is a joy to read.

It is, needless to say, a huge privilege to have her on the blog. This is the last post in what has been an amazing series.

***

MEREDITH

For five nights in autumn 1990, along with a good portion of the rest of America, I became obsessed with the American Civil War. The Ken Burns documentary that aired that month has left a lasting impression on a lot of people, not least through the haunting strains of the song “Ashokan Farewell.” Indeed, a mountain dulcimer instructor once told me that this is the most requested song amongst her students. It has the power to raise goose bumps even if you’ve never seen the documentary.

Yet while the song itself is haunting, I suspect that it has such a powerful effect on so many of us because of a single moment (among many) in which it appeared in the film: as the background score to the reading (by a gifted actor named Paul Roebling) of a letter that was written by a husband to his wife on the eve of battle in 1861.

I copy the letter below, with the original punctuation. But I strongly urge you to listen to Roebling’s reading here.

July 14, 1861

Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more . . .

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt . . .

Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field.

The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness . . .

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again . . .

As noted in the documentary, Ballou died a week later, killed in battle at Bull Run. But as Solomon sang so many centuries ago, love is, indeed, strong as death. Through this letter, Ballou’s love for his wife remains powerfully alive, bringing tears to my eyes more than a century after he penned his words…more than a century since this letter was first read, by a woman whose heart no doubt was breaking.

When we talk about heroes, we often mean people whose actions were shaped by choices like Ballou’s—choices that pitted love against honor, ideals against safety. We are horrified by the tragedies that precipitated those choices, and humbled by the sacrifice of those who rose to answer the challenge. And we recognize that love is often the wellspring from which their unthinkable courage arose.

What is the romance genre if not a celebration of such courage? We dream of happy endings, yes; in our books, love not only survives the unthinkable choices that our heroes and heroines must make, it also becomes the means by which they triumph. Certainly we all would like to dream up a happier ending for Sullivan Ballou and his wife.

But in pausing here to reflect on his letter, we, romance readers and writers alike, also do what we, of all people, do best. We are witnesses to their love. In the act of witnessing that love, we deny time and forgetfulness their vitiating power. And by witnessing, we also take strength and inspiration from the love that created this letter—a love made eternal through the words that expressed it.

Love and the written word: two of our most powerful hopes for immortality.

This holiday season, I wish you love and peace. And a very good book or two.

Meredith

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

Comments 5 Responses

  1. Shelley Hughes-Mills

    Such a beautiful post.

    Anna, all of the posts that you’ve had recently have captured why it is that I read and write romance. All these threads wind together to bind the idea that love is powerful, beautiful, and above all–hopeful.

    I consider myself a secular humanist; I don’t believe in a God outside of ourselves. But the most awesome–in the true sense of the word–power I know is the human capacity for love. It is how we become immortal. It is how we become more than what we are. It is how we create and pray and find meaning. And romance novels celebrate that, the grand and breathtaking power we all have to fill ourselves and each other even when the world feels hollow and empty.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I couldn’t agree more! (And given that most contemporary forms of religion centre around the idea of love, I think a lot of other people agree with us, too.) Love is so irrational. It’s bigger than ourselves. It’s the one powerful thing to grab onto, sometimes, when life just feels arbitrary and cruel and bewildering. It makes no sense that we would give up everything for this one feeling – this one experience of loyalty and belonging. An amazing, transformative thing!

  2. Nicole

    Oh, I’ve always loved Ballou’s letter. I bought the soundtrack to the documentary years ago and listened to that on repeat. I love how you’ve connected it to romance because yes, as sad as it is, it shows how powerful the depths of love can be.

    Lovely post.

  3. Karenmc

    This is a lovely post, and it demonstrates just how beautifully Meredith uses language.

    I’ve read the Ballou letter before, but I think it’s time to drop the Ken Burns series into my Netflix streaming queue. That will make a perfect alternative to inane New Year’s Eve programming,

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