Lot 52    

Antebellum Love Letters Between a Virginia Plantation Owner and a Young Widow
2009, Winter American History, Dec 9
Littleton Waller Tazewell Wickam and Elizabeth Peyre Laurens Love letters, 1853-1854; 27 letters. Letters 20-24 are unique in terms of postal history.

Tazewell, Peyre, Laurens, Ashby, Litteton: the names alone evoke plantation culture in the antebellum south. This collection of 27 letters comes from a courting couple in antebellum Virginia who between them sported all those names (and more!). Born in 1821 into privilege and enormous social connection, Littleton W.T. Wickham was the son of the distinguished Constitutional lawyer John Wickham and was named for one of his father's closest friends, L.W. Tazewell (who had represented Virginia in the Congress and Senate and as governor). A graduate of the University of Virginia, Wickham built a successful legal practice in New Orleans, but after the death of his first wife, Eliza, in 1850, the spent more and more time in the Old Dominion, eventually returning to live there shortly before the Civil War.

Wickham's business affairs demanded regular travel between Virginia, New Orleans, and Charleston, placing him in an odd situation when he began courting the widow Elizabeth Peyre (Ashby) Laurens in 1853. This collection includes nearly twenty letters written by the couple during their extended courtship in 1853-1854. Written in increasingly intimate style, at times joking, at times deeply longing, the letters offer wonderful insight into the rituals of courtship among two experienced courtiers. Whether joking about sending slipper through the mail -- a sign of intimacy, no doubt -- or musing about their separation, both Wickham and Laurens maintain a delicate balance between decorum and desire.

In a typical letter, Elizabeth chides Littleton for saying that she might actually prefer a letter to his visit in person: "No indeed," she writes, "but next to seeing you what could give me as much pleasure as having from you. To see before me, traced by your own hands those words so precious to woman's heart, I love you, coming from the one most dear to her. And when I feel that you are away, and I am lonely, I turn again to your letter, and my heart is cheered by the pleasure it brings. So do not deem it a foolish fancy of mine, which is not to be indulged...." [Elizabeth to Littleton, September 29, 1854]

Two weeks later, she rues the fact that without Littleton around, she has little interest in going out and socializing: "I have neither the inclination or energy to walk without you. I do go sometimes when I know that I require it, but not for pleasure. Now that you are away I would rather sit in my own room, thinking of you Darling until again I fancy myself sitting near you with your arms around me, and again, I hear the quick beating of your precious heart. And although I know alas that it is but a delusion of fancy, it is not sweeter to me than to commune with you in spirit, than to sit in the presence of others." [Elizabeth, Oct. 17, 1854]

Littleton's letters are equally passionate and he fulfills his end of the courtship in grand Victorian (and Southern) fashion: "My dear Lizzie you asked me if in your absence I should miss you. Miss you? I could enjoy nothing without you. The glorious views in the passage of the Blue Ridge were insipid because you were not their to participate in the pleasure, and this moment just arrived from my journey, my first thought is to talk to you and tell how I miss, how I love, how I long for you...."

The collection includes a small number of letters in addition to those between Wickham and Laurens. Among these is a series of five letters regarding the sale of the Richmond estate of Wickham's mother, Elizabeth Selden McClurg. In addition to a long account of bottling up and distributing the wine in the cellar of the estate, the most interesting letter is one from Wickham's oldest (half-)brother from Hanover Court House, May 1854, noting that the estate had netted nearly $56,000 at sale -- $11,000 higher than the highest estimate. In discussing the dispersal of the estate, William Wickham writes revealing about another class of profitable property: "The servants I have mostly disposed of on reasonable terms, according to their own choice, & I was glad to be able to do so. Tom I have told to look for a situation among respectable persons, & that I should require no pay for his services. His good conduct & his attention to his old master entitle him to this indulgence. Shall he be in want, from age or infirmity, he must be provided for. I would have done the same for Mary, but of her own accord she got a man named Robert to buy her for $200. I thought it best to let her decide for herself. She has probably purchased herself in his name."

One note in the collection summarizes Civil War service in the 20th Battalion Virginia Artillery, their surrender under R. S. Ewell at Sailers Creek, and six weeks imprisonment at Point Lookout; and the collection also includes a partial essay on the passing of the Old South and birth of the New South, written after about 1898. Both of these items are worn, with the latter separated into six pieces and incomplete.

A superb collection revealing the intimate practice of courtship among the plantation elite of Virginia. Well written, cultured, and insightful, the letters are in fine condition with comparatively little wear, except as noted. Most letters are folded sheets with stamps and postal markings or include the envelopes.
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