IT IS THE YEAR 1849. Harold Thimbleby was the owner of a little bookshop called “The Ardent Bookworm”, which nestled itself in a tiny ginnel in the city of London. One day, he received a letter from a Miss Elizabeth Jane Hargreaves of Liverpool asking if he stocked a certain edition of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. It is a straightforward letter of request, such as he had received many times before. But as he reached the foot of the page, something about her signature caught his eye. Not only did the flourish of the final “s” tell him that the writer is left-handed but also the entire tenor of the letter — listening to the music behind her words and closely observing her style of writing — seemed to imply a certain delicate yearning which spoke deeply to his soul. As he took up his plume to pen his usual reply to corresponding clients, his head was strangely spinning, and an unmistakable feeling of impending destiny took hold of him. The entire incident was thickly swathed in déjà vu. He affirmed to her that he did indeed have the book while, at the same time, he took the liberty to (as he put it) “also recommend another book by a certain Ellis Bell, entitled ‘Wuthering Heights’, which will enable the perfect fulfilment of the longing expressed in your letter of request to me”.
Ten days later, he received a reply from Miss Hargreaves expressing “great joy” that he not only had the particular edition of “Gulliver’s Travels” which she had requested but also declaring gratitude about his “extraordinarily penetrating recommendation of ‘Wuthering Heights’”. She then explained that poor health and other mitigating circumstances prevented her from travelling to London on the long rail trip, much as she would have liked to do so; but she promised to make the journey when the situation would permit. She then gave the bookseller leave to continue the correspondence by asking questions about his business; and he noticed once more the revealing “s” which so intrigued him last time and also, again, the sense of musical longing behind the whole epistle.
And so a correspondence was struck up between Mr. Harold Thimbleby and Miss Elizabeth Jane Hargreaves which would last for more than a year. It was a correspondence so rich and wide-ranging that he realised this woman had transformed his life by imparting a joy and a frisson to him which he had never known before. She never made the journey to his shop and each time he had requested permission to visit her, she found some reason for him not to come. He sent her the books by post as a gift, plus many more after that. Within four months they had both declared their love for each other in the profoundest of terms. On one occasion, he wrote:
“My dearest Elizabeth, on each occasion that your words grace my eyes, I imagine the hand which is patiently writing them. I see long, delicate, slender fingers—a pianist’s digits—covered by translucent skin which begs to be touched. If I were to describe to you the longing in my soul to feel those fingers entwining themselves around mine in a neverending search for fulfilment of desire, I fear that my heart would explode”.
By way of reply, Elizabeth Jane Hargreaves simply said: “Mine has already exploded!” And so the correspondence continued in ever more feverish outcries. However, sitting in his antiquarian paradise, Harold Thimbleby regularly recalled that unmistakable feeling of destiny which so took hold of him from the beginning. He had, with trepidation, faced up to the very real possibility that the two of them might never meet. Yet, here he was, at the age of thirty-six, writing with an outpoured heart to the only woman he had ever truly loved — a woman of letters with a keen intellect and so well-read that it put his own bibliophilia into the shade. He anticipated postal deliveries as a small child awaits Santa Klaus on Christmas Eve. Tearing open the envelope he read each word with laughter and often tears in his eyes at the peculiar turns of phrase and wealth of knowledge, humour and thought which accompanied each of Miss Hargreaves’ missives. It was as if the words themselves and all that they represented were her very form manifesting before his eyes. He wrote in his bulging notebook: “Her words are her heart and her heart is her form.”
Nevertheless, although she danced nymphly across the many pages before him each week, there was a more-than-curiosity to see not so much her form in general but especially her eyes and hands. That is what he longed for. Finally, thirteen months and five days after her initial letter to him, she invited him to Liverpool, for she had (as she wrote) “some matters of great consequence” to reveal to him. He was intrigued by the phrase, but he also had a sense of foreboding. A childlike excitement gripped him increasingly until that day had come.
And when that day came, at the station he was met by her housekeeper and a serving boy who brought him by carriage to the house of Miss Hargreaves. When he met her for the first time, she was sitting upright in her favourite chair, with a book in her hand which was one that he had sent her by Daniel Defoe, “A Journal of the Plague Year”, published one hundred and thirty years earlier. He bowed deeply in reverence. The housekeeper excused herself and said she would bring tea. The curtains were half-closed, though a shaft of sunlight was playing on the face of Miss Hargreaves, cascading an almost angelic presence onto her features which he remarked in his heart as being beautiful beyond words. She was not classically beautiful; and maybe if she had walked into a room before he had corresponded he would not necessarily have immediately noticed her (though destiny cannot be cheated). But now that he had loved and enjoyed her mind with every cell in his being, he realised how striking she actually appeared. But he was shaking, and he didn’t know why. He caught a glimpse of himself in a gold-leaf framed mirror on the wall and observed that he was as white as clean sheets on a hospital bed.
With a look of pure love in her eyes — the eyes he had so longed to know — she invited him to pull up a chair in front of her. She put down her book and looked into his face earnestly while taking his hands in hers — the hands he had so longed to know. They were, indeed, as delicate and translucent as he has imagined. She was wearing a dress of light green velour tinged with white lace. She smiled quietly, then spoke: “So this is Harold Thimbleby”. He replied with just two words: “It is”. They remained silent for what felt like minutes. He was mesmerised by her face. He observed lovingly and lingeringly every little blemish and perfection and declared inwardly: “This is a face to which I could wake up each morning and never tire of it.”. He still had that feeling of foreboding; but now, in her presence, it was mingled with joy. He wanted to speak to her about so many things which were bubbling to the surface of his mind — things which he had longed to discuss with her on the long train ride north. Snippets of newsy thought which stood out in his mind were how Ellis Bell had just then been revealed to be, in fact, a Miss Emily Brontë; Verdi’s astonishing Requiem and Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony had recently been premiered; he had scrumptiously tasted the recently invented evaporated milk for the first time and most of San Francisco had just been destroyed by fire. But the look of gravitas on her face prevented him from doing so. She knew he wanted to share so many things and she too had things to share in return. But first she must deal him a hammerblow he had to know. This, too, was part of his destiny. She breathed a long sigh and he learned from her words that she had become increasingly ill for some eighteen months previously. Recently she had received a diagnosis from her doctor of uterine cancer—one of the most common killers of women at that time—and had been given weeks to live. She was just twenty-eight years old, which was already two years more than the average life-expectancy for a woman in Liverpool in 1849. At thirty-six, he himself had just reached the average age of life-expectancy for a man in London. They were both already living on borrowed time.
Suddenly, as she was still speaking about her health, he knew that there was only one thing for him to do. The whole of his destiny has led to that moment. Now he knew what the feeling of déjà vu had really signified when he had first put pen to paper to the extraordinary Miss Elizabeth Jane Hargreaves. He fell to one knee and, with tears welling into his eyes, he asked for her hand in marriage. The tears which were already in hers rolled down her face to her chin and dripped onto the lace-topped cleavage of her dress as she said, “Do you know what you are taking upon yourself?” He replied: “I knew it the moment I picked up my plume and dipped it in the ink to write to you for the first time. Your letter had spoken to my soul even though it only asked a bookseller for a book.” She clasped his hands tighter and nodded. “Then my answer is yes.”
He sat back on the chair and remained with her in the half-light, hands clasped, in silence, cherishing the moments until the housekeeper arrived with the tea. They were the first moments of a little over four more weeks that they had together. They were mostly weeks of love and laughter in the midst of the pain, apart from the final harrowing few days which broke him like a twig in a hurricane. At her bedside, with her fading eyes under laudanum looking into his, the final words spoken to her from his heart were: “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for showing me the love which was hidden so deep within me and how I could express it.”
Three months later, back in London, after a brief struggle with cholera, Harold Thimbleby followed her into what lay beyond.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Author’s Note: “I have often been asked if I think that it is possible to fall in love with someone who one has never met in person. My answer to that has to be in the affirmative. The only reason anyone could doubt it is because we live in an age in which physical appearance or outward ‘attractiveness’ means more than anything else”. Those, in fact, were the words that I originally set out to write. Then, suddenly, that whole story about Mr. Harold Thimbleby and Miss Elizabeth Jane Hargreaves hurled itself into my mind and I had to put it down before I did anything else. That story provides a fine illustration of the fact that there can be no more assuring way of falling in love than to fall in love with someone’s mind before you have even seen their physical form, for that shows it was not merely some kind of outward infatuation. Can blind people fall in love? Of course they can. And you can be sure that they haven’t fallen for someone because of his or her looks alone. Blind people fall in love without seeing the one they fall in love with. They don’t relate to the form but to the heart — although obviously they have the added advantage of hearing the voice and touching the skin. Nevertheless, the possibility of falling in love without meeting is a very real one if there is the possibility for a true meeting of minds.
When you get to know someone through interactive correspondence alone, it is as if the other person is flowering before you and the words flying between you both are like seeds giving birth to floral bounties. Each time you exchange words, new petals are being revealed in the ravishing bloom. There is nothing more sensual (and I use that word in its broadest sense) than a meeting of minds! The dance of souls when minds meet is one of infinite beauty and depth — substantially transcending mere physical attraction. A fact which is almost entirely overlooked in this day and age is that a meeting of minds is the most powerful kind of foreplay imaginable!
In closing, a couple of caveats are in order here. First, one has to be quite sure that one isn’t falling in love with an ideal. If one isn’t interacting with the whole person in real life, it is easy to idealise that person into something one wants them to be, or imagines them to be, rather than who they really are. Sure, one can do this with a person even if one knows them in real life. But it is more likely to occur if they have never met in the flesh. Second, if both parties are not being completely honest about what they write, say, or reveal to each other, the entire exercise is futile and any notions of “falling in love” would be based on a false image and therefore be of no consequence whatsoever. If a beautiful, beguiling girl walks into a room and a man dumbly says to his friends “I’m in love!”, that is merely eros at play. But without the unconditional, more spiritual love of agape and the faithful, loyal, virtuous love of philia in the mix, such love will be superficial and will burn itself out in the bedroom. Surely, the world is filled with the ashes of such love.
So, can one fall in love without meeting? Just ask Harold and Elizabeth…
© Alan Morrison, 2020