Thursday, 27 June 2013

Billet-doux - The Art of Sweet Notes

Romance, Amour, Boyfriend, Girlfriend, Wife, Husband
Photo by Louise Denton


Noun. Now chiefly jocular. Plural billets-doux. Late 17th century.
[French, literally 'sweet note'.]

A love-letter.

Who can't remember writing their first billet-doux? I was 15, and it was for a girl in my school that I had fallen madly in love with. I sat for hours in my bedroom, agonising over clumsy words and awkward sentiments, phrasing and rephrasing both my feelings for her and the reasons I suddenly needed to express them. I can remember virtually nothing of what I wrote in that letter except the final line which summed up everything I wanted to say:

"I think you're beautiful."

The following day, I set off for school, my billet-doux hidden safely in my bag and a knot the size of a bowling ball in my stomach. During lunch, I sneaked into the school office and surreptitiously slipped the nondescript envelope into her form's register. It was my plan that her form tutor would simply hand her the letter without question during afternoon registration. It was a plan that worked.

In an age of emails, text messages and social media, I can't help but think that the billet-doux is a dying art. Unlike today, when I might have sent my inamorata a text message, the communication then was not instantly received, nor could it be instantly replied to. Instead, an agonising wait ensued, during which time I knew neither her reaction nor whether it had even been received.

Of course, this all relates to a childish infatuation during my teen years. However, it's this triviality that makes the term billet-doux fitting, for although it's defined as a 'love-letter', it does rank below a love-letter both in terms of depth and artistry. That's not to disparage the value of billets-doux; their effect can be profound, even in an established relationship. Who doesn't still cherish getting a 'sweet note' from their boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband? Who doesn't cherish writing one? And if you haven't written a billet-doux in a while, put down your mobile phone, log out of Facebook and pick up a pen: nothing will ever compare to seeing an expression of someone's love from their own hand.

Oh, and if you're wondering what happened with my teenage inamorata, she did reply a couple of days later with a scrap of paper torn from an exercise book; those words I do remember: "Eddie: seems like you've been winding me up. Thanks a bunch." Evidently she thought I was playing a prank. Ah well.

Someone who clearly got more billets-doux than I ever did
Photo by Mario Leko

Can you remember your first billet-doux, written or received? Do you still write billets-doux? Are you composing one right now?

Am I wrong in fearing for this art as email and texts are a superior form of romantic communication?

Do please share and comment below.


  1. So sweet! :o) Not having kids myself, I don't get a lot of insight into the current fashions and modes for such things but judging by what impressions I have formed, I would have thought a text stating: "wassup?" might be a more common form for today's youth to open up negotiations...

    Related but slightly off the subject, I adore the epistolary novel form - particularly one or two written in 19th century (les liaisons dangereuses being one - although that one maybe didn't end so romantically...) and the sense of suspense that format can build in the narrative. Plus, of course, there's a frisson of naughtiness involved too because you're actually reading private letters (albeit fictional ones!).

    J'adore le billet-doux!

    1. Oh no, Debbie! It can't be that bad, surely. Although, I do know a number of people (my age) that have asked their partners out by text (and broken up by text - come on! What's the matter with you??).

      And yes, I agree about letters in fiction. I also have an old book about love letters that was given to me as a gift once, and it contains reprints of real love letters from famous people throughout the ages. *Very* interesting (and a bit naughty in places) : o )

  2. A couple of years ago, I was in my second year of university, I was waiting for my train. Apparently, a French guy was waiting for the same train, and saw me on the platform.

    Anyhow, the train arrived, I found a seat and got settled, when all of a sudden a sweet older lady came to me with the biggest smile imaginable, carrying a little note. The French guy had sent me that note, telling me he had seen me waiting for my train, and that he thought I looked very charming, and added his contact information at the bottom of this letter. :D Made my day!

    P.S. I did reply to him, and we had a talk on msn right after that (only to find out he was probably a little bit too old for me (me 20, him 28), and the French was kind of an obstacle), and while it turned out to be nothing, I still have that letter. Thought it was sweet.

    1. That is sweet, Bibi! And yes, what a compliment - of all the people that he saw travelling on that train, it would *you* that moved him to take out his pen and compose a little billet-doux just for you : o )

    2. Oh my, what a shame you didn't take a leap of faith and follow through - smooth French man, older (sigh) ;o)

    3. Well we talked online a couple of times after that, just to get to know eachoter a little better. But, well, sometimes you know it's never going to be anything more. It was really sweet of him to send me that letter, and I'm glad I was brave enough to reply (I didn't even know who this letter came from, remember it was the old lady who brought it to me) but it wasn't meant to be, and that's okay :) I know he got a girlfriend shortly after, so I guess he wasn't too heart-broken. :)

    4. I think it's a great story, and because you replied, it won't be one of those things you wonder about for the rest of your life: "Hmm ... I wonder what that guy on the train would have been like ..."

    5. That is a beautiful story! It seems to be a scene right out of a movie. Sigh... oh to add some adventure to my life haha.

  3. I undoubtedly kept many billet-doux received when I was young. They remain tucked away in my office closet, waiting for the moment I pause to relive the experiences - the sweaty palms, the racing heart, the sweet anticipation...
    As a teacher of teenagers, I would concur with your fear that this art is being lost in the flurry of instantaneous technology. My students are glued to their cell phones whenever possible - between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine - they communicate in short snippets and sometimes rather risqué images.

    1. Oh yes. And the ol'sexting malarky. Doesn't really carry the romance of the billet-doux, does it?

  4. I'm here now, Ed.

    I'm not sure if I should tell my story... I was 12, I found a billet-doux in my pencil case. i don't remember exactly what it said. It was something along the lines of "Do you want to be my girlfriend?" by a boy who had asked quite a few girls the same question.

    So what does Evi do? She finds the boy and slaps him in the face for daring to ask her such a thing. Oh my God, I should track him down and apologize (15 years later). I hope he hasn't been afraid of girls ever since. I must say that despite this incident and the fact that we never became boyfriend-girlfriend, we spent a lot of time together after that. Playing board games at his place after school etc.

    1. Oh, the trauma you put that poor boy through haha. Maybe I shouldn't find it amusing, but it is somewhat. I can relate to wishing you could apologize for an action done in the throes of teenage hormones : p. It sounds like he was just fine!

    2. Aww ... you know I was only teasing, don't you, Evi? You're welcome to pop in and out of my blog as often or as little as you wish - it's always a pleasure to see you here : o )

      I wonder if somewhere there's another blog, on a similar subject, and someone has written "Well I once put a note in a girl's pencil case asking her to be my girlfriend, and she hunted me down and slapped me! I've never been able to approach a girl since!" : o )

      Aww ... I'm teasing again, of course. If we all had to apologise for every little indiscretion committed in our teenage years, well it would be a very apologetic world indeed. I can think of a few myself *sighs*

    3. Thanks for your support guys! And yes, Ed, I do know you were teasing! (Although now you probably think I'm a crazy b**** going around slapping people) :)

      James Joyce's love letters to his wife have recently been translated in Greek. I didn't know they existed before I read about them on a Greek website. Wow, these two were on fire! Although his letters were more of billets-spicy than billets-doux.

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