17th-Century One-Liners

You kiss by the book
—Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene V)

In late 17th-century England, men and women seeking guidance in affairs of the heart could turn to printed miscellanies that functioned both as how-to manuals and literary entertainment.

Hugely popular with readers of both sexes, over 40 of these miscellanies appeared between 1640 and 1682. One of these books, The New Academy of Complements, published in London in 1671 and small enough to fit neatly in a hand or hide in a skirt, was marketed on its title page to “Ladies, Gentlewomen, Courtiers, Gentlemen, Scholars, Soldiers, Citizens, and Country-men,” with promises of courtly compliments, eloquent letters, and the newest “songs á la mode.”

The title page and its accompanying frontispiece also suggest a certain voyeurism, with an illustration of a couple standing between two columns that frame them like a theatrical proscenium. Completing the scene is a draped cloth, emblazoned with the book’s title, that hangs atop the columns like a curtain raised on a performance of courtship—all for the private eyes of the reader.

The first section of the book is filled with pages of compliments, similar to sayings that today might be found on a candy heart or a valentine.

Ranging from the modest “Sir, I wear you in my heart” and “Fair Lady, my whole estate is summ’d up in your smiles” to the more impassioned “Sir, Rather than lose your company, I would compass the utmost bounds of the Terrestrial Globe” and—somewhat cringingly—“Madam, I have been like a lump of Ice, till of late the heat of your favours revived my besotted spirits,” the list of encomia assures the reader that he or she need never feel tongue-tied.

The book’s second section turns to model letters, presumably for those lovers who have made it past first flirtations. These letters offer epistolary advice for those whose love lives are at turns passionate, sad, messy, and occasionally (and perhaps unintentionally) hilarious.

If a man lacked the words to write to his “False Mistress,” the book suggests opening with the salutation “Dear Stain to thy Sex” and continuing, “While I once adored thee…[now] thou are so Ugly a Monster.”

Occasionally, there are paired letters that read like mini-dramas: a letter from a “Rich, Old Gentleman, to a fair young Virgin” asserts: “Though I come not to you with a powdered lock, or in the mode of a Young Gallant, my Zeal for you can be as hot, and as sincere, as the sprucest Pretender.” The reader need not wait long for her answer, which appears directly below it: “Sir…while I could be content to keep my Coaches, my Pages, Lackeys, and Maids, I confess I could never endure the society of a bald pate.” Ouch.

While posturing as practical, these books, with their alternating perspectives of courtship, offered romantic, bawdy, and moral fantasy for readers; the popularity of this genre perhaps foreshadows the English reading public’s interest in amatory fiction and the rise of the novel in the next century. For the modern reader, though, The New Academy of Complements serves as an amusing and comforting reminder that the course of true love never did run smooth.

By Jill Gage, Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing and Bibliographer for British