Lady Brilliana Harley: Four Hundred Love Letters

Encouragement from Afar

Lucy Hutchinson is my favorite Puritan woman. But to be totally honest with you, when I read all four hundred letters of Lady Brilliana Harley, she almost stole first place in my heart. Did your mom ever pack you notes in your school lunch as a kid? My mom did; sometimes she would even write on our banana peels, which honestly made me a little nervous to eat the banana, being the super contentious child that I was. But I still remember the warm fuzzies I’d get when I saw one of her notes, especially if it was at the very bottom of all my snacks and I didn’t find it until the end, which garnered extra surprise. I got a similar feeling when I read Harley’s letters because they are the same, just from another era and a lot longer.

When Harley’s eldest son Edward went to college, she wrote to him every week (and sometimes more) for five years straight, and I’m sure you can guess what kinds of topics she brought up. There is teaching and scolding and checking in on Edward’s health, spirit, and friends, questions about what he’s learning and favors to ask, even treats attached to the letter to make sure he was keeping himself alive and to remind him of home. When you read all of them in succession, you get a very good picture of what life was like in the seventeenth century, what the Puritans believed, and who Harley was as a person. It really is an adventure to read them all the way through!

5 Puritan Women

Jenny-Lyn de Klerk

In 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love, Jenny-Lyn de Klerk shows how the lives and writings of Agnes Beaumont, Lucy Hutchinson, Mary Rich, Anne Bradstreet, and Lady Brilliana Harley encourage the beauty of holy living and provide practical wisdom for the home and the church. 

As someone who has specialized in the history of ideas—specifically, theological ideas—I am always keen to learn about events, culture, and other details about life in a past time that I don’t get to spend as much time studying. But the parts of Harley’s letters that I enjoyed the most, even more than these intriguing facts about seventeenth-century society, are the ones that sound just like a caring, concerned mom today. Like my mom packing lunch notes to remind me of her love for the few hours a day we were separated from each other, Harley was always finding unique ways to encourage and express her unparalleled affection for Edward while they were separated.

All of us want to be seen for who we really are by another person who cares about the little details of our lives . . .

She wrote things like, “Could I hear from you and send to you every day, I should be glad,” “How much I long to see you I cannot express,” and “Be never unwilling that I should know how it is with you; for none has a more tender apprehension of it then myself” (Letters, 150, 209, 46). She also infused her words of love with reminders that God loved Edward too, once consoling him in a difficult time that in all of the ups and downs of his life, which she had a front-row seat to, “God still provided for you; and so I trust he will do still” (Letters, 55). Though small, these notes had a profound impact on Edward, who proclaimed at his fiftieth birthday, “Blessed be God! who has granted me favor in the affection of . . . my mother, who tenderly loved me, and wisely and carefully instructed and corrected me” (Letters, 248).

I learned a lot from reading Harley. But I think one of the most valuable parts of studying her letters, at least for me, was that they showed me how important a simple note of encouragement can be—tucked in a child’s lunch, texted to a friend, or emailed to a colleague. All of us want to be seen for who we really are by another person who cares about the little details of our lives and wants the latest update. Who could you send a note of love, appreciation, or encouragement to today?

Jenny-Lyn de Klerk is the author of 5 Puritan Women: Portraits of Faith and Love.

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