‘Can there be a more Romance Story than ours?’ wrote Dorothy Osborne to William Temple. And reading this engaging biography of two of the seventeenth-century’s best-known lovers, you can see what she meant.
When they met and fell for each other in 1648, William was twenty and Dorothy twenty-one, and they were the archetypal star-crossed lovers. Dorothy was the daughter of an impoverished Royalist; William’s lawyer father had been jailed for his Parliamentarian sympathies. Dorothy’s family was determined that she should restore their fortunes by marrying money; the Temples were equally determined that William should do the same. William was sent abroad, where he managed, like so many seventeenth-century males, to reconcile his love for Dorothy with a string of casual sexual encounters. Meanwhile she was kept at the Osbornes’ family seat in Bedfordshire, looking after her ailing father, fending off more eligible suitors (including a deaf-mute) and coping with her unmarried brother Henry, whose possessive behaviour bordered on the abnormal. ‘I cannot but tell him sometimes’, she confided in William, ‘that sure he mistakes and sends letters [to me] that were meant to his mistress.’
For nearly seven years Dorothy kept her love alive by reading romances and writing to William. (He wrote to her, too, but she destroyed all but one of his letters after reading them, in case her weird brother found them.) Seventy-seven of her letters survive. They cover the two years