Three Outstanding Pen Pal Pairs from History

Before the internet and social media era, sending letters to a friend, loved one, or acquaintance was a tedious, time-consuming task. Even so, many famous people from history corresponded with each other for years or even decades, sharing personal thoughts, feelings, ideas, fears, questions, and more. Their now-famous letters offer a peek into their personal lives as well as the time period in which they lived.

Catherine the Great and Voltaire

Catherine the Great was the German-born Empress of Russia. Voltaire was a French philosopher. It would seem the two would be worlds apart; however, Catherine started reading Voltaire’s writing about a decade before ascending to the throne, and she began corresponding with Voltaire in 1763, just a year after ascending to the throne. Voltaire expressed his admiration for the Empress’ efforts to reform Russia, referred to her as the “Star of the North” and is rumoured to have hung her portrait in his room at one point. The two never met but wrote to each other for more than fifteen years, until Voltaire died in 1778.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

When J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met each other, they realized they had a lot in common. Both men had lost parents as children, both served in World War 1 and lost close friends on the battlefield, and both men had a passion for writing. Each had a huge impact on the other, as J.R.R. Tolkien led C.S. Lewis to Christianity while C.S. Lewis encouraged Tolkien to write “The Lord of the Rings”. Given these facts, it’s not surprising that the two corresponded with each other for several years. What is surprising, however, is that the correspondence didn’t last. Unfortunately, Tolkien and Lewis had a falling out that led to a permanent rift in their friendship, putting an end to their pen-pal relationship. Even so, Tolkien never forgot his pen-pal relationship with Lewis and the effect those famous letters had on his life. After Lewis died, Tolkien wrote to Lewis’ daughter Priscilla to extend condolences, noting that it was “very sad that we should have been so separated in the last years: but our time of close communion endured in memory for both of us.”

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage

Ada Lovelace was born in the 1800s, a time period when women were expected to tend to the house and servants, have children, and keep their husbands happy. She married and had two sons, but she also devoted much of her life to computing and is regarded as the world’s first computer programmer. Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first successful automatic calculator, was more than twenty years older than Ada but was introduced to her by her tutor. The two went on to correspond with each other for fifteen years. The correspondence mainly discussed topics related to their main interests, including programming, mathematics, and computing. Even so, they were on friendly terms. Ava would often sign her letters with the words “Your puzzle-mate”, while Babbage referred to Lovelace as “Lady Fairy” and “The Enchantress of Number.” Nearly thirty of their famous letters can be found in the British Library

These pairs are just a sampling of the many famous pen-pal pairs from history. Some came from similar backgrounds, others came from very different backgrounds; in fact, some seem like they would have been enemies rather than friends. Even so, the ways in which they shared encouragement, insight, and ideas with each other not only changed their relationships but also the world around them as they empowered and pushed each other to give their all to reach their work and/or life goals.

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