Would Heathcliff have confessed his love to Catherine by e-mail? Would Shakespeare have expressed himself with emoticons? Would Abelard and Heloise have become entangled by laptop?
With Valentine's Day a mere hop, skip and box of chocolates away, these questions are not as obscure as they might sound. Four centuries ago, the educated man might have wooed his mate with a love letter. Today, the medium of choice is far more likely to involve a computer.
This week, e-mail traffic on America Online is expected to surge as Valentine's Day approaches. Chat room activity traditionally rises 25 percent in the two weeks surrounding the romantic holiday, AOL officials say. Love is not only in the air, it's all over cyberspace.
"E-mail can be better than letters," says Michelle Weiner Davis, a family therapist in Woodstock, Ill. and author of The Sex-Starved Marriage (Simon & Schuster, 2003). "It takes a big effort to send a letter. E-mail can be simple and immediate and powerful."
Weiner Davis and other relationship experts say writing down your romantic thoughts has always been a good thing to do. E-mail simply makes the process easier -- particularly for men who might be reluctant to share feelings or even put pen to paper.
"I often recommend it to clients," says Pat Love, an aptly-named Austin, Texas marriage therapist. "The best natural aphrodisiac is demonstrating an energized love. Flirting through e-mail is a great way to show that."
Those extra touches
Romance has become such a common use for e-mail that many of the larger e-mail providers -- and online dating services -- offer tips for composing that loving correspondence. Some suggest wallpapers, graphics and attachments -- a virtual dozen roses, for instance -- to add impact.
Brenda Ross, relationship advisor for Date.com, suggests attaching a photograph or scanning a memento to a romantic e-mail. It's the equivalent, she says, of that lipstick kiss or a pressed flower that you might include in a card.
"Avoid the sappy," says Ross, 41, of Los Angeles. "That includes most poetry -- unless it's really good poetry. When a man writes a sappy letter, he's being kind of clingy. You need a little more mystery."
E-mail is not a perfect substitute for the classic love letter, of course. A handwritten note will always seem more personal and lasting.
But even traditionalists concede that e-mail can have its place. Something as simple as "I love you" or "I miss you" can be a heartwarming thought when it pops up as an instant message on a computer screen at some unexpected moment.
"Yes, it's hard to think of e-mail in the same register as the (literary) greats, but there are ways it can surprise someone," says Doug Basford, a poet and lecturer in writing at Johns Hopkins University.
Basford may find romantic inspiration from the works of Austen, Wordsworth and the Bronte sisters, but he's not above typing the outline of a single rose and e-mailing it to his girlfriend, a researcher at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
"A little spontaneity is good," says Basford, 29. "A good proofread is useful, too."
Errors of love
Misspellings, poor punctuation and grammar are among the more common mistakes. They may be acceptable in ordinary e-mail but in romantic messages, they shout: I didn't care.
But there are other common pitfalls, too. People have a tendency to equate e-mail with conversation, but they aren't the same thing. "The written word doesn't get the benefit of vocal inflections," says Greg Godek of LaJolla, Calif., author of 1001 Ways to Be Romantic (Sourcebooks, 1999).
To avoid problems, experts say slow down, reread and edit. And, perhaps most important, think about what the other person would like to hear.
Emoticons, those little keyboard icons like a smiling face (a colon and right-bracket), should be used sparingly -- "like frosting on a cake," says Ross.
Use descriptive language -- be specific about your feelings and what you like about your mate, advises Basford. And yes, it's all right to add a few lines of poetry from one of the great works of fiction.
"Find a metaphorical way of speaking. Maintain a level of detail to show care and craft -- a scene should erupt in the reader's mind," he adds.
But for those people who aren't terribly poetical, there's still hope. Carol Salley, 20, a student at University of Maryland College Park, says she appreciates just a few lines from her boyfriend, who's at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
"It doesn't have to be a long thought-out letter," says Salley. "The 'I'm thinking of you' ones are sweet, too."
Eric Frank's e-mail to his girlfriend couldn't have been more plain. He's a computer systems engineer in Nashua, N.H. His most common messages to Donna, an elementary school teacher, were simple thoughts about movies, restaurants or what was happening on the job.
Nevertheless, last Valentine's Day, he printed out months of the couple's e-mail correspondence, put them in a binder, and presented them as a gift. Two weeks later, they were engaged.
"The e-mail itself wasn't all that romantic," says Frank, 40, who met his bride through an online dating service, Yahoo! Personals. "But I guess the outcome was."
MEMO: BE MY LOVE
Here are the five golden rules of romantic e-mail, as recommended by Michael Sherrod, vice president of AOL Community:
* Use personal e-mail, not your business account. Just ask yourself this question: Would my boss enjoy reading this? Spare yourself the humiliation.
* Read it carefully before you send it. Poor spelling can be jarring to a reader. Sending it to the wrong address can be worse.
* Try to be original. Avoid the cliche. Make it fun.
* If using instant messaging or IM, keep it short and sweet.
* Dress it up a little bit. Try color or a new font -- you'll have more impact and it won't look like just another memo.
RE: UNDYING PASSION
Some resources to improve your romantic writing:
* Searchable database of love poems from the last 400 years at: lionheart.chadwyck.co.uk
* 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda, University of Texas Press, 1986
* 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time. Edited by David Lowenherz. Crown Publishing Group, 2002
* Excerpts of about 95 letters by celebrities at: www.theromantic.com / LoveLetters / main.htm