Classic love letters and our emergence into a contemporary age of ‘luv’
By Natalie Serafini, Editor-in-Chief
Love is possibly amongst the most difficult sentiments to articulate, and yet one of the most ardently, passionately, and profusely expressed. In trying to communicate our love, sometimes the words get tangled up in strong emotions, tripped over as we try to tell how we feel.
This seems truer than ever in the age of quick texts and emojis. Saying you love someone has become as simple and simplistic as a heart emoji, sent hurriedly along with a not-so-verbose “i luv u.”
Maybe it was equally as overwhelming a task back when expressing adulation required pen, ink stub, and a carrier pigeon, but we seem increasingly inept and unprepared as we trek further and further into a digital age. There’s nothing that says we can’t send the love letters of yore, typed on tiny iPhone screens, but why would people put in the effort when it’s easier to send your sweetheart a heart and eggplant emoji? Even Valentine’s Day cards, the epitome of all things sweet ‘n’ saccharine, are generally predicated on a pun, a rhyme, or a half-hearted yet heartfelt joke—and are moments away from the trashcan.
John Walsh of the Independent asked, “Have we lost the art of writing love letters?” He writes of the classic ones, then turns his attention to more recent love letters and their flaws: “The classic love letters of the last two centuries, however, have been those of poets, playwrights, and novelists, and their theme is tiresomely formulaic. Whether it’s John Keats worshipping Fanny Brawne … Victor Hugo rhapsodizing over Adele Foucher … or Oscar Wilde in raptures over Bosie Douglas … the theme has been transcendence—the insistence that the loved one inhabits a higher plane of being than the normal run of mankind.”
While I’ll agree with Walsh that love letters ain’t what they used to be, I don’t know that I take offence at the amorous and transcendent nature of the more recent letters. His reference to the more humorous, genuine, and at times “flagrantly pornographic letters” (in the case of James Joyce—read on for more) do sound more unique than the wealth of more alike contemporary ones. Nonetheless, I think the larger problem with love letters these days is that they aren’t getting written at all.
So, what are the classic letters that we can look to for inspiration? And are we even capable of applying that inspiration in our world of bite-sized texts, written at intersections and intermissions?
The “dirty letters”
Remember those “flagrantly pornographic letters” that I mentioned from James Joyce? They were about Nora Barnacle, and you can bet your ass I’ll be getting into their story here.
Barnacle was reportedly the one who began their exchange of lusty letters, and indeed their lust-filled love life. She was quite the saucy lady, as Brenda Maddox of the Guardian writes. Joyce referred to Barnacle as “my strange-eyed whore,” likely in part due to her indulgence in erotic fantasies, which she would pen and send to him.
I blush at the thought of recording their correspondence here, but let’s suffice to say they liked it kinky, and end on this sign-off in Joyce’s letter from December 2, 1909: “Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like (my little frigging mistress! My little fucking whore!) you are always my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower. – JIM”
Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In addition to being a beautiful writer, Virginia Woolf was the recipient of some beautiful love letters from her lover and long-time friend, Vita Sackville-West. BrainPickings.org reports that Woolf’s novel Orlando was based on Sackville-West, and that Sackville-West’s son has referred to the book as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
The two were never able to be together publicly, particularly with the age of prevalent homophobia, and the two were married to men. Nonetheless, their letters, with Woolf asking Sackville-West to “throw over your man,” speak to a great love. Here’s a portion of Sackville-West’s beautiful letter to Woolf: “I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this—But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. … you have broken down my defences. And I don’t really resent it.”
BrainPickings.org also reports that Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky met in 1954, and their relationship spanned decades following that, until Ginsberg passed away in the late ‘90s. The pair also couldn’t marry, but they referred to their long relationship as their “marriage.”
The two exchanged beautiful heartfelt letters, describing how they missed each other and wished they could be together. Orlovsky wrote, “… don’t worry dear Allen, things are going ok—we’ll change the world yet to our dessire [sic]—even if we got to die—but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill …”
Ginsberg returned with a letter saying how he missed Orlovsky: “I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other—life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around …”
Is there any other (Heming)way?
In case you weren’t aware, Ernest Hemingway was quite the lady’s man, so it’s no real surprise that he’s on this list. From what my research can garner though, it was Hemingway’s letters to his “dearest Kraut,” Marlene Dietrich, that are really worth recounting. Kate Connolly of the Guardian reports on a series of letters and telegrams from their apparently 30 years of “unrequited love”; Connolly adds that “they never consummated their love, because of what Hemingway referred to as ‘unsynchronised passion.’”
Their letters were not nearly as erotic as Joyce and Barnacle’s, but more conversational and joke-y—and of course lovely. In his letter from August 28, 1955 Hemingway says a few times, “I love you very much.” The two never married one another, were perhaps never lovers, but they were certainly friends in love: “So what. So Merdre. I love you as always. – Papa.”
“I’d like to paint you…”
Painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera had a tumultuous relationship: they married in 1929 with a 20-year age difference, divorced in 1939, and renewed their marriage less than a year later. Their second marriage to one another lasted until 1954, three years before Rivera died.
While their relationship was not always the most peaceful, no one can say they weren’t passionate. Frida wrote, “I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light, and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no colours, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love. – F.”
Where are we now? I’m sure people still exchange proclamations of their adulation—pages of words that try but can never quite encapsulate the full feeling.
Yet writing love letters has lost some of the epic desperation that being separate from your love used to carry. These days distance is mitigated by Skype and FaceTime, or a quick drunk text to let your dear know “I’ve been thinkin bout u.” It isn’t just someone you’re in a relationship with either—we’re all guilty of taking the myriad meaningful relationships in our lives for granted on occasion, or opting for the quick and easy rather than the long and effortful.
Maybe I’m more of a nostalgic romantic than I thought, but it would be kind of nice, kind of beautiful, if people still exchanged little love letters. We’re so fast-paced and instant, that it’s hard to take the time to really think about how much someone means to you. Even though it’s difficult, it’s worth it for the meaning, the comparative permanency, and the beautiful gesture of sitting with a pen in hand and struggling to find the words for the person (or people) you love. Your letters might not go down in history alongside the aforementioned lovelorn writers, but they’ll certainly last.