Why you should care
Old-fashioned love letters can be beautiful, and still may be the best way ever to pour out your heart.
They say communication is the secret to long-lasting relationships, but for those living in the past, this was easier said than done. Which raises the question: How did couples manage before Skype, email and SMS?
Patience seems to be the answer. From time immemorial, lovers have resigned themselves to silence and forbearance when apart, as Penelope did when her husband, Odysseus, took 20 years to return from the Trojan War.
Otherwise, it’s letters, including rich, literary … and crudely direct … protestations of love.
Napoleon sent dozens of them to his beloved wife, Josephine, during his campaigns, even if he was not a particularly gifted writer. The most powerful man in Europe had no trouble declaring, “I am nothing without you,” or saying, “I should leave everything in order to fling myself at your feet.”
My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you.
— John Keats
But patience was not his virtue. “I have summoned the courier; he tells me that he crossed over to your house, and that you told him you had no commands,” he wrote. “Fie! Naughty, undutiful, cruel, tyrannous, jolly little monster. You laugh at my threats, at my infatuation.”
Others sent fewer letters but filled them with deep, existential proclamations — like Romantic poet John Keats, who wrote to his dear Fanny in 1819:
“My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you — I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again. My life seems to stop there; I see no further. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving.”
I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all.
— Ludwig van Beethoven
Some of the world’s most beautiful letters had the misfortune of never being read by their addressees. Like Beethoven’s little-known chef d’oeuvre: a 10-page love declaration to a mysterious “Immortal Beloved,” which was found among his belongings after his death in 1827:
“I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. Yes, I have determined to wander about for so long far away, until I can fly into your arms and call myself quite at home with you, can send my soul enveloped by yours into the realm of spirits — yes, I regret, it must be. You will get over it all the more as you know my faithfulness to you; never another one can own my heart, never — never!”
Sometimes even the most carefully chosen words, meticulously written in longhand by candlelight didn’t seem to suffice. Such as those of Vita Sackville-West in her 1927 letter to Virginia Woolf:
“…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way.”
Lovers wrote despite the harshest conditions. Thousands of letters came out of the trenches of the First and Second World Wars, often through unconventional means.
In 1999, a fisherman found a bottle with a message dating to 1914. Private Thomas Hughes had written it to his wife, Elizabeth, as he made his way to France in the early days of the First World War.
…so unlock the chains from your heart and let yourself grow — like the sweet flower you are…
— Jimi Hendrix
It read simply, without poetry or romance: “Dear Wife, I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. If it does, sign this envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says receipt. Put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature and look after it well. Ta ta sweet, for the present. Your Hubby.”
He was killed two days after writing it, but the letter was delivered to his 86-year-old daughter in 1999.
A brave few dared to propose by letter, like designer Charles Eames, who wrote the following to his wife-to-be and future design partner in 1941:
“Dear Miss Kaiser, I am 34 (almost) years old, singel (again) and broke. I love you very much and would like to marry you very very soon.* I cannot promise to support us very well — but if given the chance I will shure in hell try — *soon means very soon.”
Other messages are less momentous, written in a whimsical tone to the objects of transitory infatuations. Yet they manage to capture and preserve the unique innocence and power of young love.
Jimi Hendrix wrote this to one of his first girlfriends:
“Little girl, Happiness is within you … so unlock the chains from your heart and let yourself grow — like the sweet flower you are … I know the answer — Just spread your wings and set yourself FREE. Love to you forever.”
For all we know, the most wonderful love letters might still be out there, sitting in dark cellars or floating inside bottles at sea.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of emoticons and the dying art of putting pen to paper threatens good old romanticism. Yet Skype’s 300 million users might be proof that absence still makes the heart grow fonder.