Once, while thumbing through my favorite book -- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf -- I found a scrap of paper wedged within the "Time Passes" section. "Hey," it read, "you found me! I love you."
The scrawl (sloppy, Sharpie-thick) was my ex-boyfriend's. Things had ended on not-great terms, resulting in a purging of all goofy or heartfelt e-mail exchanges (hundreds), but I decided to hang on to the note; it was a very tangible remnant of something elusive. It probably took him less then a minute to write, and, knowing him, the action left his mind as soon as he'd completed it -- quite literally "written off." Why, then, did I value it more than nearly novel-length debates about John Locke's optimism versus Jack Shepherd's cool rationality?
The answer could lie in the fact that I've always been Team Locke (see: blind romanticism), but I like to think that there's more to it than that. There's something universally appealing about hand-written letters. Simone de Beauvoir touches on their importance in "The Age of Discretion," in which the narrator complains about having to talk with her husband on the phone: "You are not together as you are in conversation, for you do not see one another. You are not alone as you are in front of a piece of paper that allows you to talk inwardly while you are addressing the other -- to seek out and find the truth."
So, handwritten letters allow us an opportunity to pause. Due to a lag in delivery time, they might also force us to consider the shelf life of what we write (an email works for Beyonce/Jay Z updates; a letter should express more lasting sentiments). And their tangibility lends them a sense of permanence. But, conversely (and this is where the romance comes in, I think), they also capture something ephemeral.
I can picture Sharpie-smudged hands more readily than I can imagine someone typing, because typing on a keyboard isn't a unique act (fonts can't convey hurriedness). And the fact that he may not even remember writing the note is appealing in a way. There's no physical log of delivered notes for him or any other letter writer to reference. Once it's delivered, a letter no longer belongs to the writer, but to its intended recipient. This imbues anything handwritten with an authenticity that typed, archived text lacks. When we know we can reread what we've written, we're prone to filtering it. This is why the admittedly immature act of deleting text message professions sent to potential partners is understandable, and why Snapchat's disappearing text function could be a success; re-reading our own vulnerable remarks can be deeply embarrassing.
Of authentic writing, Margaret Atwood wrote in The Blind Assassin, "You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it." It's an outlook that might not quite fit when applied to more rational or artistic writing, but when it comes to emotional expression, the handwritten note reigns supreme for a reason.
Here are 7 swoon-worthy love letters that will make you never want to write an email again:
Dylan Thomas to Caitlin Thomas
Dylan claims to have loved his wife Caitlin at first sight, and to have proposed upon their first meeting.
"I want you to be with me; you can have the spaces between the houses, and I can have the room with no windows; we'll make a halfway house; you can teach me to walk in the air and I'll teach you to make nice noises on the piano without any music; we'll have a bed in a bar, as we said we would, and we shan't have any money at all and we'll live on other people's, which they won't like one bit. The room's full of they now, but I don't care, I don't care for anybody. I want to be with you because I love you. I don't know what I love you means, except that I do."
Virginia Woolf to Vita Stackville-West
Vita, the partial subject of Woolf's Orlando, was Woolf's close friend. The two shared a brief, passionate relationship as well.
"Look here Vita -- throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads -- They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river."
John Keats to Fanny Brawne
Keats and Brawne were betrothed from 1818 until his death in 1821.
"...write the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain."
Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas
Wilde and Douglas had a tumultuous affair peppered with frequent break ups and reconciliations.
"Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days."
Stieg Larsson to Eva Gabrielsson
Written to his wife in 1977, and concealed in an envelope reading, "To be opened only after my death"
"I had a lot of faults, I know, but some good qualities as well, I hope. But you, Eva, you inspired such love in me that I was never able to express it to you...
"Straighten up, square your shoulders, hold your head high. Okay? Take care of yourself, Eva. Go have a cup of coffee. It's over. Thank you for the beautiful times we had."
Napoléon Bonaparte to Joséphine de Beauharnais
Joséphine was Napoléon's first wife. Although they both had affairs while he was campaigning, they regularly wrote each other passionate letters.
"Ah! I entreat you to permit me to see some of your faults. Be less beautiful, less gracious, less affectionate, less good, especially be not over-anxious, and never weep. Your tears rob me of reason, and inflame my blood. Believe me it is not in my power to have a single thought which is not of thee, or a wish I could not reveal to thee."
Henry Miller to Anaïs Nin
Miller and Nin had a tumultuous, years-long affair in Paris.
"Anais, I only thought I loved you before; it was nothing like this certainty that's in me now. Was all this so wonderful only because it was brief and stolen? Were we acting for each other, to each other? Was I less I, or more I, and you less or more you? Is it madness to believe that this could go on? When and where would the drab moments begin? I study you so much to discover the possible flaws, the weak points, the danger zones. I don't find them -- not any."
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