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Illustrations by María Alconada Brooks.
There are dinosaurs, and there are love letters. The former is extinct, the latter on the brink.
In our modern era of text, chat and email, this gilded age of Instagram and expediency, handwritten expressions of love — handwritten expressions of anything — increasingly feel like relics.
What a pity. Primarily because love, in all its finery, is often fleeting. Relationships get rocky, or wither entirely. Or partnerships remain, but the thrill is gone.
But handwritten letters? They can last forever. Unlike digital messages, they’re concrete; we can feel their weight in our hands. (“Will we ever glow when we open an email folder?” Simon Garfield writes in a book celebrating letter writing. “Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress, and letters stick around to be newly discovered.”) Months, years, decades in the future, they prove we lived and loved, savored and felt sorrow. They allow us to grasp at immortality.
Let us collectively weep for the dying art of letter writing. Then, let’s dry our tears and bring it back to life. Below, you’ll find snippets from historical love letters — some of which are centuries old — pulled from “Love Letters” and “A Love No Less.” You’ll also see tips for crafting your own letters, derived from reading hundreds of romantic epistles.
Candy is dandy and flowers are fine, but imagine presenting your sweetheart with a stirring love note this Valentine’s Day.
Do not type or DM your love letter. Do not dictate your love letter to Siri. Do not seek out a professional love-letter writer to craft one for you and send it from Paris. (This is an actual thing.)
“Letters give messages backbone. They deliver what’s written and they silently confess, ‘To me, you are worth the inconvenience of writing this letter,’” Samara O’Shea writes in “For the Love of Letters: A 21st-Century Guide to the Art of Letter Writing.”
Good writing reels you in with stellar bait. The opening lines of a letter — as with any form of writing — are crucial. Be direct and compelling.
You can start with a request, as Franz Kafka did in a 1912 letter to Felice Bauer: “Fräulein Felice! I am now going to ask you a favour which sounds quite crazy, and which I should regard as such, were I the one to receive the letter.”
Or begin with a beguiling question, as Ninon de L’Enclos did in a letter to the Marquis de Sévigné — “Shall I tell you what renders love dangerous?”
An admission of gratitude works as an opener, too. Mary Church Terrell wrote this to her husband, Robert, in 1902: “I’m so blessed to own a man like you.”
If you’re apart, you might refer to the last time you saw one another. (“I was overwhelmed with depression at leaving you Sunday night and I think you looked rather sad too which — this sounds unkind — was rather a consolation,” Mary Elcho wrote to Arthur Balfour in 1904.)
If all else fails, admit that you’re stuck, but try and do so wittily, as Lord Nelson did when he wrote this to Lady Hamilton in 1801: “I am so agitated that I can write nothing.”
You’ll note, of course, that he wrote something nonetheless.
They say God is in the details. I can neither confirm nor deny, but specificity, especially in a love letter, is divine.
After all, individuals and relationships have idiosyncrasies, inside jokes, unique traits. Make that uniqueness manifest in your letter.
Flournoy Miller, a 20th-century actor, playwright and comedian, wrote this to his wife, Bessie, sometime between 1943 and 1965: “Time will prove to you how much I love you. Some day we will have a home and call it love cottage with lots of Flournoylets and Bessielets running around.”
Not long before, in 1936, Evelyn Waugh wrote to Laura Herbert, asking her to mull whether she could “bear the idea” of marrying him. His warts-and-all offer isn’t a commonplace proposal.
“I am restless & moody & misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve,” he wrote. “In fact its a lousy proposition. On the other hand I think I could do a Grant and reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I should be faithful.”
Anaïs Nin took the opposite tack — instead of enumerating her own attributes, she described her lover’s. In a letter to Henry Miller, sent in 1932, Nin pinpointed why she was drawn to him.
“How did I single you out?” she wrote. “I saw you with that intense selective way — I saw a mouth that was at once intelligent, animal, and soft … strange mixture — a human man, sensitively aware of everything — I love awareness.”
A love letter shouldn’t be a dissertation. It’s better to be brief than boring.
Simone de Beauvoir had the right idea when she wrote to Jean-Paul Sartre in 1938, “Dear little being, I’m not going to write you a long letter, though I’ve hundreds of things to tell you, because I prefer to tell them in person on Saturday.”
There’s no magic page count to shoot for, but keeping your letter to a sheet or two seems sensible. Consider what you want to say before you start writing, and aim to only include the most interesting updates, memories or anecdotes.
In other words, avoid tedium. Several decades before our attention spans were hammered to bits by smartphones, Evelyn Waugh begged Laura Waugh (who evidently decided to accept his marriage proposal) to zhuzh up her dispatches.
“Darling Laura, sweet whiskers, do try to write me better letters. … Do realize that a letter need not be a bald chronicle of events; I know you lead a dull life now, my heart bleeds for it, though I believe you could make it more interesting if you had the will,” he wrote. “But that is no reason to make your letters as dull as your life. I simply am not interested in Bridget’s children.”
Dive into a collection of decades-old love letters and you’ll find that many feel timeless. The language may be stiffer, certain idioms may be dated, but the sentiment is clear. A modern-day letter-writer may be inclined to mention pop culture or current events. Be judicious. Go overboard with those references, and in 10, 20 or 50 years, the recipient (or whoever happens upon your letter) may not have the slightest idea what you were talking about.
Stick to describing the person you adore and the circumstances of your relationship — even if those circumstances are occasionally unpleasant.
In June 1930, author Caradoc Evans wrote this to Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis, a fellow writer who went by the pen name Oliver Sandys: “You ticked me off and I said unkind things to you. I provoked you and went on provoking and could not stop myself. … I vowed I would never see you again, but I cannot keep my vow. Albeit I come back to my love for you.”
Nearly 90 years later, not a drop of his meaning is lost.