Whether it's a love-filled letter from father to daughter during the First World War sent with "heaps of love and kisses", a musing on the meaning of life from dying columnist John Diamond ("Why am I happy? Because I'm alive"), or a countess' last ode to the country she loved as she left it forever ("If I know a song of Africa..."), these messages expose the honest hopes, desires, passions and fears of their authors.
In the face of love, loss, death, war and personal demons, they are refreshingly candid and their prose is at times, uplifting, sad, beautiful, funny and life-affirming.
Read on for all the conviction you need to seize the day and live in the moment...
Anne Frank's last diary extract
Anne Frank wrote this, her last diary extract, from her family's hideout in the secret annex above her father's office in Amsterdam. Three days later, Nazi police acted on an anonymous tip to arrest Anne, her family and their family friends - all of whom had sought refuge in the attic apartment for the past two years. Anne's father Otto was the only one of the group to survive after all of them were sent onto various concentration camps. Anne died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in 1945, just months before the camp was liberated.
In this, her last entry, the irrepressible teen agonizes over people not being able to see her "better and finer side". In a heart wrenching twist of irony, she fears people won't take her seriously and that she will forever be regarded as "an amusing clown". Little could she know that it was this exact spirit of vivacity (and its tragic, untimely end) that would see her cherished and revered as one of the finest voices of the 20th Century.
Tuesday, August 1, 1944
No one knows Anne’s better side, and that’s why most people can’t stand me. Oh, I can be an amusing clown for an afternoon, but after that everyone’s had enough of me to last a month. Actually, I’m what a romantic film is to a profound thinker – a mere diversion, a comic interlude, something that is soon forgotten: not bad, but not particularly good either.
I hate having to tell you this, but why shouldn’t I admit it when I know it’s true? My lighter, more superficial side will always steal a march on the deeper side and therefore always win. You can’t imagine how often I’ve tried to push away this Anne,which is only half of what is known as Anne - to beat her down, hide her. But it doesn’t work, and I know why.
I'm afraid that people who know me as I usually am will discover I have another side, a better and finer side. I’m afraid they’ll mock me, think I’m ridiculous and sentimental and not take me seriously. I’m used to not being taken seriously, but only the "lighthearted" Anne is used to it and can put up with it; the "deeper" Anne is too weak. If I force the good Anne into the spotlight for even fifteen minutes, she shuts up like a clam the moment she’s called upon to speak, and lets Anne number one do the talking. Before I realize it, she’s disappeared.
Gunner Wilfrid Cove's letter to his daughter Marjorie
Gunner Wilfrid Cove's two daughters in a photograph taken from his breast pocket (Liddle Collection, Leeds University Library)
Serviceman Gunner Wilfrid Cove spent the First World War penning a series of heartfelt letters to his wife Ethel and daughters Marjorie and Betty from the trenches where he was based.
This letter to little Majorie paints a vivid picture of a warm, loving family life with references to Santa Claus, crayoned pictures and a book character called Daffodil. All these details must have been a million miles from the grim reality of the horrors Cove witnessed on the Front yet, perhaps because of this, he sticks firmly to this idyllic vision with beautiful clarity.
When he died from a shell attack in 1917, squashed letters and photographs of his family (including the above) were found in his tunic pocket.
Monday December 4, 1916
My dear little Marjorie,
I have only just received your little letter which Mamma sent with hers on Nov 19th. Do you remember that you asked me to be home for Xmas? I only wish I could but there are many more soldiers in our Battery who are more entitled to the Xmas leave than I am, so am afraid you will have to do without Daddy this Xmas. Santa Claus will come as usual.
I think your writing and dictation just splendid, and your drawings are getting funnier than ever. I have pinned your crayoned tulips on the wall of my dug-out bedroom beside your photograph.
Daddy is as comfortable as possible. I expect even you would get tired enough to go soundly asleep in this dug-out. It would be a change from your pink bedroom. And how is little Daffodil getting on? I expect you quite enjoy the time when Mamma reads you more about her. It was Mamma’s book when she was a girl like you. Write again soon, dear, + send another crayoning to help cover the sand bags.
Heaps of love & kisses, which you must share with Mamma and Betty.
From your ever loving Daddy
Virginia Woolf's suicide note to her sister
Virginia Woolf's "I can't fight any longer" suicide note to her husband Leonard is well-documented but lesser known is this message to her painter sister Vanessa Bell. It is, by measure, a sad and beautiful message that highlights the trauma the writer suffered at the hands of what is now widely believed to have been bipolar disorder.
Of all the women Virginia was close to in her life, Vanessa was the one she shared the strongest bond with - she once referred to their relationship as "a very close conspiracy." This letter brings home her tenderness for her sister, with love and regret at its very heart.
Virginia was 59 years old when she drowned herself on March 28, 1941.
Dearest, You can’t think how I loved your letter. But I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. I am certain now that I am going mad again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I shan’t get over it now. All I want to say is that Leonard has been so astonishingly good, every day, always; I can’t imagine that anyone could have done more for me than he has. We have been perfectly happy until these last few weeks, when this horror began. Will you assure him of this? I feel he has so much to do that he will go on, better without me, and you will help him. I can hardly think clearly anymore. If I could I would tell you what you and the children have meant to me. I think you know. I have fought against it, but I can’t any longer. Virginia.
Zlata Filipović's wartime diary extract
Teenager Zlata Filipović was hailed as Sarajevo's answer to Anne Frank after documenting the daily terror of life in a war-torn city under siege. Zlata began her diary in September 1991, a few months before the war broke out. She was just 10 years old when death and destruction became everyday characters around her and much of her diary, as with this extract, deals with the traumatic loss of childhood delight and innocence.
It was something Zlata could never come to terms with as she lamented being "a child without games, without friends, without nature, without birds, without fruit, chocolate or sweets..." This message shows just how devastating an impact war had upon the child she was - and how helpless she feels in the face of it.
Zlata and her family later escaped to Paris, where her diary was made into a book Zlata's Diary: A Child's Life in Sarajevo.
Saturday July 17, 1993
Suddenly, unexpectedly, someone is using the ugly powers of war, which horrify me, to try to pull and drag me away from the shores of peace, from the happiness of wonderful friendships, playing and love. I feel like a swimmer who was made to enter the cold water, against her will. I feel shocked, sad, unhappy and frightened and I wonder where they are forcing me to go, I wonder why they have taken away my peaceful and lovely shores of my childhood. I used to rejoice at each new day, because each was beautiful in its own way. I used to rejoice at the sun, at playing, at songs. In short, I enjoyed my childhood. I had no need of a better one. I have less and less strength to keep swimming in these cold waters. So take me back to the shores of my childhood, where I was warm, happy and content, like all the children whose childhood and the right to enjoy it are now being destroyed.
The Rosenbergs' last letter to their sons
The Rosenbergs' sons read news of their parents' execution
When Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for spying in the States in 1953, the verdict was met with outcry and protests - not least because it condemned their two young sons, Robert and Michael, to become orphans. The Rosenbergs were convicted of passing U.S. atomic secrets onto the Soviet Union and refused to give the names of any co-conspirators in exchange for a lesser sentence.
The couple remained on death row for twenty-six months. They were eventually executed by electric chair on June 19, 1953 and this was their last letter to their sons, written on the day of their death. The two boys, pictured above reading news of their parents' death, spent their lives arguing the innocence of their parents and even wrote a book on the topic titled, We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
June 19, 1953
Dearest Sweethearts, my most precious children,
'''Only this morning it looked like we might be together again after all. Now that his cannot be, I want so much for you to know all that I have come to know.
Unfortunately, I may write only a few simple words; the rest your own lives must teach you, even as mine taught me. At first, of course, you will grieve bitterly for us, but you will not grieve alone. That is our consolation and it must eventually be yours.
Eventually, too you must come to believe that life is worth the living. Be comforted that even now, with the end of ours slowly approaching, that we know this with a conviction that defeats the executioner! Your lives must teach you, too, that good cannot really flourish in the midst of evil; that freedom and all the things that go to make up a truly satisfying and worthwhile life, must sometimes be purchased very dearly.
Be comforted then that we were serene and understood with the deepest kind of understanding, that civilization had not as yet progressed to the point where life did not have to be lost for the sake of life; and that we were comforted in the sure knowledge that others would carry on after us. We wish we might have had the tremendous joy and gratification of living our lives out with you. Your Daddy who is with me in these last momentous hours, sends his heart and all the love that is in it for his dearest boys. Always remember that we were innocent and could not wrong our conscience.We press you close and kiss you with all our strength.'''
Lovingly, Daddy and Mommy Julie Ethel
Karen Blixen's goodbye to Africa
Karen von Blixen-Finecke
Karen von Blixen-Finecke wrote a lyrical ode to her life on a Kenyan coffee farm between 1914 and 1931 under the pen name Isak Dinesen. Her memoir Out Of Africa was later made into a film starring Meryl Streep and brought the sights, smells and landscapes of colonial era Kenya to life in visceral detail.
Karen also documented her great love affair with British games hunter Denys Finch-Hatton. For them, "simple pleasures took on a heightened intensity: the smell of camel milk in a smoke-cleansed gourd, the thin yelling of Somali singing on five sad notes, the purple hieroglyphs of shadow on the sand below a thorn tree."
Denys died in a plane crash in 1931 and he was buried in the Ngong Hills overlooking Nairobi National Park. Karen's lifelong love affair with Africa ended the same year as she was forced to abandon her beloved farm and return to Denmark. She never returned. This was her goodbye:
If I know a song of Africa, – I thought – of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers – does Africa know a song of me?
Will the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I have had on,
or the children invent a game in which my name is,
or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?
Tony's wartime love letter to Joan
Tony and Joan on their wedding day in 1946
Tony Ross was a 22-year-old RAF pilot when he met civil servant Joan Charles, of the same age, near Blackpool in August 1943. They fell deeply in love but only had time for a few dates at the opera, concert and theatre before Tont was sent back to flying missions in North Africa. On their last day together, he kissed her for the very first time. The lovestruck pair did not see each other for the next three years, during which time they exchanged a series of heartfelt and passionate letters - 675 in total. When Allied victory was finally declared they were elated, having planned and talked about their wedding for several years via post. Tony finally arrived home in May 1946 and he and Joan were married the following month. Their marriage lasted 63 years til Joan's death (with Tony by her side) in 2006.
This is one of Tony's earlier letters to his love.
11 November 1944
Today is an anniversary: the anniversary of our first kiss. It was a year ago, and we were driving back from a show at the Opera House. The night was dark and cold, and we were grateful for the warmth of the car. We left the busy streets behind and turned along the front and then, suddenly, we were in each other’s arms. How beautiful that first kiss was, and how lovely the drive seemed with you close beside me with your cheek against mine. It seemed like a wonderful eternity and yet passed far, far too quickly. And then those two happy days together when, even then, I was too shy to tell you how much I loved you. I was so very, very happy just to be near you. I treasure the memory of those two days more dearly than anything else in my life. Soon, dearest, we shall be together again and there will be nothing to cast even the faintest shadow on our joy. Let us never lose this sweet wonder of being in love for the first time and make our life a long and ever happy romance.
With all my love and impatient thoughts,
John Diamond's column on the point of life
The late John Diamond and Nigella Lawson
Journalist, writer and broadcaster John Diamond documented his battle against throat cancer with the kind of clear-eyed honesty, wit and irreverence that won him legions of fans around the world. Diamond, who was married to Nigella Lawson, did not glorify his struggle but instead laid it out in a series of straight facts, frank opinions and wryly humorous observations.
As one of his obituary writers noted: "As he continued to chart the course of his illness, through treatment to terminal diagnosis and beyond, there was a growing realisation among both readers and editors alike that his immense facility for language, previously expended for the most part on the smallest of domestic issues, had disguised a writer of immense talent and skill."
This is John's last column before his death aged 47 in 2001 and aptly enough, it pondered the point of life in an eye-opening and life-affirming piece of prose:
This is what it's all about. It's about reading a paper on a Sunday morning while you're thinking about whether you can be arsed to go to the neighbours' New Year's Eve party tonight. It's about getting angry with me for having different opinions from yours or not expressing the ones you have as well as you would have expressed them. It's about the breakfast you've just had and the dinner you're going to have. It's about the random acts of kindness which still, magically, preponderate over acts of incivility or nastiness. It's about rereading Great Expectations and about who's going to win the 3.30 at Haydock Park. It's about being able to watch old episodes of Frasier on satellite TV whenever we want, having the choice of three dozen breakfast cereals and seven brands of virgin olive oil at Sainsbury's. It's about loving and being loved, about doing the right thing, about one day being missed when we're gone.
And that's all it's about. It isn't about heaven and hell or the love of Christ or Allah or Yahveh because even if those things do exist, they don't have to exist for us to get on with it.
It is, above all I suppose, about passing time. And the only thing I know that you don't is that time passes at the same rate and in much the same way whether you're going to live to 48 or 148. Why am I happy? Because I'm alive. And the simple answer to the question 'What the hell is the point of it all' is this is the point of it all. You aren't happy? Yes you are: this, here, now, is what happiness is. Enjoy it.
Photos: Rex Features Words: Anna Brech