Literature's most powerful and poignant letters: fictional messages of love, tragedy and passion from our favourite books

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"To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart" - so said essayist Phyllis Theroux.

It's true that letter-writing is an incredibly powerful form of expression and no more so than in the pages of our favourite books. Some novels - The Color Purple or We Need To Talk About Kevin - are played out by and large in the medium letters, while others use letter-writing as a critical element of storyline and plot (think Atonement and Persuasion).

From to love to loneliness and the anguish of human existence, these letters do more to crystallise the thoughts and feelings of a particular character than any amount of prose could.

Read on for our selection of the very best and most moving fictional letters from literature and immerse yourself in a world of forgotten words:

Atonement by Ian McEwan

The letters exchanged between Robbie and Cecilia in Ian McEwan's haunting love story are as intense and fleeting as the hope of a relationship they both cling to. The first note, a graphic expression of sexual desire, is written in a moment of pent-up frustration and sent by mistake by Robbie, resulting in his dramatic downfall at the hands of Cecilia's teenage sister Briony. Despite its obscene nature - or perhaps because of it - it really delivers a punch, as this memorable extract shows:

"In my dreams I kiss your c**t, your sweet wet c**t. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long."

The second series of letters are sent by Cecilia to Robbie as he serves as a soldier during World War II. They illustrate clearly the way in which she yearns for a life for them both together and are full of the kind of heartfelt assurances brought about when two people are forced by circumstance to be apart.

"I know I sound bitter, but my darling, I don't want to be. I'm honestly happy with my new life and my new friends. I feel I can breathe now. Most of all, I have you to live for. Realistically, there had to be a choice - you or them. How could it be both? I've never had a moment's doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one, my reason for life. Cee"

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

No letters are quite as heartbreaking as Celie's missives to God in Alice Walker's seminal tale of poverty and violence set in rural Georgia between the two world wars. A fourteen-year-old uneducated black girl, Celie turns to God because her father Alphonso, beats and rapes her. There's nothing sentimental or self-conscious in the way she details her experiences; she is simply laying out, in sparse, unsophisticated and harrowing language, the horrors of her daily existence.

"Dear God,

I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.

Last spring after little Lucious come I heard them fussing. He was pulling on her arm. She say It too soon, Fonso, I ain't well. Finally he leave her alone. A week go by, he pulling on her arm again. She say Naw, I ain't gonna. Can't you see I'm already half dead, an all of these chilren.

She went to visit her sister doctor over Macon. Left me to see after the others. He never had a kine word to say to me. Just say You gonna do what your mammy wouldn't. First he put his thing up gainst my hip and sort of wiggle it around. Then he grab hold my titties. Then he push his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt, I cry. He start to choke me, saying You better shut up and git used to it.

But I don't never git used to it. And now I feels sick every time I be the one to cook. My mama she fuss at me an look at me. She happy, cause he good to her now. But too sick to last long."

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Henry's letter to his wife Clare, "to Be Opened in the Event of My Death'", is possibly the most beautiful and eloquent declaration of love we have ever read. In it, he admits his flaws and the havoc that his time-traveling disorder has played on their relationship. And he also begs her to "stop waiting and be free", concluding that "for me you have been everything".

Read it and weep for these two ill-fated lovers.

"...Clare, I want to tell you, again, I love you. Our love has been the thread through the labyrinth, the net under the high-wire walker, the only real thing in this strange life of mine that I could ever trust. Tonight I feel that my love for you has more density in this world than I do, myself: as though it could linger on after me and surround you, keep you, hold you. I hate to think of you waiting. I know that you have been waiting for me all your life, always uncertain of how long this patch of waiting would be. Ten minutes, ten days. A month. What an uncertain husband I have been, Clare, like a sailor, Odysseus alone and buffeted by tall waves, sometimes wily and sometimes just a plaything of the gods. Please, Clare. When I am dead. Stop waiting and be free. Of me—put me deep inside you and then go out in the world and live. Love the world and yourself in it, move through it as though it offers no resistance, as though the world is your natural element. I have given you a life of suspended animation. I don’t mean to say that you have done nothing. You have created beauty, and meaning, in your art, and Alba, who is so amazing, and for me: for me you have been everything."

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver's award-winning novel tells the story of a woman, Eva Khatchadourian, whose teenage son Kevin has committed a Columbine-style massacre. The tale is played out via a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband Franklin, as she attempts to unpick the reasoning behind why their boy did what he did - and more implicitly, whether she was to blame. Her letters are alarmingly frank, and at times, unpalatable, laying bare a series of truths about his upbringing and her struggle with post-natal depression when he was an infant. This is one scene she recalls during Kevin's infanthood when the nanny, Siobhan, has left:

"Siobahn thinks I should talk to you," I said archly over the din. "Who else is going to, since you drove her off? That's right, you screamed and puked her out the door. What's your problem, you little shit? Proud of yourself for ruining Mummy's life?" I was careful to use the insipid falsetto experts commend. "You've got Daddy snowed but Mummy's got your number. You're a little shit aren't you?"

"Mummy was happy before widdle Kevin came awong, you know that don't you. And now Mummy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France. Mummy's life sucks now, doesn't Mummy's life suck? Do you know there are some days Mummy would rather be dead? Rather than listen to you screech for one more minute, there are some days Mummy would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge--"

I turned and blanched. I may never have seen quite that stony look on your face.

"They understand speech long before they learn to talk" you said, pushing past me to pick him up. "I don't understand how you can stand there and watch him cry"

"Franklin, ease up. I was only kidding around."

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is no stranger to the art of romantic fiction - it's the reason why she's hailed as one of the greatest writers in the English language, after all. But this letter from Captain Wentworth to Anne Elliot in Persuasion surely counts among the most passionate excerpts she has ever penned. It's basically the Captain's last chance shot at happiness, a desperation declaration of his undying love for Anne that takes place right at the end of the novel.

"I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.

I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.''

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

On the face of it, this simple acceptance letter from Hogwarts to Harry Potter may not seem like much - but it represents a whole new world for the boy with the lightening scar on his forehead who is destined to sleep under the stairs. Not only does it represent an escape from the Muggle Dursley family, who treat him with disgust and contempt, it also opens up a different future for Harry that chimes with his wizardry roots. It's the king of acceptance letters - and we particularly love the subtle little drop-in about the owl.

Harry picked it up and stared at it, his heart twanging like a giant elastic band. No one, ever, in his whole life, had written to him. Who would? He had no friends, no other relatives - he didn’t belong to the library, so he’d never even got rude notes asking for books back. Yet here it was, a letter, addressed so plainly there could be no mistake:

Mr. H. Potter

The Cupboard under the Stairs

4 Privet Drive

Little Whinging


"Dear Mr. Potter,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find enclosed a list of all necessary books and equipment.

Term begins on 1 September. We await your owl by no later than 31 July.

Yours sincerely,

Minerva McGonagall

Deputy Headmistress"

The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

In The Perks of Being A Wallflower, 15-year-old Charlie narrates his experience as an introverted high school freshman through letters to an unnamed friend. Struggling to cope with the suicide of his friend, Michael, Charlie is chronically shy and these letters are his outlet in a chaotic world of bullies, drugs, drinking, first friends and first dates. This opening gambit to his friend throws a witty and realistic light on adolescent insecurity and the need for emotional support in a few, sparse sentences.

"Dear friend, I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. … I just need to know that someone out there listens and understands and doesn’t try to sleep with people even if they could have. I need to know that these people exist."

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

This letter from Isabella Linton to her former housekeeper Nelly Dean marks out a particularly dark moment in Emily Brontë's foreboding tale of passion and obsession played out against the stormy, isolated moorland. Newlywed Isabella should be full of bridal joy but instead finds herself perplexed and terrified by her new husband, Heathcliff. His cruel behaviour demonizes him in her eyes - as she says, "a venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens". It's a bleak letter that is brimming with confusion and regret.

"Dear Ellen,

I came last night to Wuthering Heights, and heard, for the first time, that Catherine has been, and is yet, very ill. I must not write to her, I suppose, and my brother is either too angry or too distressed to answer what I sent him. Still, I must write to somebody, and the only choice left me is you.

The remainder of the letter is for yourself alone. I want to ask you two questions: the first is—How did you contrive to preserve the common sympathies of human nature when you resided here? I cannot recognise any sentiment which those around share with me.

The second question I have great interest in; it is this— Is Mr. Heathcliff a man? If so, is he mad? And if not, is he a devil? I sha’n’t tell my reasons for making this inquiry; but I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married: that is, when you call to see me; and you must call, Ellen, very soon. Don’t write, but come, and bring me something from Edgar.

... I sometimes wonder at him with an intensity that deadens my fear: yet, I assure you, a tiger or a venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens. He told me of Catherine’s illness, and accused my brother of causing it promising that I should be Edgar’s proxy in suffering, till he could get hold of him. I do hate him—I am wretched—I have been a fool! Beware of uttering one breath of this to any one at the Grange. I shall expect you every day—don’t disappoint me!


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

The last letter we saw from Jane Austen was full of love, but this one speaks only of contempt and hypocrisy. After stringing the beautiful and impulsive Marianne Dashwood along for a good section of the novel - making her believe herself to be in love with him - the feckless and dastardly John Willoughby cruelly cuts her out of his life, after a chance in circumstances compel him to marry a rich heiress.

This letter shows clearly what a nasty, cowardly character he is - instead of coming clean with Marianne, he pretends their romance never happened and addresses her in the cold, clinical language of a far-off acquaintance. It's the most brutish of dumping letters, made worse by the fact that Willoughby feigns ignorance at the way he in which he has broken Marianne's heart: "I am quite at a loss to discover in what point I could be so unfortunate as to offend you."

My dear Madam,

I have just had the honour of receiving your letter, for which I beg to return my sincere acknowledgements. I am much concerned to find there was any thing in my behaviour last night that did not meet your approbation; and though I am quite at a loss to discover in what point I could be so unfortunate as to offend you, I entreat your forgiveness of what I can assure you to have been perfectly unintentional. . . . It is with great regret that I obey your commands of returning the letters, with which I have been honoured from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me.

I am, dear Madam,

Your most obedient

humble Servant,

John Willoughby.

Last days of summer by Steve Kluger

Surrounded by vicious bullies, divorcing parents and a mostly absent father, Jewish boy Joey Margolis is struggling to survive in his everyday life in a tough Italian neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, in the 1940s. He reaches out for a role model in the form of Charlie Banks, a baseman for the New York Giants. Theirs is an unlikely friendship - Joey is full of childish demands and Charlie is a reluctant hero. But over a series of touching letters, the book highlights how their blossoming correspondence leads to small triumphs, changing both people forever.

Charlie Banks

New York Giants

Polo Grounds, NY

Dear Mr. Banks:

I am a 12 year old boy and I am dying from malaria. Please hit a home run for me because I don't think I will be around much longer.

Your friend,

Joey Margolis


Dear Kid,

Last week it was the plague. Now it's malaria. What do I look—stupid to you? Your lucky I do not send somebody over there to tap you on the conk. I am inclosing one last picture. Do not write to me again.

Chas. Banks, 3d Base


Dear Charlie,

Nobody asked for your damn picture. I never even heard of you before. And you can forget about the home run too. The only reason I needed one was because the bullies who keep beating me up somehow thought you were my best friend and the homer was supposed to keep them from slugging me anymore. Thanks for nothing.

Can I go on a road trip with you?

Your arch enemy,

Joey Margolis


Dear Joey,

"Somehow" they thought I was your best friend? Where did they hear that from? A Nazi spy? J. Herbert Hoover? Franklin Delano Biscuithead? And didn't I tell you not to write to me anymore?

Go bug DiMaggio.


Before I Die by Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham's moving debut novel tells the story of Tessa, a high-spirited and rebellious teenager who has just a few months to live. Faced with the inevitability of death, she compiles a list of things to do before she goes - including having sex and saying yes to everything. Above all, the last few months of her life pull into sharp focus her relationship with those closest to her (such as her boyfriend Adam).

This is her goodbye letter to her dad, an unsung hero of a character who supports her through all her trials and tribulations of living and dying. It's a simple and poignant thank you, told in the most understated way possible.

"Dad, you played rounders with me, even though you hated it and wished I'd take up cricket. You learned how to keep a stamp collection because I wanted to know. For hours you sat in hospitals and never, not once, complained. You brushed my hair like a mother should. You gave up work for me, friends for me, four years of your life for me. You never moaned. Hardly ever. You let me have Adam. You let me have my list. I was outrageous. Wanting, wanting so much. And you never said, 'That's enough. Stop now.'"

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