We don’t need a therapist to tell us that writing down our feelings is a highly cathartic process. For centuries, people have put pen to paper to express how they really feel – whether that’s rage, passion, jealousy or fear.
A letter is a great way of venting emotions that are little too messy, embarrassing or potent to give voice to everyday. But it’s also a risky endeavour; the sender writes in a frenzy of consciousness, with little or no idea of how the recipient may respond. They are laying themselves open to rejection, ridicule or an angry retort.
For that reason, some of history’s most iconic letters are also the most emotionally loaded. They’re brimming with high drama, from the plaintive appeal of a break-up note to the visceral expression of lust within a love letter and the caustic, sniping assertions of an ongoing feud.
From James Joyce’s sexually-charged messages to his muse and lover Nora Barnacle to the eloquent and vicious war of words between writers Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia, and Arthur Miller’s letter of longing to his wife Marilyn Monroe, come read a few of our favourite extracts from history’s most impassioned letters…
James Joyce’s sexually-charged letters to his lover and muse Nora Barnacle, 1909
When James Joyce left for Dublin in 1909, it set the scene for a series of steamy and explicit letters between the Irish Ulysses writer and his Trieste-based lover and muse, Nora Barnacle. Nora herself initiated the sexual overtures in order to keep the man who was to become her husband away from prostitutes when “the old fever of love” struck during their separation. They became known by fans of Joyce as “the dirty letters” and were filled with pornographic descriptions – like the Edwardian answer to sexting, only far more articulate and evocative. Nora sold the letters after Joyce’s death in 1955. “They were my fortune,” she later said.
“My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or fling you down under me on that softy belly of yours and fuck you up behind, like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the very stink and sweat that rises from your arse, glorying in the open shape of your upturned dress and white girlish drawers and in the confusion of your flushed cheeks and tangled hair. It allows me to burst into tears of pity and love at some slight word, to tremble with love for you at the sounding of some chord or cadence of music or to lie heads and tails with you feeling your fingers fondling and tickling my ballocks or stuck up in me behind and your hot lips sucking off my cock while my head is wedged in between your fat thighs, my hands clutching the round cushions of your bum and my tongue licking ravenously up your rank red cunt. I have taught you almost to swoon at the hearing of my voice singing or murmuring to your soul the passion and sorrow and mystery of life and at the same time have taught you to make filthy signs to me with your lips and tongue, to provoke me by obscene touches and noises, and even to do in my presence the most shameful and filthy act of the body. You remember the day you pulled up your clothes and let me lie under you looking up at you while you did it? Then you were ashamed even to meet my eyes. You are mine, darling, mine! I love you.”
Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia's vitriolic war of words, 1993
The claws were out in this increasingly vicious exchange between British writer Julie Burchill and US academic Camille Paglia. It all kicked off in 1993, when Camille was approached to write for Modern Review, a one-time London publication co-founded by Julie. Camille refused on the grounds of a negative review Julie once made of her work, triggering a heated and colourful series of letters between the two literary heavyweights. Both eloquent and precocious writers, they made worthy opponents and their furious messages – mostly sent by fax and published in Letters of Note – form a hilarious, if slightly alarming, read. We’re just glad we’re not on the receiving end of it…
“I’m here to tell you that you can’t come on like a street tough and then have an attack of the Victorian vapours when faced with a taste of your own style… Are you SO insecure that you can’t get one critical review without throwing a temper tantrum? What a fucking GIRL you are! Perhaps it’s because you got famous so late. One day you’ll learn it comes with the territory.”
– Julie Burchill
“I have already gathered from my contacts in the London media (and even from the Modern Review itself!) that many people are tired of your bullying and pretensions. I have no intention of publicly attacking you (except where I am specifically asked to by reporters), since I don’t view you as that important in the world scheme. But there are many ways I can help others expose you. Your coarse and unskilled letter is yet another way you have wounded yourself, and I will make sure it is widely seen.”
– Camille Paglia
Arthur Miller's lustful letter to his wife Marilyn Monroe, 1956
Breakfast has never sounded quite so raunchy a prospect as in this crazy-with-desire letter from the playwright Arthur Miller to his amour Marilyn Monroe, in April 1956. Written the same year the couple got wed, the Death of a Salesman author is clearly smitten with his buxom movie star lover. Although the pair divorced in 1961, they were passionately in love in the early years of their marriage. Marilyn converted to Judaism for her new husband, and after they tied the knot Arthur told journalists, “Marilyn will only make one film in every 18 months or so, which will take her about eight weeks.” When asked what she would do for the rest of the time, he replied, “She will be my wife. That’s a full-time job.” The letter formed part of the “Lost Archive of Marilyn Monroe,” a collection of 200 of Marilyn’s most personal correspondence, mementos and photos that she kept until her death at age 36 in August 1962.
“I will kiss you and hold you close to me and sensational things will then happen. All sorts of slides, rollings, pitchings, rambunctiousness of every kind. And then I will sigh. And when you rest your head on my shoulder, then slowly I will get HUNGRY.
“I will come again to the kitchen, pretending you are not there and discover you again. And as you stand there cooking breakfast, I will kiss your neck and your back and the sweet cantaloupes of your rump and the backs of your knees and turn you about and kiss your breasts and the eggs will burn.”
The let-down letter from Agnes von Kurowsky to her wartime sweetheart Ernest Hemingway, 1919
Dumping someone by letter is never easy, but we can’t fail to be charmed by this sweet and honest message from Agnes von Kurowsky to the man she infatuated, Ernest Hemingway. An 18-year-old Ernest fell for Agnes when he was working as an ambulance driver in Italy during the First World War. His leg was badly injured and he was taken to Milan hospital, where he met and fell madly in love with the 26-year-old American nurse. After he left the hospital he continued to write to her and he wanted to marry her. But she was less than convinced; she considered him too young and lacking in direction and eventually she put a lid on things with this letter in March 1919. In an astonishing show of foresight, she tells him “I feel that some day I’ll have reason to be proud of you.” He would go onto become one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th Century.
“So, Kid (still Kid to me, & always will be) can you forgive me some day for unwittingly deceiving you? You know I’m not really bad, & don’t mean to do wrong, & now I realize it was my fault in the beginning that you cared for me, & regret it from the bottom of my heart. But, I am now & always will be too old, & that’s the truth, & I can’t get away from the fact that you’re just a boy – a kid.
“I somehow feel that some day I’ll have reason to be proud of you, but, dear boy, I can’t wait for that day, & it was wrong to hurry a career.”
John Lennon's furious two-page tirade to Paul and Linda McCartney, 1971
For someone famed for being a peace-loving hippy, this letter sent by John Lennon in 1971 definitely has a sharp edge to it. The two-page rant is undated, but is thought to have been penned around the time of The Beatles’ split at the beginning of the 1970s. It’s clear evidence of the ongoing feud between the two musicians around that time, with John asking incredulously; “Do you really think most of today’s art came about because of the Beatles? I don’t believe you’re that insane – Paul – do you believe that?” He also lays into Paul’s then wife Linda, referring to her “unkind and selfish” behaviour towards him and his partner Yoko Ono (he signs the letter off with a shot at their apparent refusal to acknowledge Yoko, saying “P.S. about addressing your letter just to me – STILL!!!”). The furious tirade is known among Beatle scholars as “the John rant” and sold at auction for around £40,000 in 2013.
“Dear Linda and Paul, I was reading your letter and wondering what middle aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it.
“I resisted looking at the last page to find out – I kept thinking – who is it, Queenie? [Brian Epstein’s mother] Stuart’s [Sutcliffe] mother? Clive [brother of Brian] Epstein’s wife? – Alan Williams? [the band’s first manager] – What the hell – it’s Linda!
“Who do you think we/you are? I hope you realise what s**t you and the rest of my kind and unselfish friends laid on Yoko and me since we have been together – it may have sometimes been a bit more subtle or should I say middle class – but not often. We both “rose above it… quite a few times and forgave you two – so it’s the least you can do for us… Linda – if you don’t care what I say – shut up!
“… I’m not ashamed of the Beatles, but of some of the s**t we took to make them so big – I thought we all felt that way in varying degrees. Obviously not.
“Do you really think most of today’s art came about because of the Beatles? I don’t believe you’re that insane Paul – do you believe that? When you stop believing it you might wake up! Didn’t we always say we were part of the movement – not all of it? Of course we changed the world – but try and follow it through – get off your gold disc and fly!”
Virginia Woolf’s charming and spontaneous invitation to her lover Vita Sackville-West, 1927
There are few more beautiful or genuinely-worded invitations than the one contained in this letter from Virginia Woolf to English poet Vita Sackville-West in 1927. The writers had embarked on an affair in 1925, when both were married (their husbands were aware of the liaison and apparently un-bothered by it – Vita and her husband had an open marriage anyway). In this loved-up message, Virginia urges her lover to “throw over your man” for a rather wonderful-sounding trip to Hampton Court. The letter is clear evidence of Woolf’s skill for using language to conjure up romantic, moving imagery. The pair ended things in 1928, but remained devoted friends right up until Virginia’s suicide death in 1941. Woolf’s Orlando is thought to have been based on their affair; Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicolson has referred to it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.”
“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. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.”
Gustave Flaubert's aroused letter of desire to his paramour Louise Colet, 1846
Given it was written in 1846, this letter was seriously steamy stuff. But then its author, Gustave Flaubert, was no stranger to erotic prose. Ten years after he penned this wonderfully desirous message to his lover Louise Colet, his debut novel Madame Bovary was serialised. Although it would become a bestseller and literary masterpiece, its adulterous storyline shocked many at the time and Gustave was put on trial for obscenity (he was later acquitted). This letter clearly shows his early gift for describing the kind of sexual appetite and longing that is redolent of a passionate love affair.
"I will cover you with love when next I see you, with caresses, with ecstasy. I want to gorge yu [sic] with all the joys of the flesh, so that you faint and die. I want you to be amazed by me, and to confess to yourself that you had never even dreamed of such transports... When you are old, I want you to recall those few hours, I want your dry bones to quiver with joy when you think of them."
The hilariously affronted email of complaint to Richard Branson, 2009
Letter of complaint are usually tedious affairs, but not in this lengthy and hilarious dispatch sent personally to Sir Richard Branson in 2009. Complete with unappetising photos of the food served on a Virgin Atlantic flight from Mumbai to London, the email struck an amiable-but-bewildered note as the anonymous author launched into a litany of misgivings over the presentation of his in-flight meal. It’s the level of detail that’s hilarious here (at one point, the sender describes “the miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter”), as well as the direct pleas to Richard (“How can you live like this?” he ends). A Virgin spokesperson confirmed that Richard had phoned the author of the letter and thanked him for his “constructive if tongue-in-cheek” feedback.
“Dear Mr Branson
“REF: Mumbai to Heathrow 7th December 2008
“I love the Virgin brand, I really do which is why I continue to use it despite a series of unfortunate incidents over the last few years. This latest incident takes the biscuit.
“Ironically, by the end of the flight I would have gladly paid over a thousand rupees for a single biscuit following the culinary journey of hell I was subjected to at the hands of your corporation.
“Look at this Richard. Just look at it [image above].
“I imagine the same questions are racing through your brilliant mind as were racing through mine on that fateful day. What is this? Why have I been given it? What have I done to deserve this? And, which one is the starter, which one is the desert?
“You don’t get to a position like yours Richard with anything less than a generous sprinkling of observational power so I KNOW you will have spotted the tomato next to the two yellow shafts of sponge on the left. Yes, it’s next to the sponge shaft without the green paste. That’s got to be the clue hasn’t it. No sane person would serve a desert with a tomato would they.”
Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images