From Zelda Fitzgerald to Emily Dickinson, the passion and pain in these historical letters are still evident today.
Anyone familiar with the Sex and the City movie (the first one, not the Abu Dhabi horrorshow) will be familiar with the love letters of great men. Ever thine, ever mine, ever ours, anyone?
But as always, we must ask, where are the women? Presumably at least some of them wrote back. Or even wrote first.
In this digital era, where all our creative or cultural output could be wiped clean with just a click of a button, there is something humbling about the survival of love letters from years gone by, written on paper, and reaching out to remind us that despite the chasm of time, we still feel the same way now.
The best love letters evoke feelings of yearning, love and passion, and all of those can be found in these powerful love letters, from some of history’s most remarkable women.
1. Frida Kahlo to José Bartoli
For nearly 30 years, they were partners who were sometimes rivals, revolutionaries who turned on each other – and lovers who were often adulterous.
Kahlo’s most famous affair was undoubtedly Leon Trotsky, but it is her love letters to José Bartoli, a Catalan artist and her long-time long-distance lover, that have really captured the public’s imagination. In fact, a collection of 25 letters Kahlo wrote to Bartoli sold at auction for $137,000 in 2015.
In one letter, Kahlo wrote: “I don’t know how to write love letters … But I wanted to tell you that my whole being opened for you. Since I fell in love with you everything is transformed and is full of beauty… love is like an aroma, like a current, like rain.”
In another, she wrote: “Last night I felt as if many wings caressed me all over, as if your finger tips had mouths that kissed my skin. The atoms of my body are yours and they vibrate together so that we love each other.
“I want to live and be strong in order to love you with all the tenderness that you deserve, to give you everything that is good in me, so that you will not feel alone.”
2. Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert
Gilbert would be her love and lifelong friend, muse, neighbour and, eventually, sister-in-law, as well as a prolific writer herself. The two maintained an epistolary relationship for decades.
Dickinson wrote to Gilbert: “We are the only poets, and everyone else is prose.”
In another letter, she expresses her anguish at their separation: “I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie — Friends are too dear to sunder, Oh they are far too few, and how soon they will go away where you and I cannot find them, don’t let us forget these things, for their remembrance now will save us many an anguish when it is too late to love them!
“Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you, none other than you is in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here — and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language.”
3. Zelda Fitzgerald to F. Scott Fitzgerald
They were engaged, then separated, then engaged, then married, then separated again. Their relationship would continue just as tempestuously for the rest of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life – through his alcoholism and her mental illness.
But despite the couple’s troubles, and her long-term battle against schizophrenia and eating disorders, Zelda – who was a painter and writer in her own right – wrote him some unforgettable love poetry.
“Nobody has ever measured, not even the poets, how much a heart can hold… Why is there happiness and comfort and excitement where you are and nowhere else in the world?
“Living is cold and technical without you, a death mask of itself.”
4. Georgia O’Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz
Georgia O’Keeffe is perhaps best remembered for her intense, modernist paintings of flowers.
Alfred Stieglitz, an art dealer who exhibited her works, ended up becoming her husband in 1924. He is perhaps best remembered for the erotic photographs he took – and exhibited – of his wife.
But American artist O’Keeffe was also a prolific writer. In fact, the pair exchanged more than 5,000 letters.
In one, she wrote: “Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.”
5. Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf
The relationship between Virginia Woolf and the British poet Vita Sackville-West has long captured the imagination of fans – not least because both women were married to other people: two men who seemed remarkably accepting of the situation.
In 1927, Sackville-West sent Woolf a letter that is agonisingly relatable.
“I am reduced to a thing that wants, Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain.”
She continued: “I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.”
Image Credit: Getty