Letters reveal the dark and despairing side of celebrated lovers

by Linda Herrick / 22 May, 2017

Twice married, twice divorced, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Photo/Getty Images

“Do you really think that at any period in our friendship you were worthy of the love I showed you, or that for a single moment I thought you were? I knew you were not.”

In 1897, Oscar Wilde, incarcerated in Reading Gaol for “gross indecency”, devoted three months towards the end of his two-year sentence composing De Profundis (“From the depths”), a 50,000-word letter to his venal young lover, Lord Alfred (“Bosie”) Douglas.

Though signed off “Your affectionate friend”, it’s a relentless howl of pain, an astounding piece of writing extracted in Yours Always: Letters of Longing. Editor Eleanor Bass categorises three aspects of the bad, mad side of love: Unrequited and Unequal Love; Conflicted and Condemned Love (including Wilde and Bosie); and A Final Word.

It’s a dip-in-and-out kind of book, opening with Charlotte Brontë’s stalkerish letters to a married Belgian professor she met in Brussels while studying languages in 1842. The surviving four letters are startlingly whiny: “For six months I have been awaiting a letter from Monsieur,” she writes in one. “Six months’ waiting is very long, you know! However, I do not complain.”

Other writers in this “Unrequited” section include Winston Churchill, Iris Murdoch and photographer Andre de Dienes, who “discovered” Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1945 when she was 19 and about to become Marilyn Monroe. They briefly became lovers, then she moved on. He didn’t. Writing to her in 1960, he complains he has glanced through a magazine interview with her, “and as usual, I did not find my name somewhere where it should have been mentioned”.

“Conflicted and Condemned Love” includes a break-up exchange between Ernest Hemingway and a nurse who cared for him in Italy in 1918. After she ends their engagement, he writes to a friend, “I’m just smashed by it.”

Richard Burton addresses Elizabeth Taylor “So My Lumps” as the couple prepared to separate in 1973. It took a while: in 1974, she responds, “Anyway I lust thee, Your (still) wife.” Shortly afterwards, they divorced, remarried, then divorced again.

The book slams shut with Ted Hughes’ poem Last Letter, unpublished until 2010, directly addressing his wife, Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. It’s full of guilt and remorse, an anguished admission of infidelity leading to the most final form of annulment.

All up, Love Always is an intense read if a little obscure. Who writes letters any more? These days, many people tormented by love broadcast their bitterness for all the world to see across social media. Letters seem so much classier.

Yours Always: Letters of Longing, edited by Eleanor Bass (Icon Books, $27.99)

This article was first published in the May 13, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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