From Simone de Beauvoir to Nelson Algren, 1950
De Beauvoir met Algren in Chicago in 1947, and the two maintained a long distance relationship for the next few years. But the distance was too much for Algren, who wanted something a little more constant. De Beauvoir wrote this letter on a trip back to Paris after visiting her lover and finding how withdrawn he had become from her.
I am better at dry sadness than at cold anger, for I remained dry eyed until now, as dry as smoked fish, but my heart is a kind of dirty soft custard inside.
I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away fro myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time — just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that i’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you have me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.
Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.
Your own Simone
From Edith Wharton to W. Morton Fullerton, April 1910
In 1907 and 1908, Wharton and Fullerton carried on what seemed to be a serious courtship, but when Wharton returned to America in the latter year, Fullerton’s letters became fewer and fewer. In 1909, Wharton discovered there was another woman in his life. By the time this letter was written, it was pretty clear which way the Thames was flowing.
Don’t think I am “fâchée,” as you said yesterday; but I am sad & bewildered beyond words, & with all my other cares & bewilderments, I can’t go on like this!
When I went away I thought I shd perhaps hear once from you. But you wrote me every day — you wrote me as you used to three years ago! And you provoked me to answer in the same way, because I could not see for what other purpose you were writing. I thought you wanted me to write what was in my heart!
Then I come back, & not a word, not a sign. You know that here it is impossible to exchange two words, & you come here, & come without even letting me know, so that it was a mere accident that I was at home. You go away, & again dead silence. I have been back three days, & I seem not to exist for you. I don’t understand.
If I could lean on some feeling in you — a good & loyal friendship, if there’s nothing else! — then I could go on, bear things, write, & arrange my life…
Now, ballottée perpetually between one illusion & another by your strange confused conduct of the last six months, I can’t any longer find a point de repère. I don’t know what you want, or what I am! You write to me like a lover, you treat me like a casual acquaintance!
Which are you — what am I?
Casual acquaintance, no; but a friend, yes. I’ve always told you I foresaw that solution, & accepted it in advance. But a certain consistency of affection is a fundamental part of friendship. One must know à quoi s’en tenir. And just as I think we have reached that stage, you revert abruptly to the other relation, & assume that I have noticed no change in you, & that I have not suffered or wondered at it, but have carried on my life in serene insensibility until you chose to enter again suddenly into it.
I have borne all these inconsistencies & incoherences as long as I could, because I love you so much, & because I am so sorry for things in your life that are difficult & wearing — but I have never been capricious or exacting, I have never, I think, added to those difficulties, but have tried to lighten them for you by a frank & faithful friendship. Only now a sense of my worth, & a sense also that I can bear no more, makes me write this to you. Write me no more such letters as you sent me in England.
It is a cruel & capricious amusement. — It was not necessary to hurt me thus! I understand something of life, I judged you long ago, & I have accepted you as you are, admiring all your gifts & your great charm, & seeking only to give you the kind of affection that should help you most, & lay the least claim on you in return. But one cannot have all one’s passionate tenderness demanded one day, & ignored the next, without reason or explanation, as it has pleased you to do since your enigmatic change in December. I have had a difficult year — but the pain within my pain, the last turn of the screw, has been the impossibility of knowing what you wanted of me, & what you felt for me — at a time when it seemed natural that, if you had any sincere feeling for me, you should see my need of an equable friendship — I don’t say love because that is not made to order! — but the kind of tried tenderness that old friends seek in each other in difficult moments of life. My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion of this sad year. And it is a bitter thing to say to the one being one has ever loved d’amour.
From Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, 1896
It was letters to Lord Alfred Douglas that landed Wilde in prison on charges of “gross indecency” (read: homosexuality), but that didn’t stop him from writing more, including this one, which contains excerpts from Wilde’s famous “De Profundis.” Douglas abandoned Wilde while he was in prison, but came back around after he was released. He was basically a huge jerk.
After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.
Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me, yet the memory of our ancient affection is often with me, and the thought that loathing, bitterness and contempt should for ever take that place in my heart once held by love is very sad to me: and you yourself will, I think, feel in your heart that to write to me as I lie in the loneliness of prison-life is better than to publish my letters without my permission or to dedicate poems to me unasked, though the world will know nothing of whatever words of grief or passion, of remorse or indifference you may choose to send as your answer or your appeal. . . .
But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will-power, and my will-power became absolutely subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true. Those incessant scenes that seemed to be almost physically necessary to you, and in which your mind and body grew distorted and you became a thing as terrible to look at as to listen to: that dreadful mania you inherit from your father, the mania for writing revolting and loathsome letters: your entire lack of any control over your emotions as displayed in your long resentful moods of sullen silence, no less than in the sudden fits of almost epileptic rage: all these things in reference to which one of my letters to you, left by you lying about at the Savoy or some other hotel and so produced in Court by your father’s Counsel, contained an entreaty not devoid of pathos, had you at that time been able to recognise pathos either in its elements or its expression: – these, I say, were the origin and causes of my fatal yielding to you in your daily increasing demands. You wore one out. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger nature. It was the case of that tyranny of the weak over the strong which somewhere in one of my plays I describe as being “the only tyranny that lasts.”
And it was inevitable. In every relation of life with others one has to find some moyen de vivre. In your case, one had either to give up to you or to give you up. There was no alternative. Through deep if misplaced affection for you: through great pity for your defects of temper and temperament: through my own proverbial good-nature and Celtic laziness: through an artistic aversion to coarse scenes and ugly words: through that incapacity to bear resentment of any kind which at that time characterised me: through my dislike of seeing life made bitter and uncomely by what to me, with my eyes really fixed on other things, seemed to be mere trifles too petty for more than a moment’s thought or interest – through these reasons, simple as they may sound, I gave up to you always. As a natural result, your claims, your efforts at domination, your exactions grew more and more unreasonable. Your meanest motive, your lowest appetite, your most common passion, became to you laws by which the lives of others were to be guided always, and to which, if necessary, they were to be without scruple sacrificed. Knowing that by making a scene you could always have your way, it was but natural that you should proceed, almost unconsciously I have no doubt, to every excess of vulgar violence. At the end you did not know to what goal you were hurrying, or with what aim in view. Having made your own of my genius, my will-power, and my fortune, you required, in the blindness of an inexhaustible greed, my entire existence. You took it. At the one supremely and tragically critical moment of all my life, just before my lamentable step of beginning my absurd action, on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. The letter I received from you on the morning of the day I let you take me down to the Police Court to apply for the ridiculous warrant for your father’s arrest was one of the worst you ever wrote, and for the most shameful reason. Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles. I had made a gigantic psychological error. I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will-power completely failed me. In life there is really no small or great thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size. . . .
You send me a very nice poem, of the undergraduate school of verse, for my approval: I reply by a letter of fantastic literary conceits [reproduced above]: I compare you to Hylas, or Hyacinth, Jonquil or Narcisse, or someone whom the great god of Poetry favoured, and honoured with his love. The letter is like a passage from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, transposed to a minor key. It can only be understood by those who have read the Symposium of Plato, or caught the spirit of a certain grave mood made beautiful for us in Greek marbles. It was, let me say frankly, the sort of letter I would, in a happy if wilful moment, have written to any graceful young man of either University who had sent me a poem of his own making, certain that he would have sufficient wit or culture to interpret rightly its fantastic phrases. Look at the history of that letter! It passes from you into the hands of a loathsome companion: from him to a gang of blackmailers: copies of it are sent about London to my friends, and to the manager of the theatre where my work is being performed: every construction but the right one is put on it: Society is thrilled with the absurd rumours that I have had to pay a huge sum of money for having written an infamous letter to you: this forms the basis of your father’s worst attack: I produce the original letter myself in Court to show what it really is: it is denounced by your father’s Counsel as a revolting and insidious attempt to corrupt Innocence: ultimately it forms part of a criminal charge: the Crown takes it up: The Judge sums up on it with little learning and much morality: I go to prison for it at last. That is the result of writing you a charming letter. . . .
There is, I know, one answer to all that I have said to you, and that is that you loved me: that all through those two and a half years during which the Fates were weaving into one scarlet pattern the threads of our divided lives you really loved me. Yes: I know you did. No matter what your conduct to me was I always felt that at heart you really did love me. Though I saw quite clearly that my position in the world of Art, the interest my personality had always excited, my money, the luxury in which I lived, the thousand and one things that went to make up a life so charmingly, and so wonderfully improbable as mine was, were, each and all of them, elements that fascinated you and made you cling to me; yet besides all this there was something more, some strange attraction for you: you loved me far better than you loved anybody else. But you, like myself, have had a terrible tragedy in your life, though one of an entirely opposite character to mine. Do you want to learn what it was? It was this. In you Hate was always stronger than Love. Your hatred of your father was of such stature that it entirely outstripped, o’erthrew, and overshadowed your love of me. There was no struggle between them at all, or but little; of such dimensions was your Hatred and of such monstrous growth. You did not realise that there is no room for both passions in the same soul. They cannot live together in that fair carven house. Love is fed by the imagination, by which we become wiser than we know, better than we feel, nobler than we are: by which we can see Life as a whole: by which, and by which alone, we can understand others in their real as in their ideal relations. Only what is fine, and finely conceived, can feed Love. But anything will feed Hate. There was not a glass of champagne you drank, not a rich dish you ate of in all those years, that did not feed your Hate and make it fat. So to gratify it, you gambled with my life, as you gambled with my money, carelessly, recklessly, indifferent to the consequence. If you lost, the loss would not, you fancied, be yours. If you won, yours you knew would be the exultation, and the advantages of victory. . . .
You see that I have to write your life to you, and you have to realise it. We have known each other now for more than four years. Half of the time we have been together: the other half I have had to spend in prison as the result of our friendship. Where you will receive this letter, if indeed it ever reaches you, I don’t know. Rome, Naples, Paris, Venice, some beautiful city on sea or river, I have no doubt, holds you. You are surrounded, if not with all the useless luxury you had with me, at any rate with everything that is pleasurable to eye, ear, and taste. Life is quite lovely to you. And yet, if you are wise, and wish to find Life much lovelier still and in a different manner you will let the reading of this terrible letter – for such I know it is – prove to you as important a crisis and turning-point of your life as the writing of it is to me. Your pale face used to flush easily with wine or pleasure. If, as you read what is here written, it from time to time becomes scorched, as though by a furnace-blast, with shame, it will be all the better for you. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realised is right. . . .
You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.
Your affectionate friend Oscar Wilde
From Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert Imlay, March 1796
Though never officially married, Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay had a child together. This letter was written after the relationship went downhill, due to Imlay’s cheating and constant travelling, and after Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Later, Wollstonecraft would marry William Godwin and give birth to the child that would grow up to write Frankenstein.
You must do as you please with respect to the child. I could wish that it might be done soon, that my name may be no more mentioned to you. It is now finished. Convinced that you have neither regard nor friendship, I distain to utter a reproach, though I have had reason to think, that the “forbearance” talked of, has not been very delicate. It is however of no consequence. I am glad you are satisfied with your own conduct.
I now solemnly assure you, that this is an eternal farewell. Yet I flinch not from the duties which tie me to life. That there is sophistry on one side or other, is certain; but now it matters not on which. On my part it has not been a question of words. Yet your understanding or mine must be strangely warped; for what you term “delicacy” appears to me to be exactly the contrary. I have no criterion for morality, and have thought in vain if the sensations which lead you to follow an ancle or step, be the sacred foundation of principle and affection. Mine has been of a very different nature, or it would not have stood the brunt of your sarcasms.
The sentiment in me is still sacred. If there be any part of me that will survive the sense of my misfortunes, it is the purity of my affections. The impetuosity of your senses may have led you to term mere animal desire the source of principle; and it may give zest to some years to come. Whether you will always think so, I shall never know.
It is strange that, in spite of all you do, something like conviction forces me to believe that you are not what you appear to be.
I part with you in peace.
From Agnes von Kurowsky to Ernest Hemingway, March 1919
We know this one is to, not from, a famous author, but we just couldn’t resist — plus, Agnes is basically Catherine Bakley. Hemingway met her in Milan during WWI, after he was taken to a hospital where she was serving as a nurse. He wanted to marry her, and though she refused (partly because he was 18 and she 26!), he kept on writing her. This was Agnes putting her foot down.
Ernie, dear boy,
I am writing this late at night after a long think by myself, & I am afraid it is going to hurt you, but, I’m sure it won’t harm you permanently.
For quite awhile before you left, I was trying to convince myself it was a real love-affair, because, we always seemed to disagree, & then arguments always wore me out so that I finally gave in to keep you from doing something desperate.
Now, after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart. It’s alright to say I’m a Kid, but, I’m not, & I’m getting less & less so every day.
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.
I tried hard to make you understand a bit of what I was thinking on that trip from Padua to Milan, but, you acted like a spoiled child, & I couldn’t keep on hurting you. Now, I only have the courage because I’m far away.
Then – & believe me when I say this is sudden for me, too – I expect to be married soon. And I hope & pray that after you thought things out, you’ll be able to forgive me & start a wonderful career & show what a man you really are.
Ever admiringly & fondly,
Your friend, Aggie
From Anaïs Nin to C. L. (Lanny) Baldwin, 1945
Nin had an affair with Baldwin while both were married, and went on to publish a book of his poetry. Eventually, Baldwin balked at the deception, and went back to his wife and children. He responded to the following letter by writing that Nin was “a kind of dog in the manger with men. You want them all to sit at your feet and be yours, all yours and only yours.”
My poor Lanny, how blind you are! A woman is jealous only when she has nothing, but I who am the most loved of all women, what can I be jealous of? I gave you up long ago, as you well know, also I refused you the night you wept-I only extended the friendship as I told you then until you found what you wanted-When you did I withdrew it merely because I have no time for dead relationships. The day I discovered your deadness-long ago-my illusion about you died and I knew you could never enter my world, which you wanted so much. Because my world is based on passion, and because you know that it is only with passion that one creates, and you know that my world which you now deride because you couldn’t enter it, made Henry [Miller] a great writer, because you know the other young men you are so jealous of enter a whole world by love and are writing books, producing movies, poems, paintings, composing music.
I am in no need of “insisting” upon being loved. I’m immersed and flooded in this. That is why I am happy and full of power and find friendship pale by comparison.
But in the middle of this fiery and marvellous give and take, going out with you was like going out with a priest. The contrast in temperature was too great. So I waited for my first chance to break-not wanting to leave you alone.
You ought to know my value better than to think I can be jealous of the poor American woman who has lost her man to me continually since I am here-
Abe Lincoln to Mary Owens, 1837
We know, we know, we’re kind of cheating. But hey, Lincoln wrote the most-quoted speech in history, so we’re counting him. This letter was written after Lincoln jokingly agreed to marry the sister of a friend, and didn’t realize until later that the woman had taken him seriously, rendering him effectively engaged. He wrote a series of three letters to get himself out of it — this is the second in the series.
I have commenced two letters to send you before this, both of which displeased me before I got half done, and so I tore them up. The first I thought wasn’t serious enough, and the second was on the other extreme. I shall send this, turn out as it may.
This thing of living in Springfield is rather a dull business after all, at least it is so to me. I am quite as lonesome here as ever was anywhere in my life. I have been spoken to by but one woman since I have been here, and should not have been by her, if she could have avoided it. I’ve never been to church yet, nor probably shall not be soon. I stay away because I am concious I should not know how to behave myself-
I am often thinking about what we said of your coming to live at Springfield. I am afraid you would not be satisfied. There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here; which it would be your doom to see without sharing in it. You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe you could bear that patiently? Whatever woman may cast her lot with mine should any ever do so, it is my intention to do all in my power to make her happy and contented; and there is nothing I can immagine, that would make me more unhappy than to fail in the effort. I know I should be much happier with you than the way I am, provided I saw no signs of discontent in you. What you have said to me may have been in jest, or I may have misunderstood it. If so, then let it be forgotten; if otherwise, I much wish you would think seriously before you decide. For my part I have already decided. What I have said I will most positively abide by, provided you wish it. My opinion is that you had better not do it. You have not been accustomed to hardship, and it may be more severe than you now immagine.
I know you are capable of thinking correctly on any subject, and if you deliberate maturely upon this, before you decide, then I am willing to abide your decision.
You must write me a good long letter after you get this. You have nothing else to do, and though it might not seem interesting to you, after you have written it, it would be a good deal of company to me in this “busy wilderness”. Tell your sister I dont want to hear any more about selling out and moving. That gives me the hypo whenever I think of it.
Yours &c. Lincoln
Virginia Woolf to her husband Leonard Woolf in March, 1941
We know we’re stretching the definition here, but breakup letters come in all forms. This was the last letter Woolf wrote to her husband before her suicide, and as such can be considered as much a breakup letter with herself and her own madness as it is with him.
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.