Love Revisitable: The Power of the Handwritten Letter
From the moment you pluck the envelope from the mailbox you’re in swift sensory relationship with the sender. A day or two ago, someone with quickened heart held pen in hand and inked this snowy rectangle with your name and where you live. Soft breath whispered over the paper’s smooth surface. An ardent tongue moistened the line of fastening glue. Warm fingers left the DNA traces now mingling with yours. Inside, a Valentine’s Day letter, ripe with declarations of love, of admiration. And folded within, invisible messages of hope, and of anticipation.
With quickly tapped out and dispatched digital messages zinging daily in their millions from device to device through cyberspace, Valentine’s Day may be one of the few occasions in the year when lovers and would-be swains slow down and let their feelings flow in handwriting, now a rare and therefore precious form of unvoiced words. Lovers know that messages in bland, deletable, digital typefaces are charmless and unsatisfying compared with the luxurious loops, strokes and flourishes of distinctive handwriting that reveals the sender’s essence.
Even when decorated with an animating heart or winky face, digital missives can be bluntly telegraphic and unappetising. More report than rhapsody. More surface than saturation.
Last nite hot n awesome. Miss U. B2W. C U tmoz.
Such a message can’t compete with the breathless but considered words of 19th century French writer Victor Hugo’s lover Juliette Drouet:
If you knew how I long for you, how the memory of last night leaves me delirious with joy and full of desire. How I long to give myself up in ecstasy to your sweet breath and to those kisses from your lips which fill me with delight!
Intense and arousing, handwriting is fertile, has a heartbeat, is more likely to awaken, bewitch and capture a wavering heart. A handwritten letter is sweet pasture meant for slow grazing.
Every literate culture has left a steamy trail of passionate love letters and poems. Museums and major libraries are stuffed with them. An Egyptian love letter written on papyrus—among thousands from the ancient world—reads:
Your love is mixed in my limbs like honey mixed with water, like madragoras mixed with resin gum, or the blending of flour with salt.
Oscar Wilde wrote rapturous love letters to ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred Douglas. While imprisoned in Reading jail in 1897 for homosexuality, Wilde wrote his longest letter to Douglas, the achingly beautiful 50,000 words of De Profundis. In happier days, in the winter of 1893, he extolled Bosie’s virtues:
My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.
English poet and writer Virginia Woolf’s love affair with writer Vita Sackville-West had its peaks and troughs; each woman was devoted to a husband as well as to each other. In January 1926, when Vita was away in Italy, her heart fissured with longing, she exposed her agony:
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 un-dumb 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 would 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 just really a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become.
A year later in 1927—before she published the gender-bending censorship-evading novel ‘Orlando’ that was described years later by Vita’s son as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’—Virginia’s persuasive words offered Vita an invitation:
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.
Twentieth century Mexican painter Frida Kahlo adored her flamboyant womanising artist husband Diego Rivera:
Truth is so great that I wouldn’t like to speak, or sleep, or listen, or love. To feel myself trapped, with no fear of blood, outside time and magic, within your own fear, and your great anguish, and within the very beating of your heart. All this madness, if I asked it of you, I know, in your silence, there would be only confusion. I ask you for violence, in the nonsense, and you, you give me grace, your light and your warmth. I’d like to paint you, but there are no colors, because there are so many, in my confusion, the tangible form of my great love. F.
Without the physical written evidence of the love between extravagantly expressive creative and prominent people, the world would be poorer. Their words are often inspirational legacies. The ribbon-bound or boxed bundles of love letters of the less celebrated—stored for safekeeping in homes all over the world—are no less important. Why do we keep them, treasure them? As proof that we are, or were, loved. That someone finds us or found us desirable, worthy of wooing and celebrating. And because evidence of love means we’re seen, recognised in our fullness, by another. That we belong to something greater than ourselves. That we’re not alone.
Letters allow us to re-experience pleasure each time we read them. They’re immersive. We write love letters to others because we’re captivated by what makes them ‘not us’—their difference expands and excites us. Ideally, their story takes us out of the familiarity of our own story, contributes to our wellbeing and connectedness, and creates something new and unique in the space between us. Expressing love in a letter can be an act of faith when you’re unsure how it will be received. Writing ‘I love you’ is hardly original, but enlarging that essential bonding emotion, by turning it word by word into a personal and meaningful alchemy, is love’s work.
Yes, there’re clever tweeters and texters who’ve perfected the art of brevity, but ephemeral digital proofs of love can’t match the power, the durability and the romance of handwritten love on well-chosen paper. Crisp cottony onionskin, watermarked, deckle-edged, smooth wove, ribbed laid—love laid bare on one of these surfaces, crystallised into words, is a generous mapping of the sender’s emotions on tangible territory. Inked paper is an exquisite domain offered to you by a woman or a man with an intention or two. It’s love fixed in time. Love given a place to stay. Love revisitable.
Do you have paper? A pen? Ink? Love in your heart? What’s keeping you?
Essay and photography by Susie Surtees