Reading Someone Else’s Letters

Hardly anyone writes letters anymore, and that’s a crying shame because when it comes time to tell the story of our age, the historians of the future will have a lot less to draw on. I love reading dead people’s love letters. It’s the best way to get inside someone’s head and get a glimpse of their most personal feelings. Future historians may pad their books with quotes from text messages, but it probably won’t be the same.

James Joyce was into some weird things sexually. I know next to nothing about James Joyce (I think he was some sort of writer or something), but I know that. It’s all because of a letter, or actually a series of letters, that he wrote to his wife. He was not subtle, or vague. James Joyce wasn’t one of those men who thinks it’s sexier if you leave a little to the imagination. Those letters were very private, of course. No one was meant to ever read them except their intended recipient. But somehow after both parties died, the letters leaked and ended up on the internet where they became a sensation, even among people who know next to nothing about James Joyce. Millions of people laughed and unleashed their judgement upon him. Did he deserve it? Probably not; many people are turned on by the same things and express those urges in private. However, James Joyce seems to have had about 10 completely different fetishes, ranging from the almost-vanilla to the what-the-fuck. But it’s 2012, and “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the number one book in America, so maybe James Joyce is vindicated. I’m still not going to post any quotes from his letter because they’re just not worth inflicting on anyone.

Many a dead celebrity begged their paramours to burn all their letters after they were read. Most didn’t. Maybe they had something unsavory in mind, or maybe they just wanted to hold on to the feeling of being loved and missed. If you read a lot of history books, you’ll eventually come across a scandal or two that centered around a famous man sleeping with some woman he shouldn’t have been sleeping with, writing her incriminating letters, and ending up getting blackmailed by the woman or someone associated with her. It even happened to Alexander Hamilton, and even after he thought the worst had passed, the letters got into the hands of his rival Thomas Jefferson.

Even knowing that things might come out or personally experiencing it didn’t stop people from writing down their most personal feelings. For centuries, letters were the only form of communication for those who were separated. Because they were handwritten and mailed, people put thought into what they wrote. That doesn’t mean that there wasn’t plenty of stupidity and vulgarity, just that the overall picture from a letter is more accurate than that from, say, a text message. Even if there was a fear of something getting out, in the pre-internet days scandals could be much more easily contained. But generally speaking, people were the most revealing to those whom they trusted completely.

Ever since childhood, I’ve been obsessed with royalty. Since I was 13, I’ve amassed a massive collection of books on the royal family. In recent months, I’ve stopped myself from buying books I really wanted because I just don’t have any more room and I can’t imagine parting with any of my current collection. The first book of letters I ever bought were Elizabeth Tudor’s. I actually bought the book more because it included her poetry, which I desperately wanted to read. The poetry was more than enough to hold my interest, but I also spent many hours poring over her letters. This was a very distant era, and everything was rather reserved, but still her personality seeped through and I was able to see her the way those who knew her did. It took me a second to get used to some of the strange language and expressions, but once I did, I was fascinated. I noted some of her casual jokes and nicknames, including calling one of her government officials “dearest kitchen maid” in reference to a metaphor he’d used to describe his position in Ireland. Before Elizabeth was Queen, she found herself caught up in a few sticky situations, one of which resulted in her being sent to the Tower of London where her mother and one of her stepmothers were executed. The letters from that time give an idea how intelligent and persuasive she could be, and how she could still think clearly even in a terrifying situation.

I also cringed a little at more unsavory references, like claiming those who falsely accused her were “Christians in name, but Jews in deed,” reflecting the typical views of her day. One unsavory thing you learn reading old letters is that most historical figures held some pretty offensive views, but historians are more than happy to simply write those views out of history if the person in question is popular enough. When the offensive stuff is well publicized, that means the dead person in question has some enemies. History is very subjective; no one gets a fair appraisal. If you like a dead person, you’ll try and ignore the bad things as being minor mistakes, or just the normal thinking of the day. If you don’t like a dead person, you’ll use whatever prejudices you uncover to justify your dislike. It’s an awful double standard, and if it continues, we’ll never be able to truly confront the sins of the past and move away from them.

There isn’t much passion or romance to be found in any of Elizabeth’s letters. It was a different time; she was forced to be very guarded with her feelings for fear they might be used against her. One of the best hints we get comes not from a letter she sent, but one she received. Shortly before his death, Elizabeth’s longtime friend, Robert Dudley, wrote her a rather unremarkable letter in which he mentioned his illness and his hopes for recovery. Elizabeth kept that letter close for the rest of her life, and after she died, it was found that she had written “his last letter” on it. That letter didn’t seem particularly interesting, but those were the last words she received from someone who meant a great deal to her.

The things that I find most fascinating are absent from Elizabeth’s letters. It’s much harder to read between the lines in her letters than in those that came more recently. Love letters are my favorite. I think when you can understand someone’s relationships, and how they treat the people they fall in love with, you can understand what kind of person they were. True love letters are actually hard to come by. Most of the time when someone sent a letter, it wasn’t just about their feelings. Usually

 “I am yours, you are mine, of that be sure. You are locked in my heart, the little key is lost and now you must stay there forever.”

– Note left by Alexandra of Hesse in Nicholas II’s journal

The most insanely passionate letters I’ve ever found were those of Russia’s last Czar and Czarina, Nicholas and Alexandra. Those two were very much in love with each other. Perhaps too much for their own good. You can get to a point where you’re so consumed with someone that your brain won’t let you focus on anything else. In one letter from 1916 (22 years after they married), Nicholas confesses that often when he sees Alexandra after a separation, he forgets to tell her the things he needs to tell her because he’s so infatuated he can’t do anything but sit and stare at her. Even after spending more than two decades of their lives together, they were just as obsessed as always.They couldn’t really understand much of the world beyond each other, and many at the time blamed Nicholas’s questionable leadership on his wife. A lot of that is the same good old fashioned sexism that is often levied against women in history who didn’t perfectly fit into the role in which they were cast. But, then again, she did advise Nicholas to “be like Ivan the Terrible,” among other things. They seem like such nice people, with such a lovely family life, but they shouldn’t have been responsible for ruling anything larger than a goldfish bowl.

Be firm. I, your wall, am behind you and won’t give way – I know He leads us right. It’s all getting calmer and better, only one wants to feel Your Hand – how long, years, people have told me the same – ‘Russia loves to feel the whip’ – it’s their nature – tender love and then the iron hand to punish and guide.

– Alexandra, suggesting an S&M style leadership strategy to her “Darling Nicky”

Alexandra was a bit of a hypochondriac and the concept of TMI was totally foreign to her. Any minor illness experienced by anyone in the family is mentioned, and she’s sure to inform Nicholas when she, or any of her four daughters, are on their periods. She calls it “Madame Becker,” which was apparently a common euphemism back in the day. Nicholas and Alexandra were a very close couple, and sometimes it’s rather hard to interpret some of their letters because they knew each other so well they could be as vague as they wanted. I also read some letters Alexandra wrote to Rasputin, the mystic “healer” she believed was capable of curing her son. Many have accused Alexandra of having an affair with him based on these letters. There’s no doubt they are a bit overly affectionate, but there’s just no comparison with her feelings for Nicholas. I had a hard time imagining either Nicholas or Alexandra having an affair because they were so obsessed with each other there wasn’t room for anyone else. In her letters to Nicholas, Rasputin is simply referred to as “our Friend.”

I’ve also read bits and pieces of the correspondence of Nicholas and Alexandra’s four daughters. Olga was serious, Tatiana was charming, Maria was romantic, and Anastasia was… well, Anastasia was Anastasia. Her personality comes off the page in spades. She writes to her father about all kinds of mischief she got up to while he was away. She had a casual attitude about everything; this was a child who didn’t fear her parents. She seemed to relish causing trouble and being the center of attention. Even as she got older and calmed down, she was always sure to pepper her letters with amusing stories and quotes about her experiences. If she hadn’t died at age 17, I am reasonably certain she would have grown up to cause one of the great royal scandals of all time.

8 May 1913

My darling sweet dear Papa!!! I want to see you so much. I have just finished my arithmetic lesson, I think I did quite well. We are going to the nurses’ school. I am very glad. Today it is rainy and very damp. I am in Tatiana’s room. Tatiana and Olga are here. When you see Boba, tell him I’m going to beat him again and that my hands are itching. I’m trying very hard to breed worms, and Olga says I stink, which isn’t true. When you come I am going to bathe in your bath. I hope you haven’t forgotten the story I told you during our walk. I am sitting picking my nose with my left hand. Olga wanted to smack me but I escaped her swinish hand. When you come I will meet you at the station. Be happy and healthy. A big squeeze to your hand and face. Thinking of you.

Love you always, everywhere.


The four girls, and their brother Alexei, were close with their parents and each other. The whole family was deeply spiritual, and God was rarely far from their minds. There were also the normal childhood concerns of games and toys and fights with siblings. Alexei used 10 exclamation marks in a letter to his mother begging for his allowance. These were normal children, which is absolutely astounding given how abnormal most royals really are. Nicholas and Alexandra gave their children a world much more carefree and innocent than the ones they’d been brought up in. The kids knew even less than their parents did of the horrible mess Russia was in.

The letters that have fascinated me the most were those exchanged by a different royal couple: Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. I get the strange feeling that despite their letters having been published and made readily available, many who comment on their story, including so-called “historians,” haven’t read them. A lot of the questions people have about their relationship are answered, and if you care to do a little reading between the lines, or make a few assumptions, pretty much everything falls into place. Wallis was a complicated woman, and she’s not someone you can easily label. That doesn’t stop people from trying, but they’re not going to get it right if they insist on putting her into a box because she just doesn’t fit. She was ambitious and manipulative, she lived beyond her means, and she had no qualms about using people. She also really did love Edward, probably more than she ever loved any man in her life. I don’t doubt that she was ambitious, and her intentions weren’t always pure, but  It amazes me how many people have somehow been able to look at these letters and come to any other conclusion. The only thing I can think of is that she’s so hated that people think she was a sociopath and a pathological liar.

I hate not being with you at this time when you need me most and my place is by your side. I will be thinking of you every minute and holding your hand very tight and giving you all the courage I have to go through gracefully with this ordeal. Take care of yourself in every way – and the famous charm must come out. I hate, hate having you go away alone – but you are not really alone because I am so much a part of you. Maybe one telephone call or even two just to hear your beloved voice”¦ Darling I shall miss you each second and you know I love you more than anything in the world for always my dearest darling David.

– Wallis to Edward in 1952 when he went to attend his brother’s funeral, 15 years into their marriage

Wallis was incredibly paranoid. She stayed up nights thinking of worst-case scenarios. She was constantly warning Edward about things that could potentially do him in. He must not drive on icy roads. He shouldn’t go skiing. He shouldn’t sleep in the attic bedroom because it’s a fire trap. Wallis herself was terrified of flying, and hated thunderstorms. She convinced herself Edward was cheating on her within a month of him giving up a throne (one he didn’t really want, but it took her a while to figure that out…) to marry her. She claimed she hated gossip and didn’t want the papers talking about her, but she obsessively read every word. There’s a deep insecurity that comes through from Wallis. She sought control of every aspect of her life, and every person who had a role in it. But no one can ever control everything, so Wallis obsessed over the things she couldn’t control until she made herself sick with worry. I wonder if she was ever happy. Can someone like that ever really be happy? I picked up some of the same obsessive qualities off of Alexandra, but unlike Wallis, there was a kind of girlish innocence about Alexandra that probably allowed her to look past many of the things that troubled her.

I am sad because I miss you and being near and yet so far seems most unfair. Some day of course I must learn to be always alone for I will be in my heart”¦ One can be awfully alone in crowds – but also perhaps both of us will cease to want what is hardest to have and be content in the simple way. And now I hear your machine which generally was a joyous sound because soon you would be holding me and I would be looking up into your eyes. God bless you and above all make you strong where you have been weak.

-Wallis to Edward right after he became ascended to the throne in 1936

Wallis and Edward didn’t keep up with the news all that much, and major world events only get a passing mention, if mentioned at all. This is particularly striking compared with other letters from the same period from figures in the literary and political world who did keep up with such things. Despite the rather unsavory reputation (unfairly, I believe) as Nazi sympathizers, Wallis seemed just as terrified of the Nazis as anyone else and they factor into some of those worst-case scenarios she kept dreaming up. She expressed her relief when America declared war on them. Edward didn’t give them much thought at all, positive or negative.

 I’ll write again quickly and till then know that I love you love you Wallis always more and more. I know that I can make you happy for all time my sweetheart and that is a terribly big thing to say. Still I say it.

-Edward to Wallis, February 18, 1937

Edward was very different than Wallis: less mature, more passionate, more optimistic. I think they were well suited for each other; she was always giving him practical advice and he was always trying to soothe her fears, no matter how irrational. His primary interest was Wallis. She was his hobby, she was his life story, and she was his dearest friend. He did really care about her and how she was feeling. I think the letters do tell much more about Wallis than Edward, but only because she had an easier time expressing herself on paper. Like Nicholas and Alexandra, they had a deep understanding between them.They had nicknames for almost everyone they knew and used their own words and various obscure slang terms. Sometimes more than one nickname for the same person. There are a few phrases that almost definitely refer to something dirty. Like many other couples who’ve been together for a while, they had their own little quirks that seem weird to outsiders but probably seemed adorable to them. They both obsessed over the “babies,” the dogs they treated like children. Neither one of them were particularly intellectual. The same could be said for most royals. Wallis and Edward both had terrible spelling and grammar. Edward’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all related to each other. I don’t know what Wallis’s excuse was. She was definitely a thinker, but she didn’t ponder world events or literature or science. Instead, she thought about herself, those she loved, things that had happened, and things that might happen in the future.

A large chunk of their surviving letters come from one of the hardest times of either of their lives. After the Abdication, they were not allowed to see each other for six months until Wallis’s divorce was final. If they were found to have had contact, the divorce could have been cancelled under the laws of the day. During that time, Wallis was being savaged by the international press and receiving death threats.She was staying with friends in France and rarely left their house due to the swarms of paparazzi waiting to harass her. She felt lonely, defeated, and withdrawn. Half of her friends were pretending they didn’t even know her. She and Edward exchanged letters frequently, planning their life together, discussing mutual friends, and sharing gossip. Whether it was a conscious decision or not, Wallis chose to ignore Edward’s role in her difficult situation and instead blamed everything on his brother, George VI, and sister-in-law, the future Queen Mother, whom Wallis referred to as “Cookie.” Wallis convinced herself “Cookie” was intentionally out to get her for reasons that only Walis seemed to understand. Wallis was very skilled at building her own narrative to justify her feelings about people. That helped her adapt to her new situation; she had never intended to be the despised wife of an exiled former king. But she put that out of her mind and threw herself into the future instead of the past.

When you manage to get a glimpse of someone’s humanity and see that they lived and loved and laughed just like anyone else, it’s pretty hard to hate them. We’re all human, and we all have feelings. One interesting example of that is one of the non-royals I’ve found quite fascinating. Robert Scott led an expedition to the South Pole in 1911. In late March of 1912, he and two of his men froze to death in their tent. Two others had already died. They had reached the pole, but they hadn’t been the first. They discovered once it came into sight that the Norwegians had beaten them to it. In the years after his death, Captain Scott was regarded as a great hero and the quintessential English gentleman. This view continued until a series of books published in the ’60s and ’70s challenged it and accused him of being irresponsible, irrational, a poor leader, and just an all around not-nice person. I did my own research, and while I admit he made some key mistakes I do think he was caught up in unusually bad weather conditions, and that in slightly different circumstances, his leadership would have proved successful and everyone would have made it out alive. What really struck me was the last letter he wrote to his wife, Kathleen. He clearly loved her deeply, but in that British intellectual sort of way. Kathleen and Robert Scott were both British in the most adorably stereotypical way. They had a son who was three when his father died and had only been a baby when Robert left. When he was dying, he took care to write to her, as well as to the families of the men who died with him. She had also written him a series of letters. On expeditions during that era, the custom was for family to write letters to be given to their loved one by another man on journey at different points, so even though no mail was coming in he would get “new” letters every now and then. The last letter he received, that he was clutching in his final hours, was reassuring and sweetly maternal.

Now don’t forget to brush your hair – and don’t smoke so much and altogether you’re a ducky darling and hurray for you! I don’t know if you’ll ever get these silly little letters, and it’s truly to tell you that I love you more than is at all comfy and moreover I think you are splendid.

– Kathleen Scott, in the last letter her husband would ever receive from her

Kathleen didn’t find out that her husband had died until nearly a year had passed since his death. In that time, she wrote him several letters for him to receive when he got home, knowing he wouldn’t be able to get mail for some time. After finding out that Ronald Amundsen had reached the role first, Kathleen wrote reassuringly that he had done great things and it didn’t really matter who got there first. He had been dead for six months when she wrote that, but Robert must have known how loved he was and that she certainly wanted him back no matter how badly things had gone.

Don’t ever be sad, my darling, life is ever so glorious. I’m so happy everybody is so nice to me for your sake I like to know and our little home’s so nice and my work prospers and I’m so well and Peter so magnificent & you’re coming home to us.

– The letter Robert Scott never got.

His final letter was heartbreaking. He knew he was going to die and wanted to say goodbye. He told her how much comfort she had brought to him, and what he wanted for her and their son. He encouraged her to remarry, if she met another man who made her happy.

To my widow,

Dearest Darling – we are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through – In our short lunch hours I take advantage of a very small measure of warmth to write letters preparatory to a possible end – the first is naturally to you on whom my thoughts mostly dwell waking or sleeping – if anything happens to me I shall like you to know how much you have meant to me and that pleasant recollections are with me as I depart.

– The first paragraph of Robert Scott’s last letter to his wife

It’s heartbreaking to think of anyone finding themselves in that position – freezing to death in the most remote place on earth and knowing you won’t see those you love most again in this lifetime. I don’t judge people on what biographers say about them; I judge based on what they say about themselves. Letters are the most unfiltered way to do that; even diaries are often written with the idea that they’ll be published one day. With a letter, it was written with one person in mind. Even if you think they might be lying about something, you just have to keep that one person in mind. I’ve never studied the letters of anyone truly awful, and I always get the impression more lies are told to protect and comfort than to harm. People tell those they love what they want to hear. I think the most common lie I saw, after digging through a book of historical love letters, was people saying they were happy when they really weren’t.

Most historical figures aren’t as interesting as you would think. Winston and Clementine Churchill left almost 2,000 pages of letters, which their daughter condensed down to 700 and published. I got to about page25 before I started skipping around. Like any politician, Winston Churchill had a wide variety of minor policy issues to distract him, and most of those issues had nothing to do with making Hitler cry. They had children who asked for things, and errands that needed to be run, and all sorts of other normal, boring problems. The same could be said of pretty much all the other books of letters I’ve read. When you look into someone else’s life, don’t always think it’s going to be any more interesting than your own. There’s always an interesting story, but there is also every day life.

I’ll end with a word on one of those great epic love stories that didn’t work out in the end. Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon was obsessed with Josephine. He was jealous, possessive, and deeply insecure. In the same paragraph, he begged Josephine for a child and then proclaimed he would be jealous of that child in case she loved it more than she loved him. He wants to know if she’s mad at him. If she’s unhappy, if she loves him less now than she used to. His love is all consuming and very passionate, but ultimately unstable. More letters from him survive than from her, but one can imagine her growing frustration. His jealousy and desperation got the best of him, and when Josephine took her affections elsewhere while he was overseas, he turned against her. Their marriage continued, and his feelings ranged from loving to bitter. He had a series of affairs, and when Napoleon decided he needed an heir that Josephine could not give him, they eventually got divorced.

To Josephine,  I love you no longer; on the contrary, I detest you. You are a wretch, truly perverse, truly stupid, a real Cinderella. You never write to me at all, you do not love your husband; you know the pleasure that your letters give him yet you cannot even manage to write him half a dozen lines, dashed off in a moment!

What then do you do all day, Madame? What business is so vital that it robs you of the time to write to your faithful lover? What attachment can be stifling and pushing aside the love, the tender and constant love which you promised him? Who can this wonderful new lover be who takes up your every moment, rules your days and prevents you from devoting your attention to your husband? Beware, Josephine; one fine night the doors will be broken down and there I shall be.

In truth, I am worried, my love, to have no news from you; write me a four page letter instantly made up from those delightful words which fill my heart with emotion and joy.

I hope to hold you in my arms before long, when I shall lavish upon you a million kisses, burning as the equatorial sun

-Napoleon, reeking of desperation and neediness


Love is a messy thing.


5 replies on “Reading Someone Else’s Letters”

I wrote letters! During pre-school. I tried hard to use nick names, but my friend wasn’t interested. I think it ended before high-school, which is a bit sad when you think about it. Maybe I should start sending stories round to strangers and hope they will be find in the next century. Archaeologists will ponder over these unicorns they never found bones off and the world-leading group of people that called itself Persephone Magazine.

Today seems to be Kate Beaton Day in the comments, but I think she nailed it with this comic.

As for letters I am very fond of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. Particularly those to his brother Theo. He talks about art, mental illness, and they way he worried about his impact on his family. And then there is the fact that he often drew all over them.

My eyes are still tired, but anyway I had a new idea in mind, and here’s the croquis of it. No. 30 canvas once again.
This time it’s simply my bedroom, but the colour has to do the job here, and through its being simplified by giving a grander style to things, to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In short, looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination
This to take my revenge for the enforced rest that I was obliged to take.
I’ll work on it again all day tomorrow, but you can see how simple the idea is. The shadows and cast shadows are removed; it’s coloured in flat, plain tints like Japanese prints. – Van Gogh tells Theo about his plans to paint what will be one of his most iconic works
You can read them here (along with facimillies of the letters themselves so you can see all the drawings!)

I was seriously thinking about linking to that cartoon in the article. She sums it up perfectly. I’m not really into art history, but Van Gogh was certainly an interesting and complicated person. They certainly look lovely. Vincent had beautiful handwriting too.

The part about painting I quoted is of real interest to me (“So while I was stuck in bed, I had this idea for one of the most iconic paintings of all time…”), but his letters are full of great normal human stuff. In one of his latter letters he comments to his brother after a visit about how he thinks it would probably be better to raise children than to paint. And there is a whole mini saga where after moving, Vincent’s furniture goes missing (the porter who was supposed to deliver it got sick).

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