It makes sense that writers and artists would be among those who felt the most passionate sense of romantic love and expressed it best in their letters. Although many illicit articles have been reduced to ash in fireplaces over the centuries by heartbroken receivers or blushing family members, a number of fantastic collections of love letters have been saved and published for our very eyes and hearts. If you need some inspiration of your own or even just a rekindled hope in true love, here are several books to explore.
John Keats (1795-1821) met Fanny Brawne, his neighbor in Hampstead, in 1818, when she was eighteen and he was twenty-three. They became secretly engaged a year later, but Keats became ill and never returned home to marry her. Keats died at the age of 25 from tuberculosis but is remembered today as one of the greatest Romantic poets. His works were loaded with sensuality, and his emotion was illustrated through references to the natural world. His very last poem was“To Fanny.” This compilation of Keats’ love letters by Penguin Classics has an introduction by Jane Campion.
Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda (2003)
The tumultuous love story of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald has captivated the literary community since the 1920s. Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks, captures that love in 333 letters – three-quarters previously unpublished or out of print. The letters are introduced with a lengthy biography of the couple. First published in 1985, this book has gone through multiple editions and has also been published in multiple languages, showing the enduring popularity of the tragic pair.
Nabakov met his future wife, Vera, in 1921. They wed in 1925, and their love story lasted until he died in 1977. Vera shared his enthusiasm for life, edited his works, and traveled with him on his butterfly-collecting trips. Edited and translated by Brian Boyd and Olga Voronina, Letters to Vera show Nabokov’s dedication and loyalty to his wife and profound observation and fascination with the world.
The love affair of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller was as scandalous as their writing. In A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953, edited by Gunther Stuhlmann, the twenty-year relationship shows a lusty and powerful coupling of two brilliant minds. Their relationship, which at times included Henry’s wife June, was also published in Nin’s diary excerpts in 1986 as Henry and June and later adapted into a film of the same name, which was the first to receive an NC-17 rating.
The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (1984)
Vita Sackville-West was a thirty-year-old writer married to a diplomat when she met Virginia Woolf in 1922. She was the inspiration for Woolf’s novel, Orlando: A Biography, and their relationship lasted until Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Edited by Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell A. Leaska, The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf was first published in the UK by Hutchinson in 1984 and later released in the US by Cleis Press in 2004.
Lorena Hickok was a reporter for the Associated Press in the 1920s and first met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1928. Their friendship grew, and for thirteen years, Hickok had a private bedroom at the White House, adjoined to the First Lady’s. In 1978, archivists discovered more than 3,500 letters written over a thirty-year friendship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok contains 300 of those letters transcribed and annotated by historian Rodger Streitmatter. This glimpse into the personal relationship between the two women shows how love grounded and inspired them to lead during very turbulent times in the nation, including the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Civil Rights movement.
Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters (2003)
This collection of Wilde’s letters captures his fierce love for Lord Alfred Douglas, which ultimately led to his demise. Their affair landed him in jail for ‘gross indecency’ just as The Important of Being Earnest was being played on stages across London. The hard labor of prison took a toll on his health, and he was left destitute by the charges. After his release, he briefly resumed his affair with Douglas, overlooking that the young man was the source of his problems, imprisonment, and heartbreak. Wilde died just a few years after his release, at the age of forty-six. Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters is edited by Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandchild.
The Prettiest Love Letters in the World: Letter between Lucrezia Borgia & Pietro Bembo, 1503 to 1519 (1987)
Lord Byron described the letters between Lucrezia Borgia and Pietro Bembo, ‘The Prettiest Love Letters in the World.” Borgia was the illegitimate daughter of a Pope, and by her early twenties, had been married multiple times. Bembo was a poet, ten years older than the girl, and deft with words. Their correspondence over sixteen years illustrates life and love during the Renaissance in Italy.
Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (2015)
In 1970 the correspondence between hardboiled crime writer Ross MacDonald (Kenneth Millar) and celebrated author Eudora Welty began when Millar sent her a fan letter after hearing her gush about his writing. Over more than a decade, they shared warm notes of mutual affection, distanced by mileage and Ross’ marriage to writer Margaret Miller. Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, edited by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan, shows their illuminating discussion
The young poet Carl Sandburg met Lilian Steichen at the Social Democratic Office in 1907. They were married the following year, and he dedicated his first mainstream work, Chicago Poems (1914) to her. The Poet and The Dream Girl: The Love Letters of Lilian Steichen & Carl Sandburg, edited by their daughter Margaret Sandburg, captures their interest in socialism, political ideals, and ethics, along with their exploration of poetry and prose.
This collection of letters written in 1957-1958 between Joyce Johnson and Jack Kerouac gives insight into when On The Road was published, catapulting Kerouac to success. Kerouac was not known for his romantic prose, and this collection falls in line with his style. Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair In Letters, 1957-1958, was edited with an introduction by Joyce Johnson.
My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933 (2011)
In 1916, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz met artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She was a 27-year-old art teacher, and he was a cultured 51-year-old, and soon she became his muse and lover, despite his marriage. In 1924 he divorced his wife and married O’Keeffe. Between 1915 and Stieglitz’s death in 1946, they exchanged more than 5,000 letters, from which 650 were carefully selected and annotated for this book. The notes chart the highs and lows of their love and careers together through significant periods of history such as the World Wars and the Great Depression. My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz is a large book, over 800 pages, yet it is titled Volume 1, only through 1933.
The colorful diary of Frida Kahlo, kept from 1944 until she died in 1954, includes many drawings and illustrations, poetry, prose, and love letters to her husband, the artist Diego Rivera. The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait includes an English translation and commentary by the Mexican novelist and diplomat Carlos Fuentes.
Other Fun Books on Love Letters:
Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks: A Librarian’s Love Letters and Breakup Notes to the Books in Her Life (2017) by Annie Spence
Juliet’s Answer: One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak (2017) by Glenn Dixon
This volume, edited by autograph and letter collector David H. Lowenherz, includes letters from Dylan Thomas, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Beethoven, Mozart, Anne Sexton, and many more.
Amy C. Manikowski is a writer living in Asheville, NC.