The Longest and Most Charming Love Letter in Literature

A love letter can be one of the most intimate ways to express love and affection to another. Thankfully for us, some of the greatest writers in English literature also wrote beautiful letters, which often take on new life after the deaths of their writers and recipients.

By Adriana Wiszniewska

In 1928, Virginia Woolf published Orlando, a novel about a poet who lives for centuries and changes from man to woman. The book was inspired by Vita Sackville-West, with whom Virginia had a decades-long romance and later friendship. Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, famously described Orlando as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” The book is really an ode to Vita in all her complexities and contradictions and a testament to the power of language and story to express the most complicated human experiences. Fitting, too, that Nicolson likened Orlando to a love letter, since Vita and Virginia wrote letters to one another from their first encounter in 1922 until Virginia’s death in 1941.

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Vita Sackville-West (left) and Virginia Woolf (right). Photo: Time

In the age of Internet dating, it’s easier than ever to stay connected, but convenience has in some ways come at the expense of creativity. Somewhere along the way, sliding into your crush’s DMs became the primary mode of expressing romantic interest. Love letters, by comparison, seem like a dying art form.

There’s something strangely fascinating about reading another person’s intimate letters, like peering behind a curtain you’re not supposed to. Letters, after all, are meant to be private. Yet, our inclination to uncover the private lives of public figures persists.

Writers like John Keats, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, and Woolf, among many others, were all exceptional diarists and letter-writers as well as poets and novelists. It’s a curious thing to read the most intimate writings of our favourite writers—like realizing your professors are human beings who have entire lives outside of the academy. The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.

The love letter, in particular, reflects exactly what makes the medium of letters so special. Call me a hopeless romantic, but reading the most intimate expressions of love and desire between two people is kind of swoon-worthy. The power of reading these love letters comes from the medium itself, which is at once private and public, immediate and remote, intimate and mundane, fleeting and permanent.

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Vita and Virginia and dogs! Photo: Charleston

Vita and Virginia wrote letters to each other throughout the entirety of their complex and shifting relationship, and through those letters, we get a glimpse of just how much the two meant to each other, how much impact each left on the other’s life and art. Their letters to each other are a chronicle of human connection, captured across space and time.

In perhaps my favourite love letter of all time, Vita writes to Virginia:

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 undumb 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 should 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 really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

January 1926

That’s the beauty of a letter: it’s there and then it’s gone. Here, Vita puts her feelings in the starkest of terms: simple, honest, vulnerable. But the “little gap” she talks about is present also in the form of the letter. There is always a gap in what we can know from these missives. We get only a glimpse but are unable to fully grasp all that remains unspoken and what happens between the acts. But that’s also what makes reading these letters such a unique experience: we’re only getting a part of the story. Some of it will be forever unavailable to us. And maybe that’s exactly as it should be.

Mannerisms Maketh Man

Casting choices can define the outcome of historical adaptations. When it comes to issues of appearance and performance, there’s a fine balance in achieving a convincing performance – which factors should be prioritized for authenticity?

By Daniel Rose & Serena Ypelaar

The Mindful Rambler was always going to feature dialogue posts – it was just a matter of time. And now here we are! This article was born halfway into a deep discussion the two of us were having about historical casting choices. Do actors need to look like their historical counterparts to convince an audience, or is it the performance that matters most? We each had some interesting – and mostly opposing – views, and you can read our discussion below. 

SVY: To get straight into our standpoints on this issue, I’ll come right out and say that while performance obviously matters to me, appearance matters just as much, if not more. I’m a very visual learner and I like to be fully absorbed into an adaptation – if an actor doesn’t really look like the person they’re meant to be portraying, I have trouble buying in. It places a bit of a barrier between myself and the film/show. But I know you have a fascinating and absolutely valid perspective on this topic too. 

DR: For the longest time, I shared the belief that actors should physically resemble the historic figures they have been cast to play. This changed with Frank Langella’s fantastic performance as former President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008). Even though Langella did not particularly look like Nixon, his uncanny portrayal of Nixon’s mannerisms and way of speaking was astonishingly accurate. As a viewer, I felt transported to 1977, with Langella’s performance pulling back the curtain on a person and period that I did not live through. To me, an actor’s ability to convey the intricacies of a figure’s mindset and historical context is just as important as “looking” the part when it comes to selling the viewer on an historic piece.  

Frank Langella (left) as Richard Nixon (right) in Frost/Nixon. Photo: Pinterest

SVY: For sure, I agree that without mannerisms and attention to detail, so much of the person’s essence is lost. I think it’s a fine balance – if an actor doesn’t already look like their subject, makeup is now so sophisticated that a lack of resemblance can be easily remedied. For instance, Christian Bale was transformed completely into Dick Cheney in VICE (2018). Some say heavy prosthetics hamper performance, and the same can be said for screenwriting: if a screenplay does a feeble job of interpreting a real-life person’s temperament, it might not always translate on-screen depending on what the actor has to work with. For instance, I previously wrote about Zac Efron’s uncanny casting as serial killer Ted Bundy; Efron’s performance was excellent but the script was weak. With many variables in historical adaptation and the complexity of human personalities, it’s challenging to get right. But viewing is a passive activity, so it can help when much of the interpretive work is done for me. How do you look past outward appearances when you’re watching things? 

Amy Adams and Christian Bale as Lynne and Dick Cheney in VICE. Photo: Through the Silver Screen

DR: I think you raise some good points – Bale’s transformation in VICE was astonishing, I’ll admit. That said, when I watch a movie about a real-life figure, or even any old period piece, I consider more than just how one character looks. Ideally, the setting and costumes paint a picture (pun intended) of the aesthetic of a time period. By including tiny details such as fashion choices and products that have since been discontinued, films draw on memories and shared experiences on a subconscious level. By creating an environment that “feels” familiar, the viewer is transported into a world that does not reflect the current era. A great example is the film First Man (2018), starring Ryan Gosling. The camera spends a great deal of time showcasing “space age” technology, including analog dials on flat steel machines, alongside more mainstream 1960’s design choices, such as wood panelling and garish wallpaper. I could almost feel some of the costumes through the screen, as actors eschewed polyester blend for scratchy wool and one-hundred percent cotton. I honestly could not tell you if any of the actors resembled the real-life Apollo 11 crew – but I was utterly convinced by how the film framed them. 

Colin Firth (left) and Jared Harris (right) respectively, both as King George VI. Photo: Slate

SVY: That’s worth noting too. Our familiarity with the figure being portrayed will influence our convictions in terms of whether the likeness and portrayal seems authentic. I’ll now bring in an example of a key struggle I face when I’ve seen a lot of pictures and/or constructed an aura of a historical figure in my mind. There have been a couple of portrayals of King George VI lately, in The King’s Speech (2010) and television series The Crown (2016-). Both actors, Colin Firth and Jared Harris respectively, look nothing like the late British monarch. Both conveyed aspects of his character through their performance, but to me their visual appearance separates me from complete absorption in the portrayal because I know irrevocably how Bertie actually looked. Similarly, I’ve delved so far into Jane Austen’s biography and world that seeing Anne Hathaway play her in Becoming Jane (2007) seemed a bit beyond belief. I can definitely still enjoy a production on these occasions, but I just can’t fully embrace the actor as a true embodiment of the figure. Perhaps it’s because I’m a highly visual learner, but something holds me back!

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen in Becoming Jane. Photo: Film Affinity

DR: I think we’ve identified some ways in which an actor looking or not looking like an historic figure can either help or hinder an audience member’s engagement with the subject matter. Regarding my stance, I want to echo the sentiments of Chernobyl (2019) stars Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård. Flummoxed that they were cast to play figures they bore no resemblance to, both actors concluded that stripping the focus away from physical similarities allowed director Johan Renck to hire performers whose talents could help construct a portrait of life as it was in the Soviet Union. The success of the series changed my entire perspective, and allowed me to re-evaluate how other historic films draw the viewer into the paradigm on display. All that said, as someone who agreed with you until recently, Serena, I respect your position!

SVY: Same to you, Dan! It’s been fun bandying about, and I can definitely say that while I’m attached to the idea of resemblance, I do agree that poor acting is by no means a satisfactory trade-off for the elusive goal of physical likeness. In terms of historical interpretation, I’m looking forward to seeing what Hollywood does next so we can keep discussing these principles.

Review: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Last week Bretton and Serena attended an advanced screening of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. Your friendly neighbourhood Ramblers discuss their impressions of the film below.

By Bretton Weir & Serena Ypelaar

Bretton

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019) isn’t just a biopic of one of the greatest personalities of many of our childhoods, but a continued learning opportunity, especially for those of us who grew up with the show, to reflect on how times have changed, how we have changed, and the transcendence of kindness, compassion, forgiveness and understanding. True to its source content, the delightful, formative and accessible children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the film tackles questions around family and relationships — and how we manage relationships as they become more complex — into our adulthoods. 

Released in the wake of the 2018 documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which chronicles the trials and triumphs of the real-life Mister Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes a different narrative approach. Focusing instead on writer Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) as he struggles to write a magazine profile about Mister Rogers, Lloyd must also deal with personal relational baggage that comes with being an adult. True to form, Mister Rogers acts as a guiding force and helps Lloyd embrace his inner demons and become a better human being.

Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers was a delightful homage to the kind and caring personality that is Mister Rogers. Hanks’ vocal cadence was masterful. He had the listless soothing quality that Mister Rogers came by so naturally.

What could have been a very standard, cookie cutter biographical feature film proved to be an exciting and, at times, surreal ride. The story isn’t about Mister Rogers, proper, but the universality and long-lasting effect Mister Rogers, his program, and his life-lessons have on us all these years later.

Tom Hanks stars as Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). Photo: Lacey Terrell

Serena

“If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”

One of the most memorable lines from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood also comes from the real Mister Rogers himself and still holds relevance today. Societal conventions seem almost to promote the suppression of emotions, but Mister Rogers proves that it’s possible to be both rational and emotional — at the same time. Tom Hanks’ Rogers drives that point home through his calm affirmations and bald statements of fact, which he delivers during moments of earnest emotional reflection.

The film is not what I expected. In place of a syrupy timeline of Mister Rogers’ rise to popularity, we instead glimpse the career of an established Mister Rogers and his effect on those around him. The best quality of the film is its simplicity — it doesn’t ask for anything except our undivided attention, which is what the real Fred Rogers always had to offer. The result of this ever-present mindfulness is that the viewer must turn inward to their own experiences and emotions, just like Matthew Rhys’ Lloyd Vogel. When was the last time we felt angry? What did we do about it? In those moments of honesty we become Lloyd, and it feels like we are being counselled by Hanks-as-Rogers.

Given the subject matter, it’s fitting that we saw the film on International Kindness Day. The script excels in that it doesn’t try to be over the top; its message is quiet but marked by conviction. There were moments when I could hear a pin drop in the cinema, as well as moments when I couldn’t help but shed tears. The fact that my expectations were so divergent from what we actually got was a highlight; it felt almost like a raw therapy session. “The most important thing to me in the world right now is my conversation with Lloyd Vogel,” Hanks-as-Rogers says in one scene where the two are on a phone call. That statement captured the essence of Mister Rogers so well that it sparked memories of why we found (and continue to find) his show so comforting. He accepts us as we are.

While certainly comforting, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood dives deeper than nostalgia. It celebrates the legacy of a caring and understanding man while promoting the emotional intelligence that is healthy for people of any age.

A Tale of Two Biopics

Elton John’s biopic Rocketman is out (pun intended) and as expected, people are comparing it with Bohemian Rhapsody. But the difference in vantage points precludes direct comparison, instead highlighting the nuances of how the biographer affects the biography. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Let’s get one thing straight before we dive back into biopics: I don’t want to compare Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019) as overall films. To do so would be to confine each by relating them too much to one another, when in fact I find they’re pretty different in tone. But that leads me to this article, in which I’ll analyze just one aspect of the films: voice. (Surprisingly not in the context of singing.) How does authorship of a biography, specifically in the biopic film genre, affect how a story is told? 

Take Bohemian Rhapsody, for starters. It was produced and released long after Freddie Mercury’s death but chronicles his rise to fame and his artistic legacy in what I feel is a tasteful tribute. It’s been criticized by fans for simplifying the LGBTQ2+ narrative and Freddie’s diagnosis with AIDS, as well as for some sequential inaccuracies – but as a casual Queen listener myself, I do favour a cohesive story flow over pinpoint accuracy. Some other stories always make me foam at the mouth in the name of authenticity (*ahemPrideandPrejudice*), but I can appreciate a solid, tightened-up story especially where distilling someone’s life into a consumable, 2-hour flick is concerned. BoRhap delivers on that front. 

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury of Queen, in Bohemian Rhapsody. Photo: NME / Alamy

But it’s fascinating, with the recent release of Elton John biopic Rocketman, to behold the variance in tone thanks to its vantage point. This biopic doesn’t tell the story about Sir Elton John. Elton John tells you his story himself (also condensed but mostly accurate), since he’s still living and was personally involved in the project as an executive producer alongside his husband David Furnish. Knowing this, I felt while watching the movie that I could pick up the difference between the two films in terms of voice. Rocketman is bolder when it comes to the personal trials of its subject, tackling issues such as substance abuse, LGBTQ2+ experiences and homophobia, mental health, and the burdens of fame. 

Taron Egerton as Elton John and Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin in Rocketman (2019). Photo: IMDb

Bohemian Rhapsody definitely touched on a number of these topics too, but seemed to handle them much more cautiously in terms of Mercury’s experiences within them. I felt that there was a more reverent tone toward Mercury and a distance from the grittier parts of his story – understandably. Producing a legacy biopic means celebrating an artist’s achievements – and as Mercury is no longer present to have agency over his story, writers and producers took the utmost care, perhaps scaling down difficult topics a bit to avoid making any controversial statements. Getting inside Mercury’s head and obtaining an insider perspective of his emotions in each scene is no longer possible, so his life had to be interpreted more from the outside. It makes perfect sense, especially when loved ones and former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor, who were film consultants, are watching the film – their approval matters, as does the feeling that the film does justice to Mercury’s life and experiences. 

On the other hand, Rocketman pulled out all the stops, no holds barred. John and Furnish didn’t quail when it came to plunging into the darker underbelly of John’s lowest moments – the result was an intensely honest human experience, as John and his deepest insecurities and struggles are laid bare for viewers. Again, it’s not surprising that Rocketman‘s perspective is more internally oriented – it’s John’s story to tell. He has direct ownership over his life and how he presents it to others, and he’s fearlessly made use of it. 

The real Freddie Mercury and Elton John hanging out. Photo: Pinterest

You could say, then, that Bohemian Rhapsody is more of a biography while Rocketman is an autobiography. The two modes of storytelling vary from one another, and the products of each come through in their respective films. BoRhap is a glossy, uplifting vignette of Freddie Mercury’s genius from the perspective of those who remember him fondly, and Rocketman is an extremely self-aware, moodier take on fame and collaboration, Elton John’s way of thanking (and alternately, condemning) those who were a part of his journey, depending on their roles in his life. 

Both films are intriguing, with common themes of artistic talent, loneliness, and love. Yet each has its own priorities for preserving the story of its subject. Although I said I resent too much direct comparison of these two films (they both offer their own merits), the inevitability of it within the genre has enabled me to really ponder creatorship and how it shapes narrative. Next time you’re watching a biopic, ask yourself who’s telling the story and how that affects its portrayal. I’d bet it’ll help you appreciate the subject’s life even more.

“The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name”

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright known for his unmatched wit and, infamously, for his sexuality, defined what it is to be unapologetically proud.

By Serena Ypelaar

There were no Pride parades in his day, but Oscar Wilde’s openness on the streets of London arguably comprises the Victorian equivalent.

Growing up in Merrion Square in Dublin (which I just visited last month), Wilde moved to London and settled there for much of his life. He’s celebrated as a gay icon, but it’s little known that he was once in love with the woman who would become Bram Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe. Wilde was devastated when she chose to marry Stoker over him. He proposed to two other women before marrying Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons. It’s said that Wilde loved Constance, though of course he’s best known to have engaged in relations with numerous men. Today we’d probably call him bisexual, but Wilde considered himself “Socratic” when it came to love.

Oscar Wilde grew up in this house at 1 Merrion Square, Dublin. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Wilde was proud of his identity – and quite open with his sexuality especially by the standards of the time. Yet even he had to hide who he was to avoid persecution in the form of a criminal trial. In 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency, a homophobic law in the United Kingdom which made same-sex relations illegal for men.

Wilde wasn’t officially out yet when he toured North America for his lecture series on aestheticism in the early 1880s; but as he dressed himself flamboyantly and tended to push the envelope with his sardonic and witty manner, he had cultivated a considerable reputation. The Marquess of Lorne, 9th Duke of Argyll and fourth Governor General of Canada, even declined to meet Oscar Wilde lest ongoing rumours of his own suspected homosexuality be exacerbated. All the while, Wilde had not a care in the world what people thought of his effeminacy.

In 1882 (aged 27), he watched a lacrosse match from the Lieutenant Governor’s box in Toronto, Canada, and was said to have remarked to the Toronto Globe newspaper on his great appreciation for “a tall, well-built defence man”. While Wilde had no qualms about public displays of same-sex interactions, having once kissed a waiter in a restaurant (and possibly Walt Whitman too), such actions were unforgivable in the formal courts back in England.

Oscar Wilde in 1882, by Napoleon Sarony. Photo: Wikimedia

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s most famous lover, wrote a poem titled “Two Loves” (1894), which ends with the phrase “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” The line was used against Wilde in his trial when he was charged by Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who suspected the two gentlemen’s romance and abhorred it. Queensberry demanded that Wilde cut ties with Douglas, persisting despite Wilde’s insouciance.

Queensberry: “I do not say that you are [homosexual], but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.”

Wilde: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

An 1894 exchange between The Marquess of Queensberry and Oscar Wilde at Wilde’s residence, 16 Tite Street, London

Unwisely, Wilde pressed charges against Queensberry when the latter left a calling card at Wilde’s club reading “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]”. Incensed by what he took for a public accusation of sodomy, Wilde sued for libel, but it was this legal action which led to Queensberry’s acquittal and counter-suit against Wilde. Having procured evidence of Wilde’s liaisons with male prostitutes alongside letters to Douglas, Queensberry had cornered Wilde. Douglas’ poem was interpreted as a euphemism for sodomy, which Wilde denied, but evidence was stacking up against him. Out in society, his dandyish reputation and conflicts with Queensberry caused him little harm, but taking the feud to the courtroom proved to be Wilde’s undoing. He was convicted and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. His imprisonment from 1895 to 1897 spurred his decline, and in 1900 he died of meningitis in France – but not before being reunited with Douglas for a time.

Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas with Oscar Wilde in 1894. Photo: Wikimedia

In continuing to be himself at all costs, Oscar Wilde was extraordinarily brave in the face of so much discrimination. And yet he had to resort to denying his same-sex encounters in the name of self-preservation. He was incarcerated for his defiance of society’s norms, and he fell from public regard. It wasn’t easy to be queer in the 1890s. Society may have taken strides toward equality and respect since, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy now, either.

What does Wilde’s life over 100 years ago tell us about Pride today? Namely that there are still obstacles to freedom, love, and tolerance, but that the LGBTQ2+ community deserves the right to a parade. Not just the organized Pride parades that take place around the world, but the mere act of parading down the street during day-to-day life: open, out, and free, living authentically without retribution. So-called “Straight Pride parades” happen every single day with the simple privilege of going out into the world without discrimination. The LGBTQ2+ Pride parade should happen every day too – because queer individuals have every reason to be proud.

So, Tell Me Something About Yourself

To celebrate The Mindful Rambler‘s 1st birthday, we examine storytelling as a way to get to know people.

By Serena Ypelaar

Think of the last funny story you told. 

How did you make it compelling? Which parts did you include, and which parts did you omit? And what about timing? (It’s supposed to be everything, isn’t it?) I’m guessing you were definitely hoping for the best punchline and the best response to your story.

Storytelling is an inherently creative process. And I think that the reception of a story depends heavily on the storyteller. What perspective are they coming from? Who are they trying to reach? Audience – and knowing your audience – is just as integral to the success of a story. 

Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Personal storytelling is something of a curatorial process, trying to synthesize one’s own experience and present it coherently to others so they can share in it.

For instance, I just got back from a month in Scotland, and I have a plethora of stories to tell my family and friends. Since there are so many, they’ll likely unravel slowly over time as I’m reminded of things I did or saw (or, let’s be honest, ate). Naturally I’ll be looking to impart the essence of my experience – how enlightening it was, how beautiful the landscapes were, how friendly people are … the list of stories it’s possible to share goes on.

Yours truly on a ramble through the woods. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal storytelling and what it means for us as humans. We’ve mostly been discussing public storytelling here on The Mindful Rambler, on a large scale; but as we’re today celebrating the blog’s 1st birthday, I want to reframe things a bit so we also consider storytelling on a more personal level. 

What is the significance of our own stories? And how do literary masters, artists, and creators pour themselves into their own storytelling to share a piece of their lives – their struggles, their triumphs, their losses, their love? The art reflects the artist; not only can we learn something about the world when we consume and interpret stories, we also get to know another person, sometimes without ever having met them. Humanity needs stories.

We’ll be rambling more on these themes soon. Thank you all for reading The Mindful Rambler in its first year – I hope you’ve enjoyed it! My fellow ramblers and I – Adriana, Sadie, Lilia, Jenny, and Bretton – look forward to telling even more stories over the next year.

A Life and Death Matter

Historically, death masks were used to remember those who had passed away, or to create likenesses in portraits. Life masks are their slightly less macabre twin, and they both close an interpretive gap in physical memory.

By Serena Ypelaar

When I first set foot in Keats House in Hampstead, London almost exactly a year ago, I had long been fascinated by death masks – but life masks would prove to bring a whole other thrill.

Posthumous portrait of the poet John Keats by William Hilton. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder why the distinction between the two holds any significance whatsoever. One type of mask is taken from a deceased subject’s face, while the other involves the living individual. What’s the big difference?

From an interpretive standpoint, the fact that historical figures posed for life masks while living and breathing – that they perhaps might have made a remark just before the cast was taken – is staggering. The result, while it may seem trifling at the time, becomes an unrivaled connection to the subject after they have died. A life mask of a historical figure preserves their face in its tangible and living form beyond a photograph or painting, allowing us to interact with it.

Let’s give these abstract notions some context. I first came across the poet John Keats (1795-1821) and his work while studying British literature in undergrad. I quickly came to love Romantic poetry, in which nature, emotion, and the metaphysical take centre stage, and Keats’ 1820 Ode on a Grecian Urn (in which the speaker marvels at the beauty of an artifact in the British Museum) captures everything I love about museums and literature.

Keats House in Hampstead Heath, London, where the poet lived from 1818-1820. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

So there I stood in Keats House, ready to connect with my favourite poet in a long awaited moment of fulfillment. I couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. For one thing, the house’s interpretation was excellent – I had expected a rather dated presentation of the Romantic poet’s life, but the displays are new, appealing, and most importantly, emotionally evocative. Sensory elements are manifold as we’re given opportunities to visualize Keats’ presence and listen to audio of a first-person interpreter reading his poems and personal writings. And most strikingly, there are masks.

On the ground floor is Keats’ life mask. As a forever fangirl of the poet who lived there from 1818 to 1820, I was instantly drawn to it. (I can’t believe I’m telling you this, because it sounds irredeemably creepy.) My strange urge to interact with the mask was validated (thank God, I’m not crazy after all!) when I read the label next to it: please touch.

John Keats’ life mask on display at Keats House, next to a label encouraging visitors to touch.
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

And that was how I ended up in Keats’ house touching his face. To further justify my museum nerdiness + mild infatuation, I can only describe the experience as unique and surreal.

With a life mask, you can engage with those who’ve predeceased you, whether you feel the contours of their face or just look. It’s so rare to find this kind of connection with individuals who died before photography gathered steam. Maybe Keats House really knew their audience, but it truly surpassed trying to picture someone’s face based on portraits: here was the unembellished truth of what Keats really looked like. Since no photographs of him exist, the mask is an invaluable instrument of truth.

Upstairs was a much more sobering reality, but affecting all the same. The lighthearted yet poignant discovery of the life mask was replaced by a sombre shift: here, behind glass, was Keats’ death mask. Keats died of tuberculosis aged 25. The difference in his face was noticeable. His once robust features were gaunt and thinner, a mark of the illness that claimed his life; and like the life mask, coming face to face with Keats was unparalleled in significance. It’s appropriate that this iteration was inaccessible by touch, for obvious ethical reasons. No one needs to touch a death mask, unless they’re a collections manager! Regardless, I was glad for the rare privilege of seeing both a life and death mask of the same person, however grim the comparison.

Keats’ death mask (behind glass, as seen in my reflection).
Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Life and death masks offer an indisputable connection to the subject of both. The concept is like a goldmine as far as historical and biographical interpretation goes. In front of us is the objective image of a person’s likeness, almost as if they were before our eyes. One thing’s for sure: when looking at Keats’ life mask, I felt as mesmerized as the speaker looking at the Grecian urn in the British Museum. I hope to see more life (and death) masks of public figures in the future, because their immersive value is inimitable.

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

John Keats, from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)