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 The letters of writers continue to be published posthumously not only because they make for interesting historical documents, but also because they offer insight into the remarkable and mundane inner lives of often exalted figures.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.

Kindness Among the Unkind: Penny Dreadful and the Art of Adaptation

Showtime’s short-lived horror drama Penny Dreadful embodied the very best of Victorian Gothic. The show’s investment in literature proves that the best adaptations are unafraid to honour their origins. 

By Adriana Wiszniewska

As we discussed earlier this month, the Victorians were much more than their stodgy reputation leads us to believe. Victorian society was slippery and grey, invested as much in the supernatural as the natural. It was, after all, a time of great upheaval. And out of that shadowy underlife emerged some of the most iconic Gothic monsters.

Do you believe there is a demimonde, Mr. Chandler? A half-world between what we know and what we fear? A place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt?

Penny Dreadful, “Night Work” (1×01)

While Gothic literature had its heyday in the late eighteenth century, the genre underwent a massive resurgence in the Victorian era. The old forms of eighteenth-century Gothic were updated to reflect the anxieties of a society teetering on the edge of modernity. It’s remarkable just how many Gothic novels were published in the final decades of the nineteenth century, including classics like Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).

Among this slew of new horror fiction were penny dreadfuls, cheap, sensational, serialized stories that were looked down upon not just for their lurid subject matter but also for their mass popularity. Which brings me to Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), a TV series that took its inspiration from all of the above.

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Eva Green is mesmerizing as Penny Dreadful‘s Vanessa Ives. If there’s one reason for you to watch this show, it’s Eva Green. Photo: IMDb

Written and created by John Logan (who also wrote the play Red), Penny Dreadful takes the monster-parts of classic Gothic literature, from Dracula to Dorian Gray to Frankenstein, and stitches them together into one exquisite tapestry of postmodern beauty and terror, blurring the edge between the lurid grotesque of pop culture and the high-minded literary aspirations of high art.

Penny Dreadful wears its literary influences on its puffy Victorian sleeve, shamelessly flaunting its literariness at every step. While most obviously shaped by nineteenth-century Gothic, the show is also knee-deep in Romantic poetry.

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She’s not wrong. Sad monsters too, apparently. Photo: Tumblr

In Penny Dreadful, two strangers can casually recite the same poem to each other from memory like it’s nothing. Victor Frankenstein, in seeking a name for his creation, reaches not for the Bible but for Shakespeare, because “theological connotations aren’t very ‘us’, are they?”

The same could be said of Penny Dreadful. In a world of vampires, werewolves, and witches—a world of senseless death and cruelty—existence seems devoid of the divinity and order that the Romantics saw in nature. As Frankenstein’s monster puts it:

I am not a creation of the antique pastoral world. I am modernity personified. Did you not know that’s what you were creating? The modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil?

Penny Dreadful, “Resurrection” (1×03)

The Gothic is the dark underside of Romanticism, anticipating the bloody monstrous mechanized world that Penny Dreadful knows has already arrived and still haunts us to this day. But the show’s investment in poetry, in beauty and love and kindness among the unkind, shows that there are ways to hold back the dark, even if just for a moment.

That’s why all monsters in Penny Dreadful are secretly poets, the Creature perhaps most of all. Just as his creator reached for Shakespeare, the Creature renames himself John Clare after the poet of the same name  in an attempt to shed his monstrous past. And in the cavernous dark beneath London (a place in the shadows, rarely seen but deeply felt), Clare finds kinship with Vanessa Ives, another damaged person who dwells in the halfway place between light and dark (Vanessa, notably an original creation, is the glue that holds the show together). She looks at his scarred face with warmth and the two trade soft words and lines of poetry:

The characters of Penny Dreadful speak in and through literature, finding solace in poetry when the world offers them only pain and loss and darkness. This is a story about monsters—the scary, bloodsucking, evil monsters, of course. But also the sad, lonely, misunderstood monsters—the broken things—the kind of monsters that shed light on what it means to be human and, conversely, what it means to be cast out from humanity.

Stories make up Penny Dreadful‘s blood and bones. Its characters use literary texts to define themselves, to narrate their lives, to make sense of the world around them. They themselves are texts, living and breathing and endlessly generative. That’s what makes literature so powerful to begin with, and Penny Dreadful understands that better than any show on television.

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)