How to write a love letter: 6 tips from the historical figures who did it best
From Zelda Fitzgerald’s poetic professions to Prince Albert’s “promises of unchanging love and devotion”, find inspiration for a love letter that will warrant its own place in the history books…
When it comes to professing the heart’s most secret desires, there are few more traditional ways of expressing passion than the love letter.
Much like the nature of love itself, the love letter's origins are murky indeed. There are references to amorous missives stretching back through the centuries, from the 5,000-year-old Bhagavatha Purana of Indian literature, through to an 8th-century BC Babylonian inscription and a poem on a c3,500 BC Sumerian tablet. One of the best known is arguably the Song of Solomon, regarded as the most romantic book in the Bible with its soft, sensual language.
What we can say for certain, is that from these early examples sprang a written art which has been treasured for centuries since.
In a world transformed by the digital age, writing a letter to a loved one has never been quite so romantic. With that in mind, here is some inspiration to help you from figures in history, so you can craft a love letter that will warrant its own place in the history books…
How to begin a love letter
How do I love thee? Let me… Wait, what if I can’t count the ways?
Struggling to begin your love letter? The predicament of loving someone so much that you can’t describe it is summarised no better than in Jane Austen’s Emma. “If I loved you less,” Mr Knightley professes to the eponymous character, “I might be able to talk about it more.”
- On the podcast | Historical literature podcast episodes
This issue transcends fiction. It’s even been experienced by a US President – George Herbert Walker Bush. Whilst stationed overseas as a Navy pilot during the Second World War, he wrote many letters to his wife-to-be, Barbara.
Most of these were lost, but one of the few letters that did survive which shows that when words fail you, it can be better to simply say so:
“This should be a very easy letter to write – words should come easily and in short it should be simple for me to tell you how desperately happy I was to open the paper and see the announcement of our engagement, but somehow I can’t possibly say all in a letter I should like to. I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you…”
Confront a long-distance relationship
Are you far away from a loved one? You’re not the only one to have experienced the woes that come with long distance. Writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda is often remembered for its turbulent nature, though it wasn’t always so. Their earlier days together were filled with adoration, and they struggled greatly when apart.
This happiness sadly ended when Zelda was admitted to the Les Rives de Prangins Clinic in Switzerland for serious mental ill health. At this time, Fitzgerald was contending with alcohol addiction, and the pair’s afflictions made their written exchanges far more scornful.
More like this
However, in viewing their earlier letters, we catch a glimpse of a relationship that was joyful:
“Why is there happiness and comfort and excitement where you are and nowhere else in the world?” Fitzgerald pens.
“Your photograph is all I have,” Zelda replies, “it is with me from the morning when I wake up with a frantic half dream about you to the last moment when I think of you and of death at night.”
Zelda wrote other missives, which provide warm details of her feelings towards Fitzgerald:
“I look down the tracks and see you coming – and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me – Without you, dearest dearest I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think – or live – I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you. I want to kiss you so – and in the back where your dear hair starts and your chest – I love you – and I can’t tell you how much – To think that I’ll die without your knowing – Goofo, you’ve got to try to feel how much I do – how inanimate I am when you’re gone – I can’t even hate these damnable people – Nobodys got any right to live but us – and they’re dirtying up our world and I can’t hate them because I want you so – Come Quick – Come Quick to me – I could never do without you if you hated me and were covered with sores like a leper – if you ran away with another woman and starved me and beat me – I still would want you I know – Lover, Lover, Darling – Your Wife.”
And it wasn’t only creatives who recorded the anguish of missing loved ones on paper. Napoleon Bonaparte, whilst claiming his place in history as a ruthless military leader, appears to have been far more tender in his personal life.
In a letter he wrote to his first wife, Joséphine, translated from French by Henry Foljambe Hall in 1901, he says:
“Ever since I left you, I have been sad. I am only happy when by your side. Ceaselessly I recall your kisses, your tears, your enchanting jealousy; and the charms of the incomparable Joséphine keep constantly alight a bright and burning flame in my heart and senses. When, free from every worry, from all business, shall I spend all my moments by your side, to have nothing to do but to love you, and to prove it to you? I shall send your horse, but I am hoping that you will soon be able to rejoin me. I thought I loved you some days ago; but, since I saw you, I feel that I love you even a thousand times more.”
Unearth your poetic side
British writer Oscar Wilde fell hard for Oxford undergraduate Lord Alfred Douglas in June 1891, who he was introduced to by a friend, Lionel Johnson.
Wilde and ‘Bosie’, as he referred to him, were very different, though. Whilst Wilde was non-confrontational, Douglas was fierier. But with fire came passion, a presence made clear by the writers in their letters:
“My Own Boy
“Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red-roseleaf 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. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days. Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.
“Always, with undying love,
In HM Prison Reading, following his sentence, Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to Douglas, which became known as De Profundis (From the Depths). In the first half of the letter, he discusses the two’s relationship and, in the second, a spiritual awakening he experienced during his imprisonment.
- Read more | Oscar Wilde's tragic end
His exchanges with Douglas prove that there are no limitations when writing a letter to a loved one, especially for the more poetic amongst us.
Reflect on the past
Musicians Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash were married for over 30 years. The two met when still married to other people, a difficult situation that inspired June’s cowriting of the song Ring of Fire with Merle Kilgore.
During their marriage, the couple overcame the turbulence fame, and life, can often bring – including Johnny’s addictions to drugs and alcohol. Their letters show the devotion that allowed them to survive the difficulties they faced. In a letter, Johnny reflects on their past:
“Happy Birthday Princess,
“We get old and get used to each other. We think alike.
“We read each other’s minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted.
“But once in awhile, like today, I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me.”
Make promises for the future
King Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn might have been severed, quite literally, but his written professions prior to their union were not short of promises. Anne was not satisfied with being a mistress of the Tudor king; she wanted to be his wife.
- Read more | 5 British castles with romantic histories
And, for the woman he dissolved the Catholic church for, it might come as a surprise to discover that Henry was willing to do plenty more:
“But if you please to do the office of a true loyal mistress and friend, and to give up yourself body and heart to me, who will be, and have been, your most loyal servant, (if your rigour does not forbid me) I promise you that not only the name shall be given you, but also that I will take you for my only mistress, casting off all others besides you out of my thoughts and affections, and serve you only. I beseech you to give an entire answer to this my rude letter, that I may know on what and how far I may depend. And if it does not please you to answer me in writing, appoint some place where I may have it by word of mouth, and I will go thither with all my heart. No more, for fear of tiring you.”
How to end a love letter
Look no further than Prince Albert’s sign off…
The marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert has been reinvented over and over on the screen. The couple’s relationship is said to have been bursting with passion, and Victoria delivered nine children during their time together.
Before this union was cut tragically short by Albert’s death, plunging Victoria into life-long mourning, their letters demonstrate the love they shared for each other:
“Dearest deeply loved Victoria, I need not tell you that since we left, all my thoughts have been with you at Windsor, and that your image fills my whole soul. Even in my dreams I never imagined that I should find so much love on earth. How that moment shines for me still when I was close to you, with your hand in mine. Those days flew by so quickly, but our separation will fly equally so. Ernest wishes me to say a thousand nice things to you. With promises of unchanging love and devotion, your ever true Albert.”
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99