Unlike the discovery of secret love letters in a safe, love letters from literature are meant for everyone to read. Sometimes, they’re two fictional characters in the midst of a storied affair, pouring their hearts out to one another. Sometimes, it’s a real letter written to a real person to be published their memoirs. We look at three famous letters from literature and what makes them so special.
Ian McEwan: Atonement
Atonement’s drama is sparked by a sexual assault and the runaway imagination of a young girl, Briony. Despite having not seen the perpetrator of the crime, she decides that it’s the son of the housekeeper, Robbie, who must have done it. Robbie was secretly seeing Briony’s sister, Cecilia, at the time, and believed that he had impure intentions. When he goes to jail for the assault, the plot is focused on Briony’s feeling contrite about what she has done.
Throughout the novel, the imprisoned main character converses with his girlfriend, Cecilia, through letters. The love between them never falters, as letters are the only way that the two can keep in touch. When he is offered an escape from jail if he willingly enlists in WWII, Cecilia writes to him that her love has never faded. “I’ve never had a moment’s doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one, my reason for life.” It’s a testament to how a once illicit relationship can become one that lasts a lifetime.
Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina
Regardless of what time period a novel is written in, affairs are juicy fodder and plot drivers for any novelist. Leo Tolstoy penned one of the more famous storylines in a truly tragic book, Anna Karenina, that ends in an ill-fated train ride. However, there were other stories unfolding within the book, which is just one of the reasons why the tale has been so enduring. The eventual coupling of Levin and Kitty, one that leads to a marriage and the birth of their son, takes quite a bit of effort to realize.
Levin does not have an easy time getting his feelings across, so feels compelled to speak in code. Because Kitty understands how he thinks and what he wants, she does the same. While the notes they write to each other are composed of literal letters (they only give the first letter of every word in a sentence), the exchange is the first time that Kitty admits her love for Levin. While the code wouldn’t mean much on its own, in the book, it’s worth a lifetime.
A Literature Passion: Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller
There’s a kind of magic that occurs when two authors get together. Their love of words makes for thrilling encounters for them, and sometimes, famous letters for us to read in the wake of their relationship. Nin and Miller didn’t meet for very long, spending just a little time together in the early 1930s, but they wrote together for more than 20 years to follow.
These weren’t platonic feelings for one another either, and it’s clear that both of them had strong reactions to the other. Miller once wrote to Nin, “You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me.”
Famous letters from literature can make us feel truly connected to the people on the page. Whether the feelings are written in code or said in no uncertain terms, the reality is that we can engage better with authors and stories through the words.