The Art & History Of Handwritten Love Letters

For many, the act of penning a good old fashioned love letter still means something. Jessica Joyce Jacolbe explores the history and beauty of handwritten notes.

Art by Sam Liacos.

For my family, writing has become a household practice–a tradition that began during my parents’ courtship. Writing letters to one another became a standard tradition, one that required each of us to harness the skill of articulating what someone meant to us on paper. The older I’ve become, and the more I convinced myself that I had honed and mastered the skill, the harder it became to write. (The skill was not mastered.) It is especially evident when I put pen to paper now–baffled by my own handwriting–that I’d rather send a text or long-winded email to someone than write a letter with meaning.

While the thought of breaking up with someone through a text feels insensitive, confessing love for someone in a letter feels like a more vulnerable approach. For Mya Abraham, a love letter she received became significant to her because its sender wasn’t much of a romantic, but also has an obsession with handwritten love notes. On the letter from her first love, she says, “To this day, there’s only two ways he’s immortalized to me since our relationship ended: this letter and a voicemail he left me on my 21st birthday.”

History proves that writing letters was once the only way to communicate. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s novel following the life and romance of Elizabeth Bennett in 19th century England, letters were major turning points, often a source of intimate details and suppressed feelings for the women in the book. In Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw read love letters to Big and romanticized the concept of vows even with her Vivienne Westwood veil. The feelings all have to come from somewhere, right?

In Eleanor Bass’ Yours Always: Letters of Longing, a collection of love letters shows why we all seem to romanticize the concept of delivering our love through words. It almost seems impossible to keep such a loaded message compact, to say “I love you” and have the person be convinced, and yet as a reader, I believe it all. Franz Kafka, an eager and impatient writer, loathed all this waiting and wrote to his lover, Felice Bauer, “How can one hope to hold anyone with nothing but words?” It’s those kind of one-liners that make it impossible to be as expressive in a letter, let alone a text message today. I’m up against Kafka.

Yours Always previews the relationships of famed writers, spoiling the story of whether or not those love letters were as effective as we’d imagine. Kafka’s poetic line didn’t work. He and Brauer never ended up together despite stringing the long distance relationship along with letters. Bass says that the letters of physicist and chemist Marie Curie resonate in a light that people don’t normally see in her. “They reveal a mix of tenderness and vulnerability alongside a dogged, at times seemingly heartless pursuit of her married lover, Paul Langevin.”

This book of love letters began in 2015 when Bass was approached with the idea to create a compilation of them. “I was really excited at the prospect, especially as I had enjoyed working with wartime love letters as part of my PhD,” she says. “Through the research and planning process we refined the initial idea to a collection of letters focused upon the difficulties, disappointments and challenges of love.”

Altogether, the collection explores love from several perspectives, in angles that only love can be seen. One ILY reader, who’d like to remain anonymous, shared a snippet of an old love letter:

“I make more sense in writing than I generally do in person. But anyway, you should hear or rather read me out, because it could be to your advantage and after however long it’s been that we’ve known each other, you can take five minutes to hear my side of it…”

Letters are sent in many forms to the infatuated, from the frustrated to the unrequited. Within them are stories of how love can never be perfect, that love is as diverse and as contradictory as we can all tend to be when writing out our feelings. When it came to editing letters, Bass says, “It is a privilege to access the romantic lives and heartaches of others, and I saw my role as editor to require both compassion for the individuals involved and dispassion, in the sense of not passing judgement and allowing the material to speak for itself.”

Think about the factors: the time it takes for that letter to be delivered, the time it takes to process, then having to anticipate reciprocity. It’s that anxiety that gives letters weight and importance. The length of time it takes to think, in between handwriting words, allows us to hesitate on confessing something that we may be too afraid to say face-to-face. Are you game for the pen-to-paper method? You have to determine which one outweighs the other: the risk or the reward.

“Some time between my teen years and adult years, love letters stopped being romantic. They started to remind me of heartbreak and the feelings that I was too afraid to voice,” Jessica Davila, ILY reader, on a love letter she received, and has shared with us. “This was a gentle reminder of how beautiful love letters should be and how beautiful love should be. So many years have passed since I received this letter and it never meant to me as much as it means to me now. (Thank you Christopher for reminding me of the beauty in love and the letters that come with it).”

The nostalgia for love letters is often based in a romanticized version of what we’re missing. Then again, that’s what nostalgia is. Is this nostalgia for a common practice of communicating with someone we’ve been promised 3,000 miles away? Are we really longing for months of being without our significant other due to unforeseen circumstances?

Love letters have been transformed into an idea of a time gone by. A “love letter” no longer exists on its own. It encapsulates a larger meaning that we’ve invested in. It means effort and thought and love. No one’s taken away the ability to write love letters; all we have to do is write.

Four ILY Readers Share Their Love Letters