1. Simone de Beauvoir and Nelson Algren
Simone de Beauvoir had an affair with Nelson Algren that began in 1947 and, due to circumstances, developed into a long-distance relationship. De Beauvoir wrote this letter in 1950, on her way back to Paris from visiting Algren. An excerpt:
I shall not assume that you love me anew, not even that you have to sleep with me, and we have not to stay together such a long time—just as you feel, and when you feel. But know that i’ll always long for your asking me. No, I cannot think that I shall not see you again. I have lost your love and it was (it is) painful, but shall not lose you. Anyhow, you have me so much, Nelson, what you gave me meant so much, that you could never take it back. And then your tenderness and friendship were so precious to me that I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me. I do hope this tenderness and friendship will never, never desert me. As for me, it is baffling to say so and I feel ashamed, but it is the only true truth: I just love as much as I did when I landed into your disappointed arms, that means with my whole self and all my dirty heart; I cannot do less. But that will not bother you, honey, and don’t make writing letters of any kind a duty, just write when you feel like it, knowing every time it will make me very happy.
Well, all words seem silly. You seem so near, so near, let me come near to you, too. And let me, as in the past times, let me be in my own heart forever.
Your own Simone
2. Edith Wharton and W. Morton Fullerton
Wharton and Fullerton were in a seemingly serious relationship from 1907-1908. In 1909, Wharton discovered that Fullerton had been seeing another woman. An excerpt of the letter that Wharton wrote to Fullerton in April of 1910.
I have been back three days, & I seem not to exist for you. I don’t understand.
If I could lean on some feeling in you—a good & loyal friendship, if there’s nothing else!—then I could go on, bear things, write, & arrange my life…
Now, ballottée perpetually between one illusion & another by your strange confused conduct of the last six months, I can’t any longer find a point de repère. I don’t know what you want, or what I am! You write to me like a lover, you treat me like a casual acquaintance!
Which are you—what am I?
Casual acquaintance, no; but a friend, yes. I’ve always told you I foresaw that solution, & accepted it in advance. But a certain consistency of affection is a fundamental part of friendship. One must know à quoi s’en tenir. And just as I think we have reached that stage, you revert abruptly to the other relation, & assume that I have noticed no change in you, & that I have not suffered or wondered at it, but have carried on my life in serene insensibility until you chose to enter again suddenly into it.
I have borne all these inconsistencies & incoherences as long as I could, because I love you so much, & because I am so sorry for things in your life that are difficult & wearing—but I have never been capricious or exacting, I have never, I think, added to those difficulties, but have tried to lighten them for you by a frank & faithful friendship. Only now a sense of my worth, & a sense also that I can bear no more, makes me write this to you. Write me no more such letters as you sent me in England.
It is a cruel & capricious amusement.—It was not necessary to hurt me thus!…I have had a difficult year—but the pain within my pain, the last turn of the screw, has been the impossibility of knowing what you wanted of me, & what you felt for me—at a time when it seemed natural that, if you had any sincere feeling for me, you should see my need of an equable friendship—I don’t say love because that is not made to order!—but the kind of tried tenderness that old friends seek in each other in difficult moments of life. My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion of this sad year. And it is a bitter thing to say to the one being one has ever loved d’amour.
3. Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for his letters to Alfred Douglas, so it’s no wonder he’s a bit miffed that he hasn’t heard from Douglas throughout his incarceration. Written in 1896, this letter—which, in its original form is 1909 words—includes excerpts from Wilde’s “De Profundis”. Below, a snippet of the letter.
After long and fruitless waiting I have determined to write to you myself, as much for your sake as for mine, as I would not like to think that I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.
Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me, yet the memory of our ancient affection is often with me, and the thought that loathing, bitterness and contempt should for ever take that place in my heart once held by love is very sad to me: and you yourself will, I think, feel in your heart that to write to me as I lie in the loneliness of prison-life is better than to publish my letters without my permission or to dedicate poems to me unasked, though the world will know nothing of whatever words of grief or passion, of remorse or indifference you may choose to send as your answer or your appeal. . .
But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will-power, and my will-power became absolutely subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true. Those incessant scenes that seemed to be almost physically necessary to you, and in which your mind and body grew distorted and you became a thing as terrible to look at as to listen to: that dreadful mania you inherit from your father, the mania for writing revolting and loathsome letters: your entire lack of any control over your emotions as displayed in your long resentful moods of sullen silence, no less than in the sudden fits of almost epileptic rage: all these things in reference to which one of my letters to you, left by you lying about at the Savoy or some other hotel and so produced in Court by your father’s Counsel, contained an entreaty not devoid of pathos, had you at that time been able to recognise pathos either in its elements or its expression—these, I say, were the origin and causes of my fatal yielding to you in your daily increasing demands. You wore one out. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger nature. It was the case of that tyranny of the weak over the strong which somewhere in one of my plays I describe as being “the only tyranny that lasts.”…Your meanest motive, your lowest appetite, your most common passion, became to you laws by which the lives of others were to be guided always, and to which, if necessary, they were to be without scruple sacrificed. Knowing that by making a scene you could always have your way, it was but natural that you should proceed, almost unconsciously I have no doubt, to every excess of vulgar violence. At the end you did not know to what goal you were hurrying, or with what aim in view. Having made your own of my genius, my will-power, and my fortune, you required, in the blindness of an inexhaustible greed, my entire existence. You took it. At the one supremely and tragically critical moment of all my life, just before my lamentable step of beginning my absurd action, on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous card left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters. The letter I received from you on the morning of the day I let you take me down to the Police Court to apply for the ridiculous warrant for your father’s arrest was one of the worst you ever wrote, and for the most shameful reason. Between you both I lost my head. My judgment forsook me. Terror took its place. I saw no possible escape, I may say frankly, from either of you. Blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles. I had made a gigantic psychological error. I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will-power completely failed me. In life there is really no small or great thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size. . . .
4. Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay
Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay had a child together despite never marrying. Imlay cheated, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, and then Wollstonecraft wrote this letter in March of 1796.
You must do as you please with respect to the child. I could wish that it might be done soon, that my name may be no more mentioned to you. It is now finished. Convinced that you have neither regard nor friendship, I distain to utter a reproach, though I have had reason to think, that the “forbearance” talked of, has not been very delicate. It is however of no consequence. I am glad you are satisfied with your own conduct.
I now solemnly assure you, that this is an eternal farewell. Yet I flinch not from the duties which tie me to life. That there is sophistry on one side or other, is certain; but now it matters not on which. On my part it has not been a question of words. Yet your understanding or mine must be strangely warped; for what you term “delicacy” appears to me to be exactly the contrary. I have no criterion for morality, and have thought in vain if the sensations which lead you to follow an ancle or step, be the sacred foundation of principle and affection. Mine has been of a very different nature, or it would not have stood the brunt of your sarcasms.
The sentiment in me is still sacred. If there be any part of me that will survive the sense of my misfortunes, it is the purity of my affections. The impetuosity of your senses may have led you to term mere animal desire the source of principle; and it may give zest to some years to come. Whether you will always think so, I shall never know.
It is strange that, in spite of all you do, something like conviction forces me to believe that you are not what you appear to be.
I part with you in peace.
5. Anaïs Nin and C.L. (Lanny) Baldwin
Anaïs Nin and C.L. Baldwin had an affair while they were both married to other people. Nin wrote this zinger in 1945.
My poor Lanny, how blind you are! A woman is jealous only when she has nothing, but I who am the most loved of all women, what can I be jealous of? I gave you up long ago, as you well know, also I refused you the night you wept—I only extended the friendship as I told you then until you found what you wanted—When you did I withdrew it merely because I have no time for dead relationships. The day I discovered your deadness—long ago—my illusion about you died and I knew you could never enter my world, which you wanted so much. Because my world is based on passion, and because you know that it is only with passion that one creates, and you know that my world which you now deride because you couldn’t enter it, made Henry [Miller] a great writer, because you know the other young men you are so jealous of enter a whole world by love and are writing books, producing movies, poems, paintings, composing music.
I am in no need of “insisting” upon being loved. I’m immersed and flooded in this. That is why I am happy and full of power and find friendship pale by comparison.
But in the middle of this fiery and marvellous give and take, going out with you was like going out with a priest. The contrast in temperature was too great. So I waited for my first chance to break—not wanting to leave you alone.
You ought to know my value better than to think I can be jealous of the poor American woman who has lost her man to me continually since I am here—