F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in a letter, “I love her, and that’s the beginning and end of everything.” He was, of course, talking about his own dear Zelda. February is the perfect month to celebrate love letters such as the ones between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Unlike valentines, letters go beyond holiday love to reveal the myriad nuances of our strongest emotion.
Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald is a remarkable collection. The letters are accidentally poetic, brutally honest, and thoroughly haunting. Beginning with the couple’s jazz age courtship in August 1918, they end with Scott’s final letter to Zelda just two days before his death (he died on Dec. 21, 1940). In the correspondence, both writers pour out their souls, writing about art, love, and inspiration, but Zelda’s passages, written at various states of mental stability, are especially poignant.
In the fall of 1929, Zelda tried to run their car off the road, and this was (in my opinion) the beginning of her breakdown. Some experts say she was schizophrenic, but I can’t be sure. Zelda wrote, “Twice horrible things have happened to me because of my inability to express myself.” One thing is certain, however: women suffered due to experimental treatments for mental illness and depression in the 1930s. Zelda herself died in a fire, locked in a room on the top floor of a sanitarium. Scott, an alcoholic, was no less tortured. Zelda was not only the love of his life but also his muse, and after her breakdown, life would never be the same. Like Gatsby, they both express a desperate desire to repeat the past.
“I wonder why we have never been very happy and why all this has happened—It was much nicer a long time ago when we had each other and the space around the world was warm—Can’t we get it back someway—even by imagining?” –Zelda, 1930
Sometimes imagination is the only way to get through these heart-wrenching passages, but they’re worth it. They will forever change the way you think about the famous pair—and perhaps love as well.
If you’re looking for a shorter (and lighter) collection of love letters, you might try the fun Letters to Juliet, which explores the phenomenon that inspired the movie by the same name. Each year, thousands of writers from around the world send letters to Juliet of Verona (the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare’s Juliet in Romeo and Juliet). They receive answers from her “secretaries,” volunteers who have taken up the mantle on Juliet’s behalf.
Early letters can be traced to the late nineteenth century, or at least the first picture of them can be. Seen here, it shows several notes behind Juliet’s sarcophagus. Who was the real Juliet of Verona? The answer could be its own blog, but Letters to Juliet cites Istoria della Citta di Verona (History of the City of Verona), dated 1336, as the first reference to the star-crossed pair: “The bodies of the unfortunate lovers were, by their common will, placed in the same monument, which of vivid stone was considerably above ground […]” (qtd. in Friedman 28).
Shakespeare’s inspiration for his famous tragedy, however, isn’t the most interesting aspect of the book. Much more detailed scholarship exists for true Shakespearean devotees. What recommends this book are the letters themselves. From lovelorn to love-struck, the writers wait for answers to age-old questions like these:
“I’ve asked myself many times, how it is that we fall in love: do we trip, lose our balance and fall, scraping our hearts? Do we crash to the ground, on stones? Or is it like staying on the edge of a precipice for all time?” —letter from Poland
I’ll wait while you sigh and clutch your bosom, readers. Then please share your favorite love stories, poems, letters, or books in the comments below! I’d love to hear your picks for February.