Dr. Arbuthnot may be the character most transformed for this version of Murder on the Orient Express. He was a colonel; now he is a doctor. Before, a protective family friend. Now? Well, while the details of his life remain unclear, we know someone writes him love letters.
The love letter. A door to a heart, a plea, a promise, tearful or triumphant, we write and receive them, keep or burn them. How long have there been love letters?
As it turns out, the love letter has been around for millennia. From ancient Egypt, “let me 'bathe in thy presence, that I may let thee see my beauty in my tunic of finest linen, when it is wet'. From ancient India we have the princess Rukmini’s letter of entreaty to Lord Krishna, then ruler of the sacred city of Dwaraka: “O beauty of the worlds, having heard of Your qualities, which enter the ears of those who hear and remove their bodily distress, and having also heard of Your beauty, which fulfills all the visual desires of those who see, I have fixed my shameless mind upon You, O Krishna. What aristocratic, sober-minded and marriageable girl of a good family would not choose You as her husband when the proper time has come? Therefore, my dear Lord, I have chosen You as my husband, and I surrender myself to You. Please come swiftly, O almighty one, and make me Your wife.” It caused him to kidnap and elope with her.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote about the importance love letters in Ars Amatoria, “In the first place, it's best to send her a letter, just to pave the way. In it you should tell her how you dote on her; pay her pretty compliments and say all the nice things lovers always say. Achilles gave way to Priam's supplications. Even the gods are moved by the voice of entreaty. And promise, promise, promise. Promises will cost you nothing.” Beautifully tongue and cheek, no?R
Lady and Knight with Hawk credit: Raffael Lunelli
Most of us think of the Middle Ages and the tradition of courtly love as the progenitor of the Western love letter. The rules governing the conduct of a knight towards the object of his devotion were highly ritualized. The lover -- the knight-- was required to recognize the independence of his loved one. In most cases she was a married noble woman and indeed, sometimes lived so far from the knight that physical contact, even in the form of a direct glance at the face of the loved one, was highly unlikely. So what was it all about? A kind of sacred love, perhaps. One that demanded discipline. Above all, it was a chaste relationship where the lover is ennobled by his pure thoughts and selfless deeds that are performed in honor of his lady.
If all of this seems just a bit over the top, you are in fine company, as many scholars now refer to the myth of courtly love rather than the actual practice. One thing that is for certain, is that there was a flourishing literature of courtly love in the form of the poetry and song of the Occitan troubadours which began in Occitania, a region that included southern France, Andorra, Monaco, and parts of Spain and Italy, and flowed north. And given the way ideas flow in our connected world, is it surprising to learn that the roots of the troubadours’ writing come out Al-Andalus Spain, which was ruled by Moslem kings for eight hundred years. It seems that William IX, Duke of Aquitaine (1071 - 1127) considered the earliest of the Occitan troubadours, spent time in Al-Andalus Spain where he encountered a teeming culture of Moorish songs and prose centered on secular love and eroticism. William of Aquitaine’s own poetry celebrated women in a way that contemporary European poets did not:
Every joy must abase itself,
and every might obey
in the presence of Midons, for the sweetness of her welcome,
and a man who wins to the joy of her love
will live a hundred years.
The joy of her can make the sick man well again,
her wrath can make a well man die…
(note: midons means master)
The Poems and Poets of Al-Andalus
What Englishman’s words can equal this bent knee to womankind?
Oh, there’s one I have in mind. His honor, John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester. Yes, we have the movie, but we also have the poems and one small slip from a love letter that I was able to dislodge from the internet without the fearsome need to download an entire book from who knows where. The fragment in question was written to Elizabeth Barry, actress.
“Seeing you is as necessary to my life as breathing, so that I must see you or be yours no more, for that’s the image I have of dying..”
From The Libertine
And then, reading his poem To My Mistress, I felt as though I was reading a continuation of his letter. Here is a portion of the much longer poem:
Does that eclipsing hand of thine deny
The Why dost thou shade thy lovely face? O why
sunshine of the Sun’s enlivening eye?
Without thy light what light remains in me?
Thou art my life; my way, my light’s in thee;
I live, I move, and by thy beams I see.
Thou art my life-if thou but turn away
My life’s a thousand deaths. Thou art my way-
Without thee, Love, I travel not but stray.
My light thou art-without thy glorious sight
My eyes are darken’d with eternal night.
My Love, thou art my way, my life, my light.
Thou art my way; I wander if thou fly.
Thou art my light; if hid, how blind am I!
Thou art my life; if thou withdraw’st, I die.
Some say Barry was the love of his life. The affair was only two years long, during which Barry gave birth to a daughter that the couple named Elizabeth. A year later, for unknown reasons, Wilmot took over care of the baby, perhaps allowing Barry to have the independence she needed to become a celebrated actress. Two years later he was dead. His wife, also named Elizabeth died a year later. Wilmot remembered Barry in his will.
Jane Austen (1775 - 1817)
Our next letter comes from a fictional character, Captain Wentworth from Jane Austen’s 1817 novel Persuasion. I haven’t read this one, although I read other Austen books over the years, some from under my bedsheets with a flashlight. (What we read without considering the book’s complexity years ago.) I did read up on the plot however. Captain Wentworth was in love with Anne Elliot, she agreed to an engagement but then turned him down on the advice of her godmother, because he didn’t have sufficient resources. Years later, Wentworth returns from the Napoleonic Wars, a successful man. They travel in the same social circle, and for a time Wentworth can’t forgive Anne. But when he learns she turned down another offer of marriage, he rethinks his situation, the pride and hurt feelings that prevent him from approaching her again.
In the end, he writes her a love letter, apparently the only love letter Austen ever included in one of her novels. It is a beauty:
“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.”
A note before we continue. In selecting letters to include here, I looked for expressions of love that were raw. In other words, texts that came from the deepest center of a writer, so that we, the readers, could recognize and share in the emotion they felt. After all, with the exception of Captain Wentworth, every letter here came from the hand of someone human, like us.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806 - 1861) credit: Poetry Foundation
Elizabeth Barrett met Robert Browning through a letter she sent him, praising a book of his poems. She, herself, was already an accomplished poet. He wrote back, asking if they might meet. She hesitated and then agreed. Her father couldn’t stand Browning, but the couple's friendship continued. Soon, the couple fell in love, keeping their romance a secret until opportunity struck in 1846 when Elizabeth' s family was away. She left the house and eloped with Robert. Their marriage would remain strong for fifteen years. Elizabeth had a long history of lung problems, but living with Robert in Italy, she became strong enough to have his child. Unfortunately she succumbed to a lung infection in 1861 and died in her husband’s arms. The letter is dated January 10, 1846.
“It seems to me, to myself, that no man was ever before to any woman what you are to me—the fullness must be in proportion, you know, to the vacancy … and only I know what was behind—the long wilderness without the blossoming rose … and the capacity for happiness, like a black gaping hole, before this silver flooding. Is it wonderful that I should stand as in a dream, and disbelieve—not you—but my own fate?” Was ever any one taken suddenly from a lampless dungeon and placed upon the pinnacle of a mountain, without the head turning round and the heart turning faint, as mine do? And you love me more, you say? .... How shall I ever prove what my heart is to you? How will you ever see it as I feel it?”
Rupert Brooke (1887 - 1915)
Rupert Brooke went off to fight the Great War at 27 years old in 1914. He was already a widely respected poet, part of the legendary Bloomsbury group that included Virginia Woolf. This letter was written in 1913 to Cathleen Nesbitt, a well-known actress of the Edwardian stage. Brooke was fascinated by Nesbitt, and asked her repeatedly to marry him in the two years leading up to his death in 1915. His death occurred during the British navy’s campaign on Gallipoli. Brooke was pulled down by an infected mosquito bite and a sepsis that poisoned his blood. Can you imagine that?
“I wish to God you were coming in through the door now: and that I could hold your hands. There’s beauty when we’re together. I understand – in a way I understand you completely: because I love you so.
I’m madly eager to see you again. My heart goes knocking when I think of it. I don’t understand…
Little child, I will kiss you till I kill you. Be gentle with me. Goodnight”
Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenska
Most of us have read at least one short story by Franz Kafka (1883 - 1924). The unforgettable Metamorphosis, perhaps, or one of the novels -- The Trial, The Castle, etc. He was unquestionably an electrifying writer, and no doubt his works moved the hand of literature more than many others. What conversations we had about Kafka in college.
Kafka never married, not for lack of passion however. In 1919, a Czech translator named Milena Jesenska wrote asking for permission to translate several of Kafka’s stories. The letter launched an intense and passionate two-year correspondence. They met only twice, four days in Vienna and then a day in Gmund. Eventually the relationship was broken off by Franz, ending what had become literally a daily correspondence by mail. Milena was married and couldn’t leave her husband. They exchanged another letter or two in 1922 and 1923. Franz died in 1924, leaving Milena his diaries. Milena, active in the Czech underground during WWII, died at Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944.
“No, Milen, I beg you once again to invent another possibility for my writing to you. You mustn’t go to the post office in vain, even your little postman — who is he? — mustn’t do it, nor should even the postmistress be asked unnecessarily.
If you can find no other possibility, then one must put up with it, but at least make a little effort to find one.
Last night I dreamed about you. What happened in detail I can hardly remember, all I know is that we kept merging into one another. I was you, you were me. Finally you somehow caught fire. Remembering that one extinguished fire with clothing, I took an old coat and beat you with it. But again the transmutations began and it went so far that you were no longer even there, instead it was I who was on fire and it was also I who beat the fire with the coat.
But the beating didn’t help and it only confirmed my old fear that such things can’t extinguish a fire. In the meantime, however, the fire brigade arrived and somehow you were saved. But you were different from before, spectral, as though drawn with chalk against the dark, and you fell, lifeless or perhaps having fainted from joy at having been saved, into my arms. But here too the uncertainty of trans mutability entered, perhaps it was I who fell into someone’s arms.”
A book of Kafka and Jesenka's correspondence was published in 2015.
Zelda Fitzgerald, Self Portrait in Watercolor, early 1940s
Zelda Sayre (1900 - 1948) and F Scott Fitzgerald met in July 1918 at a country club dance in Montgomery, Alabama. Later, Fitzgerald would use that first meeting as fodder for Jay Gatsby’s first meet-up with Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. While Fitzgerald was clearly the strong writer of the pair, he borrowed repeatedly from Zelda’s journals in describing other characters, other events in his stories. In fact, he was so bowled over when he met Zelda, that he went back to Camp Sheriden, where he was posted, and re-wrote the character of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise to resemble Zelda. I have to say that I love this quote, from a letter Zelda sent Scott. She must have been a firecracker.
“Darling – I love these velvet nights. I’ve never been able to decide … whether I love you most in the eternal classic half-lights where it blends with day or in the full religious fan-fare of mid-night or perhaps in the lux of noon. Anyway, I love you most and you ’phoned me just because you phoned me tonight – I walked on those telephone wires for two hours after holding your love like a parasol to balance me.”
Scott died in 1940 of alcoholism. Zelda was killed in a fire that raced through a North Carolina hospital in 1948. She had lived for years in psychiatric clinics following her diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Looking back on the lot I’ve assembled here, I realize every one of them could be considered doomed. A gone too soon crowd. Perhaps this final letter, from Johnny Cash to his wife June Carter will remedy the matter. Johnny and June were married in 1968. June died in May 2003; Johnny, four months later.
Cash’s letter is probably the most down-to-earth of the bunch, but to tell a woman on her 65th birthday you still desire her? That’s something.
“We get old and get used to each other. We think alike. We read each other's minds. We know what the other one wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted. But once in a while, 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. You influence me for the better. You're the object of my desire, the #1 earthly reason for my existence. I love you very much.”
June Carter and Johnny Cash
Boyle, Laura. "A History of Love Letters." June 17, 2011. Website: Jane Austen Center
David, A. Rosalie. "The Egyptian Kingdoms" (Oxford 1975)
Hasting, Chris. "Letters reveal Rupert Brookes' doomed love" March 9. 2017. The Telegraph
Macdonald, Fiona. "What History's Love Letters Reveal" Website: BBC Culture November, 30, 2016
Tamplin, Ronald. "Famous Love Letters, Messages of Intimacy and Passion." Reader's Digest 1995.
Temple, Emily. "The Torrid Love Letters of Famous Authors." February 14, 2012. The Atlantic
This Day In History: September 12, 1846. Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning Elope.