Sunday 17 December 2017

Tacky messages pale before passionate missives of the past

Love letters may make us squirm, but classics of the genre make the heart beat a little faster

British-born actress Elizabeth Taylor weds Welsh actor Richard Burton
British-born actress Elizabeth Taylor weds Welsh actor Richard Burton

Rowan Pelling

What makes a great love letter? The author Simon Garfield poses exactly this question in To the Letter: A Journey Though a Vanishing World and supplies some excellent answers: "Truth, vulnerability, passion, secrecy, vulgarity, fervour, delusion, exquisitely painful ecstasy? Something so intense you want to shout it or burn it?" I feel tempted to add to Garfield's list "writing so sincere in its expression of erotic intent, you don't know whether to weep or laugh".

Readers' confused emotions about lustful prose are exposed every year at the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards, where actors read aloud the year's most virulently purple prose from otherwise respected novelists. Cue sniggering literati.

I felt a tinge of that treacherous hysteria when reading newly released extracts from Lawrence Oliver's steamy correspondence with Vivien Leigh. When the actor declares, "I am sitting naked with just my parts wrapped in your panties," you'd have to have a heart of stone not to squirm a little.

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