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Posts Tagged ‘Anna Holmes’

01 MAY, 2014

How to Turn Down a Marriage Proposal Like Charlotte Brontë

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A bold defiance of oppressive gender ideals, packaged as the ultimate it’s-not-you-it’s-me gentle letdown.

“There is no subject on which more dangerous nonsense is talked and thought than marriage,” George Bernard Shaw asserted in his 1908 meditation on the subject. “We look for communion, and are turned away,” Denise Levertov wrote in her poem “The Ache of Marriage.” Bridging the thinking of dangerous nonsense and the turning away is the marriage proposal — and its considered refusal.

From Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) — Anna Holmes’s magnificent collection spanning centuries of missives, which also gave us Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite breakup letter and this moving breakup moment from the Vietnam War — comes an outstanding contribution to the genre from none other than Charlotte Brontë.

On the last day of February in 1839, eight years before Jane Eyre was published, Brontë received a letter of marriage proposal from Henry Nussey, a Sussex curate whose sister Ellen was one of her close friends. Brontë’s reply, written on March 5, 1839, is nothing short of brilliant — assertive yet generous, unambiguous yet kind, and a masterwork of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me model. She essentially spells out why she would make a terrible mate by the era’s standards for what a good wife means — “her character should not be too marked, ardent and original” — channeling with equal parts humility and dignity her quiet confidence in being the antithesis of these qualities.

My dear Sir

Before answering your letter, I might have spent a long time in consideration of its subject; but as from the first moment of its reception and perusal I determined on which course to pursue, it seemed to me that delay was wholly unnecessary.

You are aware that I have many reasons to feel gratified to your family, that I have peculiar reasons for affection towards one at least of your sisters, and also that I highly esteem yourself. Do not therefore accuse me of wrong motives when I say that my answer to your proposal must be a decided negative. In forming this decision — I trust I have listened to the dictates of conscience more than to those [of] inclination; I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you — but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. It has always been my habit to study the character of those amongst whom I chance to be thrown, and I think I know yours and can imagine what description of woman would suit you for a wife. Her character should not be too marked, ardent and original — her temper should be mild, her piety undoubted, her spirits even and cheerful, and her “personal attractions” sufficient to please your eye and gratify your just pride. As for me, you do not know me, I am not this serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose — you would think me romantic and [eccentric — you would] say I was satirical and [severe]. [However, I scorn] deceit and I will never for the sake of attaining the distinction of matrimony and escaping the stigma of an old maid take a worthy man whom I am conscious I cannot render happy.

[…]

Farewell—! I shall always be glad to hear from you as a friend

Believe me
Yours truly
C Brontë

Brontë remained unwedded until a year before her death, when she married Arthur Bell Nichols, her father’s curate, who had been in love with her for years. (“Currer Bell,” the male pseudonym she had used to secure unbiased consideration of her works with publishers, was based on Nichols’s middle name.) One has to wonder whether Jane Eyre would’ve ever come to life, and gone on to inspire generations, had Brontë succumbed to the era’s oppressive standards of female domesticity.

Hell Hath No Fury is an enchanting read in its totality, featuring letters from both ordinary lovers across the ages and such cultural icons as Sylvia Plath, Edith Wharton, Queen Elizabeth, Zelda Fitzgerald, Anne Boleyn, and Virginia Woolf. Ten years later, Holmes followed it up with the equally, if very differently, delightful The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things.

For more meditations on marriage, see Charles Darwin’s endearing list of its pros and cons and Susan Sontag’s youthful rant.

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22 FEBRUARY, 2013

Dear John: Rare Recording of a Vietnam War Soldier Reading a Breakup Letter from Home

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“Dear John I love you so, Dear John you’ve got to go.”

Some months ago, I shared a train ride with Jezebel founder and all-around great gal Anna Holmes who, upon finding out about my obsession with love letters, told me about a book she’d written nearly a decade ago: Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), a magnificent collection spanning several centuries of breakups, both famous and ordinary. Naturally, I hunted down a copy, in which I discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite missive of “dry sadness.” But Anna also mentioned something she’d discovered over the course of her research that never made it, for obvious reasons, into the book: A rare recording of a Vietnam War soldier nicknamed Johnny Smack-O reading a lengthy “Dear John” letter — the blanket term used to describe “I’m leaving you letters,” common in the military — sent to him by the woman with whom he’d been living for two and a half years prior to the war. The letter’s author, who remains unknown, had just found out that Johnny had another relationship and the two women, in having discovered each other’s existence, had bonded over Johnny’s despicable deceit.

Anna, who is on Twitter and has a new book in the works, has kindly sent me the recording — enjoy. The full transcript, including snippets of Johnny’s conversation with fellow serviceman David Syster, who taped the audio, and another man on the same radio frequency who overheard the two, appears in the book.

Oh, Jonny, when I sit here at my desk, writing this letter, looking at the walls and my desk covered with your pictures and I feel an intimacy but, for some reason, it seems to be melting right before me, and I feel like throwing up. Why? Because I’m such a fool, such a fuckin’ fool, to have fallen for such a lowly bastard as you.

Anna contextualizes the peculiar subculture of such letters:

Gordon Angus Mackinlay, a veteran of the British and Australian armies, claims that the term [Dear John] came from a music-hall song popular just prior to World War I whose chorus went:

Dear John I love you so
Dear John you’ve got to go
Dear John I love you so
Dear John you must go

[…]

Stories of Dear John letters abound, but, for obvious reasons, the actual letters themselves are difficult to find. Michael Lee Lanning, an author and army veteran, says he remembers ceremonies in the service in which Dear Johns were burned or flushed down toilets. (Another veteran claims that Dear Johns were used as toilet paper.) Vietnam War veteran Guy Hunter says that some of his fellow marines posted their Dear Johns on the walls in the platoon headquarters, where they remained to either fall apart or be ripped down and thrown away.

Hell Hath No Fury is a treasure trove from cover to cover and features stirring, scathing, sad, and satirical letters from common people and literary greats alike, including favorites like Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, and Anaïs Nin.

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10 SEPTEMBER, 2012

A Breakup Letter from Simone de Beauvoir

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“I can still feel warm and happy and harshly grateful when I look at you inside me.”

As a lover of letters, especially exquisite love letters, I find myself enamored with Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library) by Anna Holmes — a moving, rigorously researched collection of breakup letters from women across ten centuries, known and unknown, including favorites like Anaïs Nin and Sylvia Plath, and divided thematically — the tell-offs, the “just friends,” the marriage refusals, the unsent letters, and more. (Bonus points: The foreword is by none other than Francine Prose.)

One of the most stirring letters in the anthology comes from French writer, feminist, intellectual, and existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, author of the cult-classic treatise The Second Sex. In 1947, while visiting Chicago, she began an affair with Nelson Algren, best-known for The Man with the Golden Arm, and the two sustained a long-distance relationship across the Atlantic for a number years. But the strain of separation eventually took its toll on Algren and, in 1950, he became withdrawn from the relationship, wanting someone permanent in his life. (He eventually remarried his ex-wife, Amanda Kontowicz, in 1953.)

This letter, which de Beauvoir penned in September of 1950 en route back to Paris after visiting a withdrawn Algren in Chicago, is saturated with the palpable tension between the urgency of her longing and the ease which she tries to create for this man she still loves. To give space when what one most yearns for is closeness, that is both the great test and great tragedy of love.

I am better at dry sadness than at cold anger, for I remained dry eyed until now, as dry as smoked fish, but my heart is a kind of dirty soft custard inside.

[…]

I am not sad. Rather stunned, very far away fro myself, not really believing you are now so far, so far, you so near. I want to tell you only two things before leaving, and then I’ll not speak about it any more, I promise. First, I hope so much, I want and need so much to see you again, some day. But, remember, please, I shall never more ask to see you — not from any pride since I have none with you, as you know, but our meeting will mean something only when you wish it. So, I’ll wait. When you’ll wish it, just tell. 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 gave 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

Hell Hath No Fury is a trove of literary breakup zingers in its entirety. Complement it with Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s illustrated anatomy of a breakup, then revisit Sartre’s love letters to Simone de Beauvoir.

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