Why Love Letters Are Better Left Unread

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There’s
something a bit embarrassing about other people’s love letters.
Like glimpsing lovers in an embrace, it’s an insight into human
nature at its most elevated, or its basest. And it is, like passing
a road accident, almost impossible not to peek.

This is how
I felt when I saw that Elizabeth
Taylor was allowing the publication of her love letters from Richard
Burton
. It’s not hard to see why she would do it (although
his widow Sally Hay Burton might disagree); Burton’s language
is poetic and magnificent.

Who couldn’t
feel stirred by his protestations that “I am forever punished
by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out. The
fire, of course, is you.” It’s like one of their film
scripts brought to life.

When he fumes
“we operate on alien wavelengths. You are as distant as Venus
– planet, I mean – and I am tone deaf to the music of
the spheres”, we see the whole of the male-female conundrum
laid bare (and, more importantly, a whole generation of self-help
books).

But there is
also, in the Burton-Taylor correspondence, as the young people put
it: TMI. Too Much Information. When I think of Elizabeth Taylor
and Richard Burton, I want to think of an epic, tumultuous love
between two people more vibrantly sexual and passionate than nature
had a right to make them. I do not want to hear that in private
he called the violet-eyed screen goddess “My Lumps” or
“Dearest Scrupelshrumpilstilskin”. Or even that he signed
himself off with the tediously suburban: “Husbs”.

Because epic
romance relies on what remains hidden. It cannot survive the revelation
of the domestic, or the mundane. Walter Bagehot said of the monarchy
that “mystery is its life. We must not let daylight in upon
magic." I think I speak for all of us when I say I would have
been quite happy had daylight not fallen upon Prince Charles’s
exchange with Camilla Parker Bowles in which, amongst other things,
he professed a wish to be reincarnated as her knickers. (Or indeed,
her response “You could come back as a box of Tampax so you
could just keep going”.) Yes, it’s earthy, and one might
almost call it endearing. But actually, as the young people also
also put it, ewww.

The elevation
of statesmen, like royalty and movie stars, relies on an inherent
belief that they are somehow closer to God. The revelation of their
mortality, with its neediness, pet names and fixation on underwear,
is somehow more shocking than if we had heard the same of our neighbour.

US Governor
Mark Sanford’s political career – and marriage –
never recovered last year after details of his intimate correspondence
to a mistress were made public. It wasn’t his infidelity that
made him a laughing stock. It was the breathtaking cheesiness of
his prose. “I could say that I […] love the curve of your
hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent
parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light –
but hey, that would be going into sexual details…” manages
to combine schoolboy smuttiness with the language of a priapic travelling
salesman.

In another
missive to “Maria”, he tells of “something wonderful
about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner
running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the background.”
Oh, Mark, there’s nothing that gets a girl going like the hum
of plant machinery.

If Lloyd George’s
endearments to mistress Frances Stevenson – “My darling
Pussy. You might phone… on Friday if you can come. Don’t
let Hankey see you” – had been made similarly public,
would he have maintained his own reputation as a towering statesman?

The publication
of private messages of endearment is a dangerous strategy at best,
and at worst a terrible betrayal. Last year James Albright, one
of Madonna’s former lovers, put her love letters up for sale
(bet the girls are lining up to put pen to paper for Mr Albright
these days). Madonna is no wilting flower. But I can’t think
she was delighted to have broadcast her habit of signing intimate
correspondence “Lil Booty”.

Read
the rest of the article

June
4, 2010

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