Picks and Pans Review: Love Letters

updated 09/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/04/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Antonia Fraser

Anyone who ever doubted that there is more to writing a love letter than slashing a cluster of X's and O's at the bottom of a missive should read this book. It includes some of history's best love letters, in terms of content and language, in an illustrated volume edited by Lady Antonia, the English author best known for her biographies of Mary Queen of Scots and King Charles II. "I chose the letters in it for reasons of personal predilection, and following my fancy, I have gone for the heart on the sleeve, or at any rate on paper, the heart that shows." (No stranger in that area, Lady Antonia rocked London in the '70s with her affair with playwright Harold Pinter, now her husband.)

The letters, grouped according to emotional categories—"pleas," "rejections," "passions"—rather than chronology, roam across the centuries and continents. The epistles range widely. There are samples from the familiar correspondence between Abelard and Heloise after their enforced parting ("Is it not far better now to summon me to God than it was then to satisfy our lust?" writes Heloise). Some of the girlish sentence fragments Zelda Fitzgerald dashed off to F. Scott are included too ("If I did have an honest—or dishonest—desire to kiss just one or two people, I might—-but I couldn't ever want to—my mouth is yours"). Or consider the reassuringly mundane instructions Anton Chekhov wrote to his actress wife, Olga Knipper ("Don't forget my fishing rod; wrap it up in paper. Be cheerful and don't mope, or at least try to look cheerful").

This is a dip-and-skip book, prodding a reader to head for the library to fetch the collected letters of James Joyce to Nora Barnacle or John Keats to Fanny Brawne. Or, if truly inspired, to take pen in hand, think up someone who might be construed as a love object and start emoting. (Contemporary, $19.95)

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