Bonfire of the billets doux

Your old love letters belong to you. Burn them if you want

Bonfire of the billets doux
By John Ryle  •  29 June 1998  •  City of Words  •  The Guardian  •  Afterword  •  Posted 2016  •  1,080 words

I don’t suppose Martha Gellhorn ever corresponded with the Queen Mother. If she did the letters between them are unlikely to have survived. The American writer and war reporter—married for five minutes to Ernest Hemingway—and the dowager British monarch—married to George VI for a while longer—are each reported to have destroyed, not long ago, a swathe of their private documents, ranging from love letters and laundry lists to confidential correspondence on affairs of state.

In the Queen Mother’s case, according to the Sunday Times, her daughter Princess Margaret helped sift through ten years of paperwork strewn over the sitting room in her home at Clarence House. After extracting documents deemed to be of historical importance, she had what was left stuffed into bin-bags and incinerated.

We can only surmise whether, among the bread-and-butter letters from courtiers (and the junk mail from financial institutions and mail-order companies that even the Queen Mother doubtless receives), there was correspondence from her grand-daughter-in-law, Diana, Princess of Wales. Or letters concerning the Princess from Diana’s grandmother, Lady Fermoy, who was the Queen Mother’s closest friend until her death two years ago. Or billets doux from George VI. Or old poison-pen letters from the Duchess of Windsor.

And if there were such things, do we care? Should they have been destroyed or not? Shouldn’t that be up to their recipient?

Historical significance vs. self-protection

What is considered of historical importance is likely to vary according to whether you are a historian or a part of history. Who’s to be the judge? In Martha Gellhorn’s case she made sure she did the job herself. Before her death last February, it is reported, she gathered her private papers and made a bonfire on top of a hill near Chepstow, where she lived in a windblown house called Catscradle. The papers, according to her stepson and executor, included a number of letters from Hemingway. Gellhorn resented the lingering association in the public mind between her and her former husband. It’s said she could not tolerate his name being spoken in her presence. Now he, she, and the letters are all reduced to dust and ash.

In an article in Granta, Nicholas Shakespeare, a friend of Gellhorn, describes his attempt to dissuade her from the auto-da-fé. Why not restrict access to the letters, he argued, for fifty years—or a hundred—instead of destroying them forever? Gellhorn replied that she did not want some biographer misunderstanding the past.

“What I saw as a loss,” Shakespeare writes, “she understood as an act of self-protection.”

Many writers’ legacies are haunted by fire—by their own attempts to control their posthumous reputations and their heirs’ selective treatment of their literary remains. Byron’s publisher, John Murray, famously cast the poet’s journal into the grate for fear of scandal; Isabella Burton likewise put her husband Richard Burton’s notebooks to the flame; Ted Hughes, it has recently been revealed, destroyed the diary that Sylvia Plath wrote in the last months of her life before her suicide. This, he argued, was in order to protect their children.

We tend to judge the survivors harshly for these incinerations. Max Brod, by contrast, ignored his friend Franz Kafka’s instructions to burn his manuscripts. And posterity, eager for anything from a great writer’s pen, has forgiven him this betrayal.

Writers’ frequent but untenable insistence on being judged exclusively by their writing, and not by their lives, encounters a paradox when their lives are involved with those of other writers, whether this is as victims or accomplices. Perhaps because so many writers and artists live such a wretched moral existence, abusing and exploiting those who are close to them, they are more than usually inclined to try and suppress the evidence of their own behaviour. So when it comes to the question of their diaries and journals, even if these are not written for publication, we may wonder whether anyone really has a duty to destroy them.

Love letters, however—and it can be assumed that Gelhorn’s correspondence with Hemingway was not about politics or big-game fishing—are a special case. In the ashes of love, the letters you wrote to the loved one and those written to you, remain, miraculously—sometimes unbearably—untouched. In the aftermath destroying them may be the only solace. And this is your privilege, whether or not you or your correspondent is a famous writer­, or a monarch. A letter is a gift to its recipient, though in law it remains the copyright of its author. So you may destroy it, but you cannot publish it without the author’s permission. This is as it should be.

Watching old love letters burn

Have you ever burned a love letter, the relic of an old romance? Try it sometime. Watching the fireline creep across those sweet once-truths and loving lies until they turn to ash can be a therapeutic ritual, an offering to Amnesia, the goddess of forgetfulness. Imagining Martha Gellhorn on her Welsh mountain, with the pyre she built of her and Hemingway’s careless words swept together for incineration like autumn leaves, one can feel satisfaction on her behalf, a feeling of completion, a sense of closure, to use the modish term. Gellhorn’s disregard for the considerable monetary value of Hemingway’s letters seems admirable. Haunted by an ill-advised marriage, she did what she could to prevent Hemingway’s shade following her beyond the grave. After all, he is not alive to have the letters returned to him. And they had no children. Who else can they concern, really?

There have, of course, been similarly ill-advised marriages among the British royals, and I don’t suppose these have caused the Queen Mother much joy. Public figure she may be, but insofar as such events are reflected in her private correspondence—and assuming her correspondents are dead—she, like Martha Gellhorn, is entitled to destroy them too, to do exactly what she likes with words that were, in the first and last place, intended for her eyes only. ★


It seems that texts of Hemingway’s letters to Martha Gellhorn survive after all, copies having been made by a University librarian in the United States before they were burned. So the words are not lost, though the original letters seem to have been destroyed—showing admirable disdain, if this is indeed the case, for their monetary value.