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“Anger in a letter carries with it the effect of solidified fury,” warned the queen of protocol, Emily Post, in her 1922 manual Etiquette. She certainly wouldn’t have approved of the indelible email-rage left over from my past relationships. Flicking through these time capsules of indignation and indigniy recently, I wondered if anyone, ever, has mastered the thorny art of the break-up letter.
Zelda Fitzgerald’s1935 letter to her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald was written from a psychiatric ward, yet is devastatingly lucid. She nails the genre like few others do. Reading her missive feels intimately voyeuristic, peaking through an emotional keyhole. She remembers walking though a rose garden with Scott in happier times, and how he called her “darling”. How her hair was damp when she took off her hat and she felt safe, the letter tip-toeing over a ghostly arrangement of memories.
In our world of email where a goodbye letter often has the worst of both worlds – the speed of screaming and the endurance of paper – much can be learned from past masters like Zelda, who moves abruptly, with perfect rhythm, from past bliss to current terror: “Now there isn’t any more happiness and home is gone and there isn’t even any past.”
She wishes Scott well, yet there is no doubt that she is kissing him goodbye. “I love you anyway – even if there isn’t any me or any love or even any life – I love you.” It’s a love letter, too, as many goodbyes are. The rhythms of her words, bobbing from past to present, the summing up, remind me of another ending: “So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” This is how Fitzgerald, the intended recipient of Zelda’s letter, ended The Great Gatsby.
Not all exit missives are so elegantly elegiac. Like a story, a letter needs an objective. They’re not all as kind as Zelda’s. Maybe the aim is to show how easily you’re moving on from the break up: “The letter you wrote last December ought to have been written in 1862,” wrote journalist Kate Field in 1868, to the American artist Albert Baldwin. “You were a moral coward for not writing it then. Now you know you were; therefore I shall say nothing further because I don’t care.” The charm of the letter is that Field doesn’t quite succeed in her objective of appearing to be over the whole thing. “You do well to say that you will never marry,” she sulks. “No woman should be subjected to such a miserable fate.”
Or, perhaps, the aim of your letter is to stop another’s feelings before they get going: “We are grieved,” Queen Elizabeth wrote to Prince Eric in 1560 after he proposed marriage, “that we cannot gratify your Serene Highness with the same kind of affection.” Eloquent and steady, that queen. Top marks. Or maybe you’re going for the jugular, a linguistic kick. “I have no time for dead relationships,” Anaïs Nin wrote to Lanny Baldwin in 1945 after he had returned to his wife and children, beginning a war of written words. “The day I discovered your deadness – long ago– my illusions about you died.” Ouch.
The goodbye letter has a reputation as the cowardly resort of wimps and villains. But a reason for many exit letters perhaps, and a good one, is that physical bodies – with their chemistries and histories – often complicate cerebral decisions. There’s surely something to be said for the slight detachment of putting words on paper, the slow release of emotion. “I have just enough strength to flee from you,” writes French novelist Colette in The Vagabond, during a fictional letter from Renee to her lover Max. “If you were to walk in here, before me, while I am writing to you… but you will not walk in,” she says. Letter writing is not weakness, but a game of exposure.
We can’t all be Zelda or Colette, though we can take pointers from them. Simple is often best, I would like to tell my younger self. When David Foster Wallace threw a coffee table at poet Mary Karr during their break up, she billed him $100 for the damage. He asked her to send the fragments in return, but Karr’s lawyer wrote back to say he hadn’t bought the table, merely the “brokenness”. That’s a break up letter I wish I’d written.
While finishing my new novel, The Art of Leaving, about a girl who considers leaving to be the most pleasurable moment of any relationship, I kept a notebook of goodbyes from film, literature and letters: quotes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The End of the Affair, Lolita, Wolf Hall and many more. For anyone looking for a little exit-inspiration, here’s the break-up letter to end all break-up letters, a joint effort by a few of the greats. Fill in the blanks, Mad Libs style:
Dear [insert lover’s name],
For the last time,
Byron[insert lover’s name] I address you. Human nature can bear much, which has been exemplified by me, but there are boundaries at which it stops, which you certainly have not attended to.  You think that you are an iconoclast[insert how lover sees himself], but you’re not. Nothing changes you. I left you because I knew I could never change you.  My love had great difficulty outlasting your virtue[insert what you hate about lover].  That’s the trouble with caring about anybody, you begin to feel overprotective. Then you begin to feel crowded. 
Make a new plan,
Stan[insert lover’s name].  I’d rather remember it as it was at its best than mend it and see the broken places as long as I lived. What is broken is broken.  Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break things from time to time.  When you left your pledge was precise: You would come when the moon’s horns grew together[insert date of next scheduled meeting]. Since then the moon has grown full four[insert number of moons since date] times. 
Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.  My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion.  If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it.  The art of losing’s not too hard to master. 
We’ll always have
Paris[insert last holiday destination]. 
Believe me yours truly,
C Brontë[insert your name] 
 Lady Falkland to Lord Byron, letter, 1813
 Katharine to Almásy, The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
 Vicomte de Valmont to Madame de Tourvel, Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears, 1988
 John Updike, Rabbit Redux
 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon
 Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming, 1939
 Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
 A complaint from Phyllis, Heroides, Ovid
 Hermann Hesse
 Edith Wharton to W. Morton Fullerton, letter, 1910
 Ernest Hemmingway, Death in the Afternoon
 “One Art”, Elizabeth Bishop poem
 Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, 1942
 Charlotte Brontë to Henry Nussey, letter, 1939