Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, September 21st, 2002


Hell Hath No Fury: Women's Letters from the End of the Affair


A review by Georgie Lewis

"Dear Jamie, I missed you today, I missed you yesterday and with any luck I won't see you tomorrow," writes Kylie, 28, from Queensland, Australia, to her ex-fiancée Jamie. Gleefully caustic, she begins her version of the little publicized, but oft-penned, epistolary form — the breakup letter. Writer Anna Holmes was inspired to research the field of the breakup letter throughout history after sending her own "poison pen" email to an ex-boyfriend — and afterward to ten of her closest friends. Hell Hath No Fury is the result — a collection of some of the most sweet, funny, heartbreaking, and highly entertaining breakup letters written by women, both famous and not so famous, real and fictional.

When a love affair ends, the letter is written, first and foremost, for ourselves, as a way of sorting out our feelings when our emotions threaten to completely take over. We may not even need to send it. From the ironic display of submerged rage and guilt that Elizabeth Waugh shows to Edmund Wilson ("Dear Bunny: I have been thinking of you. It appears that I have thought only of you for four years. Also I have been thinking of murder.") to the calm, collected rejection of a marriage proposal, such as that written by Charlotte Bronte ("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.") these letters run the gamut of responses to love gone wrong.

The letters also show a personal side to celebrated artists, writers and poets, the immediacy of the form allowing the reader a glimpse of a real self behind the mask of celebrity. Apologetic but still mischevious, Anne Sexton tries to console her dumped lover with "That's still the nicest Holiday Inn I ever stayed in." Holmes says she hopes that this anthology, as well as being "a source of curiosity, inspiration and humor" to women and men, will also "engender interest in many of the women and writers presented here."

I can certainly admit to being encouraged to run out and read Rebecca West after reading her superb response to H. G. Wells's rake-like behavior. It reads so beautifully — a mixture of self deprecating humor and utter vulnerability, without relinquishing one speck of strength:

"That's why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, so it doesn't matter....I don't think you're right about this. But I know that you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart attack."

We learn from the background notes that H. G. returned to her shortly after getting this letter and they continued a tempestuous relationship for another ten years before she left him, fed up with his "demanding behaviour." You also learn that she was only twenty-one years old when she wrote this brilliant letter!

Many times the authors of these letters show astute self-knowledge and wise analysis of what went wrong in the relationship, but not always. Holmes gives a brief background to the relationship in discussion before each letter, providing a more balanced view and context, and sometimes the most fascinating letters are the ones that show that the letter writer is under the power of denial or projection. Then again, sometimes it's just plain narcissism. After a few patronizing and manipulative letters from the ghastly Anais Nin, Holmes tells us that Nin's ex-lover Lanny finally wrote: "Can you kick me off your planet? Can I pull a switch and consign you to the proper section of hell?"

This collection is addictively readable, broken down into specific themes like The Tell Off, The Other Women/Other Men, The "Just Friends," The Autopsy, and The Silent Treatment, and features memorable missives from Heloise to Aberlard, Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII, Monica Lewinsky to President Bill Clinton and...well, the aformentioned letter from Kylie to Jamie, which ends with a cheerfully spiteful postscript: "You know that burning sensation you thought was an STD and you were too afraid to tell me about it? I put Tiger Balm in your jocks!"

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