50 Ways To Leave Your Lover: The Art of the Break-up Letter

“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 recentlyI 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.

The Art of Leaving Actual CoverWe 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 AffairLolitaWolf 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. [1] 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. [2] My love had great difficulty outlasting your virtue [insert what you hate about lover]. [3] That’s the trouble with caring about anybody, you begin to feel overprotective. Then you begin to feel crowded. [4]

Make a new plan, Stan [insert lover’s name]. [5] 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. [6] Right or wrong, it’s very pleasant to break things from time to time. [7] 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. [8]

Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go. [9] My life was better before I knew you. That is, for me, the sad conclusion. [10] If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it. [11] The art of losing’s not too hard to master. [12]

We’ll always have Paris [insert last holiday destination]. [13]

Believe me yours truly,

C Brontë [insert your name] [14]


[1] Lady Falkland to Lord Byron, letter, 1813

[2] Katharine to Almásy, The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

[3] Vicomte de Valmont to Madame de Tourvel, Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears, 1988

[4] John Updike, Rabbit Redux

[5] 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon

[6] Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara, Gone With the Wind, Victor Fleming, 1939

[7] Notes from the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

[8]  A complaint from Phyllis, Heroides, Ovid

[9] Hermann Hesse

[10] Edith Wharton to W. Morton Fullerton, letter, 1910

[11] Ernest Hemmingway, Death in the Afternoon

[12] “One Art”, Elizabeth Bishop poem

[13] Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, 1942

[14] Charlotte Brontë to Henry Nussey, letter, 1939

Taking on Rochester

For Brontë-enthusiasts, there are mixed emotions whenever a new screen adaptation of Jane Eyre is announced. I find myself torn between feelings of genuine excitement and those of sneering scepticism. I also feel mildly frustrated that, yet again, film-makers have decided to impose their vision on Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, favouring it over the works of her sisters, as well as Charlotte’s own, lesser-known work. (Surely, it’s time someone was brave enough to take on the far more complex but, in my opinion, far superior Villette!)

Fellow Brontë-philes will not blame me for expressing my weariness over the choice of adapting ‘Jane Eyre’ – since the 20thCentury began, there have been 49 films worldwide inspired by the novel, as well as 51 theatre productions, 22 radio programmes and even eight musicals, all based on the life and experiences of “poor, obscure, plain and little” Jane. I remain, however, a true Brontë fan and so I’ve every intention of putting my doubts to one side, making a pilgrimage to the cinema and watching another version of my favourite book on the big screen.

The real success of literary filmic adaptations lies in the characterisation and the all-important casting. In Jane Eyre, although Jane is the eponymous heroine , and indeed, this latest 2011 adaptation apparently keeps her the focus of the film, for me, and I suspect for most red-blooded females, the character in whom we are all really interested is Edward Fairfax Rochester.

Rochester is a complicated character for any actor to play. The book describes him as moody, sardonic, openly rude, prone to violent fits of temper and yet charming, playful and capable of great benevolence. Physically, he’s no looker (although I’d choose him over that milksop Darcy anyday), with dark, grim features “more remarkable for character than beauty”, undeniably an “ugly man”. One cannot play him too dark or intimidating as he needs to appeal to both Jane and the viewer and yet play him ‘soft’ and the whole story is ruined.

Fassbender’s interpretation sounds promising, but what about his predecessors? Who has triumphed as Brontë’s Byronic hero and who has missed the point? Well, I can offer my humble opinion as a girl who has read, seen and adored Jane Eyre since I was 12 years old. Perhaps you disagree with me, but below I’ve included a list of those I think are the most notable Rochesters on film or TV.

Orson Welles (Jane Eyre, 1944)

Overall: Welles certainly takes his role as Rochester seriously, storming about the set with a thunderous look, intimidating Jane with his rapid movements and loud, booming voice. In true Welles fashion, he dominates every scene he is in but it’s all too much – he totally overpowers Joan Fontaine’s meek and placid Jane.

The Good: The anger, the frustration. Welles combines Rochester’s flair for the dramatic with undercurrents of desperation and insecurity.

The Bad: Lack of believable chemistry between Jane and Rochester, due to Welles’ ferociousness coupled with Fontaine’s gentilesse. The clumsy, sometimes awful dialogue – Rochester even utters the line “Moral of that is, don’t eat toasted cheese for supper”. Ultimately, Welles’ Rochester just doesn’t show enough redeeming features for us to fall in love with him – he’s unlikeable!

The Ugly: Physically, Welles is a good height to play Rochester and he has wild, dark eyes like I would imagine for Rochester.

Timothy Dalton (Jane Eyre 1983)

Overall: Perhaps my favourite Rochester. Rather like Welles, with Dalton all his emotions can be found in his eyes, but they twinkle with amusement as well as desperation and rage. He has Rochester’s rich, deep baritone and communicates his thoughtful, intelligent side as well as his tortured soul.

The Good: Excellent chemistry between Rochester and Jane (although Zelah Clarke is too old for the part.) Portrays Rochester’s multi-faceted personality well, making him attractive and yet desperate, wild and unrestrainedly passionate. The scenes after the discovery that Rochester is still married to Bertha and tries to explain himself to Jane are memorable.

The Bad and The Ugly: Although he is tall, dark and cuts an imposing masculine figure, Timothy Dalton is frankly too good-looking to play Rochester. As viewers, we can’t believe it when Jane declares she doesn’t think him handsome. Forget Bertha – Jane, you must be mad!

Ciaran Hinds (Jane Eyre 1997)

Overall: Although praising Dalton’s unrestrained passion, Ciaran Hinds goes too far. He is over the top emotionally and ultimately comes across as a bit of a bully. Furthermore, he shouts and pants too much for my liking.

The Good: Better an over-the-top, dramatic Rochester, I suppose, than a restrained and bland one.

The Bad: Rochester seems churlish, snarling and cruel. The ‘love’ he has for Jane seems mere lust. He is unlikeable and, if I were Jane, I would have run a mile as soon as he started yelling (which is very early in the film.)

The Ugly: Not quite tall enough. Also, in my mind, Rochester never had such a silly moustache and bouffant hair.

Toby Stephens (Jane Eyre 2006)

Overall: Charming, witty, urbane but with a secret – it’s very easy for viewers to fall for Toby Stephen’s Rochester. The mind games he plays are excellent but he is too good – he doesn’t bring out the tormented, sadistic side of Rochester. He’s simply too clever, too charming.

The Good: Appealing, entertaining portrayal of Rochester. Great chemistry between the main actors and much sexual tension.

The Bad: Not moody or mean enough.

The Ugly: Although they made red-haired Stephens wear a dark, tangled wig, he is, yet again, far, far too good-looking to play Rochester. And too short.