My Favorite Epistolary Books: Real Books of Real Letters Written by Real People

This week it the real life letters  of real people. Last week I introduced you to my favorite fictional diaries. This week it is stories told thru letters and their electronic counterparts. I fell in love with this format as a teenager when my Mom bought 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff–then a new bestseller. I was hooked on the format ever-more. Just like last week, I’ve used the same cover my copy has for the image–if you click on the link, not only do I not make any money off your click, but the book you buy will have a newer cover. [Thank you to those of you who were too polite to point out I’d put these very real letters in the fictional books told thru letters post! Ooops!]

Helene Hanff and Frank Doel, the representative at London’s Charing Cross bookstore, Marks & Co who handles her orders, have a sort of love-affair over great books. It’s harmless–no plotting to run away together or anything, just a shared love of superb books. This book was the first “book about books” that I read, too. It introduced me to Pepys Diary, which I’m still reading as the mood strikes me (No, not since the 70’s–I got a copy about 8 years ago). The fun these two have in their letters–well, that Helene has, goes on thru the deprivation of World War II and beyond. The sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is also delightful, as are her books Q’s Legacy and Underfoot in Show Business. In writing this post I learned there is a biography of Helene published a few years ago–somehow I missed it. I don’t think I’ll read it though. I like “my” Helene. Since the book got lots of bad reviews I’ve not linked to it.

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

The superb movie version is worth it too. 84 Charing Cross Road with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.

The Best Ones


Founding Mother, First Lady, Mother of a President. Even Barbara Bush can’t claim all of these! Abigail Adams was every bit as much of a revolutionary as her husband, John. While John was away earning a living as a lawyer, as a member of the Continental Congress, as a Diplomat trying to secure funding and recognition for the rebellious colonies, and later the new United States, as Vice-President and as President, Abigail Adams was mostly back home in Braintree, Massachusetts. She ran the house and farm, doing much of the hard work herself. She educated her children herself giving them a tremendous education in the classics. She raised a President, her son John Quincy. And she wrote letters. Long, beautifully reasoned arguments for freedom, justice and any other topic, to her husband and to other Founding Fathers. Along the way she wrote beautiful love letters to her husband, too. And he wrote back as effusively. Their marriage survived it all.

There are many editions of the Adams letters, just as there are several excellent television series and movies about them. These letters are often truly founding documents–landmark utterances, of America and one of it’s founding families.

My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams.


Queen Victoria bore nine children and had 42 grandchildren. Princess Victoria of Hesse, was not only Queen Victoria’s granddaughter (child of her second daughter, Princess Alice), but in time she would also be the mother of Lord Mountbatten and of Queen Louise of Sweden, grandmother of Prince Philip and great-grandmother to Prince Charles and his siblings (though she lived only to see Princess Anne born). This collection shows how Queen Victoria, well known for finding her own babies ugly and babies and pregnancy to be disagreeable (“The hazard of being a wife, ” her great-great-great granddaughter, Princess Anne, said–essentially channeling Victoria), had a softer side once children were able to attend to their bodily functions alone.

The advice, counsel, news and love that she expresses–and that is returned full force, shows a different side to the perpetually mourning, always in black widowed Queen. The younger Victoria would go on to live thru the two World Wars with grandchildren on both sides, see her son, Lord Mountbatten preside over the Brexit of the 1940s–i.e. the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan and see her grandson, Philip, marry the next Queen Sovereign–her own distant cousin.

Advice to my Granddaughter


Choosing one writer’s letters over all the others was very difficult. I decided on Laura Ingalls Wilder because her letters DID surprise me. There were no tawdry letters to lovers, no barked out memos to servants or underlings, just HER.

The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder

By now most Royal fans have learned from this “selected” collection of letters that the Queen Mother was aghast at Prince Charles having to attend Gordonstoun and not Eton–and with good reason: She knew him so well she could see there mismatch of student and school would be as horrific as his future mismatched marriage to Diana.

But what upset people was learning from a letter from Princess Margaret to her mother that she had burned some of Diana’s letters to the Queen Mother.  Most thought she did it to damage Diana. Margaret had had a good relationship with Diana, though, and her children did, too. If anything, I think she burned them to protect Diana. I also found it very sweet that Margaret revealed that “Mummy” was a bit of a pack rat when it came to papers!



Count One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother also reveals the Queen Mother’s love of the arts, which may help explain why she was able to get on so well with her formidable Mother-in-Law, Queen Mary. And, it puts the final nail in the coffin on so much of the fiction spouted in the “memoirs” of Queen Elizabeths’s governess, Marion “Crawfie” Crawford. I found it oddly telling that Princess Margaret, who railed at her own lack of formal education–that she was “denied” education [this line was given to the Queen in the drama The Crown], but that her love and support of the arts was straight from the very mother who thought that formal education was ghastly!

 The Worst Ones

Admittedly, these were not written for publication, but rather to express a besotted man’s love for his first mistress and then, in a later time in life, for the woman he gave up the Throne of England to marry. That said, they are often so utterly infantile, so bitter and so selfish that the reader can immediately see why the most popular Prince of Wales in history could never be crowned King. “David,” as Edward VIII was known to friends and family, was nearly a case of arrested development and so egocentric as to be almost unmanageable as an adult.

Frieda Dudley Ward, enjoying an upper-class wife’s prerogative of an affair, often did try to counsel him but to no avail. After years and years of the Prince’s love, of his being almost a father to her daughters, she phone the palace one day and the operator who knew her by voice from all the years, was put in the horrible position of having to tell her that he call would not be put thru. The affairs was just “over.” Wallis, we all know, went on to live the most boring exile that money could by. Her only satisfaction was knowing that Queen Elizabeth had sanctioned her burial in the royal burial ground at Frogmore beside her royal husband. Sad. [For the record, the movie W.E. about Wallis/Edward based on their way of expressing “us” was just as awful as the letters that inspired it.]


Love makes us all say things in the dark that would make us cringe in daylight. Poor Lorena Hickock. Eleanor was soon over her feelings for the woman who helped make her the most controversial (or influential) First Lady in history. Sadly, “Hick” as she was known, kept the torch burning till death. Hick’s letters are the most embarrassing in this collection.  But, as love letters go, these are pretty tame stuff. F.D.R. and Eleanor had also once written each other stuff like this, but that was long, long before. Later, Eleanor would move on to cringe-worthy relationships with younger men, too.

Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickcok.

In the one man show Give ’em Hell Harry, about Harry Truman, Harry tells a story of finding his wife Bess burning his old love letters. “But, Bess! Think of history,” a distraught Harry Truman says. “I AM,” said Bess–as she kept right on burning. It’s a shame any of these were published.

How about you? Do you save old letters? Do you have favorite published collections of letters? Leave me a comment or a link to your own post–I’d love to see what you like.

4 thoughts on “My Favorite Epistolary Books: Real Books of Real Letters Written by Real People

  1. As I’ve said before, I don’t recall ever really thinking about letters as a genre. Your posts are so interesting that you have put them in my mind now though. I think I have read books — or at least excerpts of — letters of LIWilder. You’re right; hers are very down-to-earth and really what you’d expect from “Half Pint” after reading the Little House books. I always regretted the friction between her and her only daughter, although I feel like most of that was due to Rose rather than Laura. I think I’d enjoy the Hick/Eleanor book just from the gossipy angle!!

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