Don't used lined paper and don't be pornographic ... Suzi Feay on the art of putting passion on paper
An estimated ten-and-a-half million romantic letters and cards will be dropping through letter boxes this week, but though many of the senders will have left it to some faceless Cyrano at Hallmark Cards to frame their deepest thoughts in verse, a fair proportion of the population will be flexing their own little-used literary muscles. But what makes a good, effective love letter, one which won't be used as evidence of stalking? And can we look to famous literary lovers for advice?

First, your materials: Basildon Bond will do, but for goodness sake, don't use lined paper, capital letters, or anything but a fountain pen, or you'll come across like a serial killer - and the cardinal rule, especially for men, is resist pornography at all costs. A friend of mine complains: "They always begin promisingly - I love you and so forth - and then they have to go and spoil it by saying, I want to put my head between your legs."

Of course, some of the most effective messages aren't even letters. On dumping her boyfriend, a friend of mine was sent a box of his long, curly black hair, scissored off in a lovestruck fit. And a male friend once received a love letter written on an unconventional type of hand- made paper. He asked me for a second opinion and we both agreed that it was a used, dried and flattened sanitary towel. Why do women write more letters than they post? asked Darian Leader in his thought-provoking book of the same name (Faber, pounds 6.99), and we sure wished she'd thought twice about posting that one.

Love letters are central to Leader's quest into the emotional differences between men and women; the query in the title "goes to the heart of human sexuality, which ... is never addressed to one's flesh and blood companion, but to something beyond him or her". Why, furthermore, do men often file their love letters along with all their other correspondence, while women often keep them with their clothes? The answer, according to Leader, is that for a man a love letter is after all just another piece of correspondence, while for a woman "these objects are not always letters. A letter can be a letter or it can be something else. If it is something else, it doesn't need to be posted."

It's clear from the anthologies that men and women are equally enthusiastic love letter writers, whether the results are destined for the knicker drawer or the filing cabinet. The most heart-rending love letters in the language are probably those of John Keats to Fanny Brawn, shadowed always by death, the third person in their crowded relationship. But the anthologies show that women can easily hold their own. Love Letters, selected and edited by Peter Washington (Everyman, pounds 9.99) fields Mrs Campbell to George Bernard Shaw, Claire Clairmont to Lord Byron, Zelda to F Scott Fitzgerald, and Emily Dickinson. Washington's book prints whole letters, while Michelle Lovric's Passionate Love Letters: An Anthology of Desire (Weidenfeld, pounds 14.99) is a breathless compendium of themed snippets - Lascivious, Playful, Tormented - from the greats of literature to the obscure lovers, like the American Civil War soldier who died a week after assuring his wife: "If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you." Nestling among the quotations are facsimiles of famous letters, the details correct down to the envelope and even the folds in the paper. It's My Little Postman for adults, basically, but utterly irresistible as you draw Virginia Woolf's playful missive to Vita Sackville-West out of its blue envelope, or trace Percy Bysshe Shelley's hectic scrawl to Mary Godwin.

"I had a fantastic personal epiphany one day, sitting in a library holding a letter Richard Steele had written to Mary Scurlock in 1712," says Lovric. "It felt intimate and voyeuristic. I wanted to give that experience to the reader, to maker her feel like Emma Hamilton receiving a letter from Nelson." Lovric compiled a wish-list - Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning - and tracked down the originals. "I'd sit there, twiddling a piece of paper until I'd got the folds absolutely right." The research took her all over the world: Henry's letters to Anne are held in the Vatican, of all places, and the intriguing story of how they got there is told in a footnote.

Writers, for obvious reasons, form the bulk of the collection, though even they lose it occasionally ("Caitlin. Just to write down your name like that. Caitlin ... and all the words are in that one word. Caitlin." - Dylan Thomas). Actors, journalists, revolutionaries and politicians also pour out their hearts in letters that are all the more poignant for any infelicities. "How I loved the smell of your face in your sponge," wrote the painter Dora Carrington to Lytton Strachey. Another Bloomsberry, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, wrote blissfully to the economist John Maynard Keynes: "I warm you with my foxy licks"; "I smell you with all my warm instinkts [sic] like ever your true dog"; "I smell your buttons." And Vita Sackville-West, the second-rate writer, scored a point off the literary genius Virginia Woolf when she wrote, sadly: "I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn't even feel it. And yet I believe you'll be sensible of a little gap..."

'What must be my sensations at the idea of sleeping with you! It setts me on fire, even the thoughts, much more would the reality' Horatio Nelson to Emma Lady Hamilton, 1801

'How triumphant we were in that little room ... sometimes we loved each other so much we became inarticulate, content only to probe each other's eyes for the secret that was secret no longer' Violet Keppel to Vita Sackville-West, 1919

Dear Princess Bibesco

I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.

You are very young. Won't you ask your husband to explain the impossibility of such a situation?

Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.

Yours sincerely, Katherine Mansfield.

Duff Cooper to Lady Diana Manners, 1913

By the way I always meant to ask you whether you would marry me or not. Probably not. I am mouse poor and should be a vile husband. But there is only about one person as far as I can remember whom I love better than you but she won't marry me, so I could promise at the altar to love you quite, to cherish you a good deal and to endow you with nearly all my worldly goods which wouldn't amount to much. I should in return require implicit obedience and scrupulous punctuality. Think it over at the end of the season.

Yours almost, Duff.

(printed in Passionate Love Letters)