Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: love letters from beyond the grave

Should this reader keep her promise to her dying father, and destroy all his love letters? Or get them published and make some money?

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

I promised my father that when he died I would destroy all correspondence between him and my late mother. He’d kept all the old love-letters and it used to comfort him to read them through. Now he’s died and before getting rid of the letters, I read them. I realise I have a wonderful set of documents. They are touching, funny, charming… and I feel sure I could get them published. No one else knows of the promise I made. I could really do with a bit of money. Should I keep my promise or try to get them made into a book?


Yours sincerely,


It is a great mistake for anyone about to die to extract promises from those left behind as to what to do or not to do on the event of their death. When we’re dead we’re dead, and to try to rule people’s behaviour from beyond the grave is really not on.

Some people say that their heirs can only inherit on condition they change their names. Or they extract a promise that a sibling will always look after a disabled brother and never put  him into a home, never imagining how this could,  in certain circumstances, be a decision that turns out to be the worst for everyone, brother included.

Others organise their funerals in advance, thereby having a lot of fun planning a ceremony and depriving their loved ones of the pleasure of doing it themselves. To impose any conditions on your heirs is arrogant, narrow-minded and, ultimately, selfish.

Because circumstances change when we die. And we can’t predict what they might be. In your case, Ellie, you’ve become chronically short of money. If your father had known this, perhaps he would have said: “Oh, well, in that case, flog ’em! Who cares!” And anyway, why didn’t he destroy them himself if he was so keen that no one else read them? That would have been the only way he could have made certain that they never fell into anyone else’s hands. Why should you have to do his dirty work for him?

If you feel remotely guilty and believe in all that sort of stuff, then you could talk to him wherever you imagine he is, and ask his forgiveness and say you hope he’ll understand that you’re only approaching a publisher because you’re broke. And if you feel guilty and don’t believe in that stuff, then why on earth are you feeling guilty? You can’t really have a contract with a dead man. All you can do is your best to behave in the way you feel is right.

It’s not as if you want to write a diatribe about his frightful behaviour, how he abused you behind the woodshed and beat you black and blue with a strap and cheated his income tax and so on. (Though frankly, what would be wrong with that?) No, you want to share your parents’ love with others.

Beautiful love letters of this kind are rare and enjoying a popularity these days, and if you can make a bob or two, while bringing huge pleasure to masses of readers who will be touched and moved by the letters’ content, then why not? Surely you are only doing good.

Readers say...

Honour his wish

Essentially, you should honour your late father’s wish, but you mention, “I could really do with a bit of money”, which I suspect is the kernel of the situation. To be brutally honest, even if you could find a publisher, the returns would be meagre as they would only have a limited scope. So, salve your conscience and consign them to the flames.

PJ Hill, by email

Put them aside

What is the price of trust? Your father stated he wanted these documents destroyed after his death, and obviously believed you’d keep your word to do so, otherwise he’d have got rid of them himself. Charming and funny though you find them, these letters were not written by or for you. While you legally own them, are you willing to sacrifice the privacy your parents obviously sought? Put the letters aside, and think how you can use your own talents to earn the cash you need, perhaps using your parents’ romance as an inspiration for a story. But keep your self-respect intact, because it is worth more than any amount of money.

EI Hunter, by email

Next week’s dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My partner works away a lot so I spend most of my time on my own. I have been depressed and suicidal in the past following a major bereavement but I’m through that now and ready to get out and make new friends. I’ve tried volunteering, joining campaigning groups and clubs but in a group of people I seem to be ignored. I’m also very conscious of being a woman alone. Women seem to see me as a threat and men to think I want a one night stand. There are thousands of women who live like I do but society doesn’t seem to offer us anything. I’m a bit young for the WI. Any ideas? 

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Flora to do?

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