Yesterday, Sir Tim Barrow placed into Donald Tusk’s hands the letter giving notice the UK will begin divorce proceedings with the EU. This missive now takes its place among the great relationship-ending letters of history. Today, Downing Street has said that European leaders appreciated the ‘warm, constructive’ tone of the Article 50 letter.
But what makes for a good break-up letter? And when you look at the most memorable break-up letters of history, what do they have in common?
Lucy Hume from Debrett’s says a relationship-ender should first of all reflect the relationship. ‘The letter need not be very long but should be handwritten on writing paper, well-thought-out and appropriate to the relationship,’ she says. This suggests a text would never be appropriate. A good break-up letter should also be short and sweet, she says: ‘use your natural voice but avoid being overly emotional. The letter should be personal but concise.’ Finally, she says, good stationery ‘shows an attention to detail and gives the correspondence gravitas and helps ensure that it receives the recipient’s full attention’.
But what about the truly great examples of the genre: Oscar Wilde’s letter to Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, Mary Wollstonecraft’s to Gilbert Imlay, John Lennon’s to Paul McCartney? They don’t do anything of the nature. And we still pay attention precisely because they flout every single rule of Debrett’s.
Take Wilde’s De Profundis, his letter from prison to Bosie. It’s 50,000 words. So much for concise. And as far as avoiding ‘being overly emotional’, well, try ‘Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me. … My judgment forsook me, blindly I staggered as an ox into the shambles.’ Those are the restrained bits.
Mary Wollstonecraft comes nearer the mark, but with a helping of smug. ‘I now solemnly assure you, that this is an eternal farewell. I part with you in peace. I am glad you are satisfied with your own conduct.’ Ouch.
For full points though on ‘natural speaking voice’, though, take a cue from John Lennon, who begins ‘Dear Linda and Paul, I was reading your letter and wondering what middle-aged cranky Beatle fan wrote it.’ The jury couldn’t decide whether ‘all the petty sh*t that came from your insane family’ was technically speaking ‘unemotional’, but ‘F***ing hell, Linda’ is a pretty good example of concise.
Come to think of it, Britain’s previous relationship spats with the EU have done pretty well on the concise front. There’s Thatcher’s ‘No, no, no’ from 1990 (the repetition makes it much more catchy than De Gaulle’s lazier ‘Non’.) And even Harold Wilson’s 1967 ‘we have slammed down our application on the table,’ conjures up a grand gesture and fleeing Eurocrats, despite it technically referring to the journey into the EU.
At six pages, yesterday’s letter doubtless falls a bit closer to Debrett’s ideal. But looking at the break-up letters we remember, just like in every other genre, the examples we keep reading are the ones that break all the rules.