To the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, her lover and future husband John Middleton Murry was like air to breathe - and she poured out her longing for him in copious letters.

While handwritten and posted letters may seem archaic in a world of instant social media, the family history business Ancestry is promoting love-letter writing for Valentine's Day.

It is highlighting the letters written by Mansfield and New Zealand painter Sir Toss Woollaston as possible inspiration for modern-day lovers.

Mansfield, who had complex relationships with men and women, met Murry in Britain in 1911, when she became his lodger, then lover. They married in 1918, days after her divorce from George Bowden, a singing teacher she had married in 1909.

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In 1919, she wrote to an absent Murry:

"My darling, Do not imagine, because you find these lines in your journal that I have been trespassing. You know I have not – and where else shall I leave a love letter? For I long to write you a love letter tonight.

"You are all about me – I seem to breathe you, hear you, feel you in me and of me.

Last night, there was a moment before you got into bed. You stood, quite naked, bending forward a little, talking. It was only for an instant. I saw you – I loved you so, loved your body with such tenderness. Ah, my dear! ...

"I want nobody but you for my lover and my friend and to nobody but you shall I be faithful."

Kiwi painter Sir Toss Woollaston told his beloved Edith in a 1936 letter that his love for her had numbed him with joy. Photo / Te Papa
Kiwi painter Sir Toss Woollaston told his beloved Edith in a 1936 letter that his love for her had numbed him with joy. Photo / Te Papa

Woollaston aspired to be a poet before he became a painter. In 1932 he met Edith Alexander and they were married in 1936.

That year, he wrote to her:

"Realisation that I am in love with you has struck me with a wide awake, numbed, paralysed and unrelievable joy - so that I feel as if it were pain really … you were beautiful last night - at moments I longed intensely to be painting you."

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In 1857, Amelia Webb, who later emigrated to New Zealand, was banned from seeing Nicholas Loye. She wrote a coded letter to him in 1857 and in 1860 they married in Australia. The real meaning of the letter only emerges by reading every second line.

"Dear Nicholas,
The great love I have hitherto expressed to you
Is false and I find my indifference towards you
Increases daily. The more I see of you the more
You appear in my eyes an object of contempt.
I feel myself in every way disposed and determined
To hate you. Believe I never had any intention
To offer you my hand ..."

To mark Valentine's Day, Ancestry is providing free access, for five days, to 274 million marriage records from New Zealand, Australia and the UK - including Mansfield's and Woollaston's.