Tips on Coping With Heartbreak From 5 Great Women of History

These heroines can show you how to bounce back after rejection.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

1. Go on an Adventure

Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was devastated when her lover Gilbert Imlay had an affair shortly after she gave birth to their daughter. She tried to kill herself with a laudanum overdose. After she recovered, Imlay asked her to travel to Scandinavia – then considered a primitive, wild place – to negotiate compensation for a cargo of silver he thought had been stolen. It sounds like the ultimate brush off, but Wollstonecraft saw opportunity instead of insult. Her daughter in tow, she reveled in the role of heroic adventurer, took copious notes and wrote many letters. When she returned, so did the sting of his rejection – she again tried to kill herself. But once she realized the relationship was really over, memories of her travels helped rejuvenate her and gave her material for a bestselling book: Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.

2. Get in Touch With Your Body

When she was a young woman living in France, dance pioneer Isadora Duncan suffered a double dose of romantic rejection. She arranged a dinner with champagne and roses for a man she adored, only to for him rush off in panic. Her next suitor thrilled her by checking them into a hotel room under the pseudonym of a married couple. But he backed out, apparently hesitant to take her virginity. Duncan writes about these “shocks” as a turning point in her connection to dance. She began to stand for hours with her hands folded between her breasts, the place she came to believe was the center of all movement – a critical departure from the predominant idea of the time that movement should always spring from the base of the spine. “My Art…gave me the joys which Love withheld,” she wrote in her 1927 autobiography My Life.

3. Seek Out Better Company

Patricia Highsmith, the author of The Price of Salt (the groundbreaking 1952 lesbian romance the film Carol was based on), had many love affairs and a lot of heartbreak. A big one was Highsmith’s fling with Tabea Blumenschein, a German actress more than 30 years her junior. The end of their brief romance left Highsmith too obsessed to write. Then she met Monique Buffet, another much younger woman. Their relationship was not nearly as tempestuous, though. Even though Buffet was involved with another woman, she became a stabilizing force in Highsmith’s life. Highsmith biographer Joan Schenkar writes that with Buffet, Highsmith “finally allowed herself to enjoy the comforts of easy loving.” With Buffet's calming presence in her life, Highsmith was able to finish the fourth novel of her famous Ripley series, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, which she dedicated to Buffet.

4. Find Community

The jazz singer and activist Nina Simone lived in Barbados for a time, where she had a rocky affair with the married Prime Minister Errol Barrow. When Barrow dumped her, she moved to Liberia at the invitation of exiled South African singer Miriam Makeba. Liberia in the 1970s was enjoying a period of prosperity and modernization. Simone was admired and welcomed into Liberian society. Liberians honored her stature as a singer, but put less pressure on her to perform and give benefit concerts. “I wouldn’t have believed it before I arrived, but Liberia did feel like home and I loved everything about it,” Simone wrote in her memoir, I Put a Spell on You.

5. Reach for a New Goal 

English novelist and poet Charlotte Brontë had an epic unrequited crush on Constantin Héger, the married headmaster of the Belgian school where she taught English. After Brontë returned home to England, she wrote him impassioned letters begging for his friendship and attention. Their intensity was so striking that even Héger’s wife couldn’t bear for them to be lost to history. After Héger tore them up, she retrieved them from the garbage and stitched them together for posterity. The letters turned out to be a kind of emotional and literary apprenticeship for Brontë’s career as a writer. After she stopped writing to Héger, she published with her sisters a collection of poems under male pseudonyms. She then began to write Jane Eyre, a novel that stunned its original audiences with its emotional frankness.

It’s hard to believe when you’re going through it, but heartbreak can often lead you to a better place. Find out more in my book Unrequited: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Romantic Obsession.


Clarke, A. Love Letters. London: British Library Publishing, 2011. 47-66.

Duncan, I. My Life. New York: Horace Liveright, 1928 at

Popova, M. “Charlotte Brontë’s Beautiful and Heartbreaking Love Letters of Unrequited Affection.” Brain Pickings at

Schenkar, J. The Talented Miss Highsmith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. 52-63.

Simone, N. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 145-169.

Todd, J. A Wollstonecraft Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977.

Tomalin, C. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Meridian, 1974. 

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