don’t think that i'm bad

On the table is a stack of blue envelopes. I open one of them and carefully pull out a sheet of paper. I feel a little further – there’s something else in the envelope that belongs to the letter.

Lourens Oldersma of Tresoar, the repository of Friesland’s history, urges me on. Of course I can read them all, ‘go on, go ahead’. Aren’t I supposed to be wearing gloves so I don’t spoil the paper? Absolutely not, he says, gloves actually increase the risk of staining or damage

My hands glide over the sheets of paper. They’re 113 years old, but they look new. The thick paper is folded four times. It feels surprisingly crisp and fresh, like she wrote these letters only yesterday.

Word by word, sentence after sentence, you can feel how Margaretha Zelle writes. I see her pen skittering across the paper; this is the closest I have ever been to her. Lourens got to know these letters sooner and better than anyone else over a period of two years. His initial excitement has subsided a little by now, but he still beams with pride.

He picks up the card with a piece of rope attached that held the 48 letters together. It has a text on it: ‘brieven [letters] Margaretha Zelle (Mata Hari), 1903–1904’. It was donated by the family of Rudolph (John) MacLeod, her ex-husband. For two years Lourens worked in silence to make a beautiful book compiling this correspondence.

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When, two years ago, I began immersing myself in Mata Hari, I thought her to actually be a rather irritating person after reading a few books. Affected, egocentric, spoiled and a little silly. But then I started reading her letters, from all periods of her life, and suddenly affected became theatrical, self-centred became ambitious, pampered became indulged, and silly became intelligent.

She must have written hundreds of letters, sometimes six a day. If she lived now, #Mata Hari would have been a frantic e-mailer and Twitterer. Her letters tell everything about who she was and the kinds of moods she was in.

'My dearest Johnnie…
…oh darling, how I pity you ... .don’t take it to heart, my sweet. Kiss me and imagine that I am there with you; it’s something I do so often. Now my Johnnie, adieu with a delicious
kiss from your ever loving wife.’
That was in 1895, the year she fell in love with the soldier Rudolph MacLeod (with whom she moved to Indonesia). But she had no idea how violent he could be at the time. Eight years later they were embroiled in a messy divorce and her greatest concern was how, once back in the Netherlands, she would support her daughter Non, for MacLeod had made it very clear that would not pay alimony. Without that income it was impossible for a single woman to survive.

My dear cousin,
I'm tired of fighting against life and I want one of two things, either live with Nonnie and be a decent mother or live in the grand style that is being offered to me
And off she went, to Paris, where Margaretha Zelle transformed into the famous dancer Mata Hari. She was surrounded by admirers, but without Non. ‘Do not think I'm bad’, she wrote in that strong, beautiful handwriting of hers.

From then on Non lived with her father and received postcards from her mother from all over Europe. As time passed they had less and less text, often only 'Mama'. We can sense the grief eating away at her, but Mata Hari could and would not give up her life in Paris. Eventually she wrote in 1915: ‘Dear Nonnie. I'm dying to see you again. I always try so hard to, but it never works. Will you do me the great pleasure of seeing me? That's the only thing that I desire from you.’
It didn’t happen, MacLeod opposed it.

Two years later she was in a Paris prison, suspected of espionage and abandoned by everyone, even her fiancé Vadim Massloff. She wrote to the judge:
Monsieur le Juge,
I am desperately worried and I cry all the time. It causes me great suffering to think that he might be dead, and that I can no longer be with him. You cannot imagine my suffering. Please release me, I cannot cope with it any longer

April 1917. Two months later, she was sentenced to death: she would be executed early in the morning of 15 October. She could still write a few letters from her cell: even though it looks like she wrote them in haste, her handwriting is still controlled. What her last letter to Non said we do not know. It was never sent and to this day remain unfound.