LAST POST FOR THE LETTER?
Putting pen to paper is an enchanting means of communication. But as we send fewer and fewer, Liz Williams asks if this is the end of letters?
We have been writing letters to one another since the fourth millennium BC, and it is only in the last decade or so, with the rise of the internet and mobile phone culture, that we have lost the habit of putting pen to paper.
Apparently, one third of 16-year-olds have never written a letter, and it’s estimated that, in the next 10 years, first-class mail will drop by 37 per cent. Personally, I think it’s a crying shame, especially having spent many months reading letters written over 4,000 years as research for Kind Regards: The Lost Art Of Letter-Writing.
Letters are a form of time travel, bridging the years in ink. Read a letter and you can and yourself inside the mind of someone who actually watched the fall of Rome, the start of a ‘small cult’ called Christianity or the escalation of the Great War. This is un- ltered history, first-person reportage.
Edith Wharton’s letters to Henry James from the front during the First World War were both factual and poetic. ‘Picture this all under a white winter sky,’ she wrote. ‘Driving great flurries of snow across the mud-and-cinder-coloured landscape, with the steelcold Meuse winding in between beaten poplars… poor bandaged creatures in rag-bag clothes leaning in doorways, and always, over and above us, the boom, boom, boom of the guns on the grey heights to the east.’
Letters in wartime always acquire a particular pathos. Many chronicle not so much the sound of gun fire and mortar (in this case, censorship has always been an issue) but the quiet heartbreaks, the more domestic dramas. Dear John letters supposedly originated in the Second World War, referring to letters from wives and sweethearts announcing to servicemen that the relationship was over.
So who was the first ‘John’? It’s impossible to say, but the letters became a dreaded and all too commonplace part of war. In prisoner-of-war camps such letters were pinned up on the noticeboard. The idea sounds cruel, but in practice a rough-and-ready form of group therapy would follow. Some of the letters are quite staggeringly blunt:
‘Our engagement had ended, as I’d rather marry a ’44 hero than a ’43 coward,’ said one woman with bitter (and surely unfair) cruelty. Others are supremely matter-of-fact: ‘I am filing for divorce. Mother and I have discussed it, since it is four years since you went down and we decided it was best.’ And some are almost comical: ‘Sorry. Married your father. Mother.’
Q: Is letter writing becoming redundant?
Other wartime letters, meanwhile, were hugely poignant. Company Sergeant-Major James Milne wrote this to his wife during the First World War. ‘My own Beloved Wife, I do not know how to start this letter… We are going over the top this afternoon and only God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive… Eternal love, Yours for Evermore, Jim.’
Luckily, Jim survived the war.
Truly, is there anything more sublime than a heartfelt love letter? I sighed my way through the research for this section of Kind Regards, swept away time and again by the eloquence of lovers past and present. An email or a text can never compare to the pure physicality of a love letter: the way it employs all the senses; that moment of anticipation before splicing open the envelope; the weight of the paper; the sight of the handwriting; the first breathless reading; the second careful scanning.
Love letters are kept and cherished – and become redolent with meaning. When the relationship goes sour, many people burn (rather than merely throw away) the old letters – symbolically incinerating the past. Can deleting old and unwanted emails ever have that kind of dramatic resonance?
Until the 20th century, letters were quite essential, not just for imparting news and handling commerce but for advancing romance. Imagine the excitement of receiving a letter from an absent love when the post was your only means of communication. Love letters send hearts fluttering and, if you want to make an enduring declaration, the letter has no rival. From Abelard and Heloise, and Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, love letters offer the human heart laid bare.
Perhaps the only letter more emotive than a love letter is one written when the author is on the point of death. ‘Farewell, my dear child,’ wrote Sir Thomas More to his daughter the day before his execution in 1535. ‘Pray for me, and I shall for you and all your friends, that we may merrily meet in Heaven.’
Marie Antoinette wrote to her sister-in-law, just hours before being taken to the guillotine, ‘I am calm, as one always is when one’s conscience is clear. I am deeply saddened to abandon my children: you know that I have lived for them alone.’
Combine love and death and the result can be epistolary fireworks (or waterworks). During the American Civil War, Unionist Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife on 14 July 1861. The letter was found in his trunk after his death at the First Battle of Bull Run and was delivered to his widow: ‘Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break… If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name…’
Never use the excuses of time and inconvenience to let the letter die. How can the coldness of the keyboard ever compare to the warmth of a physical letter? As John Donne said, ‘Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,/For thus, friends absent speak.’
So, before you reach for the keyboard or your phone, stop and think. Pick up pen and paper instead and write the kind of letter that will be read, reread, kept and treasured down through the years.
Ancient Egyptian letters date back to nearly 3000BC - can you imagine any email surviving so long?
Kind Regards: The Lost Art Of Letter-Writing by Liz Williams (Michael O’Mara Books, £9.99).
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953