Posted July 29, 2013 by in Book Lists

A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: The Lost Art of Letter Writing

When’s the last time you put pen to paper and wrote a letter? Not an e-mail, not a quickly jotted memo, but an actual hand-written letter, with the date at the top, a more or less formal term of address (you can never go wrong with “Dear”), and your sign-off and name at the bottom?

(Photo credit: Maky Orel [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

(Photo credit: Maky Orel [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.)

Apart from thank-you notes for wedding gifts, the last time I remember doing any significant by-hand letter writing was to my grandmother in high school. We kept up a regular correspondence; every few weeks to a month I’d receive a note on flowered stationery, penned in her increasingly shaky hand, which would tell me all about the Georgia weather and the progress of her flower garden – her rose and azalea bushes are like surrogate children she tends lovingly and attentively. I’d tell her about my favorite classes, my after-school activities, my college and scholarship applications, and my hopes for the future.

Though she’s still alive and well at 94, the back-and-forth of our letters died out nearly a decade ago, and I must say I miss the ritual of it. E-mail is an undeniably useful means of exchanging information, but it lacks the old-fashioned romance of a hand-written paper letter.


Paper and ink

Calligraphy by Jan van de Velde I (1569-1623) (www.rijksmuseum.nl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Calligraphy by Jan van de Velde I (1569-1623) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently I’ve enjoyed two sprawling nonfiction books about the old-fashioned media of paper and ink: Paper: An Elegy by Ian Sansom and The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher. Sansom (also author of a pleasingly silly series of mobile library mysteries) pinpoints how dependent our lives still are on paper in the modern age. It’s not just our ongoing addiction to paper books that keeps us chained to Industrial Revolution processes of wood supply and paper production, but also maps, paper money, stamps, advertisements, architectural plans, art, board games, playing cards, puzzles, origami, and important documents. The final chapter is full of delightful paper trivia, documenting the history of everything from cigarette papers and story boards to toilet paper (with a very funny Rabelaisian scatological discussion). Perhaps my favorite tidbit concerned the creative use of some recycled romance novels:

“there was perhaps a certain poetic justice in the use of 2,500,000 remaindered Mills & Boon romantic novels to help make the top layer of asphalt of the M6 [highway] in England in 2003. The pulped novels apparently helped to absorb sound – the endless silent crushing of romantic hopes and dreams.”

Sansom recognizes that paper-based work is dying out (this is an elegy, after all); he feels that as we increasingly turn to digital forms we are losing something that is precious but somehow still difficult to defend in the face of general decline and change. “Is paper art a waste of time? Yes, absolutely. Of course. What isn’t?”

Charles Dickens's autograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Dickens’s autograph [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Hensher’s The Missing Ink is, similarly, a defense of the lost art of handwriting in an age when nearly everything is type-written. Words are unspeakably diminished when they do not bear the cast of an individual’s hand, Hensher feels. He traces the history of both handwriting instruction and the ballpoint pen, cites the importance of using a ‘copperplate’ style on official documents, and considers what significance handwriting has for authors ranging from Charles Dickens to Marcel Proust.

In the nineteenth century handwriting (especially one’s signature) was essential proof of authorship and ownership; moreover, it was thought to give clues to the individual mind and psychology – the pseudo-science of graphology is, like phrenology (the study of head size and bumps), intriguing if a little bit bonkers. “I’ve come to the conclusion that handwriting is good for us,” Hensher declares. “It involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate, and individual. It opens our personality out to the world.” That’s something an e-mail or text message could never do.


Men and women of letters

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, December 20, 1820By James Madison (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mjm.26_1707_1708) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Letter from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, December 20, 1820 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I confess I haven’t read very many literary letters, except where they form the basis of biographies (of Dickens, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Hardy, for instance). Yet one can learn so much from what people in past centuries wrote in their daily letters – particularly Victorian figures, due to their voluminous output. A nineteenth-century letter was not a rare event, as it might be now, but an everyday means of keeping in touch and exchanging ideas. Letters would contain not just a rundown of personal accomplishments and family news, but commentary on current events and period details that historians cling to when trying to reconstruct an era. The closest equivalent we have nowadays must be the e-mail. I often wonder how biographers will construct contemporary lives in the future; will they unearth caches of e-mail and text messages, or will all this digital data have disappeared into the ether?

We don’t consider our e-mails part of an autobiographical legacy to leave to posterity; all too often we garner what information we can from them and simply delete them. For instance, British novelist Zadie Smith has 12,000 saved e-mails in her Yahoo inbox, mostly from fellow writers, but is pessimistic about what will happen to this ad hoc archive: “I guess it will all go the way of everything else I write on the computer – oblivion.” For anyone interested in what will happen to authors’ archives in a digital age, I highly recommend Rachel Donadio’s New York Times article, “Literary Letters, Lost in Cyberspace” – though printed in 2005, it’s still just as relevant an issue today.

I’m not the first to wonder: will we one day, instead of volumes of letters, have collections of an author’s complete tweets or selected Facebook status updates? It’s just not the same.


Literary correspondence

Sketch in a letter to Émile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Letter to Émile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

In the meantime, there are many delightful volumes of correspondence to peruse for insight into authors and their time periods. Some of the collections of literary letters that are reputed to be well worth reading are by Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Beach (owner of the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris and part of the literary set Hemingway describes in A Moveable Feast), Graham Greene, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Ted Hughes.

You don’t even have to like these authors’ ‘regular’ writing to find their correspondence enjoyable; you can even think them rather awful human beings and still breeze through their letters, as the Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard found when reviewing the collected correspondence of Evelyn Waugh. For writers from the nineteenth century or earlier, you may well find a complete digitized correspondence on the Internet, through Project Gutenberg, for instance. The treasure trove of letters available for free online runs from Henry VIII’s letters to Anne Boleyn through to the letters of Henry James.

Abélard and Héloïse [Public Domain] {PD-Art}, via Wikimedia Commons.

Abélard and Héloïse [Public Domain] {PD-Art}, via Wikimedia Commons.

If you find yourself in the mood for romance, you might try the acclaimed love letters of Peter Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil (a French theologian and nun, respectively, who had an illicit affair in the twelfth century), eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s missives to Gilbert Imlay, or the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (Words in Air) or F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda).

And it’s not just authors who have produced scintillating letters; you could also dip into the correspondence of Vincent van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven, Claude Monet, Albert Einstein, or Julia Child (As Always, Julia). Moreover, Goodreads has lists of the best books of literary letters and general letters that could keep you going for years.


A few gems

Although my experience with letter collections is limited, I can recommend a few books I’ve loved. Here’s my simple top five:


1. Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend by Diana Athill (2011)

In this companion piece to her wonderful memoirs, Athill gives one side (hers) of her correspondence with American poet Edward Field. Their correspondence began in 1981, after Field made an enquiry to Athill, at André Deutsch publishing house (where she worked as an editor for over 40 years), about reviving their mutual friend Alfred Chester’s publications. As the letters progress, “Dear Mr. Field” quickly becomes “Darling Edward” and “Dearest Edward.”

It was an unlikely friendship in some ways: Athill was a posh English lady in her mid-sixties, while Field was a gay, bohemian poet in New York City. “You are such a different kind of person from me,” Diana wrote early on, “and how rarely does someone open his sensibility so wide that one is able to enter into a different way of feeling.” Despite their differences – and a separation of over 3,000 miles – Athill remembers “it was truly lovely to feel, as soon as I met you and Neil [Derrick, Fields’s partner], ‘Now here are people with whom it’s possible really to connect’…which seems to me to be worth celebrating.”

It is interesting to see the effects of a growing dependence on technology: for both Athill and Field the typewriter is eventually overtaken by the computer, and letters replaced by e-mails. With these changes comes an inevitable loss of formality and poetry. Yet there is a remarkable liveliness and wit to these letters, as Athill reflects on a life with books.



2. Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son (2012) by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer &

3. Dear Lumpy: Letters to a Disobedient Daughter (2013) by Roger Mortimer and Louise Mortimer

These quaint family letter collections have been a surprise hit in the UK; has the buzz reached America yet?

Roger Mortimer, born in 1909 and raised in London, was a soldier at Dunkirk (and a POW) and later became horse racing correspondent for the Sunday Times and authored a few books on the topic. He’s a born writer; in these letters of paternal advice to his incorrigible children his voice is gossipy and sarcastic: at times like Austen’s, often like Wilde’s; always classically English and self-deprecating. Here are a few of my favorite moments (all from Dear Lumpy):

  • “Mrs. Cameron has been staying. She and your mother talked incessantly, neither listening to the other, which is quite sensible as neither said anything worth listening to.”
  • “The Randalls ate some bad fish: Mr. Randall came out in a ferocious rash, while Mrs. Randall’s head swelled to twice its already generous size.”
  • “A man I saw in church the other day dropped down dead yesterday. Perhaps he did not pray hard enough.”
  • “How did you get on in your examinations? If you did badly, I shall probably export you to work in the salt mines in Poland so just WATCH IT!! The weather continues chilly, too cold even for croquet. I have not been able to wear my new leopardskin bathing pants yet.”

dear lumpy

Besides the titular feckless offspring, the letters are also populated by Roger’s exasperating wife ‘Nidnod’ (Cynthia) and their menagerie of smelly pets. With a manor home near Newbury, Berkshire, Roger and Cynthia belong to a fading class of upper-crust country types: Nidnod hunts and they share many of the tastes and prejudices of the gentry (such as, I’m afraid, mild racism), yet their house is crumbling and they are both rather hapless about keeping up appearances; Roger’s notoriously awful dress sense and Nidnod’s horrid wigs ensure that they will never be taken entirely seriously by their neighbors.

Roger is occasionally morbid in these letters; he was both a pessimist and an atheist, and he took a rather unseemly interest in sudden deaths and murders. And yet the Hungerford massacre (a rare UK mass shooting in 1987: a gunman killed 16 and wounded 15) – during which he and Nidnod were trapped in a restaurant in that very town – gets hardly a mention. Roger’s surprising nonchalance on this occasion only reinforces that traditional Englishman’s “stiff upper lip,” an attitude of holding firm and not making a fuss.

Mortimer must have been part of the last generation to rely entirely on letters. He exhibits a touching nostalgia for the simpler days of his childhood: “When I was born there were far more horse-drawn vehicles in London than cars. No one had flown the Channel and middle-class families had six indoor servants.” These charming volumes of family correspondence form a relic of a bygone era as well as a relaxing read.



4. 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)

Helene Hanff was a book-loving New York scriptwriter who, after the Second World War, wanted to get hold of some secondhand British books that weren’t readily available in the States at the time. In 1949 she sent off her first list of special requests to Frank Doel, a bookseller with Marks & Co. on London’s Charing Cross Road, and over the next two decades they proceeded to swap letters, checks, Christmas and birthday treats – but mostly books – across the Atlantic. It’s especially amusing to contrast Hanff’s witty, chatty letters with Doel’s initially prim but gradually warming ones. The book was later made into a play and then a movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (the iconic upstanding Englishman if ever there was one – his Doel is just like his C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands and his proper, by-the-book butler in The Remains of the Day). Any bibliophile or Anglophile should polish off this brief, comfy story in no time at all.



5. Airmail: The Letters of Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer (2013)

I recently won a copy of this book through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway, and look forward to reading it soon. Over the course of a fifty-year friendship, these mutually admiring American and Swedish poets chronicle their struggles as writers and their ruminations on the whirlwind of world politics.


Next week: The epistolary novel – a novel made up of letters and other documents – has been popular since the eighteenth century. I’ve chosen some of my favorite classic and modern takes on the epistolary form.

Letter from Leonidas D. Mavriotis sent to Leipzig, 1910 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Letter from Leonidas D. Mavriotis sent to Leipzig, 1910 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Rate this post

Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing.