Signed, sealed and delivered

6th November 1998 at 00:00
DEAR BOY, DEAR GIRL: an anthology of letters to young people and children.Compiled and edited by Mavis Norrie. Constable Pounds 16.99.

With e-mails and mobile phones making the lengthy letter a thing of the past, this is a reminder of how readable and generally relaxed letters to children have become throughout the course of the 20th century. Some of the choice items quoted here - Kipling funnier than he ever appeared in print, Evelyn Waugh writing with affectionate restraint - might all today be replaced by the more casual, hasty communications made possible by the latest technology.

To find the best letters here, you have to wade through older correspondence written with varying degrees of stiffness, and selected from a timespan stretching from Martin Luther to Queen Victoria. Most of this is disappointing, given that writing directly to children has often seemed to encourage a ponderous rather than a profound tone. Equally heavy attempts at humour are frequently aimed not at children themselves, but over their heads - in the direction of those adults usually around at letter-opening time.

A recurring sense of sanctimonious superiority prevails, inevitable perhaps at a time when the fifth commandment about honouring parents was taken so seriously. Letters written by older children, aunts, uncles and other members of the family also tend to drift into pomposity and an apparently overwhelming desire to pass on advice.

Once older family members came to value being loved as well as respected by those younger than themselves, the letters in this anthology become livelier. Correspondence overflowing with parental love from soldier-fathers in the two world wars is particularly poignant - the loss of such affectionate parents must have been far harder to bear than the death of more distant fathers in the past. But this opening up to the emotions can have its destructive side. Jack London writes a disgracefully rejecting letter to his 13-year-old daughter Joan, quite unaffected by the desire to show himself in any sort of good light.

Norrie briefly introduces each author, although she never makes clear what type of readership she has in mind. Occasional passages of careful "writing down" mix with the information that William James's father was a Swedenborgian and essentially a pragmatist. But readers of all ages could get something out of this affectionately compiled volume. It contains, after all, some useful advice - C S Lewis is excellent on how to write good English, for example.

There are also constant reminders of how far concepts of childhood have changed over the years and continue to change. Although the editor includes no letters written to children aged over 16, the sense of shock remains over older correspondence lecturing or scolding adolescents in terms that today would not be tolerated by most infants.

A future anthology could be compiled of letters from children to children,al-though it might be necessary to move quickly before such documents become little more than historical relics.

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