Despite emails and text messaging, letters still remain a potent form of communication. In the first of two reports, Victoria Neumark investigates why
Heloise writes to Abelard: "I have your picture in my room. I never pass by it without stopping to look at it; and yet when you were present with me, I scarce ever cast my eyes upon it. If a picture which is but a mute representation of an object can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls, they can speak, they have in them all that force which expresses the transport of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions..."
What can letters inspire, indeed? Why do we write them? Even now, when the invention of the telegraph (1837), telephone (1875), fax (around 1980), internetemail (198991) and text messaging (around 1995) mean that we can talk to anyone, anywhere, the volume of mail delivered each day is some 82 million items in the UK alone. But why?
Even allowing for the tremendous commercial importance of invoices and accounts, newsletters, journals and advertising, that's a lot of personal communication. Why do we do it? We are compelled to reach out to each other, impelled to take pen and paper (or PCkeyboard and printer) and say... what?
A letter has unique features. It can be read and re-read in the absence of either its sender or recipient - or both. So now, we can enjoy the letters of the Roman orator Cicero (106-43bc), Christian evangelist St Paul (died ad64?), and poet John Keats (1795-1821), even though they were not written for publication. A letter can be carried next to the heart, as lovers have done for centuries, and as soldiers still do. It can be bound in red ribbon or folders marked Top Secret (like Churchill's letters to Stalin before the Yalta Pact meeting in 1945). It can be collected to make a history of a family, like the 15-century Paston letters. And it can be forgotten, or thrown away in a rage, in the time it takes to scrumple and aim at a bin.
But, in every case, someone has reached out a tiny part of their consciousness to another conscious being, and that other person has been touched. Letters confer a kind of immortality on human relations.
If we survey a couple of millennia of letter-writing, what is the top message? Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is: "I love you". It seems so much stronger in a letter. As Johnny Cash wrote: "I'm gonna write a tear stained letter, I'm gonna mail it straight to you." You get those tear stains thrown in too. Famous love-letters have been collected between Byron and, er... lots of ladies, US President John Adams and his wife Abigail, Pierre and Marie Curie, Keats and his fiancee Fanny Brawne, Napoleon and Josephine. Until her dying day, Queen Elizabeth I kept in a silver casket by her bed a missive from Robin Dudley, Earl of Leicester. inscribed, "His laste letter".
And then there are Heloise and Abelard. The year is 1120. A nun sits in her draughty chamber to write a letter to her husband, Peter Abelard, a man she will never see again and whom her family have had castrated, despite his reputation as one of Europe's foremost scholars.
But love is not the only business of letters. There is hard, and dirty, political work recorded in the mails. Flash forward to 1924 - MI5 intercept a letter supposedly written by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, urging British Communists to promote revolution through acts of sedition. Leaked to The Times and Daily Mail, the letter contributes to the defeat of Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party in that year's General Election. Later, the letter was shown to have been forged, though exactly by whom is still under debate. Top suspect: a later head of MI6, Stewart Menzies.
Forged letters litter history. Used in courts of law, as the infamous Casket letters were in 1569, they help build evidence against the accused.
In this case, they nailed Mary Queen of Scots firmly into an English prison, where she could do little harm to her cousin Elizabeth I, on the grounds that they proved her complicity in the murder of her second husband, Henry Darnley. Poems and letters stored in a silver casket were allegedly written by Mary to her third husband Bothwell in the plot against Darnley (shortly thereafter an explosion destroyed Darnley's lodging and his body was found in the street outside, naked and strangled). Mary insisted that parts of the letters were forgeries. They probably were, but she never escaped from her English prison until her execution in 1587.
Another prisoner, Martin Luther King, wrote a world-shaking missive to some fellow clergymen who opposed the Civil Rights movement from his cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 (see some key extracts in the 'Call to action'
story on page 10).
Open letters are a long tradition of political and religious leaders - from King's namesake, Martin Luther (1483-1546)'s 95 theses denouncing the practices of the Roman Catholic church, nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517, to Gandhi telling all Americans of the evils of British colonialism, the open letter is a more permanent version of the stand-up speech. Perhaps the most famous is "J'accuse".
Emile Zola, novelist and socialist activist, wrote an open letter to the French government in the French literary newspaper L'Aurore (Dawn) in 1898, exposing the 1894 conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for espionage as the rankest anti-Semitism. The true villain, an aristocratic officer named Esterhazy, had benefited from a massive cover-up and acquittal in a military court-martial while Dreyfus languished in the hellhole prison, Devil's Island, off the coast of French Guiana. "La verite est en marche et rien ne l'arretera" (truth is on the march and nothing can stop it), Zola declared as he set out the facts in L'Aurore. So it proved; Dreyfus was released in 1900 and formally pardoned in 1906. Zola, however, died in 1902 from fumes from a blocked chimney. Was it blocked by right-wing malcontents? Many thought so, then and now.
From the probable beginning of letter-writing in ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago, correspondence has been, perhaps surprisingly, frequently written for the dead. All those things you wanted to say? American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is perhaps the supreme exponent of the letter as vain, searching regret, though 19th-century novelists Charlotte and Emily Bront were also inspired by the sorrow of such outpourings. Suicide notes, letters home from soldiers in the First World War before going "over the top" (as in the play Journey's End) read to us now like the tolling of a passing bell. Such correspondence puts a new complexion on a famous verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), in religious despair, addressing Jesus Christ:
And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
to dearest him that lives alas! away.
That's a poem that could only have been written after decades of an organised postal system (the Penny Post started in 1840) and mass deliveries, so that "dead letters" no longer signified letters to the dead but undeliverable mail. Twin phenomena, wide-ranging postal services and near-universal literacy, go hand in hand.
In today's schools, we learn, and teach, not just letter-writing, but letter-writing for a purpose: commercial, personal, promotional. It's a skill open to all. Yet go back a few millennia - or just a century or so - and we are talking about only a privileged few who can read or write. Their letters give information that official sources skate over or deliberately suppress.
Letters of Cicero, exiled dissident orator, and the historians and travellers, Pliny the Elder, ad23-79, and his nephew, Pliny the Younger, ad 62-c115, were collected and preserved to an extent that would have delighted their gossipy and scheming writers. More than 900 of Cicero's letters are still extant. The letter by Pliny the Younger detailing the eruption of Vesuvius (and the death of Pliny the Elder) is inscribed in the historical record, as are letters from Galileo (1564-1642) about the Earth going round the Sun, Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) discovering microbes, and Pierre Fermat (1601-1665), of Last Theorem fame.
Letters were integral to the spread of one of Christianity. At first, Christians were persecuted, and letters, passed from hand to hand and even memorised, were a powerful vector for the new creed. A humble tent-maker from the Mediterranean town of Tarsus, named Saul (but christened Paul), is perhaps the most famous letter-writer of all, though not one original manuscript has survived of his epistles to Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, Thessalonians, Philemon, and Philippians (all to be found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible). His words resound to this day.
Though not highly educated, St Paul was a great literary stylist. Letters have been a major avenue of expression for writers before and since his day. These are letters which as well as reflecting personal feelings muse on the human condition or discuss ideas, often passionately. Among those known for their letters as their other work are a raft of poets including Alexander Pope, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; novelists Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, Charlotte Bront , Leo Tolstoy and Henry James (as well as his siblings William, psychologist and philosopher, and Alice); authors Goethe, Mark Twain and Voltaire; 18th-century wit Lord Chesterfield, 17th-century woman-of-the-world Madame de Sevigne; politicians such as William Gladstone, Winston Churchill and, more recently, Tony Benn. In a cutting gesture, Gladstone, on the occasion of the death of his great rival, Benjamin Disraeli, sent his widow an empty envelope in lieu of a letter of condolence.
Other political letters have stunned the world not with their literary but with their practical impact. Stalin tersely wrote to Zhukov to follow a "scorched earth" policy around Stalingrad, condemning millions of his fellow countrymen to a lingering death, and Catherine the Great of Russia was a keen exponent of the "kill this messenger" style of letter.
For public figures, until the advent of electronic communication, handwritten letters were potentially threatening pieces of evidence.
Blackmail - letters which could "blacken" someone's name - featured in the scandalous lesbian affair between Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and Queen Anne, early in the 18th century, or the clandestine illegal marriage between the Prince Regent (later George IV) and actress Perdita Robinson, nearly a century later. The courtesan Harriette Wilson threatened the Duke of Wellington with public exposure of foolish love-notes in her memoirs unless he coughed up. His famous response: "Publish and be damned." She did; everyone laughed; he survived to lead two more Tory governments.
Literature is rich in epistolary devices. There are novels from the 18th century written entirely as letters: the rollicking adventures written by Tobias Smollett (for example, Humphrey Clinker) and the multi-layered dissections of relationships and personalities explored in Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749) by Samuel Richardson, robustly satirised by Henry Fielding in Shamela (1741), deliciously entangled in Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre de Laclos (1782). There are lost letters, misunderstood letters, shocking letters, in Romeo and Juliet, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina... the list goes on. In 1837, Dickens published The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which made hay with the idea of the humorous letter, while in 1897, Bram Stoker's Dracula built up suspense with the device of letters. More recently, two prize-winning authors have used letters for diametrically opposite purposes: Marilynne Robinson in Gilead (Virago, 2000) muses lyrically on parental love, while Lionel Shriver in We Need to Talk about Kevin (Serpent's Tail, 2003) explores what it means to hate your horrible, murdering child.
So the letter is alive and well in fiction. And in real life, soldiers still write poignantly home asking for food parcels and news, while, sadly, their wives may not reply in kind. The "Dear John letter" is first recorded in 1945, in a US local newspaper, as quoted in the Oxford Dictionary: Dear John, I have found someone else whom I think the world of. I think the only way out is for us to get a divorce.
People with something to say still commandeer the opinion pages of newspapers - or websites, like the editor who wrote to his young daughter in 1897: "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!"
Lovers still yearn hopelessly towards their beloved, as Sullivan Balou, a US soldier, did in 1861:
But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night - amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours - always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
People still snap back, as Dr Johnson did to his neglectful patron, Lord Chesterfield in 1755: This man I thought had been a Lord among wits; but I find, he is only a wit among Lords.
And other kinds of love still yearn for expression. Here is 18th-century mother and author of the first nursery alphabet, Jane Johnson, writing to her 10-year-old son at boarding school. She missed him, and wanted the best for him: My Dear Robert... I would have you teach little Benny to be very good and tell him he should pray to God a great many times in a day as you do, say pray God bless me and make me a Good man. I have sent him and you a few more nuts and raisins, I have nothing else to send you, or I would send it, for I Love you Dearly and think you one of the most sensible children of your age in the World, I I have not time to write anymore, so I wish you good night.
Past seven o'clock July 30th 1755
PSI Oh! Robert Live for Ever.
A letter as affecting as any ever written was from Private Leon Spicer from Tamworth, of the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment, who was killed in the Iraq conflict in July 2005. He wrote it to his parents, and they released it to the press (see box). What he has to say survives, reaches out, touches us. We were not the recipients, but we receive it.
Books and websites
The Oxford Book of Letters edited by Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode, Oxford University Press, pound;10.50
For letter information, including love-letter etiquette, letters of condolence, letters of reference and recommendation, letter writing rules, the history and culture of letter writing:
Private Leon Spicer gave this letter to his mother before going to Iraq, to be opened only if he died in action:
DEAR MOM + DAD, Right if u'r reading this I've gone some where that all of you have'nt.
Don't cry cos if u do I'll have a word with GOD and tell him not to let you all in.
Right then I new what could happen too me but it was my Job, and I wanted too do it. Remember I LOVE U ALL (u and dad more) ONLY JOKEING.
Gerard's the best brother any brother could ask four and as NINA my only sister, I loved her to bits. So stop crying as I am as I write this.
I've had the BEST LIFE out of any one in the whole world. Right then mom what can I say about U, if I wanted to say everything I would need about 10 million note books but I can put it into 5 words THE BEST MOM IN THE WORLD!! P.S I need to count cos I do beleave there were six words. NOW DAD U'R THE BEST DAD IN THE WORLD and I hope u've known it. I love u so much we had everything in comen, but I think I took scouting too far ie I JOINED THE ARMY between u and me we were the only ones that could survive in the woods. I loved everything that u done and wanted to do it from camping to being a leader.
RIGHT I'm going to bed. Tell Grandma how much I love her she's the best in the world and tell her to look after edey (EDDY, HER DOG)
SEE YOU ALL SOON I'LL BE THERE WAITING FOUR YOU ALL.
lots and lots of love LEONXXX P.S Tell Kidd + Vin they where the best mates anyone could ask 4.
P.P.S NEVER FORGET I'M WATCHING YOU, ME AND GRANDAD SO WATCH OUT.
I LOVE U.
Call to action
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed... We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights... Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait". But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society... when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes 'John,' and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" - then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Martin Luther King, April 16, 1963
Letter of faith
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
from St Paul to the Corinthians, 1st centuryad (King James'