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To whom it may concern…

Essay | 14 minute read
Why send a letter when an email is so much faster? James Kidd considers the peculiar renaissance of a lost art

There is a pivotal passage in Lethal White, the recent novel by Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling in crime writer’s clothing). Robin Cunliffe, Galbraith’s resourceful heroine, suspects a vital clue is contained within, of all things, a letter. Robin is unusually baffled. Contemporary thrillers have trained us to seek written evidence down virtual rabbit holes. Robin’s normal practice would be to hire a suitably hi-tech hacker – usually a tattooed cyber-punk goddess with PTSD or a bashful, baby-faced boy in a parka who blogs about errors in Marvel comics – then sit back and wait for answers.

Robin’s confusion perhaps explains why her ensuing actions don’t quite add up. Having all but stolen the letter, why not simply open it, perhaps after the fashion of an Agatha Christie sleuth with a steaming kettle? Is she too young for Christie? Perhaps she fears tearing the letter? Or perhaps Galbraith was too in love with the tense but light-hearted scene that follows? Robin telephones the letter’s author, Sir Kevin Rodgers, an elderly ex-Olympian who, obeying ancient laws of plot convenience, is hard of hearing. This enables Robin to pose successfully as an old and trusted friend and, despite mangling a Welsh accent that wanders from Cardiff to Lahore, extract the game-changing information.

The passage is instructive, and not only because it confirms Rowling’s love affair with narrative devices from nineteenth-century fiction; it adds to the impression that letters are enjoying something of a renaissance, at least in the publishing world.

On my desk right now is a not inconsiderable pile of recent books stuffed with correspondence. There is Helen Cullen’s enjoyable debut novel, The Lost Letters of William Woolf – in which a fictitious team of detectives attempts to deliver missing post. To Obama collects letters to and from the former US President. Sahm Venter has compiled Nelson Mandela’s prison correspondence. In a similar vein to the Letters of Note series, there is Letters to Change the World, which does pretty much what it says on the cover, thanks to correspondents such as George Orwell, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Harvey Milk and, well, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Photo by Annie Spratt

What does this apparent burst of popularity say about the letter’s current status? Are we witnessing the start of a correspondence boom? Are hordes of hipsters, bored of Instagram, rushing out to buy fountain pens, stamps and envelopes, before converging upon their nearest post-box?

Or should we read this same resurgence as a sign that letter-writing has become an outmoded fetish – something to fill books like the dodo or dinosaur?

It’s not hard to see a nostalgic haze drifting around these new releases. The publicity note (a letter, really) that accompanies Dear Howard, David Batterham’s entertaining correspondence with Howard Hodgkin, proposes that the book ‘immortalises a vanishing breed… and a bohemian way of life.’ The primary setting for Helen Cullen’s knowingly and quirkily old-fashioned historical novel is the ‘Dead Letter Depot’ – a reference to undelivered mail and perhaps also an endangered form. If we needed confirmation of the letter’s fogeyish reputation, Galbraith’s correspondent competed at the 1956 Olympics; his other primary means of communication is the similarly old-fangled landline phone.

This is the same wistfulness that the novelist Jon McGregor detected when he began The Letters Page, a project designed to inspire his creative writing students at Nottingham University. Hoping to generate ‘stories, essays, poems, memoir, criticism’, he sounded mildly surprised in an article in the Guardian in 2016 when he wrote that ‘almost everyone wrote about the nostalgic and rare pleasure of sitting down to write a letter at all.’

Vanishing, dead, amusingly old-fashioned, rare, lost art: it doesn’t sound like the letter is going to challenge the new iPhone any time soon.

So, what exactly are we being so wistful about? McGregor’s article is fond, but resists sentimentality. He recalls that even when letters were all the rage (say until the late 1990s) they were not always welcome. Most people over forty – and possibly some beneath – can remember being pestered to write thank you letters for often dismally anti-climactic Christmas or birthday presents. How many of us promised to write when leaving school, university or even a country, often beginning florid drafts that are later used as bookmarks in unfinished novels? (In Possession, A. S. Byatt turned this very habit into a plot device that rivals Galbraith’s for breath-taking expedience: two extraordinarily significant letter fragments are contained between page 300 and (presumably) 301 of Randolph Henry Ash’s 1861 tome The Garden of Proserpina.)

Is it a case of yearning for quieter, slower times, as Robin notes in Lethal White? ‘What things, [she] asked herself, did people feel the need to put in writing these days, when phone calls and emails were so much easier and faster?’

The answer, presumably, is something very important indeed. Certainly, a presumption of this sort drives Letters to Change the World, and the Obama and Mandela books: the importance of the content is inextricably linked to the epistolary form. This is most evident in the 255 extant letters that Nelson Mandela wrote during his 10,000 days of incarceration (from 5 August 1962 until 11 February 1990). Throughout, correspondence was not a given; when letters were permitted, they were subjected to a ‘raft of draconian regulations’. Prisoners on Robben Island ‘were entitled to write and receive one letter of five hundred words every six months’. The texts themselves were censored – of references to other prisoners, to conditions within the jail and to anything deemed ‘political’, whatever that means.

These repressive constraints ensured that letters became nothing less than an emblem of Mandela’s fight for liberty, equality, freedom of expression and indeed his very life. He complained regularly and bitterly about disruption to his correspondence. This was both official and, thanks to capriciously cruel guards, unofficial. Whatever the source, Mandela writes that the intrusion ‘[indicates] a deliberate intention and policy on the part of the authorities to cut me off and isolate me from all external contacts, to frustrate and demoralise me, to make me despair and lose all hope and eventually break me’.

Mandela’s constant uncertainty that his letters were sent – and therefore read by anyone apart from censors – lends each text unbearable added urgency: see the already heart-rending telegrams and letters that surround the death of his son Madiba Thembekile in a car accident. As well as pleading to attend his ‘Thembe’s’ funeral, Mandela frets justifiably that his attempts to console his family will be heard: ‘I was indeed shocked to hear that my letters do not reach you and other members of the family & friends as they are the only means I have to communicate with you. I hope at least this one will reach you,’ he writes to his second-born son, Makgatho (‘Kgatho’) in July 1969.

Those writing to Barack Obama almost exactly fifty years later exhibit a similar intensity of feeling, in part this time because letters are no longer a given. Indeed many, though by no means all, of the texts are emails. What is striking is how letters fuse the necessarily political content with the personal. Sixteen-year-old Rebecca openly describes her experiences of foster care, the physical and sexual abuse she suffered, her battles with drugs and alcohol, and the new optimism she has recently discovered.

To Obama is carefully curated (there isn’t much in the way of hate mail), but over its course you realise that Obama was not simply a beloved politician; he was an ideal, and possibly idealised, correspondent, who would not only read cries for help, but respond to them. (No mean feat given that he received approximately 10,000 messages day – or 29,220,000 in total). You feel Obama’s openness when Kenny Jops from Chicago writes with charming informality: ‘Dear President Obama, I heard you were good at correcting homework. I was wondering whether you would take a look at this? How did I do?’ It is also felt, in more serious vein, in the letter from a ‘twenty-one-year-old college senior… majoring in elementary education’. This correspondent writes unflinchingly about their family, their economic background, their previously hard-working father’s struggles to find employment. The key sentence is: ‘The reason I am writing to you is to ask for some advice.’ I doubt Donald Trump is getting many letters like this.

Enjoyable as they are, few of these recent books make much of a case for the formal qualities and possibilities of the letter, beyond their capacity for gripping content and their implicit relationship with an addressee. Would Stephen Fry’s admirable 2013 open letter about homophobia to David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee be much less powerful if delivered as a speech or written as an article? When one is enjoying Helen Cullen’s quirky novel or David Batterheim’s Dear Howard, one feels the pleasure rests largely on the light it shines on a bygone age.

Oddly, it is Robin Cunliffe’s quizzical dismissal in Lethal White that comes closest to grappling with old-fashioned correspondence at something beyond face value: ‘What things, [she] asked herself, did people feel the need to put in writing these days, when phone calls and emails were so much easier and faster?’

That laptops, tablets and smart phones have rearranged our relationship with time and space is so evident that it hardly needs saying. The idea that our home address is also our personal communication centre is close to obsolete. Little wonder Robin raises an eyebrow when she calls Sir Kevin on his landline. What?! You have to be at home to answer the phone?

What does snail-mail have to offer to kids who instant message instant messages in the blink of an eye? Letters demand mental strife and physical exertion. Even before the journey to a post-box, one needs four separate tools: pen, paper, envelope, stamp, roughly in that order. Then you have to outlast collections, sorting, delivery and (because our home is no longer our personal communication centre) possible re-delivery; if the buffering icon on a computer is one symbol of modern frustration, the red Royal Mail ‘Sorry we missed you’ card runs it a close second.

Desperate for some kind of rejoinder, I scanned the letters collections on my woefully untidy bookshelves and selected Hyder Edward Rollins’ unmatched two-volume edition of John Keats’ correspondence. Keats thought as much of letters – and about letters – as just about anyone before or since. He would have understood the present conviction that equates letters with passionate sincerity, and also found it inadequate.

Here he is, writing to his friend Benjamin Bailey on 18 July 1818: ‘I carry all matters to an extreme – so that when I have any little vexation, it grows in five minutes into a theme for Sophocles. Then, and in that temper, if I write to any friend, I have so little self-possession that I give him matter for grieving at the very time perhaps when I am laughing at a Pun.’

Bailey’s over-sensitivity as a correspondent forces Keats to ponder the epistolary lag that disconnects the moment of writing a letter from the moment of reading it. Instead of being a cause for impatience, this hiatus – between life fixed in writing and life that goes on after a letter is posted – generates strange emotional distortions: one’s sober mood when composing a letter may not be one’s jokey mood when it is being read a few days later.

Such refractions – as Nelson Mandela realised – can certainly be worrisome. After Keats’ brother George and sister-in-law, conveniently called Georgiana, emigrated to America, the ensuing delays add almost unbearable pathos to Keats’ updates about their third brother Tom’s fast-failing health. ‘I am grieved to say that I am not sorry you had not Letters at Philadelphia; you could have had no good news of Tom and I have been withheld on his account from beginning these many days…’

Keats certainly recognised that letters are an unhappy form: their very existence implies separation of some sort. Little wonder he wrote to Bailey in that same letter of 18 July 1818: ‘I begin to get rather a contempt of distances.’ But in addition to its melancholic stoicism, Keats’ strange phrasing whispers a letter’s defiant, and playful, consolation: ‘I begin to get rather contemptuous of distances,’ perhaps.

This is the essential hope of most smart phone advertising, which revels in depicting hard-working globe-trotters contentedly Facetiming partners and children miles away. The illusion of presence and presentness is aided by video and visuals, something letters cannot hope to match. While their reliance cannot fool us about separation, letters can rebel against it.

Letter from John Keats to his sister, Fanny Keats, 14 August 1820

Here is Keats, writing in bullish mood to George and Georgiana in America: ‘Now the reason why I do not feel at the present moment so far from you is that I remember your Ways and Manners and actions; I know your manner of thinking, your manner of feeling: I know what shape your joy or your sorrow would take; I know the manner of your walking, standing, sauntering, sitting down, laughing, punning, and every action so truly that you seem near to me. You will remember me in the same manner – and the more when I tell you that I shall read a passage of Shakspeare every Sunday at ten o’Clock – you read one at the same time, and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.’

Memory, literature and the imagination coalesce around the acts of reading and writing to challenge space and time. Keats knew it was ultimately no replacement (those ‘blind bodies’ propose the limitations of the arrangement), but it was not enough to dent his good humour and ingenuity (reading the same passage of Shakespeare at the same time). He is all too aware that writing is not the same as doing, but writing can be like doing, even if absurdly. ‘Writing has this disadvan[ta]ge of speaking – one cannot write a wink, or a nod, or a grin, or a purse of the Lips, or a smile – O law! One can-[not] put ones finger to one’s nose, or yerk ye in the ribs, or lay hold of your button in writing – but in all the most lively and titterly parts of my Letter you must not fail to imagine me as the epic poets say – now here, now there, now with one foot pointed at the ceiling, now with another – now with my pen on my ear, now with my elbow in my mouth.’ The prospect of laughter closes the immense distance between the family, even if it is weeks between cracking the joke and getting it.

Such confidence would later be in short supply. When the first signs of consumption forced Keats into quarantine, he was tantalisingly close to his great love, Fanny Brawne, who was then literally the girl next door. Letters and notes became their only point of contact, even if they only expressed the impossibility of contact: ‘My dearest girl… According to all appearances I am to be separated from you as much as possible.’ Divided not by distance but illness, Keats was mocked by their physical proximity, which now curdled his earlier cheerful boldness about letters: his own became uncharacteristically maudlin, bitter and jealous.

Compelled to seek more clement weather in Italy, Keats’ final weeks were narrated largely by letter – his own, and those of Joseph Severn, the young artist who nursed him through his dreadful final illness beside the Spanish Steps in Rome. Keats himself seemed to realise just how much of his character existed on the pages of these late missives: ‘I am so weak (in mind) that I cannot bear the sight of any handwriting of a friend I love so much as I do you,’ he wrote to his close friend Charles Brown on 30 November 1820.

By the time Brown received this message, Keats would be rather closer to his death on 23 February 1821, aged just twenty-five. Whether any of us are prepared to endure such delays is unclear: personally, I now grow anxious if contactless payment is unavailable. What hopes for matching the patience of George Keats as he waited to hear news of not one, but two brothers fighting for their lives half way across the globe?

And yet, even here, there is a small reason to be cheerful. One hundred and ninety-nine years after Keats wrote to Charles Brown, his correspondence continues to be read, studied and loved, albeit by complete strangers across the world. This may have been of little consolation to the young poet as he lingered in quarantine in London, Naples and Rome, but it does re-affirm the faith he formerly placed in letters to transcend space and time. I will leave the last words to Keats, whose own last words as a correspondent have become fittingly iconic. ‘I can scarcely bid you good-bye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.’

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