It sounds random and crazed, this obsessing over a letter, this blithe buying of expensive paper from a shop it had never even occurred to me to visit before.
But there was a trigger.
The previous week I’d been clearing out my mother’s flat when I found a box file containing all my letters home from boarding school. I was nine and at prep school when I scratched out the first with my brand-new Osmiroid fountain pen, fourteen when I agonised over the last.
I was surprised my mother had kept the letters. She wasn’t generally sentimental about the past, even her children’s. Perhaps archiving zeal got the better of her? It usually did; her genealogy research filled her spare bedroom and took us an entire day to pack up.
(In case this sounds contradictory, I should explain that she made an exception for letters from distant relatives who lived over 100 years ago.)
I never kept any of the letters my mother sent me at school, but then I wouldn’t have done: it’s a child’s prerogative to live in the present and treat everything as ephemeral. My earliest saved letters are from sixth-form girlfriends, all two and a half of them (the girlfriends, not the letters).
The letters-home-from-school, though.… There were hundreds of them! The envelopes were small and frequently manilla, and the stamp value rose in pleasing half-penny increments until 1984 when the coin was abolished. We moved around a lot during this period, so the addresses too betray time as well as place: 1981 – Newbury, Berkshire; 1982 – Market Drayton, Shropshire; 1983 – Stockport, Cheshire.…
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that they’re the worst letters ever written.
Do you know the word ‘phatic’? It’s the word linguistics experts use to describe speech which establishes a mood of sociability rather than conveys information. When someone talks and you go ‘Hmmm, mmmm’, you’re being phatic – displaying a sort of primal animal sympathy; saying, in effect, ‘Keep going, I’m still here’, even though mentally you may be a hundred miles away.
My letters home aren’t even phatic. They do not establish a mood of sociability. They establish a mood of.… Christ, I don’t know. You decide.
Dear Mummy and Daddy,
I hope you are well, I am fine. Greenwood got done for talking last night. He has a new Tintin book, Tintin in the Congo. There was supposed to be rugby yesterday but the ground was to (sic) hard so it was canceled (sic).
Today the film is Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Lots of love,
Dear Mummy, Daddy and Alexandra
I hope you are well. I’ts (sic) been a very long and hectic week! Greenwood was sick on my bed last night, and Matron got very angry! Also, Matron found eggs in my hair. Goodness knows how?! So, all our brushes were put in disinfectant and a couple of other boys and my hair was foaming in ‘Derbac’ for the next 24 hours! All in one short week!!
Today the film is Battle Beyond The Stars.
Lots of love,
The context of their composition goes some way towards explaining these letters’ distracted strangeness. Letter Writing Hour was on Sunday mornings, you see; after mass but before Scouts – the magical moment when we escaped into the woods behind the school to light unsupervised bonfires, listen to illegal Walkmans and ‘purify’ water from puddles using special socks ordered from army catalogues.
Letter Writing Hour was a temporal antechamber to mayhem. The whole point of it, as far as we were concerned, was that it would soon end and release us into the world of untamed nature and/or dysentery. But a letter had to be produced in the course of it, to which end it was rigorously policed.
When you’d finished writing, you waved your letter at pale, paunchy Mr Gubbins and he mooched over to check it for neatness (no crossings-out), length (at least two paragraphs long), style (address in top right-hand corner, ‘lots of love’ at the end because for God’s sake they were still your parents even if you never saw them) and, most important of all, content.
So no, these weren’t the world’s best letters. But the effect reading them had on me was confounding and vertiginous. Within minutes I was in tears, bunched fist crammed into my mouth like the child I once was. Partly this was a grief response; but it was also a response to their materiality – their state-of-physical-beingness, as opposed to an email’s state-of-digital-nothingness.
The journalist Catherine Field put it well when she wrote in the New York Times on February 3, 2011: ‘A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber-communication can never do.’
For all their virtues, emails are mere pixels on a screen. Printed out, they lack even the mechanical quirks of typewritten text: the too-forceful exclamation marks, the Jagged Edge-style raised ‘t’s’. I can’t locate my mother within hers without making a crude speculative leap – imagining her hunched over her laptop, frowning as her right index finger seeks out the ampersand key.
Reading my letters set me wondering: why do we write letters? How do letters work? What would a really good letter, the kind of letter I would want to receive, look like?
It made me think, with the irrational sentimentality of the bereaved: wouldn’t it be brilliant if we all wrote really rich, detailed letters to each other, which we kept as physical artefacts to pass on to future generations?
Because to answer my own question, the reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative.
The writing of narrative, any kind of narrative, helps us stay sane by convincing us that we are stable, autonomous individuals moving smoothly through the world. That letters’ intended recipients are other people roots us in what we now call a social network. (We don’t generally write letters to ourselves. A letter to yourself is a diary.)
With letters, as opposed to emails, which are obviously sent and received instantaneously, correspondents are unable to reply immediately; so the results are (or should be) longer, more careful, more persuasive – more conscious of being written outwards, towards someone, indeed ‘into’ someone in anticipation of a particular type of response.
Does a good letter have a distinct compositional form? Should decent letter-writers be familiar with classic epistolary theory as set down in the nine epistles of the Attic rhetorician Isocrates? Of course not; although it’s interesting that rhetorical models that existed in the fourth century BC still influence written communication today: among the Isocratean letters are letters of patronage, letters supplying character references, letters asking favours, letters offering counsel.…
In the Middle Ages, letter-writing was taught as an adjunct of rhetoric. The earliest preserved Western medieval letter-writing manual was created at the end of the eleventh century by a Benedictine monk called Alberic. Teaching ars dictaminis– the rhetorical art of letter-writing – it was designed for scribes who needed to learn how to write legal documents.
Most artes dictandi were brief; designed to be read aloud to the recipient rather than silently and in private; and contained five sections:
1 SALUTATIO: a formal greeting. Warmest salutations!
2 CAPTATIO BENEVOLENTIAE: an attempt to snare the reader’s attention and win him over. I have been thinking about you a lot recently.
3 NARRATIO: the background to the request or demand. I don’t know if you heard, but I recently lost a lot of money in a dispute over an ox.
4 PETITIO: the request or demand. Please could you lend me some before bailiffs torch my dwelling-house?
5 CONCLUSIO: the formal ending, including a blessing and a date. I remain your humble servant, etc. May God rain mercy upon you. June 5th, 1322.
Over the next few hundred years – very, very broadly – letters become more flexible in their uses, more personal, and more elegant. And as we head into the Renaissance, the salutatio and captatio benevolentiae bits expand while the other bits contract. The guy everyone wants to imitate is Cicero. His letters to Atticus, Quintus and Brutus, discovered in the Chapter Library in Verona in 1345, possess reflective subtlety as well as formal beauty.
Then there’s Erasmus. He’s important because he introduced the idea that letters could have all kinds of functions and be written in all sorts of ways. The goal for him was copia or ‘abundant expression’ – transforming a commonplace formula such as ‘your letter pleased me greatly’ by finding exactly the right verbal variation. (He was working in Latin, obviously.)
Erasmus tells his students to increase their linguistic aptitude by amassing examples from authors they like: ‘One should collect a vast supply.…[and] provide oneself with a varied equipment, and, as Quintilian remarks, heap up riches so that we find we have a wealth of words to hand whenever we require it.’
Ostentation is vulgar, says Erasmus, referring specifically to the habit in the salutatio of comparing the addressee to the sun, a shining lamp, a flower, etc. In style, the best letters should resemble not shouting in a theatre but whispering in a corner with a friend.
The classical model falls away in the seventeenth century as more people start writing in English. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of manuals are published so that ladies and gentlemen of breeding can use the appropriate epistolary mode at the appropriate time.
Does this result in lots of good letters? Or just lots of boringly similar letters? A bit of both, I suspect, depending on which manual you were fortunate/unfortunate enough to own.
One manual-cum-anthology from 1868, The Art of Letter-Writing, advises: ‘Write as you speak, write just what you have to say, write exactly the things you feel, exactly the words you would say if your correspondent were sitting by you – in short .… write “what comes uppermost”; so your letters will be true, fresh, life-like and interesting.’ A letter, it says, should be ‘a picture of your thoughts, interesting to your correspondent in exactly the same proportion as he or she is interested in yourself or your concerns’.
I like this a lot. The idea that a good letter should mimic conversation – should represent in some way speech perfected – feels right to me, as it probably does to you.
An obvious retort to this, however, is: if that’s what you want letters to be, aren’t you better off writing an email? They’re right on the cusp between the written and the spoken and satisfy all your demands for flex-ibity and informality.
It’s a valid point. And I must stress here that I don’t hate email at all. I use it all the time. But in some ways it’s too informal. People don’t read it properly and they receive too much of it. Email isn’t momentous; it’s commonplace. As for being ‘on the cusp’ between the spoken and the written, it’s truer to say it falls between the gaps in ways that aren’t always helpful.
What about the business of actually getting letters to people? It’s a crucial one, not least because the ability to send and receive letters quickly expedites stylistic change by lowering people’s tolerance for staid old formulas.
Of the many things the Romans did for us, one of the most useful was invent a postal system: first the vehiculatio (wagons and mules, basically), then the cursus publicus, a sort of state-run courier service created by Emperor Augustus whose main purpose was gathering information about an enemy’s troop movements.
At this point letters were written with a pen on papyrus, wood or parchment, though wax and a stylus were used for erasable messages on tablets. Some of these, dating from AD 100, were found at Vindolanda on the Stanegate frontier road south of Hadrian’s Wall.
Fast-forward to Britain in the twelfth century and the origins of our postal service are visible through the fog; though at this stage the Royal Mail was a private channel between the monarch and local government. Royal messengers to Surrey, Sussex and Middlesex were allowed one day for travel and paid twopence. Those travelling to further-flung destinations like Cumberland and Wales received 20 pence for a journey lasting eight days. By 1271 the volume of royal correspondence had increased to the point where 32lb of wax was being used each week to seal the strips of parchment on which letters were inscribed.
The poet Thomas Hoccleve (c1368–1426) worked for 30 years without promotion as a scribe in the Privy Seal Office. The job, which required a lot of stooping and squinting, damaged his back and his eyesight. As for the money – well.… he whinges about the indignities of it all in his poem ‘The Regement of Princes’:
VI marc, yeerly, and no more than that
ffadir, to me, me thynketh is full lyte
Consideryng, how that I am nat
In housboundrye, lerned worth a mite.
Most of the letters Hoccleve worked on would have gone to sheriffs – the king’s agents at a local level and the men responsible for collecting revenue and captaining the local army. Private epistolary correspondence was possible only for those who could afford to pay servants to be postmen. The aristocratic Paston family, whose letters spanning the years 1422 to 1509 are a vital source of information about medieval life, used a family retainer to carry letters between London and their base in Norwich.
Henry VIII established a master of the posts in 1516. In 1635, Charles I made the Royal Mail available to the general public. Dorothy Osborne, daughter of the last royalist to remain fighting for Charles, courted her husband Sir William Temple with witty letters which she mostly sent using private carriers. She did this to stop her family, who disapproved of the match, from intercepting them. When she moved to London in the early 1650s she experimented with the Royal Mail, but a letter of June 1654 suggests service was patchy:
Why doe you say I failed you indeed I did not Jane is my witnesse she carryed my letter to the White-hart by Snt Jameses, and twas a very long one too.
In 1660, under Charles II, came major upgrading: the establishment of a General Post Office presided over by a postmaster general; a postmark for tracking speed of delivery; a system of six ‘post roads’ devoted to mail; and a weekly postal service from London to Dublin and Edinburgh.
The network expanded thanks to entrepreneurs like Ralph Allen, Postmaster at Bath, who introduced a system of signing for letters upon receipt and the so-called ‘cross-post’, whereby letters no longer had to travel via London. And lo! England’s roads vibrated to the rumble of mail coaches. The first to carry the black-and-scarlet Royal Mail livery appeared in 1784. Mail coaches were drawn by four horses and could carry four passengers inside and a few more outside with the driver. A guard stood at the back where the mail was kept.
The results seem to have been satisfactory. ‘The Post Office is a wonderful establishment,’ remarks Jane Fairfax in Jane Austen’s Emma. ‘The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!’ John Knightley replies: ‘It is certainly very well regulated.’
By this time there were several deliveries a day within London. Just after dawn one October morning in 1816, the year of Emma’s publication, Keats sat down and wrote his sonnet ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’. He put a copy into the post in Southwark and it reached its recipient Charles Cowden Clarke by ten o’clock that morning.
The most peculiar feature from our viewpoint is that postage was paid not by the sender but by the recipient on delivery. Cost was worked out based on distance travelled and the number of sheets of paper used. It was common for the poor to go without food to pay for the receipt of a letter.
One way of keeping costs down was so-called ‘cross-writing’ – not to be confused with Allen’s cross-post. In cross-writing, rather than use a new clean page to continue a letter, you turned it over and wrote over the existing text at a right angle. In Emma, again, Miss Bates refers to a cross-written letter she has received from her niece Jane Fairfax: ‘My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well.’
(In his Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing, published in 1890, Lewis Carroll cautions against cross-writing because ‘cross-writing makes cross reading’. He recommends sticking the stamp and writing the address on the envelope right at the beginning to avoid the ‘wildly-scrawled signature – the hastily-fastened envelope, which comes open in the post – the address, a mere hieroglyphic’.)
Envelopes hadn’t been invented yet. Letters were folded and sealed with a wax stamp, and would probably still have been written on hand-made paper: the mass production of paper began in 1801 with the invention of the Fourdrinier machine, which made a continuous roll rather than individual sheets.
Hand-made paper was/is produced using a mould – a wire screen in a wooden frame. Fibrous slurry settles and dries on the mould before being turned out on to a felt sheet made of animal fur. The ribbing and other marks visible on the paper are indentations from the mould. Lines running sideways are ‘laid lines’; impressions made by the wires holding the sideways wires together are ‘chain lines’. Watermarks occur where a design has been deliberately woven into the wire.
What sort of pens did people use? Jane Austen wrote her letters and novels using a goose quill. The feather’s hollow shaft, the calamus, acts as a reservoir for the ink, which flows to the tip by capillary action. Quills remained popular until the 1820s, when they were superseded by the metal pen.
Jane’s Hampshire home at Chawton in Hampshire is now the Jane Austen House Museum. Visit it – you should – and marvel at the tiny twelve-sided walnut table where she sat, hunched over small sheets specially chosen so that they could easily be put away or covered if someone entered unexpectedly.
Her sloped writing box is in the John Ritblat Gallery in the British Library, in a glass case alongside her spectacles (tiny wire frames, like a doll’s spectacles) and two cancelled chapters of Persuasion.
I popped in and had a look at it earlier this morning – I’m writing this in the British Library. Of course its aura is overwhelming, amplified by the signs of wear and tear and the gentle purple lighting. After I had paid my respects I stood a little way away, in the Beatles lyrics section, and watched successive waves of Janeites fighting the urge to genuflect.
Writing boxes were the laptops or tablets of the nineteenth century. Jane Austen’s, thought to have been bought for her by her father in December 1794, has a leather writing slope, space for two inkwells and compartments for pens, stamps, sealing wax, etc. Lockable, secret drawers were a common feature.
Boxes were mostly used for letting-writing – they could be moved easily to the warmest or most private part of the house – though obviously Austen wrote her novels on hers, as did Anthony Trollope, who had a ‘travelling’ desk which he used on the train. But I digress.…
In 1838 the Great Western Railway opened, linking London with the south-west and west of England and most of Wales. Within ten years trains had replaced mail coaches in all but the most remote areas. Volume was an issue as well as speed: the introduction of the pre-paid Penny Post in May 1840 saw 112,000 stamped letters posted, nearly four times the normal number. Finally, the post was for everyone.
Yet the Penny Post had its critics. And their criticisms will sound strangely familiar.
‘I suppose there has never been so much letter-writing in the world as is going on today, and much of it is good writing, as the papers show,’ sighs AG Gardiner in his late-Victorian essay ‘On Letter-Writing’, before reaching the devastating conclusion that ‘in the great sense letter-writing is no doubt a lost art. It was killed by the Penny Post and modern hurry.’
The essay is persuasive and worth quoting at length:
When Madame de Sévigné, Cowper, Horace Walpole, Byron, Lamb, and the Carlyles wrote their immortal letters, the world was a leisurely place where there was time to indulge in the luxury of writing to your friends. And the cost of franking a letter made that letter a serious affair. If you could only send a letter once in a month or six months, and then at heavy expense, it became a matter of first-rate consequence. The poor, of course, couldn’t enjoy the luxury of letter-writing at all. De Quincey tells us how the dalesmen of Lakeland a century ago used to dodge the postal charges. The letter that came by stage coach was received at the door by the poor mother, who glanced at the superscription, saw from a certain agreed sign on it that Tom or Jim was well, and handed it back to the carrier unopened. In those days a letter was an event.
Now when you can send a letter half round the globe for a penny, and when the postman calls half a dozen times a day, few of us take letter-writing seriously. Carlyle saw that the advent of the Penny Post would kill the letter by making it cheap. ‘I shall send a penny letter next time,’ he wrote to his mother when the cheap postage was about to come in, and he foretold that people would not bother to write good letters when they could send them for next to nothing. He was right, and the telegraph, the telephone, and the postcard have completed the destruction of the art of letter-writing. It is the difficulty or the scarcity of a thing that makes it treasured. If diamonds were as plentiful as pebbles we shouldn’t stoop to pick them up.
So, then – as Kingsley Amis once moaned about the expansion of access to higher education, ‘more means worse’: or does it?. It’s true in a sense that scarce commodities are more valuable than plentiful ones. But really, the only way you’re going to kill something by making it cheap is if you lower its material quality to the point where it stops functioning. More people writing letters for less money isn’t going to diminish the value of letters per se– unless you think letters sent by poor people lack value.
To be honest, every time a change was made to the way people wrote, sent or received letters there was a fuss. Take Mulready ‘stationery letter sheets’ – envelopes you could write on, a bit like aerograms. Their launch in 1840 coincided with the Penny Post’s, but while the stamp was a huge success, the public hated Mulreadies, particularly the elaborate illustration of Britannia and a reclining lion (by painter William Mulready, hence the name) that festooned them.
After only six days the postal reformer Rowland Hill wrote in his journal: ‘I fear we shall have to substitute some other stamp for that design by Mulready.… The public have shown their disregard and even distaste for beauty.’
Two months later, Mulreadies were withdrawn.
Then there’s the pillar post box, introduced to Britain in September 1853 by Anthony ‘travelling writing desk’ Trollope in his capacity as a Post Office surveyor. Trollope had spotted pillar-boxes in France and been impressed. But in his 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right we find spinster aunt Jemima Stanbury expressing what must have been a widespread suspicion:
[She] had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination. She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump, – as she called it – out in the middle of the street with no-one to look after it.
The Joy of Slow Communication
For the Love of Letters
The Joy of Slow Communication
‘The nib touches the paper. And instinctively I follow the old formula: address in top right-hand corner; date just beneath it on the left-hand side. My writing looks weird. I hand-write so infrequently these days that I’ve developed a graphic stammer - my brain’s way of registering its impatience and bemusement. What are you doing? Just send an email! I haven’t got all night . . .’