[Guest Post] “To the Letter” – A Meditation on Love Letters Across Time
February 14, 2016 in Journal
14 February, 2016
St. Valentine’s Day
My dear Ms. Bradford,
Greetings and enthusiastic wishes for a Valentine’s Day alight with loads of loving letters! I write you today not only to send greetings, but also to thank you for giving me the singular honour of writing the Valentine’s Day post — and to tell you with immense regret that I can’t possibly write such a piece.
Allow me to explain. You asked that I focus on the love-letter sections of the book I have been reading, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield 1. If only you had asked me for a general review of the book! In that case, I could have extolled its wit and the wide range of historical examples it provides. I would have offered up moving passages, such as the one in the introductory chapter, “The Magic of Letters,” in which Mr. Garfield writes eloquently about what we are in danger of losing:
Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world used to run upon their transmission — the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall [sic] of ideas, the silent conduit of the worthy and the incidental, the time we were coming for dinner, the account of our marvelous day, the weightiest joys and sorrows of love. It must have seemed impossible that their worth would ever be taken for granted or swept aside. A world without letters would surely be a world without oxygen (p. 19),
and provided instances of the author’s humour, such as when, in an aside to his discussion of Seneca’s instructional correspondence, he gently pokes fun at academics who study epistolary matters. In this note, Mr. Garfield informs us that
Seneca’s letters were longer than the norm, ranging from 149 to 4,134 words, with an average of 955, or some 10 papyrus sheets joined on a roll. Philological scholars with time on their hands have calculated that a sheet of papyrus of approximately 9 x 11 inches contained an average of 87 words, and that a letter rarely exceeded 200 words (note, p. 55),
an observation that betrays the author’s own interest in such minutiae. He also spares not the Fathers of the Church. He points out that during the millennium when “Literacy was not encouraged among the populace” (p. 81), letter-writing declined and “theological letters are all we have.” Mr. Garfield finds these letters uninspiring and cautions his readers that we “may prefer death to the lingering torture of reading them” (p. 82).
I shall say nothing at all about Mr. Garfield’s three chapters reviewing historical advice on “How to Write the Perfect Letter,” about the heated debates regarding whether letters should mimic informal conversations, about the importance of addressing recipients as befits their stations, about where to place one’s signature, nor about how leaving wide margins was a sign of wealth and status. Epistolary silence shall envelope the fascinating descriptions of the evolution of the modern postal system; not a word will there be from my pen about the incredible fact that postage used to be paid not by the sender of a letter but by the person to whom it was addressed, nor shall I mention anything about the invention of the postage stamp, despite Mr. Garfield’s engaging description of its conception2.
But love letters! You must see how this will never do. Love letters can leave us open to terrible embarrassment. Mr. Garfield acknowledges that
Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgement. The American journalist Mignon McLaughlin had it right in 1966: ‘If you must re-read old love letters,’ she wrote in The Second Neurotics Notebook, ‘better pick a room without mirrors.’ (p. 336)
Reading the love letters of others can be almost as cheek-reddening as reading our own. Shall we really subject our LetterMo companions to such blushing?
Moreover, we all know the power of a love letter. Think how we are charmed when Hamlet, that most articulate of Shakespeare’s creations, writes awkwardly to Ophelia:
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
‘Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.’
(Hamlet, II. ii. 1212-203)
And never let us forget that it is a letter, and not even an intentional love letter, but merely a letter of explanation, that finally wins Mr. Darcy the heart of Elizabeth Bennet. Do we wish to tempt our friends to deploy such power wantonly and without discretion?4
But these are fictional examples, created strictly for our amusement or even for our edification. I really don’t know whether we should intrude upon the privacy of people who actually lived — though Mr. Garfield patently feels no such compunction. He shamelessly lays out for us not only the ecstatic feelings of historical couples, he even brings up — and we’re both adults, so I’m just going to write the word straight out — SEX. I fancy you don’t believe me. Permit me, for veracity’s sake, to share some examples.
If you were to glance at page seventy-three, you would find Mr. Garfield’s account of
The letters between Marcus Aurelius and Fronto [which] track the rise and fall of a courtship from about AD 139, when Aurelius was in his late teens and his teacher in his late thirties, until about AD 148. The heart of their correspondence is ablaze with passion. ‘I am dying so for love of you,’ Aurelius writes, eliciting the response from his tutor, ‘You have made me dazed and thunderstruck by your burning love.’
All I will say is that, with all the conjugating the Romans had to learn, it’s a wonder there was time for such extra-curricular activity.
Mr. Garfield follows this Latin love affair with the tragic, even more explicit tale of Heloise and Abelard, those misfortunate, twelfth-century lovers. Theirs is another pupil-pedant passion, and Abelard writes that
‘With our lessons as our pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love.’ There followed ‘more kissing than teaching’ and hands that ‘strayed oftener to her bosom than the pages’ (p. 76).
The story culminates in pregnancy, a secret marriage, Abelard’s castration by Heloise’s relatives, and the retreat of both lovers into monastic life. Heloise’s love and desire for her husband remain unabated; during Mass, ‘“lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my own prayers”’ (p. 78).
In a later chapter, Mr. Garfield treats us to a discussion of the romance of Napoleon and Josephine, and compares the market worth of their letters to the arguably more valuable missives of Admiral Lord Nelson. “In letters,” our author confides, “as everywhere else, sex sells: the Nelson [letter] went for Ł66,000, a fair sum but less than a quarter of a Bonaparte” (p. 192).
Mr. Garfield puts before us the affaire de cœr of Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. He quotes “a letter which echoed the steamy transactions of Abelard and Heloise …: ‘When [the pastor] said Our Heavenly Father,’ I said “Oh Darling Sue”; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang … I made up words and kept singing how I loved you”” (p. 248).5 In another letter, Dickinson breathlessly confides to Gilbert that if they were together, “we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language” (p. 248).
To be sure, there are genuinely moving examples of great love to be found in the book. We are reminded that passionate romances need not be defined by tragedy. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett fell in love through their letters, and their correspondence describes a “swift 20-month crescendo from endearing fandom to all-consuming craving” (p. 345). The two poets eloped and lived happily for the duration of their marriage. Browning was “the man who swept her [Barrett] away and liberated her passion” (p. 347) — and married her.
While the concerns of the famous hold a particular fascination for the masses — as Shakespeare writes, “What great ones do the less will prattle of6 — the most touching and poignant letters are those of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore. Mr. Barker was a British signalman during the Second World War, Miss Moore an acquaintance from Mr. Barker’s time working in the Post Office. When they began to write, Ms. Moore was involved with someone named Nick, but three months into their correspondence Ms. Moore has shed Nick and is trying to persuade Mr. Barker that they are friends, and not mere acquaintances. She succeeds admirably, and soon Mr. Barker is assuring her of his interest in having “fun at a later date” while warning her “not to let me break your heart in 1946 or 47” (p. 145), and stoking her interest by wondering what she’s like “in the soft, warm, yielding, panting flesh” (p. 147). But before long Miss Moore’s unwavering admiration and epistolary dedication have complicated Mr. Barker’s desire and he is writing “I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU” (p. 202).
Miss Moore waits for her signalman throughout the war and his time as a POW. In the epilogue, we learn that they were married in October 1945 and had two sons. It is to the elder, Bernard, that we owe thanks for the preservation of their letters. The younger Mr. Barker says of his parents that “Their love for each other was so complete, always, that it was difficult for my brother and I in childhood and adolescence to relate to each of them as a single person” (p. 425). In the last letter of the war, Mr. Barker writes his by-now wife, “I can never be as good as you deserve, but I really will try very hard … We shall be collaborators, man and woman, husband and wife, lovers” (p. 426). The Barkers’ letters cannot be read without becoming involved in their growing affection and in the history Mr. Barker includes in his letters to the steadfast woman who would become his partner. The letters are tender and grateful and passionate, and we learn a great deal from them about Mr. Barker’s experiences as a signalman, about how to lay the foundation for a lasting, loving relationship, and about how thoroughly Victorian sexual mores had been trampled into the dust.
I cannot but think that you are as shocked as I am. You have not read the book and are innocent regarding its contents. I am sure, in my heart of hearts, that you didn’t understand what you were asking me to do. But I am equally sure, Ms. Bradford, that you agree these matters ought not be laid out before the Month of Letters community, that none of our letter-writers could ever have the slightest interest in reading about affairs of the heart (and of the body) of other people. Our reputation as an Internet society devoted to promoting the respectable art of epistolary composition would suffer dreadfully, and neither of us wants to be complicit in bring such a judgement to pass.
I do hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me for letting you down so. To make up for the lack of a post, I offer you a poem in its stead, one more suitable for our impeccable epistolary society, as a substitute for the piece I should have given you:
But For Lust
But for lust we could be friends,
On each other’s necks could weep:
In each other’s arms could sleep
In the calm the cradle lends:
Lends awhile, and takes away.
But for hunger, but for fear,
Calm could be our day and year
From the yellow to the grey:
From the gold to the grey hair,
But for passion we could rest,
But for passion we could feast
On compassion everywhere.
Even in this night I know
By the awful living dead,
By this craving tear I shed,
Somewhere, somewhere it is so.
I trust you understand my reasons for writing you this letter and do assure you that I remain
Your honoured and admiring epistolary confederate,
Ruth E. Feiertag
- Gotham Books, Penguin Group, 2014 ↩
- Those familiar with Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal will already have an inkling of the early history of stamps. ↩
- Open source Shakespeare, accessed 3 February 2016 ↩
- Garfield irresponsibly provides no advice for the proper composition of a love letter. For that we must look to John Beguine of The Atlantic. His article, “A Modern Guide to the Love Letter,” reminds us to choose “100 percent cotton paper,” that may “suggest to your beloved those other cotton sheets you hope to share.” He also cautions us not to “succumb to the temptation to employ your own personal stationery imprinted with your name and address. Such handsome lettering makes identification appallingly easy for your lover’s attorney.” Beguine covers other topics such as Ink, Elegance (“Elegance prompts wit rather than comedy, sentiment rather than sentimentality” and “Long-winded elegance is oxymoronic. So length does matter, but in writing, less is more”), Salutation, Body (“even if you have a knack for them, no pornographic drawings”), Metaphors, Grammar, Complimentary Close, Signature (“If you can’t bring yourself to close without a signature, limit yourself to your first initial. And try to be illegible here. There’s no reason to make the job easier for a lawyer someday”), Delivery (“bribe whomever you must to have the letter placed directly upon the beloved’s pillow”), and Accepting an Answer. ↩
- One might also ponder Dickinson’s 1722 poem, “Her face was in a bed of hair”:
Her face was in a bed of hair,
Like flowers in a plot —
Her hand was whiter than the sperm
That feeds the sacred light.
Her tongue more tender than the tune
That totters in the leaves —
Who hears may be incredulous,
Who witnesses, believes. ↩
- Twelfth Night, I. I. 33. ↩