The Lost Art of Letter Writing

letter boxWhen was the last time you received a handwritten letter? With developments in technology and social media, the fact that we can now communicate, instantly, with someone on the other side of the globe, it seems that letters will soon become no more than a distant memory, along with typewriters and telegrams. But I am convinced that we will be missing out on something significant, something valuable, something that provides us with a form of communication that is quite unique, but which also helps us to remember…

Deciphering letters from the past

As a historian, the privilege of reading the letters of someone from the nineteenth century, or even further back in time, is a way of connecting with them across the years. They become real, as you decipher their handwriting and attempt to decode their meaning, word by word.

penWhen writing by hand, with limited paper, and ink which cannot be erased, there is a certain significance and finality about each choice of word. You can tell that the writer has thought about it, considered other options, contemplated the way in which it will be read. With letters that have survived over time there is a certain value which comes simply from the fact that somebody cared enough not to throw it away. They wanted to keep this letter, to read and re-read it. Emails don’t even compare.

Jane Austen’s Letters

What a relief that, whilst many of Jane Austen’s letters were destroyed by concerned relatives after her death, we still have enough to give us a glimpse of the real authoress behind the books – a lady whose wit and wry sense of humour come across vividly through her correspondence with her sister, giving us an idea of what it would have been like to know her personally. Austen includes some fabulous descriptions of the people she meets:Jane_Austen

“Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband & fat neck”.

Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of the famous poet), walked 4 miles from Grasmere to Ambleside and back again each day, in hope of letters, sometimes even twice a day, which just shows how important they were.

Letters from Charlotte Brontë

Bronte_CharlotteAnd then there are the Brontës… I read the entire volume of collected letters in one evening (edited by Muriel Spark, published 1954). It was addictive, giving tantalising glimpses into their world. Most of the letters in the volume are written by Charlotte, and it is fascinating to hear her describe her own situation in life:

“…a private governess has no existence, is not considered as a living and rational being except as connected with the wearisome duties she has to fulfil.”

The collection of Brontë letters reads like a novel, following Charlotte’s hopes and dreams as she studies abroad, under the tutelage of the attractive Monsieur Héger, whom she describes as:

“…a man of power as to mind, but very choleric and irritable in temperement; a little black being, with a face that varies in expression. Sometimes he borrows the lineaments of an insane tom-cat, sometimes those of a delirious hyena…”

Would Charlotte have described him in this way by text or Whatsap? I don’t think so. Letters are special. They’re different from any other form of communication. They’re slower, more refined, more personal.

'Young_Girl_Writing_a_Love_Letter'_by_Pietro_Antonio_Rotari,_Norton_Simon_MuseumWhy not write a letter?

So I urge you, wherever you are, whatever you’re plans for the day, to have a go at writing a letter. It doesn’t matter who you write to: perhaps an elderly relative, a niece or nephew at university, someone who lives in another country, or a friend you haven’t seen for a few years. It doesn’t matter what you say in your letter. It doesn’t have to be long or written on fancy paper – a page or two will do. The important thing is that you bother to write it down and send it. And in doing so, you will be doing your bit to resurrect the art of letter writing…

One thought on “The Lost Art of Letter Writing

  1. Great post, Rachel. Exactly what I was thinking at the Edward Thomas conference yesterday, and also much on my mind after finding old letters my grandmother wrote (1930’s). We are so much closer to someone ‘holding their hand’.

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