brown envelop on table

Letter-Writing – and its sad demise

Remember those days when it was possible to return home and find the doormat displaying neat oblong-shaped Basildon Bond or Queen’s Velvet blue envelopes bulging with handwritten pages of missives from friends, far and wide?

Equally exciting were those tissue-thin airmail letters that allowed only so much text so the sender compressed handwriting style to make the most of the limited space?

Bygone days, naturally.

But remember the anticipation?

Tearing open such letters to read swiftly the contents whilst still wearing a coat, clinging on to car keys, a pint of milk picked up on the way home, was forbidden by some unwritten law one was obliged to obey.

There was, after all, a ritual to opening letters. A protocol to follow.

A required cup of tea or coffee to be made – or glass of wine to be poured depending on time of day – any cats fed and watered to avoid interruption, a favourite chair to occupy, curtains drawn, possibly, even a change of clothes. Then, and only then, could the envelope be carefully slit open and the contents devoured.

No longer, of course.

The arrival of such letters belongs to the past. And their replacement is something of another nature entirely.

Emails. Whats App messages. Texts. A generic Facebook announcement. An Instagram photo.

Don’t get me wrong – I love emails from friends. I like being in touch with people’s lives in a myriad of ways, kept vaguely aware of their fortunes, their high days and holidays.

But it’s not the same.

Opening an email is done without ritual. It’s part of a swift scroll down the inbox, the contents generally absorbed, dispatched and deleted pretty swiftly.

There’s no matching envelope to slip the contents back into to save and savour another time.

And there is a loss, I believe, for both sender and receiver.

Letters used to be a way of unloading, recalling, revisiting events, recollecting emotions. Writing letters home, to close friends, absent friends, much missed friends was a form of communicating in which strong feelings could be expressed and shared. A form of catharsis, you could say.

Emails are somehow too public, too casual to bear the same sort of openness and import that letters used to hold.

A love letter in an email? Utterly inappropriate.

An expression of anxiety- a sharing of those dark matters of the soul?

Certainly not to be trusted to declaration on a screen to be pinged recklessly into the internet ether.

As for the loss to literature that the demise of letter-writing may have caused …..

Think of all those 19th century authors who made use of correspondence as a method of moving the plot on or revealing a hidden lovesick heart or a devastating secret.

One of my favourites will always been Captain Wentworth’s letter of declaration to Anne Eliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago….I have loved none but you.

Even the author comments that Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from – and readers must inevitably agree!

Austen makes considerable use of letters in Pride and Prejudice too as plot devices and character revelations. We learn a great deal about events from letters sent to Elizabeth from her sister, Jane, and from Mr Darcy. Indeed, there is an important turning point in the story – and in how Darcy and Elizabeth view each other – after she receives his letter and consequently the beginning of a thaw in the respective pride and prejudice that has divided them.

Of course letters do go astray – and this can equally be a plot twist and one that Thomas Hardy certainly makes use of in Tess of the D’urbervilles when Tess’ confession concerning the dastardly Alec D’urberville in a letter to Angel Clare inadvertently slips under rather than onto the carpet of his room.

The carpet reached close to the sill and under the edge of the carpet she discerned the faint white margin of the envelope containing her letter to him, which he obviously had never seen, owing to her having in her haste thrust it beneath the carpet as well as beneath the door.

As anyone who has read Hardy’s novel will know, the unread letter has major consequences for ….well, Tess’ fate and the reader’s opinion of Angel Clare!

From lofty literary luminaries – to my own novels! I, too, have made use of letters in all of them.

In Miller Street SW22, the character of Frances carries on a one-sided correspondence to a recipient who she sees as responsible for …well, you will have to read the novel to find out!

And The Legacy of Mr Jarvis ends with two letters being written – which one is sent, however, remains a mystery best solved by the reader or a book group discussion!

And The Odyssey of Lily Page also has a key letter that allowed me to shift the perspective for a moment – away from the eponymous character of Lily through which the narrative has been told to that of the character of Hugh Murray. Letters allow a temporary shift in viewpoint that can be very useful for this reason – a chance to allow the reader to see events or glimpse a different insight into a character.

Of course the epistolary novel of the 18th century is quite another thing – a story told entirely in letter form. I remember wading my way very laboriously and painfully through Samuel Richardson’s Pamela many decades ago as part of my degree course.

But Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine, published in 1991, also uses an epistolary form and is a brilliant novel. The structure of the one-sided correspondence between Eliza Peabody and Joan provides an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining novel that I highly recommend.

So back to ordinary rather than fictional letters.

Will the habit ever revive?

Will there ever come a day when children once more seek pen friends and devote time to writing letters rather than creating TikTok videos?

Somehow, I doubt it.

But who knows? Perhaps us grown ups need to lead by example and pick up the habit again ourselves.

But does anyone know if Basildon Bond and Queen’s Velvet stationery still exists?

No. Me neither!

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