I was immediately drawn to the short article you enclosed with your letter from Mary Jane’s Farm since it seems, despite its brevity and the lack of letter writing, to speak to many. I was honestly surprised that the author took texting as being of higher value than writing letters, but perhaps that is her own preference, or that of the people she knows, and perhaps that is also the way forward for today’s Farm Girl. The relationship type of letter writing – that is, friendship rather than business – has always been considered one of the areas that women excel, and one in which they should be furthered; at least, until modern educational standards began to drop simply things like reading and writing, communication skills and the like from their curriculum. Men, we have been told, are far too busy to indulge in such extravagances, and are better employed spending their time conducting business, or in their club smoking a cigar over a good tumbler of whiskey. Letter writing, embroidery, water-colour painting: all things designed to keep the good woman at home happy, when she wasn’t busy supervising the housemaid and cook in the daily running of her household, or visiting with friends for an afternoon tea and chat.
This is all a very Victorian viewpoint, even though I do subscribe to some parts of it and am happy to have been able to adopt the letter writing side of life without any sexist or misogynistic comments from those who know me, and one which worked wonderfully for all those who were, effectively, confined to their homes and with no power of expression, no voice in society for themselves. Modern day texting does take over some of this, to a certain extent, but is really more of a short message triviality than fostering new friendships. I am not sure I agree with the idea that women are more attuned to long distance, same-gender relationships than men simply because the friendships are more centred around the telling of stories. To me there is a far closer, kindred spirit involved: the lack of competition is one major thing this short piece does not take into account. Men, their very nature we are told, are designed to be warriors and, therefore, need the constant pull and push of competition to keep their minds and bodies active. Fine, a few of the men I’ve seen – what we can couch-surfers or couch-potatoes – could definitely do with a little more physical activity, and mental agility is often more a wish than a reality.
I think women managed to bond so much better by such means of communication because this level of conflict, the need to better themselves against someone else, is missing to a larger extent. That’s not to say it is not there, but they’re not going to be messing themselves against someone like Paris Hilton – the gods forbid! – and are more likely to be open to conversation without seeing everything said as a challenge to their honour and dignity as warriors, as men. And this form of communication also allows them to speak freely about absolutely any subject they wish, and not restrict themselves to those subjects which others consider suitable and appropriate to age, sensitivity, sex and position. A high society woman writing to the wife of a middle class author, or a well-to-do woman writing to a prostitute are things which work, whereas with men the very thought of penning lines to someone such as a gigolo, or even a gay man, would be considered an affront to their manhood if it ever became public knowledge. How many men have I written to because they appear to have something to say, and not received a reply because I am also a man? One wrote to me recently – which came as a surprise because I had written him off – and made it plain that if I was interested in anything which might embarrass him, as he is decidedly not gay, then I need not write again.
I suspect many women write to the person and not so much to their position in society. I’m not going to add the business world here, because that is completely different and, in correspondence, is left out of the equation: women in the business world separate their business life from their leisure life and private correspondence very successfully indeed. But I am not alone in thinking this: the excellent The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown covers a wealth of examples of how this works, some of which are friendships spanning decades as well as continents. If you get a chance to read it – I’m not sure what your library is like, but there is always a chance – then take the time to do so.
Another good thing that I have noticed is there is no attempt, by most people, to be something they are not. Letter writing, as with all good friendships, is between two people where no disguise is necessary, where absolutely anything – within reason – can be said and there is little fear of a bad response. People who know one another well can read through a temporary feeling of anger or frustration and understand it without immediately breaking off the friendship and battening up the hatches for war. It is possible to simply sit down, take a pen in your hand, and write without a second thought, as if it came direct from the heart and with no desire or necessity to impress anyone. Unless, of course, you know that your letters are going to be shared amongst family and friends, and then a certain level of caution is good practice!
Does sharing still happen? Yesterday I wrote to a man in West Virginia who had been helping his cellmate understand my letters. I admit, it takes a while, and many of the references, especially to classical literature or events from the distant past, can be a bit much at times, but the very idea intrigued me. He wants to carry on writing, has clearly found something in my words, but needs a little assistance with translation into a form of English more accessible to him. I have been told that people are usually, in this situation, very wary of sharing and can be quite jealous when it comes to writing partners and friendships, so it did come as something of a surprise. And now they are both writing to me, on different literary levels, and it is going to be a very interesting time. The new one is open and well-educated, the other considers women’s place to be in the kitchen and only wants to talk politics and religion – my least favourite subjects.
Yes, letter writing friendships are the same as a good friendship should be, they are a form of relationship it is worth working on and harvesting whenever possible. At the same time they are different because of the lack of face-to-face, because of the implicit trust bestowed, because they can be between people of different cultures as much as countries. Some people can build the most beautiful relationship imaginable, on paper, and then find it crumble like a house of cards when they get to meet their correspondent. Expectations too high, or something else? Surprisingly enough, I suspect it is appearance, what a person looks like which makes the difference; as letter writers we might see a photograph of the person we are writing to, but never that real face and that for some, makes a difference.
But we, as letter writers, have the great advantage of distance. That may seem like a strange thing to write, but distance makes the difference: we are thousands of miles apart and living completely different lives. The traditions and customs of our societies are not the same, and that makes for interesting conversations as much as for revelations. My first, in this respect, came when I was fourteen, sneaked off to Paris without permission for a fortnight, and discovered that the French were just like the English apart from language and one or two other small matters. This is not what I had been taught, and it certainly opened my eyes to many other possibilities in life.
Let them bully those who accuse them of holding a false opinion; I accuse them only of holding a difficult and rash one, and condemn the opposite affirmation, just as they do, if not so imperiously.
So wrote Michel de Montaigne, and I am happy to misinterpret his words to add the idea that we should not bully someone because they hold a different opinion to ours, but challenge them to debate it, to show their reasoning and their experiences. Of course, a fourteen year old at a boarding school, challenging his history master to justify his racist opinion wouldn’t have gone down too well, I suspect, but it is something I can and do follow as an adult. I am convinced that those who came out with such opinions about foreigners back then had only been overseas while serving in the military, and had no conception of civilian life in foreign countries at all. Something which is, sad to say, backed up by my own experiences: being the only person in a large group not to eat at a British fast food joint in Nicosia, Cyprus; living outside the barracks for six months in Belize; travelling across the border into Mexico, Ireland, Poland and so many other places to experience, to learn for myself. Let those who have no knowledge bluster forth, we, who take a chance and seek out information, who make friends in strange places, can smile, relax, and enjoy life to the full while they get red in the face, stamp their little feet, and gain nothing.
I am sometimes amused by those who tell me of their travels around the world, and especially to some of the places that I have also visited. I listen to them extolling the wonders of this or that major tourist sight which they visited with a group of others for a few hours – notably these ten cities in seven days type of tours amuse me inordinately – because they have only seen an idealised version of a country or city, if that and not the real life behind the scenes. For that you need to go off the beaten track, and stay longer than a few hours. But also the idea that you can know an entire group of people because you’ve either met one, or because of what is written in your favourite news media makes me sad. It seems as if the sins of those who went before us are being adopted without a question or a care by those who follow.
We are afraid of the wine at the bottom of the cask; in Portugal its flavour is considered delicious, and it is the drink of princes. In short, each nation has many customs and usages that are not only unknown, but savage and miraculous, to some other nation.
If only, as de Montaigne is suggesting, we would take the time to try that which is unknown to us, and learn from that which other people, with different customs, traditions, already know. He seems to have a lot to say, I must admit, but mainly because he travelled extensively and did compare, did learn, from what he saw as well as writing it down in his excellent Essays for us, hundreds of years later, to enjoy and sympathise with.
I say sympathise because he was plagued by illnesses later in life and also came to see, through the different discussions he had with people on his travels, what was better in other countries which his own French colleagues considered outlandish and unacceptable. I suppose we would call him open-minded today, although much of what he thought and practiced followed the traditions of his class and status, right down to the position of women and servants in the household, to the sort of friends and colleagues a person could and should accept, and to the correctness of one religion over another. In fact, no different to some people in our modern world.
But he had exactly the advantage we have today: the ability to write his thoughts down without fear of interruption – those people who insist on stopping you mid-sentence, but object when you questions them? – and work his way through a complete train of thoughts to a logical conclusion or, when that didn’t work out, to a logical question. Letter writing is not just about friendship, although that is one of the most important sides of the whole, but also about discussion, about sharing, about gaining knowledge whilst being able to air your own opinion and, of course, listen to those of others. Everything that modern society needs, but refuses to acknowledge on a personal level, packed in an envelope.