What is it about letter writing which makes it so special, which binds people to a desk, pan and paper during the finest weather, which causes them to put their often intimate thoughts down on paper for family, friends and acquaintances, and trust them to the vagaries of the postal system? How has this simple form of communication managed to survive all the technological innovations of recent decades, from the telephone through to the smart phone, video conferencing and electronic mail? Why do people of all levels of education in many different societies trust an envelope and a sheet of paper to carry their ideas and experiences to people they have often never met and, possibly, never will meet in their lives?
To answer these simple questions would take more time than any of us have, as it would be a journey into the very soul of the writer and the reader of letters, as much as a commentary on the state of our society. It would be a journey filled with the most intimate of emotions and desires, with joy as much as with frustration, with a longing to be together and the realisation that this is not to be. Letters are the passing on of information, of news, even of wisdom from one hand to another which cannot be conveyed, understood and retained by any other means. The essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) describes the letters of Seneca and Epicurus as being:
… not mere empty and fleshless letters, holding together only by a delicate choice of words piled up and arranged in precise cadence, but letters stuffed full of the fine arguments of wisdom, by which a man becomes not more eloquent but wiser, letters that teach us not to speak well but to do well.
He might also have lauded letters and letter writing as a form of conversation and of discussion:
The most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind …
in the absence of a physical round of people but, more than this, he saw it as the prime means of communication between people who wished to be kept up-to-date on events across a very broad span of society, of political and religious change and, more important in our days of mass communication, on a personal level.
Conversation and discussion without a physical presence? Today we have the means to click on a switch, connect ourselves to the internet and be face-to-face with another person thousands of miles distant, to speak, to discuss, to share with them in real time. Only a short while ago, this means of communication was the stuff of science fiction, of Hollywood movies where all the actors and actresses wore silver suits and moved from one planet to another, or lived in closed cities governed by an unseen power, or sheltering after the nuclear storm, hiding from the alien enemies attacking our planet from outer space. Even today we know that not everyone has access to such means of communication, that the internet is still not the overpowering and exclusive means of communication promised to us a few years ago, that we have a long way to go before thoughts, experiences, desires and emotions can be transmitted quickly and securely from one person to another. The art of conversation through letter writing and the means to discuss and share wisdom, knowledge, experiences inexpensively to all parts of the known world is still within the command and control of the written word.
Letter writing is, however, far more than just this ideal world where the greatest ideas can be communicated, where wisdom can be passed from one person to another by the simplest of available means and then retained for later use. Letter writing is a very personal, almost intimate act between two people, sometimes more. In Victorian times it was the one means by which families, stretched out across the country, the continent, or even across the world could keep in touch with one another. A young man taking part in his Grand Tour across Europe, an explorer venturing into uncharted lands, a young family exploring the possibilities of the New World, all would send back news of their exploits, their discoveries, their successes and failures to family and friends back in their homeland. A single letter might be read out to an entire family around the blazing hearth on a cold winter’s night, or copied and forwarded to friends and relations across the country. Charles Dickens, lecturing across the young United States of America, would write back to his friends in London, fully aware that his words would be passed on to other people outside his immediate circle of friends. Jane Welsh Carlyle would receive letters, and know that they were written with the very idea of being copied and passed on to people not directly addressed on the envelope or in the body of a letter. Pliny the Younger wrote and then revised, as he admitted to Septicius Clarus, letters with the specific intention of having them published for future generations to read. And we mere mortals write letters for pleasure, as much as to communicate news and information, complaints and praise.
There is something about holding a letter addressed exclusively to you, which is clearly not a bill or a demand for late payment, which makes every single letter a special pleasure. You hold an envelope in your hands which has been carefully selected, perhaps brightly coloured and with a small design, with stickers, with extra messages scribbled here and there, and know that this is for your eyes alone. There is a wonderful feeling of anticipation when a friend or family member writes to you, as well as curiosity if the hand writing is unfamiliar. The very act of having a letter from someone else is special, bringing a certain level of intimacy with it as much as the knowledge that someone, known or unknown, has dedicated their time and energy exclusively to writing to you. We see this anticipation, wonder and surprise on the faces of smaller children when they receive their very first letter, with their name on the outside, and the knowledge that this is only for them and no one else. They are suddenly special, selected to have something no one else can have, and which they do not need to share. We see it on the face of lovers, young and old, when that scented envelope finally arrives containing secrets for their eyes alone. We see it on the faces of the older generations, so happy to hear news of children, grandchildren and family members spread far and wide.
But, above all, we see it in the emotions and the conveyed happiness of those who need our support, who are struggling through a highly stressful time in the lives, often alone, almost always afraid, so that they know they are not alone, that someone cares – even a stranger – and that there is still a real and loving place for them in someone’s heart.
[*Dear Reader letters are written to people whose names I do not know but who all have one thing in common: they are undergoing some form of intense medical treatment – such a chemotherapy. These letters are included in packages gifted to people through various charities.]