Our book today is the delightful Oxford Book of Letters from the halcyon year 1995, a beautifully-produced and jam-packed thing edited by Frank and Anita Kermode and devoted, of course, to what is now axiomatically referred to as “the lost art” of letter-writing.
Axiomatically, but not, I think, melodramatically; letters were tangible things, after all, capable of surviving floods, fires, and estate sales, whereas our present forms of written communication – email, Facebook, Twitter – are easily deleted (hell, Snapchat deletes itself), and also easily lost: I wrote my first emails twelve years ago (after a ‘snail-mail’ correspondence that you might call voluminous), and as some of you long-time Stevereads readers may imagine, I took to it. Emails poured forth, from a succession of computers – first a hand-me-down, then another hand-me-down, then a bright green transparent Mac, and so on through ten other machines, leading up to my current MacBook, which is technically capable of commandeering NORAD but which I use as the very apotheosis of a word-processor. Vast tranches of emails, all written on those earliest computers (the stationary kind – the mind shudders to recall work that couldn’t be done in bed), and all now completely lost to me. And not just lost in the sense of deleted – no: even if I’d had the presence of mind to save every bit of email correspondence (and every Instant Messenger conversation from MySpace and every other now-forgotten destination site), where would I have saved it all? To some disk that can’t now be read by any new machine? To some master file that today’s master file-opener would garble or mangle or snub? It’s true that if a piece of technology existed that allowed its owner to print out electronic communications on paper, I might have done that, but since even the best tech-companies in the world have never managed to get such printing out to happen more than once under laboratory conditions, there’s not much sense talking about it. And even if such technology some day does exist, I can already hear what the purists will say: that printing-out misses the whole POINT of electronic communication, which is that it need not revert to the sovereignty of print in order to be valid.
This Oxford Book harks back to the centuries when there was no alternative to paper, and the Kermodes fill it with wonders. We get Thomas Sheridan writing to Jonathan Swift in mock-Latin; we get Alexander Pope chiding a correspondent about not hearing from him (even while he’s delivering news of the death of a mutual friend), and our editors makes sure to include the whole range of what letters could convey, from harmless frivolity and quotidian fact-updating to far more serious stuff, as when Mary Wollstonecraft in 1795 sends a stiff reprimand to an acquaintance who’d had the nerve to suggest a husband for her:
It is inexpressibly disagreeable to me to be obliged to enter again on a subject, that has already raised a tumult of indignant emotions in my bosom, which I was labouring to suppress when I received your letter. I shall now condescend to answer your epistle; but let me first tell you, that, in my unprotected situation, I make a point of never forgiving a deliberate insult – and in that light I consider your late officious conduct. It is not according to my nature to mince matters – I will then tell you in plain terms, what I think. I have ever considered you in the light of a civil acquaintance – on the word friend I lay a peculiar emphasis – and, as a mere acquaintance, you were rude and cruel, to step forward to insult a woman, whose conduct and misfortune demand respect. If my friend, Mr Johnson, had made the proposal – I should have been severely hurt – have thought him unkind and unfeeling but not impertinent. – That privilege of intimacy you had no claim to – and should have referred the man to myself – if you had not sufficient discernment to quash it at once. I am, sir, poor and destitute. – Yet I have a spirt that will never bend, or take indirect methods, to obtain the consequence I despise; nay, if to support life it was necessary to act contrary to my principles, the struggle would soon be over. I can bear any thing but my own contempt.
You can see her agitation in her punctuation; you can hear her aggrieved pride in her cadences. Despite the billions of emails being written on Earth every year, it’s hard to imagine such prose occurring in their medium – and it’s hard to imagine the recipient of such a letter not simply deleting it.
That goes double, of course, for the light-hearted stuff. Few correspondents ever excelled at light-hearted stuff like the great letter-writer Sydney Smith (a Penguin Classics collection of his letters is lon overdue), who’d mastered the tricky art of opening his letters with a laugh:
Pray tell me something about Lord and Lady Holland as it is several centuries since I have seen them. I heard of Lady Holland on a sofa. I thought she had done with sofas.
There’s more studied – and therefore more startling – humor on hand here too, as in the 1861 letter Anthony Trollope wrote to Dorothea Sankey, a letter about which the Kermodes rather po-facedly relay one scholar’s opinion that we’re “almost certainly right in calling it a joke”:
My Dearest Miss Dorothea Sankey,
My affectionate & most excellent wife is as you are aware still living – and I am proud to say her health is good. Nevertheless it is always well to take time by the forelock and be prepared for all events. Should anything happen to her, will you supply her place, – as soon as the proper period for decent mourning is over.
Till then I am your devoted Servant,
(the “till then” is priceless, I think)
There’s another element of letter-writing that’s missing from emails, of course: the element of public performance. Many of the letters collected in this volume were written by famous people who knew – or at least were willing to gamble – that their correspondence might one day end up in a book just like this one. Accordingly, they wrote with one eye cocked over their shoulder toward eavesdropping posterity, and their letters are the better for it. Whereas the ephemerality of emails – about which I was griping a moment ago – seems to have percolated into the collective consciousness of the form. Who sends an email to somebody thinking it might be preserved? Possibly read out loud at the moment of receipt (if it’s particularly fun or provocative), but beyond that? Centuries beyond that? Such things never occur to emailers (and they write accordingly), whereas in the case of, say, Robert Louis Stevenson, hot off the act of writing Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the idea is unavoidable. Read this little bit from a letter he wrote to J. A. Symonds in 1886 and tell me he didn’t expect it to be quoted in 2014:
Raskolnikoff is easily the best book I have read in ten years; I am glad you took to it. Many find it dull: Henry James could not finish it: all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness. James did not care for it because the character of Raskolnikoff was not objective; and at that I divined a great gulf between us, and, on further reflection, the existence of a certain impotence in many minds of to-day, which prevents them from living in a book or a character, and keeps them standing afar off, spectators of a puppet show. To such I suppose the book may seem empty in the centre; to the others it is a room, a house of life, into which they themselves enter, and are tortured and purified.
The Kermodes nicely balance such public stuff with intensely private stuff, and they include a few items that are weirdly, uncomfortably in between, like the razor-sharp note Katherine Mansfield sent in 1921 to a woman having an affair with Mansfield’s husband:
Dear Princess Bibesco,
I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.
You are very young. Won’t you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.
Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.
Again I can’t help but wonder: who would write something like that as an email, today? And who would save it? And that’s just the direct one-to-one aspect of writing – the aspect dealing only with writer and sender, which is only a fraction of the aspects on hand in The Oxford Book of Letters. A great many of the letters anthologized here were preserved neither by their senders nor by their recipients – rather, they were found, by scholars, in neutral, dusty archives. Where are those archives, for emails? They don’t exist, and even if they did, how many Apple-cycles would it be before their contents were impossible to open? And without such an archive, how could there ever be an Oxford Book of Emails?