Dear flames

Jane Shilling plans to burn four decades of correspondence—if she can
February 22, 2012
“The Love Letter” (1834) by Thomas Sully: the correspondence of the past often reveals itself to be unguarded and inconsequential as emails

Domestic bonfires are not easily come by in southeast London, where I live. These days they are altogether in decline. A friend who lives in Ireland tells me that on Sundays the Gardai use helicopters to look for tell-tale columns of illegal smoke. (The solution, apparently, is to have your bonfire on Tuesday mornings, when the police are otherwise engaged.)

But that is not much use to me in Greenwich. The recycling facilities offered by my council are so excellent that there is no reason for me to start a fire, even if it were allowed. Everything, from garden rubbish to old mattresses can be made to vanish. All you have to do is pick up the phone.

But what I’ve got to dispose of demands a more dignified end than the recycling bin. After four decades of hoarding, I’ve decided to get rid of my accumulated correspondence, and I want to do it in style.

A man I know spent the night before his wedding rereading letters from old girlfriends and casting them one by one into the roaring fire in front of which he was nursing a large whisky and some small regrets. There seemed something rather magnificent about the gesture, and I should like a similar fate for my archive.

By this I mean my private correspondence. Not missives from the bank or the Revenue, which go straight into the recycling bin, but letters, cards and notes from friends, lovers—and even strangers: people who have read articles or books that I have written and been sufficiently touched by them to write to me about their feelings.

These are letters, in short, that were written by people who for an instant, or often for longer—months, years, in some cases decades—cared enough to conduct a conversation with me in writing.

Some of my most faithful correspondents I have never met; some are my dearest friends; some, I’ll never hear from again. Others have vanished, only to reappear miraculously, sometimes after a gap of decades, and for our conversation to resume as though it had never been interrupted.

It is a sign of my age (I’m 53) that, having resolved to eradicate the aspect of my past that my letters represent, I’m obliged to dispose of a physical archive. My 20-year-old son, whose written discourse is voluminous but wholly electronic—Facebook, Twitter and texts—could obliterate his history at the press of a couple of keys.

There is a single exception: a note scrawled on the back of a shopping list, left on the kitchen table this Christmas after a trip to a distant football match on Boxing Day. It ended with a panicky phone call in the small hours and a drive through the Blackwall Tunnel in my nightie to collect him from a remote and deserted Tube station. It is the only example of his handwriting that I possess. Is it to be destroyed with the rest of the archive? I haven’t decided.

What I also haven’t decided is the fate of my own electronic archive. A couple of my oldest and most important friendships are conducted almost entirely by email (we live too far apart to meet regularly). Printed out, those exchanges would produce a pile of paper larger than the one I’m planning to destroy. Which brings us to the intriguing question of whether letters and email are the same thing and, if not, why?

In the debate about whether electronic publishing means the demise of the printed book, no one ever argues that an ebook is not, actually, a book. The inherent nature of the enterprise is assumed to be unmodified by the medium of its presentation.

Last year, a BBC documentary, “Books—the Last Chapter?”, interviewed electronic publishers who scoffed at the wilful Luddism of readers who mourned printed text—as quaint, they argued, as 15th-century literary backwoodsmen huffing crossly about the chilly unlovability of metal type, as opposed to manuscript.

Defending the charm of the bound volume were a librarian who catalogued books according to their smells, the Canadian author Douglas Coupland, who once ate one of his own books (try that with a Kindle), and Brewster Kahle, a man engaged in the Borgesian task of archiving a real and a virtual copy of every book ever published. But the documentary failed to address the notion that literature itself might be transformed by the new technology.

Yet it is a commonplace view that the letter has been rendered as obsolete by electronic messaging as horse-drawn carriages were by the internal combustion engine. Letters, the argument goes, are quaint, retro, fiddly and a bit pretentious. They involve finding a sheet of paper, a pen, an envelope, a stamp and the postal address. Writing with a pen makes your wrist hurt and gives you a funny dent on the inside edge of your middle finger.

Worse, the only people with time to devote to the archaic rituals of letter-writing are those with nothing more interesting to do. Better a letter from a bank manager or the Revenue than one of these insipid epistolary horrors: its very presence on the doormat a reproach for one’s neglect of a lonely correspondent who can’t, or won’t get to grips with email. So one is obliged to respond in kind, in the bleak certainty that it will encourage a further effusion of non-news, in the manner of Nigel Molesworth’s mother brightening the tedium of term-time at St Custard’s with bulletins from the home front: (“There is very little to tell you. The snowdrops are out and your father is in a filthy temper but these facts have nothing to do with each other.”)

How different from the sexy spontaneity of email or text, in which, untroubled by the regulations of grammar or orthography, the bubbles of the mind float as lightly and ephemerally as conversation itself. As one of my more worldly friends put it (in a text): “U chat up with emails and texts, but u split up with letters.”

This is intriguing, and it is certainly true that the physical experience of receiving a written letter is fraught with resonances far more complex than the aseptic ping of the email landing in an inbox.

The sensations of the human heart remain essentially unchanged across centuries—we comprehend in a flash the anguish of Pushkin’s Tatiana, pouring out her love for Eugene Onegin in a letter that remains cruelly unanswered, or Thomas Hardy’s Tess, pursuing her doomed relationship with Angel Clare in a series of hopelessly misdirected missives. But it is strange to think that the stage machinery of attachment has utterly changed in the space of a generation.

Not many people of my son’s age will experience the clutch of the heart caused by the sight of an envelope addressed in a longed-for handwriting; nor find themselves reduced to tears when an ancient love letter falls out of a long-unread book they have idly taken down from the shelf.

This feels like a shift of experience between the letter-writing generations and their emailing, texting, Facebooking successors. (Underpinning the novel status of letters as a kind of museum piece is a website celebrating the ancient art of communicating with pen and paper: Letters of Note and its sister site, Letterheady).

Yet the human craving for intimacy has always been appeased by conversation, or its written equivalent—correspondence. And while we may think our own society both more emotionally disinhibited and less capable of intimacy than its predecessors, it is intriguing to examine the published correspondence of the past and discover how unguarded, how inconsequential—how emailish, in fact—it appears.

“My dear Cassandra,” wrote Jane Austen to her sister on Saturday 5th March, 1814. “Do not be angry with me for beginning another Letter to you. I have read [Byron’s poem] the Corsair, mended my petticoat and have nothing else to do…”

Deirdre Le Faye, the editor of an edition of Austen’s letters, published last year by Oxford University Press, notes in her introduction to the collection that Austen’s “letters to [her sister] Cassandra are the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters—hasty and elliptical, keeping each other informed of domestic events and occasionally making comments on the news of the day, both local and national.”

But there is a more obvious comparison: the letters resemble precisely the inconsequential, hastily written emails with which so many of us keep in touch with our intimates, beguiling a moment of boredom in the working day by passing on a scrap of gossip, news of the latest fashion, or the story of some small domestic excitement.

Austen’s nephew, the Reverend James Austen-Leigh, published a memoir of his aunt in which he quoted some of her letters, warning “the reader must be warned not to expect too much from them… for they treat only of the details of domestic life.” But for a modern reader it is their openness, their lack of a high, considered style that makes them so fascinating.

You can see why a respectable 19th-century clergyman might have been unnerved to find his maiden aunt writing to her spinster sister, “Miss Debary, Susan & Sally… made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.” But to a generation accustomed to the filterless ease of instant communication, that casual savagery seems exhilaratingly modern: it brings Austen springing into vivid life across a gap of two centuries.

Frank Kermode, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Letters, took an elegiac tone about the decline of modern correspondence, bemoaning the effects of instant communication—the loss of the delicious deferred gratification of letter-writing, and the fact that “E-mail, whether seen as curse or blessing, fosters promiscuous communication and a lack of that privacy formerly taken for granted as a natural condition of letter-writing.”

Is this right? It is true that lovers of the past weren’t exposed to quite the extremity of global humiliation that befell Mike, a New York banker who wrote an unguarded 1,600-word email to a girl with whom he’d had an unsatisfactory date last summer. It began thus: “Hi Lauren, I’m disappointed in you. I’m disappointed that I haven’t gotten a response to my voicemail and text messages.” And continued in that vein for a very long time. Somehow it got onto Reddit, the social news network, and soon millions of strangers, from Novosibirsk to South Georgia were privy to the details of poor Mike’s love life. Oh dear.

But it is surely a mistake to imagine that privacy was ever a “natural condition of letter-writing.” The long and entertaining correspondence between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh contains this exchange.

29th September 1952. “Darling Nancy… I believe you keep my letters. A month or so ago I wrote a nasty one about Clarissa. Will you be very kind and burn it?”

30th September 1952: “Darling Evelyn, What a very rum request. I specially treasure your nasty letters, posterity will love them so. However just as you say.”

The speed with which this dialogue was conducted is striking. Waugh’s letter of 29th September, sent from Brighton, eliciting a response from Mitford in Paris the very next day—so much for the delicious deferred gratification of pen and ink. This also reveals the universal truth of correspondence: that to write anything down is to make oneself vulnerable.

Whether the words are scratched on parchment with a goose quill, or rattled out on a keyboard at 70 words a minute, the instant of dropping the envelope into the postbox, or clicking on the “send” button is a reckless act: the auto-invasion of privacy. In the moment of their release, one’s words take on an uncontrollable life of their own.

“I do not write this till the last, that no eye may catch it,” wrote the dying Keats to Fanny Brawne in a letter of desperate, appalling intimacy. Now any eye may catch his expiring blast of love and misery, just as any may catch the novelist Fanny Burney’s excruciating description, in a letter to her sister, of her mastectomy without anaesthetic, or Philip Larkin’s desolate effusions of glum eroticism in his collected letters to his companion Monica Jones (as Christopher Hitchens remarked, “one can barely rise to saying mistress, let alone lover”).

In writing letters, by whatever means, one writes, without knowing it, one’s life story. And one rarely emerges well from the account (there are exceptions: the correspondence between Patrick Leigh Fermor and the Duchess of Devonshire is a life-enhancing portrait of a touching and sustaining friendship, characterised on either side by wit, courage and a desire to please).

Which brings me back to my bonfire. My rational self wants to burn my letters because I’m never going to reread them, and I need the cupboard space. My heart knows that I want to destroy them because I’d like to be no longer the person they were sent to.

But whatever I do with them, it will make not the slightest difference. If any of my correspondents has kept a single one of my letters, then that version of me is out there, on the loose, capering mockingly beyond my power to control her.

It is a thought that should make me give up writing letters. But somehow it does not. It is, after all, the human condition to be ridiculous, and one may as well embrace it as entertainingly as one can.