What Happened to the Art of Letter Writing?

The noble art of letter writing seems to have gone into freefall. I think this is a shame, although I am the first to admit that I rarely find time these days to write more than the tersest of emails. As a literary device, letters are a gift for authors, as I know from my own experience. But are their days numbered?

Time to write

Until the invention of new time-saving technology, which I suppose one can date to the telegram, people communicated in writing. I’m astonished at the time that busy people seemed to be able to devote to writing letters.

Look at the Earl of Chesterfield’s letters to his illegitimate son, published as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). This 30-year correspondence of more than 400 letters was never intended for publication, but came to be regarded as a manual on the ways of the world.

Chesterfield was a politician, essayist and patron of the arts, and yet he found the time to construct these elegant and epigrammatic documents.

Novel device

As a literary device, letters have proved popular with authors for centuries. The epistolary novel arose probably in the late 15th century and grew in popularity until becoming one of the dominant forms in the 18th century. Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, and a number of French writers, including Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) were exponents.

This literary form fell out of favour in the early 19th century, but was back by the end. Modern writers, such as Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk about Kevin), have employed it to powerful effect. Using letters is a potent way to embed point of view – especially that of an unreliable witness – and to increase dramatic tension where the writer is unaware of relevant things going on.

Inspiration

A series of letters forms the basis of my own novel, The House at Zaronza, although it isn’t an epistolary novel. In a B&B in Corsica, we came across the real life story of a pair of star-crossed lovers who communicated by letter via a secret letter drop. One set of the letters survived, walled up in the attic, and came to light only a century after they were written in the 1890s.

The village schoolmaster wrote the letters to the daughter of the house, whose bourgeois parents would have strongly disapproved of their liaison. They are clearly written by someone who was lettered and educated. And, again, despite being a busy person, he found the time to write more than just notes fixing the time and place of their assignations. These are passionate love letters, elegantly phrased and carefully constructed.

100 years hence?

Today’s instant communication media don’t lend themselves to this kind of prose. Emails and text messages are time-saving devices in which you can dispense with pronouns and direct/indirect articles and even complete words in the interests of speed. Nonetheless, writers have used them as a vehicle for fiction. I suppose this is a sign of the times in which we live.

But while this type of communication provides useful material for biographers and historians can you imagine being moved to read The Collected Emails of A. Famous Author or Selected Text Messages of A. Former Prime Minister? 

And how would my lovers, Maria and Raphaël have communicated today? By SMS, I suppose. Even assuming their mobile phones stood the test of time, would ‘CU @ 4’ followed by a smiley really stir the imagination of a novelist in 100 years’ time? Or would they regard it as quaint and romantic, as we do old billets doux? Call me an old fogey, but it wouldn’t do it for me.  

Copyright © Vanessa Couchman 2015. All rights reserved.

 

10 thoughts on “What Happened to the Art of Letter Writing?

  1. Pingback: Relatively Speaking… | Vanessa Couchman, author

  2. When i moved to france there were many friends who said they would keep in touch. Some do…via facebook! But my best friend always handwrites lovely long letters, the ones that demand you make a cup of tea and curl up on the sofa to read them. I write back but i’m ashamed to say my handwriting is such a scrawl i type them on the computer and print them out but use a font that mimics handwriting! I send birthday cards and love it when people send cards to me. The computer version can never be propped up on the dresser and give you pleasure for days to come. 🙂 re old letters, i treasure one my grandmother wrote to explain her schooldays to our son, now in his forties, when he did a school project aged 8. Hopefully there will always be letter writers just as thete are readers who prefer books made of paper! A bientot, lynne

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    • I really bemoan the decline of the art of letter writing – with a pen. And I am the first to admit that I find it faster to type than to handwrite letters. But we should treasure those letters that come down to us by chance or otherwise from times past. And I still prefer hard copy books to the electronic version. Alas, living where we do, the latter are more practical. As an author myself, I have no interest in admitting that…

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  3. Really interesting post. As you know, my WIP is based on a large collection of fascinating letters written to my grandmother during the 1920s and early 1930s from a friend who was lady’s maid to a leading member of the aristocracy. They go into so much detail, on so many subjects, that they paint a really vivid picture of the life of the times. I can’t imagine them (hopefully!) having the same impact if they were emails or texts!

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    • I think letters from the past give us such a wonderful apercu on the times in which they were written. Your project really fascinates me and I look forward very much to following its development.

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  4. Couldn’t agree more, but I regularly write letters, a monthly one to my grandson and grand-daughter and to family and friends thanking them or commiserating. And I use a fountain pen. Have to say I love receiving letters back and pictures drawn for me, I’m determined to keep it going. Hate texting and always write it longhand so it would be quicker to pick up the phone! (But don’t like phones either…)

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    • You are a lesson to us all. When I do get the chance to write to a friend whom I haven’t seen for some time, I do really enjoy the process. I find it hard to write on paper with a pen these days (what an admission!) but I do try to write a proper letter by email to my friends. These days, it’s quicker for me to do it via keyboard than by pen; but I totally agree – it’s so much nicer to receive a properly-penned letter.

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  5. Quite agree, Vanessa. And the art of handwriting has gone with it. The only thing you need to write by hand is your Will, which through lack of practice is likely to be totally illegible! I miss the personal touch of a handwritten letter.
    I suppose before the digital world arrived, people had more time to write letters as they didn’t have all the other distractions that come with computers and iPads. We tend to forget that.

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    • I also miss the personal touch that comes with a handwritten letter, Jill. I am ashamed to say that I used to handwrite things far more than I do now. The distractions are not necessarily a good thing.

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