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.
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.
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.