From the erudite expressions of Sylvia Plath to the abrasive exclamatives of small-handed dictators, Elinor explores the history of letter writing in this week’s culture column.
It has been suggested that the art of letter writing is in decline. We only need to look at recent presidential examples to see dud, flaccid correspondences, riddled with obtuse exclamatives and patchily-coded threats. Trump and Johnson’s letters are a communicative bric a brac of bruised egos, scoring perhaps a grade 5 at best in an English Language GCSE exam. These governing ‘men of letters’ are clumsy linguistic navigators, sloppily meshing the functionalities of letter writing with literary pretence.
Writing in a letter to Donald Tusk on the 28th October with all the upped hackles of a cornered teenager, Boris Johnson squeaks, “I would have much preferred if the UK could have proceeded rapidly to ratify the deal we reached between us […] That is why I am seeking a General Election in December to ensure the election of a fresh Parliament which is capable of resolving the issue in accordance with our constitutional norms.” In a separate letter to the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Donald Trump metaphorically breathes down the collar of his recipient, writing “History will look favourably upon you if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” The irony is deafening.
For Goethe, and for the author of Written in History, Simon Sebag Montefiore, letters are “the most significant memorial a person can leave”. Reading Montefiore’s collection of letters, one is reminded of Stephen King’s suggestion in On Writing, that written documents are pseudo-telepathic scripts which offer “the truest distillation” of experience. Here, Montefiore cherry-picks traces of historical experiences through assembling letters on themes of love, discovery, courage, creation and departure, including letters from Leonard Cohen, Michaelangelo, Elizabeth I, Rameses the Great, Emmeline Pankhurst and Nelson Mandela. In doing this, Montefiore offers an illuminating insight into the psyches of his senders, rendering an illicit intimacy to the act of reading works of which you are not the recipient – proving that desire does not expire.
All things considered, there is something lost through organising letters in this way; handwritten smudges reconfigured into legible fonts, categorised, prefaced and numbered. There’s an eerie banality to reading letters from ruthless historical figures whose textual tone echoes the slow, elliptical idiolect of my Grandma’s text messages, “Dear Klim, did you read the testimonies . . . ?” asks Josef Stalin in a cover letter to a hench man, “How do you like the bourgeois puppies of Trotsky . . ? They wanted to wipe out all the members of the Politburo. . . isn’t it weird? How low can people sink? J.St”. These letters are far more than documents of telepathy, they are dimensioned and pointedly structured. What strikes me most about Montefiore’s assemblance of personal narratives and confessions in this book are the insecurities and vulnerabilities of its famed authors.
Editing letters can be a dangerous business. Seeking to restrike popular thinking around her daughter following the “the basest ingratitude” of The Bell Jar, Aurelia Plath controversially undertook dramatic editorial revisions of her daughter Sylvia’s letters in the 1975 publication of Letters Home, publishing a “highly selected” number of letters with “unmarked editorial omissions” and “changes to Plath’s words”. The censoring of the late author stoked fury in Plath’s supporters and her complete and unabridged letters from 1940-1956 and 1956-63 were finally republished in two volumes in 2017 with a foreword by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes.
Despite the accounts of abuse evidenced in Plath’s letters, which Freida Hughes authorised the full publication of, she sides with her father in the foreword, writing that, “It has always been my conviction that the reason my mother should be of interest to readers at all is due to my father.” This archive of letters proves otherwise, as we witness the generation of Plath’s voice; teasing and manipulating language in childish letters, scrawling depressive episodes to her psychiatrist, editors and friends. There is a true breadth of personal experience here, noted by Plath herself in a meta-letter to her mother, writing, “I have spent the morning writing a flurry of letters: all sorts, all sizes: contrite, gay, loving, consolatory.” Whilst they are hardly telepathic documents, these letters are the closest we have to knowing Plath as she was alive.
If you fancy kicking off your new year with a celebration of letters in their smudged, rich, wayward majesty, make your way to the Southbank Centre for live readings commemorating the written word as part of ‘Letters Live’ in their Women of the World Festival. Else, if you’re strapped for cash, consider writing the organisers a letter so impressive that they offer you a seat.
In my own life, I keep up the practise of letter writing with my Austrian pen pal, Livia. We exchange postcards between London and Vienna on a bi-monthly basis and Livia tells me about her life, developments on her Sustainability Studies MA and projects related to the creative writing society she commanders. Her letters are musing and curious with a pervading sense of space, scattered with suggestions of books, films and music and alluding to letters we’ve recently previously exchanged.
In a measured, cursive hand, these words are as warm and verbose as their author. One of the benefits of having a wonky bookshelf donated to me by an amateur carpenter is that I’m able to store these letters and other paper paraphernalia in a purpose-built nook, or sometimes, in the backfold of my notebook to remind myself to scribble belated responses. What are my letters like? I can only hope that they are as Emily Dickinson suggests, “like immortality, because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,” and not, as I strongly suspect, an incomprehensible maelstrom of meme references, open-ended questions and generic complaints about the weather. You’d better ask Livia.