“To the Letter” – A Meditation on Love Letters Across Time

AMonthOfLetters2016-Stamp For anyone who’s interested, here’s the guest blog/ review I wrote for the Month of Letters Journal:

 

 

14 February, 2016
St. Valentine’s Day

My dear Ms. Bradford,

            Greetings and enthusiastic wishes for a Valentine’s Day alight with loads of loving letters! I write you today not only to send greetings, but also to thank you for giving me the singular honour of writing the Valentine’s Day post — and to tell you with immense regret that I can’t possibly write such a piece.
            IMG_8352Allow me to explain. You asked that I focus on the love-letter sections of the book I have been reading, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield.* If only you had asked me for a general review of the book! In that case, I could have extolled its wit and the wide range of historical examples it provides. I would have offered up moving passages, such as the one in the introductory chapter, “The Magic of Letters,” in which Mr. Garfield writes eloquently about what we are in danger of losing:

Letters have the power to grant us a larger life. They reveal motivation and deepen understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewire history. The world used to run upon their transmission — the lubricant of human interaction and the freefall [sic] of

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and provided instances of the author’s humour, such as when, in an aside to his discussion of Seneca’s instructional correspondence, he gently pokes fun at academics who study epistolary matters. In this note, Mr. Garfield informs us that

Seneca’s letters were longer than the norm, ranging from 149 to 4,134 words, with an average of 955, or some 10 papyrus sheets joined on a roll. Philological scholars with time on their hands have calculated that a sheet of papyrus of approximately 9 x 11 inches contained an average of 87 words, and that a letter rarely exceeded 200 words (note, p. 55),

an observation that betrays the author’s own interest in such minutiae. He also spares not the Fathers of the Church. He points out that during the millennium when “Literacy was not encouraged among the populace” (p. 81), letter-writing declined and “theological letters are all we have.” Mr. Garfield finds these letters uninspiring and cautions his readers that we “may prefer death to the lingering torture of reading them” (p. 82).
         I shall say nothing at all about Mr. Garfield’s three chapters reviewing historical advice on “How to Write the Perfect Letter,” about the heated debates regarding whether letters should mimic informal conversations, about the importance of addressing recipients as befits their stations, about where to place one’s IMG_8177 copysignature, nor about how leaving wide margins was a sign of wealth and status. Epistolary silence shall envelope the fascinating descriptions of the evolution of the modern postal system; not a word will there be from my pen about the incredible fact that postage used to be paid not by the sender of a letter but by the person to whom it was addressed, nor shall I mention anything about the invention of the postage stamp, despite Mr. Garfield’s engaging description of its conception.**
          But love letters! You must see how this will never do. Love letters can leave us open to terrible embarrassment. Mr. Garfield acknowledges that

Love letters catch us at a time in our lives where our marrow is jelly; but we toughen up, our souls harden, and we reread them years later with a mixture of disbelief and cringing horror, and — worst of all — level judgement. The American journalist Mignon McLaughlin had it right in 1966: ‘If you must re-read old love letters,’ she wrote in The Second Neurotics Notebook, ‘better pick a room without mirrors.’ (p. 336)

Reading the love letters of others can be almost as cheek-reddening as reading our own. Shall we really subject our LetterMo companions to such blushing?
           Moreover, we all know the power of a love letter. Think how we are charmed when Hamlet, that most articulate of Shakespeare’s creations, writes awkwardly to Ophelia:

‘Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
‘O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans; but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
‘Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to 
him, HAMLET. ***

And never let us forget that it is a letter, and not even an intentional love letter, but merely a letter of explanation, that finally wins Mr. Darcy the heart of Elizabeth Bennet. Do we wish to tempt our friends to deploy such power wantonly and without discretion? ****
            But these are fictional examples, created strictly for our amusement or even for our edification. I really don’t know whether we should intrude upon the privacy of people who actually lived — though Mr. Garfield patently feels no such compunction. He

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shamelessly lays out for us not only the ecstatic feelings of historical couples, he even brings up — and we’re both adults, so I’m just going to write the word straight out — SEX. I fancy you don’t believe me. Permit me, for veracity’s sake, to share some examples.
           If you were to glance at page seventy-three, you would find Mr. Garfield’s account of

The letters between Marcus Aurelius and Fronto [which] track the rise and fall of a courtship from about ad 139, when Aurelius was in his late teens and his teacher in his late thirties, until about ad 148. The heart of their correspondence is ablaze with passion. ‘I am dying so for love of you,’ Aurelius writes, eliciting the response from his tutor, ‘You have made me dazed and thunderstruck by your burning love.’

All I will say is that, with all the conjugating the Romans had to learn, it’s a wonder there was time for such extra-curricular activity.
            Mr. Garfield follows this Latin love affair with the tragic, even more explicit tale of Heloise and Abelard, those misfortunate, twelfth-century lovers. Theirs is another pupil-pedant passion, and Abelard writes that

‘With our lessons as our pretext we abandoned ourselves entirely to love.’ There followed ‘more kissing than teaching’ and hands that ‘strayed oftener to her bosom than the pages’ (p. 76).

The story culminates in pregnancy, a secret marriage, Abelard’s castration by Heloise’s relatives, and the retreat of both lovers into monastic life. Heloise’s love and desire for her husband remain unabated; during Mass, ‘“lewd visions of the pleasures we shared take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on my own prayers”’ (p. 78).
           In a later chapter, Mr. Garfield treats us to a discussion of the romance of Napoleon and Josephine, and compares the market worth of their letters to the arguably more valuable missives of Admiral Lord Nelson. “In letters,” our author confides, “as everywhere else, sex sells: the Nelson [letter] went for Ł66,000, a fair sum but less than a quarter of a Bonaparte” (p. 192). Mr. Garfield puts before us the affaire de cœr of Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. He quotes ‘a letter which echoed the steamy transactions of Abelard and Heloise …: “When [the pastor] said Our Heavenly Father,” I said “Oh Darling Sue”; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang … I made up words and kept singing how I loved you”’ (p. 248). **** In another letter, Dickinson breathlessly confides to Gilbert that if they were together, “we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language” (p. 248).

            To be sure, there are genuinely moving examples of great love to be found in the book. We are reminded that passionate romances need not be defined by tragedy. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett fell in love through their letters, and their correspondence describes a “swift 20-month crescendo from endearing fandom to all-consuming craving” (p. 345). The two poets eloped and lived happily for the duration of their marriage. Browning was “the man who swept her [Barrett] away and liberated her passion” (p. 347) — and married her.
            While the concerns of the famous hold a particular fascination for the masses — as Shakespeare writes, “What great ones do the less will prattle of”****** — the most touching and poignant letters are those of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore. Mr. Barker was a British signalman during the Second World War, Miss Moore an acquaintance from Mr. Barker’s time working in the Post Office. When they began to write, Ms. Moore was involved with someone IMG_8455named Nick, but three months into their correspondence Ms. Moore has shed Nick and is trying to persuade Mr. Barker that they are friends, and not mere acquaintances. She succeeds admirably, and soon Mr. Barker is assuring her of his interest in having “fun at a later date” while warning her “not to let me break your heart in 1946 or 47” (p. 145), and stoking her interest by wondering what she’s like “in the soft, warm, yielding, panting flesh” (p. 147). But before long Miss Moore’s unwavering admiration and epistolary dedication have complicated Mr. Barker’s desire and he is writing “I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU” (p. 202).
           Miss Moore waits for her signalman throughout the war and his time as a POW. In the epilogue, we learn that they were married in October 1945 and had two sons. It is to the elder, Bernard, that we owe thanks for the preservation of their letters. The younger Mr. Barker says of his parents that “Their love for each other was so complete, always, that it was difficult for my brother and I in childhood and adolescence to relate to each of them as a single person” (p. 425). In the last letter of the war, Mr. Barker writes his by-now wife, “I can never be as good as you deserve, but I really will try very hard … We shall be collaborators, man and woman, husband and wife, lovers” (p. 426). The Barkers’ letters cannot be read without becoming involved in their growing affection and in the history Mr. Barker includes in his letters to the steadfast woman who would become his partner. The letters are tender and grateful and passionate, and we learn a great deal from them about Mr. Barker’s experiences as a signalman, about how to lay the foundation for a lasting, loving relationship, and about how thoroughly Victorian sexual mores had been trampled into the dust.
           I cannot but think that you are as shocked as I am. You have not read the book and are innocent regarding its contents. I am sure, in my heart of hearts, that you didn’t understand what you were asking me to do. But I am equally sure, Ms. Bradford, that you agree these matters ought not be laid out before the Month of Letters community, that none of our letter-writers could ever have the slightest interest in reading about affairs of the heart (and of the body) of other people. Our reputation as an Internet society devoted to promoting the respectable art of epistolary composition would suffer dreadfully, and neither of us wants to be complicit in bring such a judgement to pass.
           I do hope you will find it in your heart to forgive me for letting you down so. To make up for the lack of a post, I offer you a poem to run in its place instead, one more suitable for our impeccable epistolary society, to run in place of the piece I should have given you:

But For Lust
Ruth Pitter

But for lust we could be friends,
On each other’s necks could weep:
In each other’s arms could sleep
In the calm the cradle lends:

Lends awhile, and takes away.
But for hunger, but for fear,
Calm could be our day and year
From the yellow to the grey:

From the gold to the grey hair,
But for passion we could rest,
But for passion we could feast
On compassion everywhere.

Even in this night I know
By the awful living dead,
By this craving tear I shed,
Somewhere, somewhere it is so.

            I trust you understand my reasons for writing you this letter and do assure you that I remain

Your honoured and admiring epistolary confederate,

Ruth E. Feiertag2016 lettermo 600X600

 

———————————————————————————

* Gotham Books, Penguin Group, 2014
** Those familiar with Terry Pritchett’s Going Postal will already have an inkling of the early history of stamps.
*** (Hamlet, II. ii. 1212-20. Opensource Shakespeare, [http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/search/search-results.php], accessed 3 February 2016).
****Garfield irresponsibly provides no advice for the proper composition of a love letter. For that we must look to John Beguine of The Atlantic. His article, “A Modern Guide to the Love Letter,” reminds us to choose “100 percent cotton paper,” that may “suggest to your beloved those other cotton sheets you hope to share.” He also cautions us not to “succumb to the temptation to employ your own personal stationery imprinted with your name and address. Such handsome lettering makes identification appallingly easy for your lover’s attorney.” Beguine covers other topics such as Ink, Elegance (“Elegance prompts wit rather than comedy, sentiment rather than sentimentality” and “Long-winded elegance is oxymoronic. So length does matter, but in writing, less is more”), Salutation, Body (“even if you have a knack for them, no pornographic drawings”), Metaphors, Grammar, Complimentary Close, Signature (“If you can’t bring yourself to close without a signature, limit yourself to your first initial. And try to be illegible here. There’s no reason to make the job easier for a lawyer someday [sic]”), Delivery (“bribe whomever you must to have the letter placed directly upon the beloved’s pillow”), and Accepting an Answer. ([http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/02/a-modern-guide-to-the-love-letter/385370/])
***** One might also ponder Dickinson’s 1722 poem, “Her face was in a bed of hair”:
Her face was in a bed of hair,
Like flowers in a plot —
Her hand was whiter than the sperm
That feeds the sacred light.
Her tongue more tender than the tune
That totters in the leaves —
Who hears may be incredulous,
Who witnesses, believes.
****** Twelfth Night, I. I. 33. [http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/twn_1_2.html]

 

 

Month of Letters Update

 

     week-of-mail It’s been a little over two weeks two-weeks-of-mail1 since the beginning of the Month of Letters began, and the missives are flying fast and furiously. It was suggested that those of us with blogs post photos of what we’ve been sending, so here’s an update of my progress with visual aids. I haven’t kept an accurate count of how many letters I’ve sent, but I have managed to get at least one epistle in the mail every day. My first-letters went to the MoL’s founder and a friend in Florida. One particularly virtuous day I managed to send out twelve notes  to Girls Love Mail, SUPPORTER an organization that “gives the gift of hand-written letters to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.” 

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I’ve sent out some valentines     IMG_7269 , and found a couple new mail boxes to use explorer. I mailed a Jane-Austen-style letter AUSTEN-STYLE1 (all folded up and sealed with wax instead of using an envelope). I started out writing with a quill, but that part ended up looking like something written by Hermann Rorschach, so I capitulated and went back to my fountain pen IMG_7226 (the pink one is the Austen letter).

 

       I’ve sent birthday cards IMG_7214 and  parcel (parcels, really)  IMG_7223, and letters to India, Australia, Germany, and Great Britain international. I’ve posted spot-of-mail1 to old friends IMG_7224 IMG_7063 and new pen-pals IMG_7221 IMG_7225

I have many letters to answer and send, but if anyone reading this wants a chance to decipher my handwriting, send me a message here or through the Month of Letters website, and I’ll add you to my list. 

An Invitation to Danger and Daring: The Act and Art of Letter Writing and the Month of Letters

            It is a Dangerous and Daring Act to write a letter. I know this because I have been reading The Dangerous Book for Boys and its afterthought, The Daring Book for Girls,* and both treat means of properly engaging in this risky pastime. The boys’ book cuts right to the chase regarding the perils of committing one’s thoughts to a writing surface, warning that “The problem with hiding a message in the lining of a coat or tattooed on a scalp is that anyone can read it. It makes a lot of sense to practice ‘cryptography’” (p. 64). The dangers of letter-writing are also emphasized in the section on “Secret Inks” (page 149 tells us that “Secret inks allow you to send confidential information by mail,” after we are informed that “Milk, lemon juice, egg white and, yes, urine will work as a secret ink”). There are also instructions for “Grinding an Italic Nib” and improving one’s “Grammar” (three sections!).

            For inexplicable reasons, it is left to girls to brave the perils of conventional letter-writing, of daring to expose themselves by writing what can be read by anyone,** and to them the secrets of letter-writing are directly imparted. The Daring Book spells out how to compose a thank-you letter and lays out the essential facets of personal letters. In other sections it provides a “History of Writing” and a sampling of “Abigail Adams’ Letters with John Adams,” and while it sadly lacks a discussion of ink of any kind, it does explain how to “Make Your Own Quill Pen” — an endeavour so fraught with peril that parental supervision is required.

            Now that you have been duly advised, I invite you to join me in participating in this year’s Month of Letters. The basic challenge is simple: send one piece of mail every day the post runs. What with Sundays and holidays, that comes to a mere twenty-three pieces of mail. Now is the time to send out all the thank-you notes you owe, the letter that will make your mother so happy, the protest to the newspaper, the postcards to your siblings from places you’ve never been. And if you have all those bases covered already, there are plenty of people in the MoL community who are looking for pen-pals. The challenge is on; screw your courage to the sticking point, buy some stamps, pick up a pen, be dangerous and daring — write a letter.

 

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* Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden, The Dangerous Book for Boys (New York: Collins, 2006); Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, The Daring Book for Girls, (New York: Collins, 2007). The gender divisions are ridiculous. There is nothing in either book that shouldn’t interest all children.

 

** Ruth Calderon, in her book A Bride for One Night (The Jewish Publication Society; Philadelphia: 2014, p. 156, n. 10), notes that “Yochanan Muffs teaches that all conversations require the courage to reveal oneself to another. … ‘One who attempts to communicate with another endangers his own life, for to do this, he must reveal what is in his own heart. …There is always the possibility that the ear of the listener will be impervious. Any real communication, then, is a dangerous leap’ (The Personhood of God [Woodstock VT: Jewish Lights, 2005], 16).”

small stones and the Month of Letters

   WOWH badge-14-300x300 In January, I participated in the Writing Our Way Home Mindful Writing Challenge. The challenge is to write one small stone every day. A small stone is a brief observation intended to connect the writer and then readers to the world in fresh and meaningful ways, or, as their originator defines them, “A small stone is a short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.”  They are the brain-child of Satya Robin, an author, therapist, and Buddhist monk, and you can find out much more about small stones and Ms. Robin here: http://www.writingourwayhome.com.  Some of the participants write exceptionally moving observations. I offer some of mine below as examples of the poorer sort:

The gradations of evening slip behind the tree and sink through the clouds.

The wind stage-whispers to the house; its voice calls to and pulls the snow clinging to its wake.

Frost crystals on the barbeque – something like pearls before swine.

 The evening bruises darker against the slip of the moon.

Age creeps up on the dogs, seeps into their bones like the cold of deep winter, saps the colour from their fur, pulls their legs put from under them when they stand, and the poor mutts look in vain for their betrayer.

Layers of light – the sheen of the moon, the quiet reflections of the clouds, the insistent welcome of the homes below.

 The lights of the Nepalese restaurant are vibrant and gaudy and as enticingly welcoming as the sounds of a carousel.

 Awkward and ungainly with fish-wife voices, the Canada geese usurp a momentary majesty against the purpling sky.

The yellow spider, shocked by the mist hitting the rosemary, scrambles for the highest point of the plant and throws its front legs up in supplication to whatever gods watch over spiders, hoping for a life-line.

 The lone tree on the hill that shelters the cow has a new companion, one that also appreciates the rush of the wind through bone and feather, branch and leaf.

How to picture the wind? It is a vampire: I feel the swirl of its cape, the coldness of its blood, the bite on my exposed throat and cheek, but it eludes every snatch of my grasping shutter.

The snow falls with the ticking of thousands of infinitesimal clocks, with the patting of elves’ hands on the heads of sleeping birds.

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Writing through this month of small stones provides me with an reminder to look at the world the way I look at language. It is not a perspective that comes naturally to me (as I think is apparent), but the stretch seems to air out neglected rooms in my head. (It also makes me get out of the house. I don’t find that I am inspired by my computer screen or want to look too closely at the dishes in the sink. I did get off a good phrase about my piles of paper being “tarnished with dust” but I decided one of those was enough).

LetterMo2014squareThis last month I was engaged in epistolary endeavours inspired by Mary Robinette Kowal’s Month of Letters Challenge. This is fun. The goal is to mail at least one item (not including bills and mass-mailings and the like) every day (one may skip Sundays and holidays) and to log what one has mailed. In addition to acquiring points for every letter mailed, there are a number of Achievement stamps that one can earn along with additional points. There are stamps for sending one’s First Letter first-letter, for mailing a Parcel parcel, for going forth boldly as an Explorer explorer and mailing in a box one has not used before adventurer. There are also stamps for worthy causes such as mailing to a Soldier soldier or other service person and for sending notes to be distributed to cancer patients through Girls Love Mail SUPPORTER. It is a game all players can “win”; participants need garner only forty points to earn a “winner” stamp at the end of the month.
LetterMo-2014-Winner

One of my favourite Achievements is the Austen-style letter AUSTEN-STYLE1. Such a missive should be written with a dip pen IMG_0417 (ideally a quill IMG_0071), folded, and sealed with wax: IMG_0075. If one is friendly with one’s local postal-clerks, it is possible to persuade them to send the letter through the mail sans envelope. (I suppose if we were really to be authentic, we’d find folks with horses to deliver them for us. Perhaps next year.) spot-of-mail1

Although the challenges of January and February are in many ways markedly different, what they have in common is the impulse toward connection. Often that’s what writing is all about. We use it to connect with ourselves, with the world around us, with close friends, with the teacher giving us a grade, with authors who have lived in centuries long gone, with generations yet to come, with other seekers of knowledge we will never meet but who share our curiosity about Shakespeare or germs or hats or the germs that probably lived in the hats worn by Shakespeare. Writing is wonderful, alchemical, and transforms our lives and the lives of others. I never tire of what can be done with words.

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