The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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February 15, 2015


... George and Charlotte's children all kept up a lively correspondence of their own with the Harcourts. The boys sent letters from Germany to pass on news about their progress, and the princesses, with less to occupy their time, wrote letters even more prolifically. Elizabeth, the third sister, surprised even Lady Harcourt, herself no slouch with a pen, by the sheer volume of what she wrote. 'Once, when I was ill and confined to my house for six weeks,' Lady Harcourt recalled, 'I received from her at that time 143 letters, for she often wrote twice and sometimes thrice in a day if the opportunity of sending a letter occurred.
      For Elizabeth and her contemporaries, letter-writing came almost as easily as conversation. For those who could afford the time, paper and postage, keeping up one's correspondence was a crucial part of the daily round. This was especially true for women,who frequently took on the role of keeping their family's social network of friends and relations fully informed about domestic events. There was no state-sponsored postal service, but, nevertheless, letters circulated briskly from place to place with surprising speed and efficiency. In London, they were dropped off at named collection points, and carried by foot to the appropriate addresses, sometimes arriving only hours after they were sent. Even cross-country mail was delivered regularly, with only the very remotest destinations waiting for week after uncertain week for letters to turn up. The likelihood that their correspondence would arrive safely encouraged letter-writers to ever greater levels of epistolary output. It also changed the content of what they wrote. The ability to write a graceful, formal letter was considered the mark of an educated person, and collections of sample templates could be purchased for those uncertain of their compositional skills. But most letter-writing was far less practised and artificial than these coolly elegant pieces. Everyday letters were often written almost as a form of extended conversation, a link to a great chain of correspondence that went on for years. Others were dashed off in haste, in response to an event, a meeting, the inspiration of a casual thought. Eighteenth-century correspondents wrote with a freshness and immediacy that still leaps off the page, consigning their hopes, fears and joys to paper with a candour that buttonholes the reader after so many years. In a world with fewer diversions, the arrival of a letter was an event to be shared and celebrated or enjoyed as a private pleasure.  In most households, there simply could not be too many of them.
from A Royal Experiment:  the private life of King George III,
by Janice Hadlow

Whenever I read a book like this, with pages and pages of footnotes, all pointing to letters and diaries, I'm so grateful that this was true, at least once upon a time.  I wonder sometimes what biographers could work from, in a hundred years, or even twenty years, if there are still biographies, or how much less inspiring their sources will be.  

I also think about how much my reading life has been enriched by reading other people's letters and diaries ... Virginia Woolf's, Henry James', Edith Wharton's, Henry's to Edith, Edith's to Henry, Eudora Welty's and William Maxwell's breathtakingly lovely ones, some of Jane Austen's, and I'm sure many others if I looked.  I'm even old enough to remember writing and receiving them myself, though I can't remember the last time that happened {business letters a lot later than personal ones}.  I'm happy that we still have them, at least, in books. 

{The painting is 'The Love Letter' by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, 1770, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's not exactly the right kind of letter, but the painting was everywhere yesterday and it made me happy. :)}.


Lisa said...

It's a huge part of why I work in archives, the fascination with documents. And why I read so many books of letters & diaries. But I don't know what biographers & historians of the future are going to do. The archivists alone can't figure out how to conserve all the electronic messages in the different formats - let alone website & blogs & Instagram.

Bellezza said...

First of all, the picture you've chosen to head this post is so beautiful! I could hang it in my house with great pleasure.

You also do so well with the "old" authors, appreciating their finesse with finesse of your own. As for handwritten letters, I wish I knew how valuable they'd become to me once email started taking over. Nothing can replace the handwriting of the one you love, whether it's a friend, a lover, or a mother.

Nicola said...

Brilliant post. Completely agree that reading the correspondence of writers can enhance their enjoyment of their work, articularly if the letters are clearly not intended for public consumption. I went to an Austen lecture last year and the scholar said that Austen wrote between the lines and in the margins of her letters as paper was such a valuable resource and pinned them together with dressmaking pins! So economical.

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