Tomorrow is National Letter Writing Day, and Esther Harris would love to bring the joy, thrill and anticipation of putting pen to paper back into our lives.
The summer I turned 14, I embarked on a period of intense letter writing with my cousin, Sarah. The hormones had kicked in and I clearly remember the thrill and anticipation as I shared my most intimate secrets on paper: hopes, fears, boy troubles, pop star crushes.
I remember how I felt at the end of writing as I closed the envelope – like I had bared my soul for the first time – and also the thrill of anticipation as I posted my letter, waiting for that unknown response to my heart’s desires. The loops of her handwriting, the doodles she would do on the page, and the pictures cut from Smash Hits that she pasted on the envelope to make me smile. No one ever took so much care to make me smile! It’s a little window, a little snapshot of an intense and intimate exchange between two people.
A lost art
For today’s generation, letter writing is a lost art. With Facetime, Snapchat, SMS and Facebook, who needs to put pen to paper? Craft 140 characters, wait a few seconds, and you’ll get their response. The immediacy doesn’t necessarily dilute the emotion but what about the thrill and anticipation? And emojis are great fun but not quite as soul-baring or revealing as seeing someone’s handwriting for the first time.
Let’s have a gadget armistice
To commemorate #nationalletterwriting day on 7 December, let’s imagine we have a gadget armistice and the only way you can share news and confidences with your husband or lover, family or friends is by letter. Imagine all that news and excitement, and then having no option but to wait days, if not weeks or months, for a response.
“Letters are crystallised memories, emotions, passions, all sewn up in an envelope. They do not have to mean everything, but they do mean something.”
This is exactly the mindset that the author Alice Marie Crossland had to put herself into when she was given the task of compiling the letters sent by the ‘Iron Duke’ of Wellington to Lady Georgiana Lennox in her new book, Wellington’s Dearest Georgy.
Wellington and Georgy
The former Prime Minister and defeater of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo was known for his glittering political and military career. However, his letters to lifelong friend and confidante Lady Georgiana Lennox, known as Georgy, reveal a warm, flirtatious and human side to the man – and reveal much about the role letters played in people’s lives until as recently as the 1950s and 60s, when telephones and cars finally changed how people could affordably keep in touch.
Alice Marie Crossland: Hundreds, but only around 50 survive. There are gaps when I think she did not keep them or they were later destroyed. However, there are a pocket of letters which relate to her brother-in-law Henry de Ros and the scandal caused when he was caught cheating at gambling, which you think might have been destroyed too, had they been particularly prudent about that sort of thing.
Wellington was very prudent with personal correspondence sent to him from his female friends, and personally ensured it was all burnt, so sadly we do not have Georgy’s letters to the Duke. I think they would have been very illuminating!
EH: What period do the letters cover? Did the letter writing start or finish coincide with any big events?
AMC: The most interesting ones are from 1815-18, around the time of the ball held the night before the Battle of Waterloo, and in the following years when Wellington had his headquarters in Cambrai. During these years Georgy and the Duke exchanged many gossipy and flirtatious letters.
There are intermittent batches of letters over the remaining long years of their relationship, but when they were both living mainly in London and when Georgy’s children were small there are understandably fewer letters.
EH: How did letters get about back then? Post, hand delivered?
AMC: They were usually posted, but post and paper was expensive, so often pages were crossed over with writing in both directions; this can make it very difficult to read. When Wellington was Prime Minister (from 1829-30 and again in 1834) he was able to send all his letters for free, and he would often write a huge number in any given day. He had always been a prolific letter writer, and for Georgy too it was an incredibly important way to keep in touch with friends and family.
Letters were definitely shared around the drawing room as they were often an excellent source of gossip. There is one letter from Georgy to her aunt Lady Bathurst when she boasts about getting a letter from the Duke of Wellington and says, “I have been very grand with it, I assure you,” meaning she had shown it to all her sisters!
“Letters are fantastically intimate; sometimes you read something and you almost feel like you ought not to be reading it, because the potency of the language is so strong even hundreds of years later.”
It was entertainment, to read an amusing letter and to hear what a friend or relative had been up to. Another technique would be to write a separate sheet of correspondence inside the main sheet, which would also act as the envelope. This way you could write a private note which could be kept apart from the main letter, which you could then safely present to your family to read.
EH: In your opinion, what is so powerful about letter writing?
AMC: Personally I love filling out the minor details about people’s lives. I’m not so interested in foreign policies or long wars! Letters are fantastically intimate; sometimes you read something and you almost feel like you ought not to be reading it, because the potency of the language is so strong even hundreds of years later.
When Georgy’s daughter Frances died you get a sense of this through the letters her husband William wrote. Sadly there is nothing left from Georgy’s letters from this difficult time. Sometimes you have to accept the silences; it is possible she may not have written anything, or her letters simply have not survived.
When you do get a snippet of information that you didn’t know before, even something really small about what someone liked to eat or whether they liked getting up early in the morning or not, you get this fabulous glimmer of part of a life which had previously been hidden. That, for me, is real treasure.
The survival of letters
If you can ensure your letters survive, they are an undeniable piece of evidence about the past. I used to keep my love letters in my underwear drawer but when I got married I threw them away. I figured, new era and all that, but now I feel sad. Letters are crystallised memories, emotions, passions, all sewn up in an envelope. They do not have to mean everything, but they do mean something.
After I interviewed Alice, I went out and bought old-fashioned notepaper and envelopes, and felt the thrill of anticipation as I started a letter to my old letter writing muse, my cousin. We’re both married now; our lives have changed; our names are different. But my handwriting isn’t. And neither is the feeling I get when I put pen to paper.
Books to read about letters:
Wellington’s Dearest Georgy: The Life and Loves of Lady Georgiana Lennox, by Alice Marie Crossland
Letters of Note, compiled by Shaun Usher
The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte Mosley
Postcards from the Boys, by Ringo Starr
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Esther Harris is (still) writing her first novel and tweets @writer29