The Art of the Letter

A little while ago, I got hooked on reading other people’s diaries and letters. Nothing untoward about it: I am talking strictly about published collections. To this day, there is nothing like receiving a letter in the post, especially if it has arrived from abroad, and the rarer they get, the more special the feeling when one arrives. The next task was simply to choose the letters.

Georgia O’Keeffe was a lesson learned, and a lesson that helped me focus. As soon as I saw the book, I knew I was in trouble. It is merely the first volume of her rambling, frequent and typically long letters to Alfred Stieglitz. They started writing to each other in 1915, and he died in 1946 at which point there existed at least 25,000 pages of letters. Make no mistake, this collection is just as fascinating as all the others in this article. I first heard of Georgia O’Keeffe mentioned in Warren Zevon’s song Splendid Isolation and thought she sounded beyond cool. Having read some of the letters, I am even more confident in this view: she must have been supremely cool. But her letters are not for the general reader. Both O’Keeffe and Stieglitz have unusual styles consisting of sentence fragments separated by dashes that are unique yet irritating in equal measure. O’Keeffe went back to the library without detailed consideration. Perhaps one day.

The next shortlisted letter writer to be dropped was Jane Austen. Of course it was fun reading some of her stuff, seeing how the language has changed since her day and some other things besides. But her letters, as for O’Keeffe’s, are not for the general reader. Even someone who has read a couple of Austen’s novels would be hard-pressed to make it through this tightly-spaced tome. Onwards and upwards.

Graham Greene is where this whole project began, and his are the first letters I could spend a lot of time with. Aside from being a famous writer, he was an interesting man: Greene worked for the security services during the war and knew everybody who was anybody. This makes certain periods in his life gripping reading, a celebrity before the concept as we understand it today really existed. This is the only collection I bought to keep rather than just loan from the library. Although Greene is not known as a travel writer per se. Yet he did some serious travel. He clocked up the air miles before they were invented, and professed a love for flying machines as early as 1934, very early days for commercial air travel when the dangers far exceeded today’s paranoid sanitized equivalent. This is also the man who discovered Mervyn Peake, the genius creator of the Gormenghast trilogy. He pretty much ripped into Titus Groan. That letter offended Peake but he eventually calmed down, as all true writers must, made the edits recommended by Greene and the rest is history.

George Orwell’s egg-laying letters are not much fun, but they are the exception. This is a man who voluntarily rolled up in Spain to fight Franco and got a bullet through the throat (20 May 1937, with hand-drawn illustration of the bullet’s trajectory) for his trouble. I had already read his diaries before embarking on the letters, and both books reward detailed reading. No need to mention his fiction too much (we may be looking at letters written in yesteryear but you have the internet to your advantage) but his essays and nonfiction are worth remembering. Whereas Greene was never a political writer as such, Orwell most definitely was. Whatever you make of his politics, and of course all politics need to be placed in the context of the times, his skill for argument and polemic is clear. Both Greene and Orwell (and Bruce Chatwin as you are soon to find) were not well. They all suffered long periods of ill health. Keep that in mind for later.

I found Chatwin’s letters just as frustrating as his other books, and indeed his whole life story. Never a totally well man, he died very young at the age of 48. Chatwin died before my time as it were, and I can testify from a distance that this was one of the great losses to English literature. His publisher Tom Maschler expressed it thus: Of what I call “my lot” – Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – Bruce was the one I was most anxious to know where he was going to go. I think had he lived he would have been ahead of all of them. So there. Other than Amis who got close twice, all of those men have won the Booker Prize, and Chatwin was nominated in 1988, his last full year on earth. And, according to Moleskine themselves, Chatwin was one of the proponents of the faux leather elastic-bound notebook. That’s right, without him, they wouldn’t be here. Say what you like about Bruce Chatwin (and very many including Alan Bennett and Michael Palin have) but he was a genius. Not a truly great novelist or plot master but a truly great writer yes, and at his best when on the road. Sure, he had some crazy notions about medicine, especially in his later years, but that can be excused by sheer unbridled optimism for life and humanity. A polymath in the arts if not the sciences, he had an eye for all forms of art including paintings and the very many artefacts he found when working for Sotheby’s and on his later travels.

The compilation by Charlotte Mosley called In Tearing Haste is a very specific project: the letters between WW2 hero and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and his lifelong associate, Deborah ‘Debo’ Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire. For anyone not acquainted with these two, your life would be richer if you dipped into this one. The name Mosley will put a chill through any older spine, and anyone who has studied WW2 in Britain even slightly. Charlotte married a son of Oswald Mosley, who started the infamous Nazi-inspired black shirts in Britain. He married Debo’s sister, Diana, which brought infamy and a little shame to the entire family. Thus the Mitfords became immortal, and each of the sisters were irresistible to any who met them. This collection reveals Debo to be funny, even towards the end of her long life, and a very keen correspondent of the gifted Leigh Fermor, whose writing about Greece is still ranked in the top tier.

AW, Alfred Wainwright, is our last correspondent for a very good reason: his letters are the best by a long way. Could that be because he never was a professional writer? I am certain of it. Perhaps his robust, healthy character are also part of it. This is an ordinary guy, and I’m being careful with my adjectives, who had a full career at the local council before one day deciding to document his tramps around Lakeland. He developed his own handwritten style, such that every page of every guide to the fells appears handwritten. That’s because they were. His sketches of the walking routes are also idiosyncratic, and amazingly they focus on almost timeless features so that they don’t need revising every five minutes. The routes he developed in the ’60s are still followable today. And follow people do: millions of them. AW is also famous for creating a coast to coast route in the ’70s from Lakeland in the west to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire to the east. Opinion on the length is divided, but it is around 200 miles in all. Such was (and is) the popularity of these guides that there are hotels which only survive due to coast to coast pedestrian traffic, and he is surely one of the reasons why the Lake District is as popular as it now is. With Wordsworth, that is.

A random look at collections of letters would not be complete without a final section considering the letter and the written word. A truly Royal mail began before most people realised: it was Henry VIII’s idea in 1516. But most, including myself, consider the railways and ocean liners the great enablers of the truly international letter post. Somewhere in the mid nineteenth century saw the advent of gummed stamps, letterboxes and a truly national delivery network. Somewhat amazingly, the early days of the post in London saw anything from six to twelve mail deliveries every day. Yes London was smaller then, but think about that. What does that freedom, the freedom to receive and send multiple letters to the same recipient in a single day, sound like to you? What it reminds me of is email. Surely email is nothing more than a novel way to conduct written conversations in short bursts, and it turns out this is nothing new. Yes, email is truly international, but it was possible before the computer and even before the railways arrived in Britain. Surely the humble and now defunct telegram is just a tweet to a single recipient, a sort of instant message?

This article was written many years ago, before COVID-19 and many other recent disasters.

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