Only one of my friends still writes letters. In the neat curls and loops of her handwriting she details the daily events of her life because she dislikes communicating via telephone.
Despite the various ways I now communicate—Facebook, e-mail, texts, gchat, Skype—I still feel a small thrill when the mail contains one of her handwritten notes. I save the envelope and when I have a quiet moment, I open it. Then I save it so I can look at it again some day.
Letters are one of the casualties of the 21st century and with their demise, we have lost a prime opportunity for reflection and self-examination.
Don’t misunderstand. I love instant communication. Pictures of sonograms are posted the next day. Everyone knows what you did on your vacation and lives vicariously. Pleas for help get an immediate response from half way around the world. That’s wonderful. But such communication lacks a few things that letters had.
For a start, instant communications are rarely saved and certainly not long enough to gain insight into our former selves. Having communicated, we respond and move on, we don’t save emails to read on a rainy day. In a world with so much information to process this form of looking back has become a luxury.
That’s the beauty of letters. They capture some small portion of your soul and preserve it, hide it away in filing cabinets and hatboxes, under mattresses and between the pages of books, waiting to be discovered. Years later the letters might reveal a poetic past or a dark secret, better yet, a road not taken.
In the past, people waited weeks and sometimes years for such fragile scraps of paper to provide resolution. A letter could spell the end of an affair, inform you of a death or an inheritance. In the weeks it took a letter to cross the Atlantic Ocean, what it contained might no longer be true.
Some of my favorite writers, who lived in a world defined by letters, used them to explain characters and advance their plots. Many a twist and turn in the novels of Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope involve the mailing of or the long wait for a letter to arrive. Think of The Bennets in Pride and Prejudice finding that Lydia, their impulsive child, has eloped and waiting for a letter to learn where she has gone. Or of Marianne writing unanswered letters to Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility. In Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, disturbing letters disrupt a happy marriage. In the Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Bronte uses letters to introduce her misunderstood heroine, Helen Graham, while In the House of Mirth, Lily Bart’s character is further defined by her refusal to use incriminating letters.
Although I rarely write letters to anyone but my one dedicated friend, I happily employ the device when writing historical fiction. In my novel, After the Fire, a young woman writes about her inability to express her feelings in the wake of the Revolutionary War, a spy receives a warning letter from his wife-to-be, only to have a terrible storm blur the ink, and a guilty man lets the letter he receives from a former friend drift away. To me, the very idea of letters provokes images.
Because the letter serves as such a precious touchstone in life and fiction, it should be viewed as the literary form it is, one in need of careful preservation, if only for the art’s sake.
Joan Vos MacDonald is the author of several non-fiction books, including High Fit Home for HarperCollins. Her novel, After the Fire, is available on Kindle.