To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing by Simon Garfield is not a stellar book but it is enjoyable. A sort of history of letter writing in letters, it covers ancient Greece and Rome through the modern day when email and texting have sent written correspondence into a death spiral.
The standard format of letters as we know them today has a distinct evolution. Back before the official post when very few letters were written because few could afford it or were even literate, letters did not begin, “Dear Stefanie,” but more like this:
Hilarion to his sister Alis, very many greetings — and to my respected Berous and Appolonarion.
Asking after health, cajoling children to behave, asking a parent for money, these were all topics of letters even from the beginning. They just tended to be formal and short. Garfield suggests Cicero was the first famous letter writer and from him, his letters were first published very long ago, the modern letter begins to emerge.
Old letters tell us much not only about history but about the writers themselves and their relationship to their correspondents. When writing a letter, social rank was reflected both in the salutation and in where the letter began on the page. The lower you were in rank and the higher the recipient, the further down the page you had to start your letter. Wealthy powerful people could begin their letters at the top of the page but a humble supplicant had to start below the middle of the page. Later, when where the letter began wasn’t so important, wealth was indicated by how much unused space there was in the letter. The more white space, the richer you were.
When the official post finally came into existence, postage was paid by the recipient. People without a lot of money often worked out codes they would put on the outside of the letter. When the letter was delivered, the recipient would see the code at a glance and then refuse the letter thereby receiving the message without having to pay for it.
The history of the post is a fascinating subject in its own right and Garfield, being a UK writer, focuses on the development of the post in Britain. He does branch out to eventually include a bit in the United States but he sadly neglects to mention anything about the Pony Express or Wells Fargo stage coaches, both important delivery systems in the U.S. that have been so romanticized it is a crime to leave them out of a history of the post entirely.
Once literacy rates increased sufficiently and mail delivery became reliable, letter writing became a huge and important social link as well as duty. Letter writing manuals began to appear and were immensely popular. Of course the best letters are not the ones that follow the rules of the manuals, but for people who were new to letters or not well educated, the manuals were very helpful. Now of course today we still have letter writing manuals but they focus more often on business letters and to these we have added manuals on how to write emails.
To the Letter has chapters on famous correspondence including one on why Jane Austen’s letters are so dull (a combination of who her audience was and family members wishing to preserve Austen’s reputation — so many of her letters were burned). There are chapters on letters at auction and letter collectors, on the evolution of the post one of which includes some fascinating information about the Dead Letter Office and the sorts of things people used to mail, the evolution of letter writing and what constitutes a good letter, love letters, and finally email.
Throughout the book is also threaded the wartime correspondence of Chris Barker and Bessie Moore. Their letters began in September 1943 when Chris was stationed in Africa. Chris and Bessie used to work for the post office and Chris was deployed during the war as a keyboard operator. When Chris went off to war and started writing Bessie they were merely friends. Bessie had a boyfriend, their mutual friend Nick. During the course of the war and the correspondence between Bessie and Chris, it is wonderful to watch their letters change from friendship to a real romantic postal relationship. Some of Chris’s letters are rather bold and steamy! Their romantic correspondence has a happy ending. After the war they married and had a long and happy life together. Their letters were preserved by their children and have now been passed on to a permanent archive for safekeeping.
What I didn’t enjoy about the book was how it seems to cover the usual ground. Letters are a dying art, what will become of us and history when we no longer have written correspondence? To be sure, it is a concern I share, but like the wailing over the end of printed books, it starts to grate on one’s nerves after awhile. The most annoying thing, however, was the poor editing. The first time it happened I excused it as blooper. The second time I got a bit grumpy — sloppy! The third time I got really angry and all the following times mistakes popped up my anger would flare. The mistakes aren’t simple typos, misspellings or dropped or repeated articles or prepositions. No, they are sometimes major blunders where it was clear there was revising that had been done and not all of the old was deleted so that it becomes a jumble with the revision. Mistakes like this one:
That Madame de Sévigné possessed a unique talent was acknowledged not only by those with whom she corresponded, but by those with whom she corresponded
Now imagine something like this every 60-70 pages of a 445 page book and you have an idea about why I was so darn annoyed. While it was a big detraction, I did still enjoyed the book overall and have added several books to my TBR list of both collections of letters and books about letter writing and the history of the post.
If you are a letter writer yourself or enjoy a good collection of letters, you will very likely find pleasure in To the Letter