As a literary device, letters are a gift for authors. But the noble art of letter writing seems to have gone into freefall. I think this is a shame, but Iím the first to admit that I donít write more than the tersest of emails these days.
Time to write
Until the invention of the telegram, people communicated in writing. Iím astonished at the amount of time they could devote to penning letters.
In the 18th century, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote more than 400 letters to his illegitimate son over a 30-year period. They were published as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). The letters were never actually intended for publication, but came to be considered a manual on the ways of the world. Chesterfield was a politician, essayist and patron of the arts, but he still found the time to compose these elegant missives.
Letters have been popular with authors for centuries as a literary form, especially during the 18th century. Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, and a number of French writers, including Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) wrote epistolary novels.
They fell out of favour in the early 19th century, but were back by the end. Modern writers, such as Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk about Kevin), have used letters to powerful effect, especially to convey the point of view of an unreliable witness. They are also a way of increasing dramatic tension where a character is unaware of relevant things going on.
A set of real-life letters inspired my own novel, The House at Zaronza. A Corsican village schoolmaster wrote them in the 1890s to a young woman, whose bourgeois parents would have strongly disapproved of their liaison. The lovers communicated via a secret letter drop. A hundred years later, his letters were found walled up in the attic of her house, which is now a B&B.
Despite being a busy person, the schoolmaster wrote more than simple notes fixing their assignations. They are passionate love letters, elegantly phrased and carefully constructed.
100 years hence?
Todayís instant communication media donít lend themselves to this kind of prose. In emails and text messages you can dispense with pronouns and direct/indirect articles and even complete words in the interests of speed.
So how would my lovers, Maria and RaphaŽl, have communicated today? By SMS, I suppose. Assuming their mobile phones stood the test of time, would ĎCU @ 4í followed by a smiley really stir the imagination of a novelist in 100 yearsí time? Call me an old fogey, but it wouldnít do it for me.
Do you still write letters in the traditional way?