Thursday, 22 May 2008

Life through a letter

Reading Dovegreyreader's thoughts on getting back into the letter writing groove has inspired me to talk about my own feelings. I feel like it should come with a warning: I will start ranting. I may not be able to control my ranting. Please consider yourselves warned!

It is impossible to say where my love of writing and receiving letters first started. I have always loved rushing down the stairs to the front door and picking up whatever has been put there, sifting through it for anything with my name on it. I suppose when I went to boarding school at the age of nine, it turned into a particularly important event for me. I lived ever so close to home (six minutes by car) and my reasons for going were two fold.
Firstly: I was sick of nannies. My parents were both working away from home, so I had a string of nannies for the first nine years of my life.
Secondly: I read Enid Blyton. I think that should explain most of my reasoning. Suffice to say it was nothing like what I had read!
Anyway, with boarding came the need to stay in touch, and so I gave as many people as I could instructions to write to me, which they duly did. I have a box (the kind office printer paper comes in) jam packed with postcards and notelets from people who clearly had little to say, but who wanted to stay in touch.
Books with letters in them enthralled me too.
When I became old enough to buy books without a parent peeking over my shoulder, I was invariably drawn to collections of letters. Doing a quick count round the room now, I have ... at least twenty four volumes of letters, ranging from Heloise and Abelard to Nancy Mitford, with a couple of royals, a prime minister, authors and a few actors thrown into the mix for good measure. There is nothing quite like a letter for showing a person in all their different moods.
What would a person make of me, if they were to read my letters I wonder? If they read the ones I wrote when I was fifteen, they would see a young girl, clearly bored in Physics lessons (where I wrote most of them) who thought she was in love with a boy named Tom (who subsequently turned out to be gay, and then died a couple of months after my 18th birthday in the Cayman Islands), was attempting to make him jealous, and was obviously very confused about her faith.
Not a bad little time capsule for something so 'mundane' as a letter, is it?

I think my true love of writing and receiving matured whilst I was away at University. There I truly was cut off from the world I knew, and I made every effort to ensure that my ties were still strong. When I went to Norwich to do my Masters, it became doubly important to write letters. It didn't even matter if the people I wrote to didn't respond, or wrote back via email or facebook. My thoughts were out there, and I had done my bit to keep the connection alive.
My studies into the workings of biography and autobiography also highlighted the importance of letters to me. Time for another review of my booksheleves. I have .... over 122 biographies and autobiographies (I stopped counting), which does not include those books which are biographical fiction (which is another thing entirely, and not meant for this post). How could those books have been written without recourse to the vast amount of letters that the subjects wrote - even if some of them (Henry James, I'm thinking of you) burned so many? Email is all very well, but it worries me slightly that the biographers of the future may find they lack something, because email is essentially a more hidden process (passwords and such, being - of course - private). I've had reason to revise this opinion having read the wonderful Before I Say Goodbye, by Ruth Picardie, edited by her sister after her death, but I still think that in general, when the biographer does not have a direct link to their subject, it will become a stumbling block.

For me, there is nothing in this world that makes me happier than finding a letter that isn't a bill or a bank statement (I've spent how much on books this month?!) on the floor. The thrill I get of posting things too, is very sweet.

I leave you with a wonderful extract from a letter that Joyce Grenfell wrote to her best friend Virginia Grahame. In the fifty or so years that they were friends, they wrote nearly every day, and when both were in the country telephone every day too.

'Perhaps it would be an exaggeration to say that I live for your letters, but they are certainly one of the major joys of my exsitence. You have an amazing way of transmitting yourself to your pen, so that when I read I can picture you all the time.'


StuckInABook said...

What a wonderful post, Becca, and I hope the letter I sent has found its way round the corner (via Swindon or somewhere, no doubt) by now! I started writing letters properly when I was 16, I think, and there is nothing nicer than receiving one. Also love collections of letters - currently reading Jane Austen's, which are so funny, and always open for more recommendations... Mention some in your next letter!

oxford-reader said...

It did, it did! Actually, this has been a great week, personal letter wise. I got four!
I'll put my thinking cap on regarding letter collections ....