If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Roger Angell, This Old Man: All in Pieces
Dear Fellow Bookworms,
When I was in grade school, I learned to write what was called the Friendly Letter. The Friendly Letter always included the Complimentary Close — “Yours truly”, “Your friend”, “Sincerely”, or “Love”. (Mrs. Pierce, my third grade teacher, warned us only to use “Love” when writing to a family member.) There are dozens of ways to end a letter, from the ubiquitous “Best”, (best what? I always wonder),”Fondly”, “Regards”, to the more elaborate closings of days gone by. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, ends this way: “This salutation by my own hand–Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” Thomas Jefferson popularized the closing, “Your most humble and most obedient servant”. Charles Dickens often closed personal letters with the charming phrases “Ever your affectionate friend” or “Yours heartily and affectionately”.
Mina Harker, one of Dracula’s victims, closes her letters by saying “Your ever-loving Mina Harker.” Frankenstein’s ill-fated fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, ends a letter with “Adieu! Take care of yourself, and I entreat you, write!”. What do these two characters have in common? They both appear in epistolary novels, books written either entirely or mostly in letters.
When you read a good epistolary novel, you have a sense of immediacy and realism that’s usually not found in a book narrated in the first or third person. You feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cache of private letters. I think the first novel of this type I read was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. It’s the story of a young girl raised in an orphanage who, through the help of a mysterious benefactor with whom she corresponds, is able to attend college. Katherine Reay wrote an absolutely delightful, and award-winning novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, which is a modern version of the Daddy-Long-Legs story.
Over the years, many of my favorite novels have been based on letters:
- Alice Walker’s modern classic, The Color Purple, tells Celie’s story through her letters to God.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, aunt and niece) is a series of letters from a London writer to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey.
- In Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, a young poet from the remote Isle of Skye receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.
- Marilyn Robinson’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, is a letter from a dying minister to his young son.
- Carlene Bauer based Frances and Bernard on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Like Gilead, this novel is concerned with the characters’ spiritual lives.
- In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a brilliant teenager tries to track down her missing mother — and Maria Semple used letters, emails, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts involving a wacky cast of characters to show just how she does that.
- Julie Schumacher cleverly assembled a hilarious novel made up solely of recommendation letters that a beleaguered English professor is constantly called upon to write in Dear Committee Members.
- Code Name Verity, a YA novel by Elizabeth Wein, is the gripping story of two young British women captured in occupied France during World War II, told through the “confessions” they write to their interrogators.
- A completely different YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky) is a coming-of-age story consisting of letters from a shy and precocious teenager to an unnamed recipient.
Of course, sometimes only real letters will do. I treasure several anthologies of letters from both famous and ordinary people. War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Andrew Carroll) and Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (edited by Shaun Usher). Volume 2 of Letters of Note just came out last month, and I’m savoring every letter. My all-time favorite epistolary book is Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (which, surprisingly, was made into a movie that does justice to the book), which chronicles a 20-year correspondence between Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Another favorite is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, which contains just a fraction of the 1,100 letters that the couple wrote to each other during the many separations they endured over the course of their 54-year marriage. Their letters bring the world of this country’s founders alive more than any other surviving documents.
In a recent book called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, Nina Sankovitch describes finding a trunk filled with hundreds of letters in a shed attached to a house her family was renovating in the Upper West Side of New York. The letters belonged to the original owners of the home, the Seligman family, and the vast majority of them were written by James Seligman to his parents (whom he addressed as “Dearest Mamma” or “Darling Parents”) during his years at Princeton, 1908-1912. Nina feels that rereading the letters James left behind “proves all over again, the power of the written, the handwritten, word.” Aside from a listing on an online family tree, James left no other evidence of his life. Nina says:
Paper and ink have created a lasting connection between James and me. The connection has made me a better person, if only for having laughed so much and indulged in so much pleasurable company through his letter. And isn’t that what we say about our friends, that they have enriched our lives and made us better people?
Ever your affectionate friend,
Ann @ Books on the Table