Tuesday, August 3, 2010
The joys of letter-writing
This past week I took my daughter to Half-Price Books, in search of a copy of her required summer reading, Playing the Enemy (the book upon which the film Invictus in based). While in line at the checkout, I perused an impulse display of paperbound classics - and decided to purchase something by Jane Austen, whom I have never read.
I happened to select Sense and Sensibility, her first published novel, and I truly fell in love with it! It was very difficult to read at first - it probably doesn’t even qualify as flowery prose, but Austen definitely uses a hundred words where Hemingway would only use 10. It forced me to slow down, find the rhythm of the writing, and really focus on what was being conveyed. No small feat, since a speed-reading course long ago doomed me to a life of devouring whole books in a matter of a few hours.
Since finishing the book, I’ve done just a bit of cursory research about the Regency period in England during which it was written and takes place. One bit of cultural history I enjoyed learning about was the process and etiquette of letter-writing.
Since the postal system had not yet been established as we know it today, if you wanted to communicate with someone across town you took a large sheet of paper and wrote them a letter on one side of it. You then folded it into a sort of self-contained “envelope”, affixing a wax seal to close it securely. (This not only made the letter easily transportable - it also assured the recipient that it had not been opened and read.) You then gave the letter to your footman, who was obligated to carry it immediately to the addressee.
I have long been a fan of writing letters. In fact I have very fond memories of a series of letters I exchanged in 10th grade with a male friend who moved away, and even farther back, a series I exchanged with a British pen pal named James who had very distinctive handwriting - I spent quite awhile trying to duplicate his capital letter "J." (I also remember discovering Hallmark sealing wax when I was in about sixth grade.) Unfortunately, with the exception of Christmas cards, I haven’t regularly corresponded with anyone via the hand-written method for many years.
In her book, Gift of a Letter, interior designer Alexandra Stoddard - a lifelong letter writer - says, “A personal letter can be one of the most intimate and touching of human expressions, one to another… I’ve come to realize that letter writing is the height of true communication among human beings, especially among friends.”
Letter-writing seems to me to be a custom worthy of reviving. How about you - are you a letter-writer? Have you ever been moved, to joy or despair, by a hand-written letter?