When I posted my last review, I promised the next would be about Emmi Itäranta’s The Moonday Letters. I still plan to review that novel, but in honor of Letter Writing Month last month, I thought I’d pause for a moment and review the book I just finished: Simon Garfield’s To The Letter: A Curious History of Correspondence.
Garfield’s history opens with a story about the writer, and about his interest in a particular set of historical letters being auctioned off, but from there it goes all over the place. It discusses the Roman letters found at Vindolanda, the developing tradition of letters in Rome, and surveys history through discussing famous correspondents from Madame de Sévigné to Ted Hughes, and discussing how society reacted to letter-writing (such as the letter-writing manuals so common at one time).
Interspersed between each chapter, though, is my favourite part: a series of letters between a soldier named Chris and a woman back home named Bessie, written during the Second World War. Through their letters you come to know them, and even with such a small fraction of their letters included, you come to feel for them as they fall in love, and hope they managed to overcome the odds. The letters are a beautiful example of the power of letters to reveal character and allow someone to bare their heart, and I’m excited to discover now that there is a full volume of them available, My Dear Bessie.
Garfield makes this power clear as well, picking out passages from the other letters he discusses to highlight his points. One part that stuck out to me was the discussion of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, through Hughes’ own letters. (As a warning, though, that chapter can be quite upsetting, given the circumstances of Plath’s death, and given Hughes’ emotions about it as expressed in his letters.)
The whole thing made me wonder what my letters say about me, to be honest! I’ve always written letters here and there, and at the moment I write to my grandmother every week. It made me want to work a little more at it, and see if I can make my letters as lively as some of the examples here.
To the Letter was definitely an enjoyable read for me; I was more interested in some of the famous letter-writers discussed than others, admittedly, but Garfield’s enthusiasm for letter-writing—and for peeking in at the lives of people as revealed by their letters—is infectious. It’s a bit of a chunky book, but it flew by—especially with Chris and Bessie’s letters with each chapter, and wanting to know how things ended for them!
Next time, I promise, I’ll take a look at The Moonday Letters—before I forget the whole book, since it’s been a while since I read it! And in the meantime, don’t forget you can tell me about books about letters (fiction or non-fiction) in this topic on the forum (you may need to browse the forums a little before you can post in it, though!).
15 comments so far
The power of words, the little story of strangers mixed with the History of the world make you want to dive into this book.
Such a lovely read. I also enjoyed Shaun Usher's Letters of Note very much
Happy Postally Readings!
Wolfgang Struck, Flaschenpost: Ferne Botschaften, Frühe Vermessungen und ein legendäres Experiment