This article appeared in the Australian “The Record”: It made me laugh because once, a long time ago, I thought I would never use a typewriter. I particularly like the quote from Hilaire Belloc.
|Tony Evans: Requiem for the handwritten letter|
|Wednesday, 09 February 2011|
|Of all the changes that the computer has wrought, one of the most dramatic, yet least remarked-upon, has been the death of the handwritten letter. Killed stone dead like Dickens’ Jacob Marley in Christmas Carol, ‘Dead as a door nail, there is no doubt about that’.
The particular pleasure of discovering handwritten letters in the post has gone forever.
Only window envelopes, invariably containing official notices and unwelcome bills, are delivered by the postman, and most letterboxes now defend themselves by displaying notices banning junk mail.
The once ubiquitous human activity of handwriting letters (and, later, typing letters) has been tossed into the waste paper basket of history.
Not only has a whole way of life with its attendant disciplines disappeared almost overnight, but an accurate window into character, attitudes, beliefs and preoccupations of both the famous and the private person has been lost.
A handwritten letter conveys far more than is expressed by the words on the page.
The character of the writing, the speed with which it is written, the age of the hand, the colours of both ink and paper, and the manner of addressing the envelope, the mistakes and the corrections, and the unmistakable presence of the writer at those moments when the letter is being read, are all conveyed when the letter is opened in anticipation.
Reading handwritten letters written in the past is like journeying in a time machine, enabling us to understand a little of the world as it was at the time the letter was written.
In contrast, email is designed necessarily to be kept short and pithy, and employs a contrived shorthand devoid of character, with the result that it will not convey the heart and soul of the writer to future researchers who bother to delve into old computer files.
So what will there be for future biographers to remember us by?
Regrettably, nothing as revealing as a bundle of handwritten letters.
I write this obsequy for the handwritten letter not to dismiss computers and email which I make use of freely, but as a life-long reader and a writer of biographies.
In my own work, I rely largely on the handwritten letters of my subjects, and I can think of no biography I have read in recent years that has not been enriched by the inclusion of numerous personal letters. And again, how deprived will our literature be when collections of letters of the famous will no longer be available to be published.
Business emails and tweetings will hardly amount to literature worth reading – as for instance are the hundreds of letters of AW Pugin (Vol 3 just published), of Queen Victoria, of CS Lewis and dozens of others – and my current New Year reading, George Orwell, whose hundreds of fascinating letters reveal a deeply sincere, generous man with remarkable political insight.
‘Of course I intended [Animal Farm] primarily as a satire on the Russian Revolution. But I did mean it to have a wider application inasmuch as that kind of revolution can only lead to a change of masters.’
And another example, this from the letters of Hilaire Belloc, an unguarded moment which could only come from a private letter and would prove a pot of gold for a biographer: ‘To me, the chief irritant is the stupidity of the hierarchy. They throw away chances with both hands and they so often quite misunderstand problems they have to deal with. Their failure to wreck the Church is a proof of her divinity.’
Letters are the building blocks of good biographies. For the biographer, there is no thrill to equal the handling and studying of letters handwritten by the subject one is writing about.
If you happen to be famous (or infamous enough) to warrant a biography 150 years hence, you had better start writing letters if you have not already done so.
Yours will be a very dull biography indeed if your biographer relies on your emails and text messages.
You may plead, as most people do, that modern life simply does not provide enough time for handwritten letters, invariably a labour-intensive exercise.
It also requires the writer to think ahead of his writing because alterations and additions cannot be made as easily by hand as they can on a computer.
But lack of time is a feeble excuse unless it can be proved that there is less time available to us now than there was a hundred years ago, or that the clock moves faster now than it did in times past – a theory that gains much sympathy as one grows older.
How otherwise can we explain why great historical figures who packed their lives with activity, creativity and travel, found time each day to write not only letters in great numbers, but diaries as well?
The letters of William Gladstone, arguably Britain’s greatest and certainly longest-serving Prime Minister fill ten published volumes, quite apart from the 14 volumes of his diaries, also originally handwritten.
Churchill, as well as making time to direct World War II, wrote thousands of letters by hand. Thomas Jefferson replied by hand to every letter, numbered in their thousands, which were addressed to him as President of the United States, irrespective of whether the writers were important or humble critics of his administration.
Dickens, who wrote all his novels by hand, amounting to millions of words, wrote handwritten letters which fill an equal number of volumes in their published form.
Vincent Van Gogh managed to write some of the most profoundly moving letters of any artist; they now fill two published volumes.
We know much more accurately the characters and activities of Beethoven and Mozart from their letters, in each instance filling three published volumes. Such examples from history are numberless and are not necessarily limited to the famous.
This, in part, is why biographies of these and other historical characters are so often riveting to read and get close to revealing the real person.
Lack of time is really not a sufficient explanation for the death of the handwritten letter. Suspicion also falls on the impoverishment of modern education and the imagined urgency about everything else that we do. We have no time because we think we have no time.
But if we mourn the passing of the handwritten letter, it is yet possible to fight a rear-guard action as the body is delivered to the mortuary.
Resuscitation is possible by putting pen to paper at least occasionally.
Experience the pleasure of exchanging handwritten letters between friends and relatives. Ignore the taunt of friends that you are eccentric, or the ignoble accusation that you have nothing better to do with your time.
Not only is a handwritten letter a treasure, a gift, an act of giving part of oneself to another but a privilege to write, and a privilege to receive.
Furthermore, if you have an eye to your posthumous reputation, a bundle of your handwritten letters accompanying your Last Will and Testament might make the difference between having a dull, one-sided account of your life, or the inspiring, flattering story that you – naturally – believe you deserve.