by Derek Parker
The art of correspondence - real correspondence, involving pen and paper, possibly vellum - is sadly all but lost. But collections and selections of letters published in book form preserve some of the best examples of a bygone form of communication. DEREK PARKER unearths the pick.
What with the telephone, email, and now - God save the mark - texting, will anyone ever write letters again' We shall have lost a lot, if that is the case: The Collected Emails of Martin Amis or Selected Text Messages of Yann Martel may not carry the same resonance as The Collected Letters of Henry James. And apart from the media, there are other considerations - the letters of Horace Walpole occupy fifty volumes, in the famous Yale edition. Who has the time, these days, to write enough letters to fill fifty books'
Happily, if no one does ever write another letter, we have plenty to be going on with. Apart from Walpole, there are tens of thousands of letters from Bernard Shaw, eleven thousand or so from EM Forster, six huge volumes from Virginia Woolf, and even DH Lawrence, who died when he was in his forties, wrote enough letters to fill six plump volumes (some from Australia, 'a weird place ... it seems so old.')
But should we be reading letters at all? There was a lot of controversy when, not too long after his death, Keats's love letters to Fanny Brawne were published. They were so intimate, so pained and painful that to read them seemed an unforgivable intrusion into the grief of a dying man - even after his death. They are still among the most disturbing of all published letters: the dying young poet, desperately regretful that he had never made love to his beloved, expresses himself so keenly that the reader feels all his pain, and even after almost two centuries we wonder whether we should be reading them. Yet who would be without his letters about poetry, coming nearer than perhaps any other writing to explaining the mystery of artistic creation?
From the April, 2006 magazine.