Recently I’ve started writing letters to prisoners (via the New Bridge Foundation). I can recommend it as a means to think about what we have in common with each other. The amount of trust – in the postal system, in language, in the other person – encoded in each letter is staggering. With prisoners who, one way or another, are likely to have suffered many abuses of trust, it is even more striking. Our letters, it is hoped, will lead to meetings. But even if not, one hopes they extend fingers of possibility, rays of light if that’s not too presumptuous, into the darkness of ‘this place’ as they generally characterize prison.
I turn back to collections of letters partly to gain inspiration for my own faltering efforts. One wants to be personal, inviting, benign – yet not too personal or inviting. The poetic explorations of Keats, the tart animadversions of Shaw or the convoluted compliments of Henry James are clearly unsuitable models. On the other hand, Dr Johnson, W. B. Yeats and Sydney Smith are among those whose combination of intelligent observation of everyday life and good-humoured sociability sets the tone for what one would like to receive with one’s porridge – or so I hope.
These, as well as many others, can be contacted via the 328 letters collected by Frank and Anita Kermode for the Oxford Book of Letters. It’s a surprising collection, which is why I enjoy it so much. The editors seem to have taken a straightforward historical view, choosing influential people as well as literary ones. So we do get Bloomsbury and the Lawrences but also Asquith and James Thurber; Keats and Leigh Hunt but also nasty old Prinny (later George IV); an illiterate dairy farmer as well as acid-penned A. E. Housman. Even from the well-known, they are not always the letters one might expect – not the most famous of Sir Walter Raleigh’s self-exculpations nor Dr Johnson’s most resounding rebuke (to Lord Chesterfield). Without the high g
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in