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A Bit of a Bracer

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 gloss of expected quotation, these letters read more like something that might drop through any letterbox in the morning to be read by an audience of one.

The book covers the years 1535 to 1985. The first letter is from Sir Antony Windsor to Lady Lisle, a terrifying noblewoman, abjectly and unconvincingly explaining how the writer came to be in possession of half a poached deer carcase. (And has eaten it: ‘I thought the flesh as meet for us as for the keepers.’) The last was dictated by Philip Larkin to his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis, shortly before what was to be a terminal hospital trip. Hence he begs to be excused the ‘usual valediction’, which as the editors remind us, was ‘Bum’. This letter is, as its author reflects, sober in tone, but still full of venomous gossip and jazz-anoraky fussing tinged with half-ashamed affection. As with the other letters in this collection, we are instantly plunged into other lives, sink or swim.

Reading some of these letters, you have to pinch yourself to see if you are still in your own, fortunate, twenty-first-century body. History was not history when it was happening: it was much worse. The Civil War, province today of mad re-enacters, truly ripped apart families and communities. Atrocities left scars which throbbed down the ages. Read the letters of Joseph Kent and the Earl of Derby to remember our Bosnian moment. Says Kent:

A rogue of a minister, after his [Charles I’s] head was severed from his sacred body, elevated it publicly to the people; and, which is more inhuman, it’s written that the little Duke of Gloucester was placed against the scaffold to see his royal father sacrificed.

More than two centuries later, Wilfred Owen writes to his mother,

I came out in order to help these boys – directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleaser can. I have done the first. Of whose blood lies crimson on my shoulder where his head was – and where so lately yours was – I must not write.

Then there are the lovers: Keats and his Fanny, Nelson and his Emma, Oscar and his Bosie, Carrington and Lytton Strachey. In a fervour of sexual frustration, Nelson slavers: ‘It setts me on fire . . . if any woman naked were to come to me, even as I am this moment from thinking of you, I hope it might rot off if I would touch her even with my hand.’ And so on, and so on. Poor Emma! How she must have longed for a bit of light-hearted gossip. Or a bit of a bracer.

I cannot resist quoting one of my favourite bracing letters here. It is from Johnson to Boswell. Boswell felt perplexed by philosophical questions and sought the great man’s advice. Here it is:

I hoped you had got rid of all this hypocrisy of misery. What have you to do with Liberty and Necessity? Or what more than to hold your tongue about it? Do not doubt that I shall be most heartily glad to see you here again, for I love every part about you but your affectation of distress.

I have at last finished my Lives, and have laid up for you a load of copy, all out of order, so that it will amuse you a long time to set it right. Come to me, my dear Bozzy, and let us be as happy as we can. We will go again to the Mitre, and talk old times over.

There you have it. Stop fretting, think about me, let’s go down the pub. What are friends for, after all?

Through letters, we share one another’s key moments. John Evelyn struggles to tell his father-in-law that

God has taken from us that deare childe yr grandson, your godson and with him all the joy and satisfaction that could be derived from the greatest hopes. A losse, so much the more to be deplored, as our contentments were extraordinary, and the indications of his future perfections as faire and legible as, yet, I ever saw or read of in one so very young . . .

‘So very young’ . . . there’s every tear in that ‘very’.

Perhaps my favourites are the letters to, from and about Jonathan Swift. Crabby, unyielding, fiercely intelligent, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and other satires spent his last years in the fog of dementia. His circle included Gay, Pope, Sheridan and Arbuthnot, as well as his cousin Deane Swift, who wrote the following:

On Saturday the 17th March, as he sat in his chair, upon the housekeeper’s moving a knife from him as he was going to catch at it, he shrugged his shoulders, and rocking himself, said ‘I am what I am, I am what I am’ . . . about five days ago, he endeavoured to speak to his servant . . . at last, not finding words to express what he would be at, after some uneasiness, he said, ‘I am a fool.’

You can still feel the shock reverberating round that circle of notable wits.

If it’s true that sad songs are the best, sad letters are the most memorable. Happy people may not bother to pick up their pens. John Steinbeck, in reflective mood, writes to his old friend George Albee:

Two things I really want and I can’t have either of them and they are both negative. I want to forget my mother lying for a year with a frightful question in her eyes and I want to forget and lose the pain in my heart that is my father . . . They are the only two things that make me conscious of myself as a unit. Except for them, I spread out over landscape and people like an enormous jellyfish . . .

More simply, Sylvia Townsend Warner writes to David Garnett on hearing of the death of his daughter, ‘Dearest David, I have only just heard about Amaryllis. I grieve for her. I grieve for you. It is hard to be a stoic in one’s old age.’

Ah well, that’s enough letters. They’ll only take you so far. But I am reminded that Elizabeth I (and who knows how many others?) kept the last letter of her lover Robin Dudley in a silver casket by her bed and was reaching out to it when she died. It was annotated, ‘His last lettere’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 13 © Victoria Neumark 2007

About the contributor

Victoria Neumark has three sons, two dogs and numerous bees in her bonnet. One of them is letters and she is researching a book on love letters, having despaired of ever receiving any more herself.

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