Personal letters are private. Written by one individual to another, they are composed in private and intended to be read in private.
There are few other human-to-human activities that can claim this level of privacy. Sex perhaps. And good conversation, by which I mean those passionate, exploratory, discursive exchanges that occur over many hours, during which mind and language are exercised to a magnificent degree; where the conversation is a journey, a magical mystery tour, in which the stopping-off posts and the end points are adventures to be discovered.
I have fallen in love during hours of close conversation. (As has often been noted, the brain is the sexiest human organ.)
I am currently reading Ted Hughes’s letters, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Hughes had some fine correspondents, family of course, as well as many writers and artists; and poets, too, such as W.S. Merwin, Daniel Weissbort, Al Alvarez, and Yehuda Amichai (one of Hughes’s favourite poets – mine too). Often in reading Hughes’s letters I am pulled up short by some seriously intoned astrological aside (not sharing his beliefs, I find some of them laughable), some acutely observed aspect of nature, some superbly expressed outrage. Here he is on a particular critic who had given a bad review of a friend’s work.
Davie [the critic] is a kind of parasite in the crutch & armpits of poetry very common in the States – a strident proclaimer of the latest O.K. notions all sure to be found in a pitiful form in his own latest verse. He’s a grotesquely shrunken silly imitator of Pound, forty years after the phenomenon. He’s the old receptacle of every other critic’s – particularly the American battalion – dud cartridges & empty cases & he’s trying to fit them all together, not dropping one, into a semblance of armament….He’s the mincy mean know-all kind of little office snot – a standard English type – gone into Literature, & in the branch of poetry his own practice is about the measure of his understanding – all creak & no cart. (Letter to the poet John Montague, 1961)
I am reading the letters from 1960, 1961 and 1962. I know Plath’s death occurs in February 1963, but Ted Hughes does not know what’s up ahead. As the terrible time draws closer, I read his letters and I feel for him. Feel for him, not her. I read past her death to a letter to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, written three months after Sylvia’s death. It is several thousand words long. In this letter Hughes reveals the profound loss he feels – the Plath-Hughes love was a great and difficult one – he also writes about guilt and regret, and he writes at length about his two young children. Always clear and forthright, he states what they need and don’t need – particularly from their grandmother – at this vulnerable time. (Hughes’s relationship with his mother-in-law was never easy. After Sylvia’s death, Aurelia Plath wanted the two children to live with her in America. In this plan, Ted Hughes’s maternal aunt, Hilda Farrer, would look after them. Hilda would have none of it. Nor, of course, would Ted.)
I read this long letter a second time and wish, yes wish, this letter had been public when Robin Morgan wrote her accusation in Monster (1972) and we feminists raised our fists and fury against Ted Hughes, blaming him for Sylvia Plath’s suicide.
I felt ashamed and sorry when, more than 30 years after the publication of Monster, I read Hughes’s Birthday Letters, those brilliant poems of yearning and perplexity about his courtship and marriage to Sylvia and the terrible impact of her death. At twenty I had no idea how ignorant I was. The certainties and righteousness of youth can be so brutal.
But I digress, this article is not about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, it is about letters. When published letters are by famous people you, the reader, already know the context, you know the life and the work. You are in possession of the basic narrative, a sort of connective tissue which cushions the letters and holds them together. So when Ted Hughes asks a publisher to consider a collection of poems by a poet called, David Wevill in December 1962, but expressly asks that under no circumstances should his, Hughes’s intervention be mentioned, the reader knows why. Some months earlier, Hughes and Wevill’s wife Assia had begun an affair. We know that two months after the letter was written Sylvia will kill herself, we know that Ted Hughes’s second wife will be Assia Wevill. (I find myself wanting to warn Ted.)
None of this sort of background narrative exists when letters have been written by an unknown person in an ordinary context. (An extraordinary context would be letters written by a foot soldier from the trenches in the Great War – we may not know the individual soldier, but we do know the circumstances in which he finds himself.) When it comes to an ordinary personal letter, any reader who is not the intended recipient or a confidante of the recipient is reliant on the letter itself to supply a cushioning narrative, together with the products of their own imagination. The letters of ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, letters that relate loves or losses or illness or travels or local happenings or desires or disappointments provide huge imaginative space for any unrelated reader.
Sylvie Morrow, the character in my new novel, The Science of Departures, who collects letters, is trying to understand the appeal of these private communications that are not intended for her, but speak to her in an utterly irresistible way. The man in the novel who becomes her lover gives her a stack of epistolary novels, including Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, generally considered to be the first of the modern epistolary novels. He gives her Bellow’s Herzog, Anne Stevenson’s Correspondences, a verse novel in letters (and yes, she is the same Anne Stevenson who wrote Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath). He also gives her Dracula.
Like Sylvie I have struggled through Pamela and struggled part way through the Richardson’s 1500 page door-stopper Clarissa (many have started, few have finished). Indeed, I have read quite a number of epistolary novels in recent times. The problem, it seems to me, of the epistolary form is that the necessity of carrying the narrative actually bleeds the letters of their sense of privacy and intimacy, of being intended for just one person. Indeed, in many of the letters in epistolary novels one gains no sense of the recipient whatsoever, and not much of the writer either – the ‘I’ of the writer being too often crushed under the narrator function. In short, often epistolary novels do not read like letters at all, rather they are like any first-person narrative – replete with all the pitfalls of that particular point of view.
I’m yet to be convinced that the epistolary novel can be true to the qualities of letters AND the requirements of a novel.
How very different is the journal novel, of which Dracula reigns supreme. I read Bram Stoker’s novel for the very first time only recently. It is a gripper. The story is told through the journal entries of three main characters, with the addition of a few letters and some diary entries. The work is masterfully structured so it reads like a continuous narrative with changing character point of view. I could not put it down.
My character, Sylvie, reads the epistolary novels given to her by her lover. She decides that what she gets from her letter collection is quite different – and preferable. She wants the private tone of real letters, that clandestine atmosphere they create. It is, she decides, the very intimacy of the letter form that draws her into other people’s lives, lives that are not her own, lives that are far distant from her own. The letters in her collection, having no back-story require her own imagination to be active; it is she who supplies the connecting narrative. She decides that she wants letters to be letters and do the job of letters; the epistolary novels do not do that. She wants this whether it is the letters in her collection, or the volumes of published letters written by famous people. She wants letters that allow her to trespass on private lives.
I find myself in full agreement with her.