Some books end on a downer, but Simon Garfield’s latest begins with one. In the first pages of To the Letter, he explains that his book is about “a world without letters, or at least this possibility” and “what we have lost by replacing letters with email”. As if aware that deficits don’t always endear, he qualifies his description and compensates with a plus-point: “It is a celebration of what has gone before, and the value we place on literacy, good thinking and thinking ahead.” Instantly, To the Letter is transformed into an enticing read. It is also an excellent one.
The book is a journey through the history of the mail, what, for Garfield, is a vanishing world. After informing us as to what his book is, he is quick to say what it isn’t: it isn’t “an anti-email book (what would be the point?)”. By the same token, it’s not “an anti-progress book”, nor is it “a nostalgic book”. Apprised of this authorial intent, we embark on Garfield’s fact-finding tour, starting with the discovery of Latin-inscribed wooden tablets near Hadrian’s Wall and culminating in the emergence of and dependence on email.
The book’s opening sections are particularly illuminating. Garfield jumps from one topic to another, eager to pack in what he can. Roman wood chips give way to Ancient Greek papyrus scrolls. The Romans, we learn, were the first true letter-writers and wrote candidly and from the heart. The Greeks, on the other hand, wrote letters to be read aloud, not in private, and as a result the majority of surviving correspondence is devoid of private emotion – few letters of condolence and practically no love letters. Garfield offers a succinct distinction: “If Greek letters are rooted in the theatre, Roman ones are rooted in the tavern.”
There follows chapters on what could be called the nuts and bolts of the world of letters – accounts of the establishment of an official postal network in the 16th century, sections on calligraphy and philately (the latter the focus of Garfield’s 2008 book The Error World).
It is fascinating to read that letters grew in importance in Elizabethan society due to extended trade links and families uprooting and relocating; and yet not every reader will delight in dilations on the invention of the Dead Letter Office, the pillar box and Victorian stamps. However, Garfield’s books do far more than they say on the tin, expertly transcending their seemingly dry subject matter. Just My Type (2011), primarily about the history of typographic fonts, contained offshoot tales on people as diverse as Barack Obama and Amy Winehouse, whereas On the Map (2013) took us beyond cartography to narratives on Monopoly and the naming of America. At their core, both books were about storytelling. To the Letter continues this. Letter-writing practicalities and postal institutions lead to examples of letters by famous dead people, choice excerpts and juicy trivia, and Garfield’s critical and contextual analysis.
In another disclaimer, Garfield stresses that his book is no definitive collection of great letters. That said, the range here is impressive. The Latin letters of Cicero reveal much political manoeuvring and wrangling. Those of Petrarch are “parchment postcards” of his travels through Europe, and provide valuable glimpses of places visited during the early Renaissance. The Earl of Chesterfield’s long-distance letters to his son constitute a correspondence course in deportment and civility in the Age of Enlightenment. Jane Austen is ridiculed for her dull, self-disclosing letters which, like her novels, smack of domesticity and unworldliness by ignoring raging European wars and the tumult of social change. The joy in Emily Dickinson’s early letters is palpable (“the reduction in the postage had excited my risibles somewhat”) and counterbalances the later ones that evinced her desolation and reclusiveness. Ernest Hemingway’s letters betray sly traces of anti-Semitism. There is concrete tragedy as Ted Hughes informs friends by letter of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and further sorrow as well-wishers commiserate in print to a grieving Leonard Woolf – after which Garfield muses on why we consistently use “suicide note” rather than “suicide letter”.
Some letters are conspicuous by their absence. We have none by that autobiographical man of mystery, Shakespeare. Instead, Garfield trawls through the plays, singling out the numerous letters, letter-writers and carriers, and their pivotal function in the plot. We are privy to an example of a fake Shakespeare letter, together with a forged letter by Anne Boleyn before her execution, both of them scrutinised by Garfield, their discrepancies exposed and highlighted.
So much for celebrated correspondents, genuine or otherwise. Interposed between each chapter is a letter from Chris Barker, a 29-year-old signals officer stationed in North Africa in 1944, to Bessie Moore on the home front back in London. His letters chronicle his boredom, his day-to-day duties and observations of Egypt. Slowly, the letters change in tone (“You have smashed my perimeter defences, I am all of a hub-bub, and as I write my cheeks are red and I am hot”) until eventually Barker’s “best wishes” turns into “I love you”. He proposes to her in print and we are left waiting for his next letter, which will contain her answer. Only towards the end of the book do we see Bessie’s letters and hear of her emotions and opinions, by which time Barker’s life is in peril. Including this wartime correspondence was an inspired idea and we consume To the Letter hungrily to get to the next amusing or moving instalment.
But while the unfurling Chris-Bessie romance entrances, the same cannot be said for the book’s main sections on love letters. Bizarrely, Garfield gives short shrift to this perennially popular letter-type. One chapter dedicated to “Love in its Earliest Forms” gives us the letters of Heloïse and Abelard, but then abuts them with Petrarch’s gripes to Boccaccio about the unreliability of the messenger system.
To be fair, Garfield returns to love letters in a later chapter, turning his attention to Keats and Fanny Brawne and the poet’s twin illnesses of consumption and lovesickness; to the devotions between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett; and finally to the more explicit and sensual letters that shuttled between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin – all such letters revealing, for Garfield, “fuller and richer selves, and a half-chance at least of understanding wholly complicated lives.” But Garfield’s structure lets him down: his love letters need to be better collated. Napoleon’s passionate letters to Josephine crop up in a chapter more concerned with their worth at auction. Henry VIII’s lovelorn letters to Anne Boleyn written in the purplest of prose are included in a chapter on the stirrings of the modern postal service and not those of the heart. And despite searching commentary on love letters in the epistolary novel, there is nothing on the debauchery-stuffed missives in one of the most famous epistolary novels of all, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons.
These missteps aside, the wealth of information here is astounding, whether dealing with the origins and ingredients of invisible ink or the astronomical prices collectors pay for letters. Garfield generously sprinkles literary-flavoured anecdotes: Erasmus spent half his life writing letters (and claimed they were not history but literature); Oscar Wilde never bothered mailing his letters, he simply attached a stamp and threw them out the window of his Chelsea home; Jack Kerouac got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from the way Neal Cassady wrote to him.
In the closing chapter on the global dominance of email, Garfield stays true to his word by not knocking it. In fact his only criticism of it in the entire book reads like a cheeky but pertinent maxim: “Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress”. However, he notes that contemporary youth prefer text messaging and social media, and wonders if email is already on its way to becoming as outmoded as letter-writing. “What if email is just a fleeting distraction from the fact that we no longer want to communicate with each other in the way our parents did, or the way we have communicated for 2,000 years?”
Elsewhere, and when more sanguine, Garfield abandons the gloomy forecasting and simply extols the virtues of the letter as it exists now – hanging on in there by the skin of its teeth, perhaps, with fewer and fewer people picking up a pen and paper, but surviving all the same and benefiting those adherents that still place faith in it. “Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,” he writes. “They restore intention and understanding. They are evidential. They change lives, and they rewrite history.” No mournful elegy, To the Letter is a defiantly jubilant hymn to a dying art.