Signed, Sealed, Delivered – Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing by Nina Sankovitch

Signed SealedHow could I not pick this book up, a non-fiction tribute to the dying art of letter writing. A pastime that makes the young at heart feel like they have entered old age, because so few people do it any more, it has become old-fashioned!

I am a letter writer from so far back that I didn’t realise how early it began until reacquainting with people from the past via Facebook resulted in some reminding me of letters I had written when I was younger than 10-years-old.

I know I wrote letters when I was at boarding school (from 13), we all did, it was a matter of survival and a tactic to avoid that dreadful feeling at midday as we lined up the staircase waiting to retrieve our lunch to take outdoors, listening to the boarding school mistress read aloud the names of those who had received a letter today, and when your name wasn’t read out – inevitable really – it invoked a sense of disconnect, reminding you that you didn’t live at home, that you couldn’t just visit a friend, a neighbour, your family whenever you wanted, you had to wait for them to write a letter to be in contact.  Four years of listening to names being read out is enough of a sentence to instill a habit of letter writing into anyone surely.

LettersNina Sankovitch has a more romantic view of letters and letter writing and the word joy in the title is a clue. She doesn’t speak of the suffering of not receiving letters, she speaks of the joys of connection.

She gives her son a table and pen and he pens his first postcard letter at thirteen months old, fast forward to the present when he is eighteen and off to Harvard, now she is hankering for more than the brief text messages, tweets and occasional telephone calls, this more disposable form of communication that dominate life today but do not endure. She wants a letter and that desire makes her wonder what it is about a letter that means so much.

Will she convince her son to write to her, the kind of letters she has appreciated herself? Whether she does or not, that desire and the discovery of an old trunk containing letters dating back to the 1800’s that she inherits when she and her husband buy a new house, the seller wanting nothing to do with an old rotting trunk or its contents, send her on a quest of her own through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence, to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter.

“There have been times when I have needed the reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe, that I am tethered to people who will keep me secure. The letters offer that reassurance. Even if those people are gone, the bond endures through the tokens of connection we passed back and forth, the written manifestation of our relationship.”

The author lost her oldest sister to a fast and brutal bile duct cancer, she has photos and memories of the times they shared, but it is the letters, postcards and birthday cards that keep her most alive within, just as the hundreds of letters written by James Bernheimer Seligman that she inherited in that trunk, a young man she never knew, but came to know through his correspondence created in her imagination, a vision of a person that almost seemed real.

From the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James, Nina Sankovitch attempts to divine the allure of the letter. She takes us on journey through a stack of published letters that have been preserved and published, introducing those interested in letters and the epistolary form, to a long list of references that speak of great love, erotic fantasy, a mother’s love, a son’s last words from the front and much more.

I enjoyed the book and its introduction to some of the great literary correspondences, including the one found in her own backyard. I did find it overly sentimental in parts and despite the great introduction to those letter writers in history, there were too many examples of short encounters with little depth that had the effect of being easily forgotten.

It may have been better to highlight fewer, more memorable examples than some of the less engaging examples that pad out the book. On the other hand, readers have varied interests. I know I could easily have been swept away by a more in-depth discovery of fewer pairs of letter writers.

Samuel Steward 1957 Source: Wikipedia

Samuel Steward 1957
Source: Wikipedia

The relationship between Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas and Samuel Steward (a poet and novelist I had never heard of) was one of the sets of correspondence that stood out for me. Steward wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein that was to become the beginning of a lifelong friendship, (interspersed with trips to Paris to see the two women), much of it conducted through letters and when Gertrude died he and Alice continued to write for another 20 years until her death.

Steward also wrote a journal, religiously writing notes every evening of all that had happened during the day, from which he penned his memoir Dear Sammy. A character in his own right, Steward left the world of academia to become a tattooist and pornographer remaining committed to the lifelong friendship he developed with Gertrude and Alice.

Ultimately, by referring to so many pairs of correspondence, we find something here for everyone, whether it hails from the present, our more recent history, or medieval characters like Heloise, the cloistered nun writing to her lover Abelard in the early 1100’s.

Madame Sévigné3I have moved Madame De Sévigné’s Selected Letters to within reach and feel inspired to become acquainted with one of the world’s greatest correspondents, a prominent figure in French society and literary circles in the 17th century, her letters continuing to enchant readers 300 years after they were written.

And do I still write letters? Absolutely, I just wrote one last week to an Irish poet!

So when did you last write a letter?

A timely and nostalgic reference to a dying form of communication and literary art form.

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Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood

There are few greater delights than a book that draws you in from the very first pages and immediately makes you care about what happens next, that demands your attention in every free moment you can conjure until the end.

We That Are Left (2)Juliet Greenwood, while painting a world that is far from one that we might imagine living ourselves, one that takes place in an enormous stately home on a hill overlooking a village in Cornwall – manages to imbue in the reader a kind of aspiring fantasy that those who prefer an episode of Downton Abbey to Twilight will be more than happy to immerse themselves within.

Two years ago I read her novel Eden’s Garden also set in Cornwall and Wales and adored it. That book was a dual narrative of two women, one in contemporary time, the other in the Victorian era, whose lives we follow and as the novel progresses reveals what connects them.

Now Juliet Greenwood has written a timely novel, chronicling the lives of a group of young women, focused on Elin Helstone, a young wife living in Hiram House, a country estate that has been her family home since birth.  Now run by her increasingly distant husband Hugo, he has become consumed by dark thoughts he is unwilling to share connected to events of the Boer War and is now likely to be called up in yet another war. Elin tries to anticipate her husbands needs until the onset of war provides the circumstance  that will propel her towards asserting an independence she will find difficult to relinquish.

Elin’s unmarried cousin Alice lives with them, though Hugo pursues every opportunity to introduce her to eligible company in the hope that she too might exit his orbit. Then there is Mouse, Lady Margaret Northholme, whom the two young women meet in the opening pages and become firm friends, their lives will become forever entwined as war descends upon the country and everything as they have previously known it changes forever.

The opening pages possess an air of excitement and potential, young people meet at their big houses, conforming to social convention and can’t quite believe the rumours of pending war.

‘It will most likely blow over. War is such a medieval occupation. I can’t imagine any modern state embarking on such barbarity.’

War Draft

However, war does arrive and strips the village bare of men, plunging those who stay behind into an alternative way of living, they must live with the fear of not knowing what will happen, of the risk of attack and the dread of a telegram bearing tragic news.

That fear of the unknown will become less significant in comparison with the experience awaiting Elin and her gardener Jack as they depart on their own dangerous mission.

‘Nervous?’

‘Terrified,’ I replied.

‘So you should be. There’s no point in being brave from now on. Forget what anyone ever told you about heroes. Once we reach the other side, it’s fear that will keep you alive.’

Juliet Greenwood creates believable characters, putting them in credible but challenging situations where they fulfill our suspicions of their true natures, while her trademark elements of mystery and intrigue run on continuously throughout the narrative.

She does the same with country locations, we inhabit Hiram Hall and the Welsh farmhouse as if we had known them for years, the author invokes the reader’s imagination bringing the outdoor landscape and its associated elements into the page like fog creeping in from the bay. As Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift reminded us “The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own.’

Port Issac Cornwall

We that are left begins in 1914, a mere five years before Michel Déon’s The Foundling Boy (reviewed here) in 1919 and yet the contrast couldn’t be greater.

Here we become immersed in the war years (Déons novel set in the interwar years) where the absence of so many men advanced opportunities for women like no suffragette initiative yet had, though they certainly paved the way for women like Elin, Lady Margaret, Kitty, Alice and others to be able to take the initiative and get involved in the war effort. They learn to drive, volunteer in hospitals, grow food and distribute it to those with little or nothing. Women of the upper classes who were used to being waited on found themselves with few staff and having to manage like common people. Servants experienced the shift in equality between the classes.

Having complained about the lack of female role models with redeeming features in Michel Déon’s coming of age novel, I find them in abundance here and can’t help but observe the contrast in the female characters portrayed here versus those we met across the channel.

The actions of these women were no doubt inspired from Juliet Greenwood’s research into women and the war effort and she mentions the Virago Book of Women and the Great War edited by Joyce Marlow in the bibliography.

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Gertrude Stein With Auntie and war supplies, 1917

I was reminded of the incredible and courageous efforts of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as portrayed in Diana Souhami’s excellent biography Gertrude and Alice; Gertrude having sold her Matisse Women with a Hat she and Alice initially decamped for the French Riviera abandoning Paris, but after some time became bored and returned deciding they too wanted to help with the war effort.

After meeting with an organisation that distributed supplies to hospitals, they were informed it would be most useful if they could provide a truck and do the same. So Gertrude took driving lessons, wrote to a cousin in New York asking for a van to be sent, had it converted and named Auntie and off they went road tripping around the country, becoming known at the garages throughout France, distributing the hospital supplies, writing letters to soldiers whom they referred to as their military godsons and collecting recipes along the way. But that’s another story!

We That Are Left is an enthralling read that sets a compulsive pace from that first intriguing landing and doesn’t let up until the final pages. It  is a moving contribution to contemporary WWI fiction and an enlightening exposé on how perceptions and the role of women experienced a complete and irreversible paradigm shift during those years, from which we have benefited more than we realise.

Highly recommended.

Note: Thank you to the author Juliet Greenwood for providing the photos of Glynllifon Hall above, and to her publisher Honno Press for providing me with a copy of the book to read.