Lord Byron once wrote that “letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.”
We often forget the important role that letter writing used to play in everyday life, a time of fine penmanship, thoughtful verbiage, and patience while waiting for a reply. In a world where everything is done in haste, this art form has been jettisoned in favor of instant communication. My vote is in favor of the revival of a well-crafted letter. For me, I plan to make the most of this temporary distance we live in and create a union between pen and paper again.
If only quills could talk, they’d whisper of some of humanity’s earliest influencers, whose weighty wordplay moved nations to act for positive change. Their staccato scrawling wove patterns on the page, filling lines with all matters foreign and domestic. I have always admired Thomas Jefferson, whose arrangement of words in the late 1770’s shaped our infant country through the use of figurative language and carefully structured rhetoric. We chose wisely when giving him the quill to draft the Declaration, the ultimate breakup letter to a British tyrant.
The correspondence between John and Abigail Adams plucked my heartstrings when I first studied it in college. Their letters are a demonstration of their steadfast love through some of the roughest patches in our nation’s past and the months and years of absence as John helped form our government. What I greatly admire about these documents is that Abigail cleverly couched her political advice to him within the domestic and parental tribulations on the home front, often cooling his infamous hot head and goading him toward calmer thought. Letters such as these should be included in a how-to book for strong marriages.
Some of literature’s most poweful letters are housed within the witty novels of my literary idol, Jane Austen, a woman who knew that their influence could forever alter a relationship. It is no coincidence that the central gentlemen in both Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice each draft a key letter to their love interest that sways the young female to give them a second chance after some failed attempt at chivalry. Men, sit up and take notice—these are a billion times better than grocery store “I’m sorry” flowers. You might have to break out the thesaurus now and again, but your lady will appreciate your attention to detail.
Never underestimate the power of a well-written letter.-Jane Austen-
While Austen’s books strengthen my resolve that letters can alter the course of destiny, it is her frank and saucy letters to her sister, Cassandra, in the late 1790s, that make me wish I had a sisterly confidante. Copies of such communication reveal much of the writer’s innermost heart not typically revealed in such an era focused upon self-restraint and propriety. At 22 years old, Austen was penning novels while society seemed to be collapsing around her (demented king on throne, Irish rebellion, etc.). Cassandra was away visiting a brother in Kent, so letters were Jane’s way of documenting her view of life in Steventon, Hampshire.
In her most poignant letter to her sister, Austen admits to falling in love with one Tom Lefroy, a handsome, shy, Irish nephew of a wealthy neighbor. After a few balls and encounters, Austen recognizes that it would be an imprudent match and his dependency upon his family for his fortune meant they could never be; instead, she crafts a man identical to him in her novel—Fitzwilliam Darcy. Austen is able to change the pain of her reality in her fiction to honor a love she could never see to fruition—Darcy’s great fortune means he can marry a woman of a lower station and still thrive on his own dime. Cassandra remained a sounding board to Austen and a comfort in her spinsterhood, although that same sister was said to have burned many of Jane’s letters after her death in order to protect her legacy and privacy. That is devotion.
I have, myself, experienced the joy of a constant correspondent when in a faraway place, and still cherish these letters to this day. While teaching archery at a girls’ summer camp as a junior in college, my then-boyfriend-now-husband was the only constant writer in my life, and he sent me news of the campus and our friends while I was living in the hill country, far from any technology that could make communication faster. He knew I thrived on writing, and though his admittance that he had no earth shattering news to share was honest, I lived for those runs to my tiny post office to receive them, and would then sit by the edge of the Guadalupe River nearby and read them again and again. I truly believe they are what saved our relationship from extinction, as so many suffer the fate of when two twenty-somethings are not in constant physical presence. I will keep them forever, as early artifacts of our love story.
This year was nothing short of serendipitous, because I selected a one act play titled Letters for our performance competition, yet another reminder of the power of the written word in times of strife and uncertainty, when people are separated by circumstances out of their control. My actors got further into the back stories of their characters by writing a final letter to their loved ones in the story, and I felt the power in every syllable they uttered.
Letter writing takes a seat at the forefront of my days now, and I’m totally here for it. As we have traversed the landscape of virtual learning these past three months, away from the physical classroom environment, I tried to find a personal way to let my students know I was still here for them, so I offered to be their pen pal. I was a bit afraid that the offer would fall on deaf ears, and that my mailbox would remain empty, but, to my surprise and delight, I’ve now got a small set of pals who have mailed me letters and cards for almost a month now. I actually got excited to go restock my personal stationery and buy stamps, so I could keep the mail moving.
The notes range in subject matter. Some of their notes have been appreciation-themed; some have included questions about my home life and how I’m spending my time; others have been full of small adventures experienced while distancing (which tells me how creative they’ve had to become). One student told me that they would have forever been the kid hidden at the back of the room if it weren’t for me; another told me I could see through to the true part of each person as easily as you can see through glass. They have been thoughtful, raw, honest, and full of love. Each time a new colorful envelope appears in my mailbox, my heart skips excitedly. I love them all and often find myself bounding to my desk to reply.
They give me hope that our youth may still see the value of a well-written, heartfelt letter and that maybe, just maybe, after this pandemic ends, they will continue the practice. I sign this post with all the teacherly love I can give.
Yours. Sincerely. Truly.