Anne here, sitting in a hotel room 1000 miles from home, pondering the gentle art of letter writing. I'm up in Queensland (Australia) and I just had lunch with a bunch of local authors, some of whom are my very good and dear friends, even though I could probably count on my fingers the number of occasions we've actually met in the flesh – usually at conferences, along with hundreds of other people. We do, however, email regularly, and that's how we've become such good friends.
That's the thing with email — it's very easy to get in touch and keep in touch. And there's an everydayness about email, a casual approach where we can email one or two line messages back and forth, not greeting, no sign-off or salutation at the end very — it's very much like the way we speak. And we keep up with the minutiae of each other's lives, as well as the bigger things.
Because I knew it was my turn to blog today, I started thinking about the way communication — written communication in particular — has become so much easier and also how much the style of written communication has changed as a result.
Here I am, far away from home, and whereas in the past I would have sat down and written a couple of letters, telling friends and family about my trip and my day and the lunch and my impressions of where I'm staying, all I did was dash off a couple of quick emails with a few lines. And I'll probably never write a letter.
I used to write hundreds of letters, and I know that people often used to keep them, which pleases me — I used to take a lot of trouble over the letters I wrote. Some I wrote when I was traveling, especially if I was in some land where I didn't speak the language. But often I wrote them for my own and others entertainment, just being silly. I loved writing letters but sadly, I can't think when I last wrote one. Email or blogging is just not the same.
These days people who are traveling put up a blog for everyone they know and don't know – one size fits all. There's a loss of personal intimacy in the general travel blog, I think. And a loss of detail with email, I find.
One of my favorite sources of historical research is letters of the time and place. For my book Tallie's Knight I relied heavily on the letters of a young Irishwoman taking the Grand Tour with friends. She wrote dozens of letters to her brother back at home, and they were wonderful — entertaining, informative, funny, sometimes wittily scathing, and always interesting.
For my book To Catch A Bride, I also used letters and journals of people traveling in Egypt, and came across all kinds of amazing and peculiar little details I never would have found otherwise. These letters have survived because they were interesting enough for the recipients to keep and entertaining and well written enough for them to be published in some form or other much later.
What will happen today to the many thousands of emails we write? Will the few gems we produce disappear, swamped by the dross of the everyday?
And how will anyone find, say, their grandmother's emails, fifty years from now? If you discover a box of letters in the attic one day, you can read them immediately and decide whether they're interesting and worth keeping, or not. Or you can oput them back for another generation to discover. Would you examine an ancient dead computer for its contents? I doubt it. Would a dead compouter even make it to the attic? And even if it did, could we read it?
When my sisters and I were clearing out our parent's house, we found some wonderful old letters, including some really romantic ones. It reminded me that my aunt and uncle "met" through writing letters in secret while my uncle was overseas at war. My aunt was only 16 and her mother wouldn't have allowed it had she known. But they fell in love long before they met —people will sometimes write things they might not say aloud. I know a few people who fell in love through email exchanges, but will their correspondence ever remain for their children or others to read?
Where would we be without Jane Austen's correspondence? Would it have been as much of a source of fascination to us today if she was texting her sister, or emailing? Csandra R U OK?
The thing is, when we sit down to write a letter the thought processes are, I believe, different. Certainly we probably put a bit more thought and effort into writing letters than we do with most emails. Was it because we felt the need to use up the required space — a sheet or two? Was it because it costs money to send a letter? Was it because people often read letters more than once – and special ones get reread over and over?
They took letter writing more seriously in the past. Children learned the correct way to write formal letters, they'd copy them out of books, and for many people it was treated as an art. Certainly writers and poets and philosophers and others knew letters were an art form.
In the Regency it was quite expensive to send letters — that's why they crossed them. Do you know what a crossed letter is? There's one here. They filled a page, writing normally, then turned it 90 degrees and filled the page again, crosswise. A little tricky to read, but you soon get the hang of it, especially if the handwriting is familiar to you.
It was cheaper if you had a tame lord on hand — as hereditary members of the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords, their mail went free, as long as they "franked" it — marked it with their signature or signet ring or seal. Of course they'd happily frank letters for any of their family or household — there was a lot of abuse of the system, so much in fact that the franking requirements got more detailed — lords had to write the town of dispatch and the full date in words on the letter in their own hand. In the end the abuse caused such a drain on the mail system it was abolished in 1840.
Letters also took a long time to arrive, so they were quite prized when they did arrive.
I get hundreds of emails. I do prize the occasional one, but even those are mostly lost when I upgrade my computer every three or four years.
So I wonder and worry a little about the future historians and what kind of historical footprint we'll leave behind. And yet here I am blogging, and planning to do more emails after that when I probably should be writing a letter.
What about you — how has email changed your life and communication style? Do you have good friends you have made via email? Are you more in contact with loved ones, and is it a deeper kind of contact or do you think it's more superficial? Do you care? Do you still write letters?
And if you were Jane Austen, what kind of text would you send Cassandra?