Real Absences

Barbara Johnson

‘Reading others people’s letters, like reading private diaries, offers thrilling and unexpected glimpses into the lives of others,’ claims the dustjacket of The Oxford Book of Letters. In contrast, Vincent Kaufmann cheerfully introduces his study of writers’ letters by admitting that ‘there is nothing more tedious in a writer’s work than his correspondence.’

Thrilling or tedious? Isn’t this somehow the question always raised by the prospect of being let into the private lives of others? On the one hand, we have Janet Malcolm famously describing the biographer as a burglar at the subject’s keyhole, shamelessly marketing voyeuristic delights. On the other hand, it is often asserted that nothing is more boring than hearing the narrative of other people’s dreams. Are letters more like dreams or more like primal scenes? What’s the difference?

In many ways, no two books could be more dissimilar than Kaufmann’s closely focused critical analysis of the correspondence of nine modern (mainly French) writers, and the sprawling Oxford anthology, edited by Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode, of 328 letters written in English between 1535 and 1985 by 175 different hands. But the contrast does not lie only in matters of format and genre. The difference goes to the heart of what a letter is.

In a short introduction to The Oxford Book of Letters, the Kermodes disclaim any pretence of having assembled a canon of letters in English:

It will be obvious, and, it is to be hoped, welcome, that this book makes no attempt to provide a ‘canon’ of English letters. Such an enterprise would from one point of view be heroically foolish, and from another tediously constricting: above all, it would involve the insupportable and presumptuous claim that the editors had the authority to bind and loose, to decide between the canonical and the apocryphal. Consequently we have been compelled only to do as we please.

Doing as one pleases can also, of course, involve presumption. Yet there does hover over this collection an unmistakable sense of freedom from dutifulness or principle. But if this is not a canon of particular letters that every well-read person should know, what is it? It is a display of all the things an individual letter, or occasionally an exchange of letters, can do (e.g. declare love, transact business, report events, spread gossip, express grief, seek or refuse intimacy, meditate, apologise, brag, defend, accuse, entertain, mislead, console etc). The selections include Queen Charlotte Sophia chastising her son William for being ‘a true trifling character’, emigrant Anne Francis on the ants and jackals greeting colonists in South Africa, Fanny Burney on her mastectomy, two reports of witnessing executions and five different accounts of hot-air balloon voyages. There is John Addington Symonds’s description of Tennyson and Gladstone discussing Governor Eyre’s suppression of the 1865 uprising in Jamaica, during which Tennyson sounds like a 19th-century Mark Fuhrman (‘Niggers are tigers, niggers are tigers’). Jane Austen reports to her sister Cassandra on the physical characteristics of a long list of guests at a dance (‘She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck’; ‘I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me’) but also offers her niece Fanny Knight sage words about falling out of love (‘It seems as if your being secure of him had made you indifferent’). Each letter is written in a state of stylistic concentration or appropriate distraction. The principle of selection seems to be a desire to combine political or literary interest, historical gossip, individual personality, rhetorical animation and thematic variety.

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