‘Sarah, my love for you is deathless… the memories of the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard is it for me to give them up; and burn to ashes the hopes of future years when God willing we might have still loved and loved together and see our boys grow up to honourable manhood around us.’
So goes one of my all-time favourite letters. I first heard it read aloud on the ABC radio as I was driving to work one morning. It was written by a man called Sullivan Ballou to his wife, Sarah, in July of 1861, as his company prepared for the first major battle of the American Civil War. Sullivan wrote this letter because he was ‘suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart’. As I listened to the presenter read the letter with all its haunting tenderness, I was desperate to hear that the story had a happy ending. Sullivan, however, was right in his premonition; he was killed two weeks later, his 24-year-old widow never re-married and I arrived at work a blubbering mess.
I have always loved letters. I love their ability to capture the essence of a writer unlike any other medium. There is something about having an expanse of paper laid out before you that invites a plumbing of your thoughts, bringing to light confidences you might not otherwise have thought to share. Often times, passion is more easily expressed via a letter, which is why letters are the favourite weapon of lovers and haters alike.
The Age of Letters is Over
Even though I write and receive more letters than most (and yes, I hear you languishing epistolarians — the writing of the letters has been in sad proportion to the receiving of late, but I’m writing a novel for crying out loud. I’ll get on it, I promise) I see that the need for letters is shrinking with the advent of each new social media platform and the ever-increasing ease of information sharing. What do you talk about in letters that your correspondent hasn’t already seen on your Facebook page or on that of your mutual friends? You can’t actually share news via letter anymore, and because of that, that the letter loses something of its magic.
This fact was born home to me recently as I was — get this — writing a letter. I have a friend whose circumstances have recently changed dramatically. She has left her highly connected, social media saturated world and joined a convent. In another country. There is no social media allowed. No mobiles and only a few phone calls a week that naturally go to her family.
I have to be honest, at first I was (rather selfishly) depressed by the reduction in communication. Obviously this change was much harder for my friend than it was for me, but I still got a pang of sadness every time I had to skip over her name in my Snapchat kid-spam list, or refrain from sharing a post I knew she would like on Facebook, or sending her yet another Trump meme.
But then I got her first letter.
I was not prepared for the utter joy and anticipation receiving that missive brought me. Finally, I could hear her thoughts, find out what the convent was like, the other sisters, the food, the accommodation, the rules. How she was enjoying it, her studies — what were they like? And I could share again, pour onto paper all the things I’d been holding back for her because I could no longer send aimless thoughts her way with a half-conscious click of a button.
I was so excited to ‘talk’ to her again that (please glance aside neglected correspondents) I immediately pulled out my writing set and spent the next week replying to her, filling her in on all the little dramas that had unfolded during my domestic week, savouring particularly entertaining news items, and anything about our common friends that I did not think she would have heard through her family. It was such a joy to be able to disseminate information that one knew would be novel to the reader, rather than just stating yet another opinion on a topic already well canvassed online. A nice, comfortable, newsy (read gossipy) letter.
Two of my sisters, my mother, my grandmother and an aunt of mine all keep up a semi-regular correspondence.
I am sadly in debt, having received mail from all of them which has gone unanswered since as far back as September, but we’ve texted, talked, and caught up in the mean-time, so it is easy to forget the urgency. The letter from my friend in the convent has made me realise what a pale excuse of a letter they have all been receiving from me to date. I have spent some time thinking over this during the preparation for this blog post and I see now that I need to formulate a better plan for our correspondence, that my letters to them need to include unique pieces of information and request the same in return.
I need to raise the stakes.
Think of Pride and Prejudice’s Lizzy Bennet’s impatience in waiting for her Aunt Gardener’s response to her request for information regarding Mr Darcy’s presence at Lydia’s wedding. That’s the sort of anticipation I want for my future letter-writing efforts.
How to achieve this? What should I put in my letters to increase the drama and expectation? Do you have any suggestions? What news would you like to receive in your letterbox?
Next week, to celebrate Australia Day, I’ll be sharing a list of my top five most surprising discoveries about colonial Australia. To make sure you don’t miss it, or any of my posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog using the box at the bottom of the home page. If you’d like to get in touch between posts, or take a peek into the world of my writing, reading and mothering, then you can find me most days on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Have a great weekend everyone, I’ll see you next week!