A Point of View: Mourning the loss of the written word

Handwritten letter

The modernist writer Virginia Woolf called letter writing "the humane art, which owes its origins in the love of friends". In our frenetic world of electronic communication, we must remember to write with thought and consideration, says historian Lisa Jardine.

In these days of email, texts and instant messaging, I am not alone, I feel sure, in mourning the demise of the old-fashioned handwritten letter. Exchanges of letters capture nuances of shared thought and feeling to which their electronic replacements simply cannot do justice. Here's an example.

In July 1940, with the country at war, Virginia Woolf published a biography of the artist, Roger Fry - champion of post-impressionism and leading member of the Bloomsbury Group. The timing could hardly have been worse. Fry's reputation was as an ivory tower liberal who believed that art inhabits a self-contained formal space remote from the vulgar world. As France fell to Hitler's troops and German planes pounded the south coast of England with increasingly regular air-raids, such artistic idealism seemed at best out of touch, at worst irrelevant.

Most of Woolf's friends were politely positive about the book. But in early August she received a letter from Ben Nicolson, the 26-year-old art critic son of her close friend Vita Sackville-West, who was serving as a lance-bombardier in an anti-aircraft battery in Kent under the flight-path of the German bombers. As enemy warplanes passed low overhead, Nicolson attacked the adulatory tone of Woolf's biography and accused Fry of failing to engage with the political realities of the inter-war years.

"I am so struck by the fool's paradise in which he and his friends lived," Nicolson wrote. "He shut himself out from all disagreeable actualities and allowed the spirit of Nazism to grow without taking any steps to check it."

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Woolf's answering letter did not mince words:

"Lord, I thought to myself," she wrote back. "Roger shut himself out from disagreeable actualities did he? What can Ben mean? Didn't he spend half his life travelling about England addressing masses of people who'd never looked at a picture and making them see what he saw? And wasn't that the best way of checking Nazism?"

Stung by Woolf's condescending tone, and unpersuaded by her argument, Nicolson wrote again, criticising Fry and the Bloomsbury Group in yet stronger terms. This time Woolf took his comments personally and drafted a lengthy, rebarbative reply, in which she turned Nicolson's attack on Fry and herself back on him. Nicolson's own chosen career as art critic was hardly more engaged: "I suppose I'm being obtuse but I can't find your answer in your letter, how it is that you are going to change the attitudes of the mass of people by remaining an art critic."

Reading over what she had written, however, Woolf thought better of her stern tone and did not send the letter. Instead, she rewrote it in more measured terms, moderating her sharp remarks with an opening apology. "I think it's extraordinarily nice of you to write to me," she now began, "I hope I didn't annoy you by what I said. It's very difficult when one writes letters in a hurry as I always do, not to make them sound abrupt."

It is this second version of the letter that was eventually dispatched, and which evidently satisfied its recipient, who called a truce on their differing views of Fry's influence and reputation. In early September, Woolf wrote to arrange for Nicolson to visit, adding: "I love getting your letters," and "I'm so happy you found the life of Roger Fry interesting as well as infuriating."

Two things strike me in this exchange. The first is the simple good manners both correspondents evidence in the way they address one another and present their arguments, in spite of the real, keenly felt differences of opinion.

Virginia Woolf Virginia Woolf understood the effects of letters written in haste

The second is the strikingly different outcome arrived at because Virginia Woolf restrained herself from dispatching her first, intemperate draft reply and carefully modified it so as not to hurt the feelings of the young man - a family friend, very much younger and less experienced than herself.

I have, of course, dwelt on this exchange for a purpose. In it, Woolf - using established letter-writing conventions - takes advantage of the time lapses between exchanges to recuperate, clarify, recast and take control of the argument. The result has the elegance of a formal dance - a kind of minuet, in which the participants advance and retreat according to well-understood rules, until they have arrived at a satisfactory outcome.

How unlike the rapid firing off and counter-fire of email messages in which many of us find ourselves engaged nowadays as our predominant means of communicating with colleagues and friends, and even with complete strangers. Each time I broadcast a Point of View, I receive large numbers of emails from people I have never met, while the script posted on the BBC magazine website generates hundreds of anonymous messages.

Very few of these observe the courtesies enshrined in traditional letter-writing. Many adopt a curiously curt tone: I have not consulted my sources correctly, they insist, or I have misled my listeners. "Call yourself a historian" is a regular, shrill opener - emails and posts have mostly dispensed with the niceties of "Dear Lisa" or "Yours sincerely."

Yet if I answer such an email - and I do try to respond to them all - the reply that follows will be couched in very different terms. It will be prefaced by the kind of placatory remark Woolf used in responding to Nicolson: "I did not mean to imply criticism" or "I hope you did not think me rude." It is as if between the first and the second response I have become a person - an actual recipient of the communication - rather than an impersonal post box. So the courtesy and simple good manners of more old-fashioned letter-forms are restored to our correspondence.

Sending an email Emails have replaced the handwritten letter

The most dramatic feature of electronic communication is surely its propensity to tempt us into dashing off a message in haste that we repent at leisure. As the emails ping into our inbox we answer them helter-skelter, breathlessly, without pausing to reflect on nuance or tone. As a consequence, misunderstandings often arise - "I'm sorry to have upset you," a colleague will reply to an email I intended as a matter-of-fact response to a bit of university business.

No doubt I am sentimentalising the orderliness of written letters by comparison with emails. When feelings run high, an ill-judged letter can cause as much emotional damage as any dashed-off online posting. Here's another example from Virginia Woolf's prolific correspondence.

In 1938, she wrote to Vita Sackville-West - with whom she had had a passionate affair in the late 1920s - refusing to read a poem Vita had sent her via Woolf's husband Leonard. Woolf was annoyed at hurtful remarks Vita had made about her:

"Leonard says you have sent a poem and would like to know what I think of it. Now I would like to read it and normally would fire off an opinion with my usual audacity. But I feel I can't read your poem impartially while your charges against me, as expressed in a letter I have somewhere but won't quote, remain unsubstantiated."

Vita Sackville-West Vita Sackville-West was 'horrified' by one of Woolf's letters

Vita was appalled. Her response was a frantic telegram: "Horrified by your letter." This in its turn elicited a further letter from Woolf the same day:

"What on earth can I have said in my letter to call forth your telegram? God knows. I scribbled it off in five minutes, never read it through, and can only remember that it was written in a vein of obvious humorous extravagance and in a tearing hurry."

Woolf explained that she had been annoyed by a letter Vita had sent shortly after publication of her last book. She had written back asking Vita to explain a comment she had made that "one moment you enchant with your lovely prose and the next moment exasperate one with your misleading arguments". What were the misleading arguments? Woolf had asked. Vita had not replied.

"It's a lesson not to write letters," Woolf now continued contritely. "For I suppose you'll say, when you read what I've quoted from your own letter, that there's nothing to cause even a momentary irritation. And I daresay you're right. So let us leave it: and I apologise and will never write a letter so carelessly again."

Virginia Woolf called letter-writing "the humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends", and devoted a good deal of emotional energy to using it to maintain her friendships.

Today's electronic forms of communication may lack that emotional depth but they do enable us to connect more speedily and efficiently than I at least could manage with pen and ink. Still, when we take advantage of them, we ought always to heed Woolf's warning, never to write carelessly. And, if we can, at least count to 10, and read over what we have written, before we press "send".


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  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I enjoy writing letters, with a real fountain pen, as there is a frisson of respect from one to the recipient. One has time to order one's thoughts and ensure that the correct tone is there, as well as the correct English. I always write letters of condolence in the same manner, for the same reasons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    51.Drew Herzig
    " .. this article shows the misunderstandings that can be caused by letters ... while it tries to tell us how much better at communicating nuanced feelings letters are!"

    But that's just the set up. The payload is "I apologise and will never write a letter so carelessly again". I think this taking things out of context is exacerbated by the speed of our modern exchanges.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    If understand her correctly, she is mourning the loss of the courtesies of letter writing in the emails we send. I, for one, cannot bring myself to use 'Hi' as a greeting, and manfully try to read emails carefully before I press Send....sending emails late at night is also to be avoided too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    The headline couldn't be more wrong: surely new technology has brought about a rebirth of the written word. Of course there's masses of dross produced, but the gems will survive. If, that is, we can sort out the archiving, which is the real problem with e-communication: are we keeping the good stuff for posterity?

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    We send missives that bespeak generation of Attention Deficit Disorder; that's your email answered (Thank God!); now on to the next email. We barely notice who sent it, or what it actually said. Media too is guilty of this, perhaps leads in this; worse the media too often is more propaganda than news.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Whilst I espouse the benefits of email I find it satisfying to put pen to paper for the odd letter or writing up some record, or simply for making lists. Editing and untidiness aren't fatal. I love writing with a good fountain pen - I have six, average cost £100 ! But if you look in the stores or on the web there is still a market for people wanting such a luxury!

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Hoping not all University English teachers are as poorly at writing as #75

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Which is more interesting to the historian here: Woolf's unsent draft or the considered letter that was sent? In any event, the capacity to manipulate emails endlessly until they're sent allows the end product to be highly-nuanced, actually far more so than a handwritten letter. There is no inherent reason why an email should be more precipitate or less literate than a conventional letter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    My father's embracing of technology only really goes as far as the mobile phone. When he was recently knocked down and injured by a car in Spain, I wrote to him from England the way a real letter is written: with a fountain pen on paper. Writing words slower, with a pen, forces you to engage with the words more and realise more what you're saying; you think for a while before each sentence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    "Will the e-mails of even the famous be collected and studied as letters are today?"

    They are already and their phone texts etc - often without their consent :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I am with S Thomas, in that I put as much effort into my e-messages as I do with my letters. However, there is a certain quaintness and charm to handwritten letters which cannot be beaten by electronic forms of communication. Personalities come across in everyone's individual writing style no matter what the format of the message, but handwriting and stationery choice part further personality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Amending handwritten correspondence is onerous and discourages the fine-tuning of initial drafts. Yet the West-Woolfe bewilderment makes clear even distinguished word-smiths may mislead. The Dear/yours sincerely formalities CAN be untrue. But in the absence of clarifying facial queues/clues or nuances of tone, surely they have a rôle to play when we can neither see nor hear our interlocutor?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    As Liz Cleere said here, the author has fallen into the trap of blaming the tool not the user. Incidentally, this is the same trap those who complain about the small character limit have fallen into, by blaming "technology" as a whole for the BBC's website design.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Time,technology,customs,and conventions move on

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Will the e-mails of even the famous be collected and studied as letters are today?

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Or, we could just all celebrate the written word transcending the confines of physical paper. It is finally free to take on the far greater variety of forms it is capable of.

    A richer world. Good riddance to paper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Continuing post 81:
    ....come out as gentle teasing? It's intended to be that and I'm smiling as I write. I hope I'm rude only when I'm responding to people who tell me what I'm thinking (I don't know, so how do they?) or what I should be thinking (may I take my own thinking decisions? should I have said please?).
    Kind regards
    David (for some reason, Auntie thinks I'm You).

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    The thing that drives me mad the most is the use of text speak in e-mails and other 'electronic' writing.I've even seen it used in hand written letters, more especially by the younger generation.Its horrendous and schools need to do more to discourage this as well as parents.That said the standard of handwriting being taught is abysmal.We have kids leaving school barely able to write their name.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Dear Lisa
    We will learn the art of e-mailing, if we're unhappy with what we receive and what we send. Meanwhile, veuillez agreer, Madame, l'expression de mes hommages les plus repectueux.
    Oh dear. It's a bit pompous, isn't it?
    P.S. I wonder whether Woolf shifted her emotions or just her words?
    Je vous prie de croire, Madame Jardine, a mes sentiments distinguees.
    Does this come out as gentle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    When I moved to the other side of the country aged 18 there was nothing like the drop of a letter onto the mat & excitement of opening it.There weren't computers let alone facebook 30 yrs ago but can't imagine e-mails having the same thrill. It'd be difficult put in all the doodles etc my friends & I used to put into letter; e-mail's fine but a bit sterile & lacking character in comparison..


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