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 179.

    I think the author is over the top to the tune of Much Ado About Nothing.
    My OPINION is that historian Lisa Jardine, keeps bumping out needless pages of a trifle; waste of licence payers money.

    Modern communication having changed some forms of writing does not mean the death of a penned letter.
    Love letters, for careful thought, are best scribed by hand

    "You are Dumped" texts are to the point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    When I moved to England my grandmother asked me to keep in touch with letters and cards. I'm a member of the technology generation, e.g. texts, IMs, and email, but I really loved the act of writing with a proper pen and paper. Grandma left us last year, and I don't have anyone to write to. It's sad that I miss something I didn't want to do in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    At the age of eighteen, I have personally never written a letter until a few weeks ago. Needles to say, the love letter, especially over long distance, persists and brings emotions which no email ever could.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    Oh boo hoo, sorry I just find these things so irritating. Now don't get me wrong, yes letters are sweet and really romantic, but it seems obvious that electronic devices are not to be used for conveying your feelings for someone! I would loathe it if a guy asked my out via text, but I think it's time to move on. My friends and I can never read each other's writing, so technology has its uses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Email can be an equally-valid method of communication, even if it doesn't carry the allure of the stamp, the envelope, and the written hand. The greater challenge for us all is how those emails will be preserved as well as letters have been. Not many bother with printing emails out to save them, and we all have had data losses...

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.


    ... judging by this effort we also appear to be mourning the loss of grammar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    I too mourn the passing of the personal letter. I used to write to my friends, lovers, family, everyone in fact. There's nothing preventing me from doing it today save for the laziness born out of the speed, convenience and banality of texts and emails. I'm probably being romantic and sentimental but I do feel that our lives are the poorer for the passing of the delights of hand written letter..

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    21.dhiraj bakshi




  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    I am Secretary of the Italic Handwriting, an enthusiastic group of people who enjoy communicating in italic handwriting and who value the warmth and individuality of the handwritten letter. Handwriting as a medium for everyday and speedy communication may be in decline but I do not think it will ever die out as long as people still have a desire to pick up a pen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    What is lost ? It's true that the world is churning out idiots and idiocy ... but that has always been the way. At least the sheeple don't pretend they know anything anymore, which is an improvement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    I have a pet peeve relating to the letter-email crossover.
    Why is it that email writers so often start their letter right at the top left hand corner of the message box, leaving no space?
    You wouldn't take a sheet of A4 paper and squash your Dear Henry right up in the corner of the paper...

    And often long, long paragraphs with no line space, indents or breaks. The eyes go blurry!

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    seriously, you've written woolf's quote once as "human art" and "humane art" at the end. oh the irony.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    I enjoy handwriting and typing. Computer software can create calligraphy (Fonts). No matter what I say on paper or email it takes a bit of time to actually make sense. I believe handwriting is a art in itself that has evolved in forms of communication. Typing is like this too. I'm grateful that I can write. I have learning difficulty. My PC software reads aloud what I have written and said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    When I was 17, I fell in love for the first time with a guy who lived only an hour away from me, but we letters for nearly a year until we admitted our feelings for each other. When I was 27, I met the man who is now my husband. We spent many months corresponding over email, even though we lived in the same city, before we got involved. In short: not so much the medium, more the message.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    lisa jardine is a boring old reactionary.... while she may have a point I wish she would keep her point of view to herself.... the only time I switch off radio 4 is when she pops up for another monologue of tosh....

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    My friends and I write our letters on Word and end them as attachments by email. Why? We live in different countries and we tend to write at least 3/4 pages. We discuss our lives, hopes, triumphs, falls from grace and joy at having each other as friends.
    As a child Sunday afternoon was letter writing time in our house many years later it still is only the format has changed. FB is for weekdays!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Nobody is stopping you writing out the letter on paper, scanning it and emailing it to someone.

    Due to the handwriting it also has the advantage that the recipient will know it is from you and not someone else or a spammer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Nothing really new. I remember that at highschool our English teacher banned the use of ballpoint pens (early 60´s) as it would spoil not only our handwriting but because of the speed at which we could then write, would result in the degeneration of the content!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    I'm a teenager and have recently /discovered/ the beauty in letter-writing. The problem is that it's extremely difficult to find someone who agrees with me, and would be willing to take the time and effort to engage in correspondence..

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Most people would rather receive a letter, but they'd rather write an email. There's the problem.

    As for luddites, aren't social media supposed to be making email obsolete?


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