19 AUGUST 1995, Page 26


Free and easy as one's discourse

Bevis Hillier

THE OXFORD BOOK OF LETTERS edited by Frank and Anita Kermode Oxford, £20, pp. 559 In the first volume of his memoirs, Infants of the Spring (1976), Anthony Pow- ell recalled how Sir Maurice Bowra accept- ed

as absolutely natural open snobbishness, suc- cess worship, personal vendettas, unprovoked malice, disloyalty to friends [and] reading other people's letters (if not lying about, to be sought in unlocked drawers) ...

Like drinking absinthe in the 1890s before it was banned by law — reading other people's letters is a vice on the way out: the writing is on the wall, you might say. (Literally in the reading-room lavato- ries at the British Library, where I recently found the following exchange: 'Fellatio for ever!' Don't you even stop for breakfast?' 'This is breakfast.') Telephone talk is sweetness wasted on the desert air. The Oxford Book of Faxes? Sir Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode think that an unlikely prospect. So we had better make the most of their admirably discriminating selection of letters.

When I knew the book was being sent to me, I made an off-the-cuff list of the corre- spondents who would have to be included in such an anthology. Jane Austen, Byron, Dickens, Garrick, Dr Johnson, Keats (for the love letters), Kipling, Larkin, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, G.B. Shaw, Swift, Horace Walpole, Evelyn Waugh and Vir- ginia Woolf would head my list of 'musts'. They are all here, in most judicious choic- es. Beyond that it is a matter of taste and breadth of reading, and the Kermodes have both.

I think they are wise to omit the 15th- century Paston letters on the grounds that 'they would be tediously difficult for most people to read without the help of much unsightly glossing'. The earliest letter in the book is Tudor — one of the great sequence of letters of the Lisle family. In the early letters there is an emphasis on health, with a robust frankness of expression that makes modern health magazines seem coy. Lord Edmund Howard to lady Lisle, ?1535:

Your said medicine . . . made me piss my bed this night, for the which my wife had sore beaten me, & saying it is a children's part to bepiss the bed.

Anna Carr tells Dr Symcotts in about 1650 that with fried wormwood stalks she has cured 'those that carts have gone over'. She adds obligingly: 'I have sent you the calcined toad.' Food is another preoccupa- tion. In 1662 John Strype, an undergradu- ate at Trinity, Cambridge, `the famousest College in the University', writes to his mother in Petticoat Lane, London, describ- ing the college fare. Tansy was often on the menu — an omelette or pudding flavoured with the juice of the potentilla or similar plant. He asks mother to send him a neat's tongue (ox-tongue) — remember Shake- speare's `Silence is onely commendable in a neat's tongue'?

In Two Quiet Lives (1948), Lord David Cecil wrote of Dorothy Osborne's 17th- century correspondence:

By a freak of fortune this slender chance- kept bundle of letters has composed itself into a brief drama that has the unity and con- centration and harmony of a conscious work of art.

Of course the extract quoted by the Ker- modes cannot convey the unity, but Osborne is the first writer in the book to offer (in 1653) thoughts on what makes a good or bad letter-writer.

My Brother P. indeed do's somtim's send mee letters that may bee Excelent for ought! know, and the more likely because I doe not understand them, but I may say to you (as to a friend) I doe not like them .. . in my opin- ion those great Schollers are not the best writer's (of letters I mean, of books perhaps they are) . . . All Letters mee thinks should be free and Easy as ones discourse, not stud- dyed, as an Oration, nor made up of hard words like a Charme.

In a letter of 1777 to Mrs Thrale, Dr Johnson also argued for free-and-easiness in letter-writing, though he did so with a cadenced pomp that almost sabotaged his thesis.

In a Man's Letters you know, Madam, his soul lies naked, his letters are only the mir- rour of his breast . Is not my soul laid open in these veracious pages? do you not see me reduced to my first principles? This is the pleasure of corresponding with a friend . The original Idea is laid down in its sim- ple purity, and all the supervenient concep- tions, are spread over it stratum super stratum. . .

The idea of the letter as 'the original Idea . . . laid down in a simple purity' is very close to the revolutionary proposition of Johnson's friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, that an artist's sketch has an immediacy sadly lost in the finished painting.

Another artist, Samuel Palmer (who almost measures up to his idol William Blake as a painter-cum-writer), makes an ironic debating-point against the `slip into something loose' concept of letter-writing, though he clearly subscribes to it.

I would do anything I could to please you [he writes to Julia Richmond in 18661, but a LETTER is really quite out of my power. Letters should be so artless, you know, so negligently elegant; they want a natty native- grace-Gainsborough-kind-of-a-touch: — at least so the critics say .. . Some say that Pope's smell of the lamp, but I like oil and would recommend you to breakfast upon Betta's cocoa with oleaginous globosities bobbing about as you stir it like porpoises of the deep.

Palmer implies it is easier to write formally than en deshabille. The Kermodes seem to agree when they write, `Though the most prolific of novelists, Trollope was not a great letter-writer'.

So which correspondents do live up to the Osborne-Johnson-Palmer recipe for writing letters? Among those who shine are the select band F.R. Leavis admitted to his canon of English novelists: Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence and — admitted only at the eleventh hour — Dickens. (Leavis's other choice, Conrad, is not represented in the anthology.) You might expect James, with his circumlocu- tion, to be heavy going as a letter-writer, but the Kermodes catch him urgently trying to get his close friend W.M. Fullerton off a blackmailer's hook — The woman can do nothing but get (in literal truth) 'chucked out', with refusal to look at her calumnious wares — her overtures to your people at home, eg simply burned on the spot, unlooked at, as soon as smelt . . . You have but one course — to say: You most demented and perverted and unfortunate creature, Do your damnest . . .

It all comes back to a real concern for the correspondee. All these Leavis- approved authors would have made great agony aunts. Jane Austen writes to her favourite niece Fanny Knight in 1814:

Poor dear Mr J.P.! — Oh! dear Fanny, your mistake has been one that thousands of women fall into. He was the first young Man who attached himself to you. That was the charm, & most powerful it is.

As for D.H. Lawrence, whose novels were the lodestone for earthiness and the nam-

ing of parts before Philip Roth and Sally Beauman came along, his advice. to Mid- dleton Murry over his relationship with Katherine Mansfield savours more of the old genteel Evelyn Home sort of agony- aunting than of the brass-tacks Proopsian style.

When you say you won't take Katherine's money, it means you don't trust her love for you. When you say she needs little luxuries, and you couldn't bear to deprive her of them, it means you don't respect either yourself or her sufficiently to do it.

It looks to me as if you two, far from grow- ing nearer, are snapping the bonds that hold you together, one after another. I suppose you must both of you consult your own hearts, honestly. She must see if she really wants you, wants to keep you and to have no other man all her life. It means forfeiting something...

The funniest letters in the book are Waugh's about the accidental blowing up of Lord Glasgow's trees, and Groucho Marx's to Warner Brothers, who, after the success of their own film Casablanca, were trying to warn off the Marx Brothers from calling a film of theirs A Night in Casablan- ca. In Groucho's marathon tease of Warn- er's, one wonderful joke is piled on another to produce a cumulative effect of helpless laughter.

Now Jack, how about you? Do you maintain that yours is an original name? Well, it's not. It was used long before you were born. Off- hand, I can think of two Jacks — there was Jack of 'Jack and the Beanstalk', and Jack the Ripper, who cut quite a figure in his day.

The most moving letter is Leigh Hunt's to Joseph Severn about the dying Keats, though it is run close by a letter from a sav- age — to be more politically correct, from Robert Louis Stevenson's 'ceremonial bother', the South Sea islander On a On, lamenting Stevenson's departure. Steven- son commented:

All told, if my books have enabled or helped me to make this voyage — and to have received such a letter, they have . . . not been writ in vain.

The anthology is thin on love letters, but then Antonia Fraser has done that task so well already. In hate letters and rude let- ters — a British speciality — it is strong. Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia (daughter of James VI of Scotland and I of England) to the Earl of Carlisle, 1630: 'Thou ugly, filthy, camel's face'. Jonathan Swift to the country squire Robert Percival, 1730:

From the badness of your Education against all my advice and endeavors . . I expected nothing from you that became a gentleman.

Dr Johnson to James Macpherson, forger of the `Ossian' romances, in 1775:

I received your foolish and impudent note — I will not desist from detecting what I think a cheat, from any fear of the menaces of a Ruf- fian.

An incidental pleasure of the trawl through colloquial writing of the last 450 years is to observe the expressions that have become obsolete and those that have survived, we have lost the pretty phrase used by James Howell, a courtier of the Stuarts, in 1623: 'I find now that those hopes were imp'd with false feathers'. (The editors explain: 'Feathers were imped, that is, inserted into a bird's wing to improve its power of flight.') No one today signs him- self, as did the American Cotton Mather in 1682, 'Yours in the bowels of Christ . . . ' The word `abeilles' for poplar trees, used by Swift in his drubbing letter to Percival, flared up briefly as `abeles' in Hopkins's poem `Binsey Poplars'. Lady Sarah Lennox writes in 1766, 'I am horse mad'; the phrase recurs in Betjeman's poem 'Winthrop Macicworth Redivivus'. Lady Sarah com- plains of new euphemisms, such as 'in the family way', which was replacing 'with child' or 'lying in'.

The expression 'the coast was clear', used by Fanny Burney in 1812 in terrible circum- stances (she had sent her husband General d'Arblay away on a pretext while she had a breast removed) is still legal tender. But nobody today, unless he wished to seem impossibly archaic, would write, as does Burney in her next sentence, 'I would fain have written to my dearest Father'. (Eight years later, Keats writes: 'I am afraid to speak of what I would the fainest dwell upon.') R.L. Stevenson writes 'begging par- don of nemesis' where we would say 'touch wood' — Americans, 'knock on wood'. Americans are well represented in the book, with some Australians and South Africans: I can hear the Kermodes' pub- lisher whispering in their ears, 'Do be sure to include some Americans so we can sell it in New York.' This means we get an over- dose of battling with waves and wilds; but in compensation we also get the splendid feminist letter of Abigail Adams and the humorous, swatting reply of her husband John, second President of the United States.

Twenty books of this size could have been filled with good letters, so it would be pettish to spend much time complaining of omissions. But I will put in my two penny- worth. From the 18th century, I'd have liked something from the poet William Shenstone — perhaps the letter of 1753 in which he ridicules Lady Gough, wife of one of Dr Johnson's landlords, for confusing the dramatist Robert Dodsley with the free-thinker Henry Dodwell. ('She has since accused our friend Dodsley of no less than blasphemy. . . ') From the 19th centu- ry, we could have done with Whistler's jibes and Swinburne's ribaldry. A really grievous omission from the 20th-century section is Rose Macaulay, whose tart wit often brings to mind her kinsman, the historian. This, about the 1951 census form:

They tell us it is all absolutely private, so that burglars can put 'Occupation: burgling', with- out the least apprehension. I wonder if they do.

Understandably, the book tails off as it gets near the present, with problems over copy- right permissions and fees and the sensitivi- ties of the living. But in 1986 John Murray published the letters of the publisher John Calmann, who had been murdered by a hitch-hiker in 1980. He was a vivid verbal impressionist and one or two of his letters might have been reprinted.

A book of this kind does not need to be officially edited, swamped in footnotes. In general the Kermodes get the editorial bal- ance about right. When one correspondent mentions The Bible in Spain and another, Imaginary Conversations, the Kermodes politely assume we don't need to be told that those books are respectively by Bor- row and Landor. But occasionally one feels they could be a little more interventionist. Some readers might need to be told that the 'Mr Gervase' mentioned by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1717 (she wished he had been in the Turkish bath with her, invisible) was the painter Charles Jervas (?1675-1739). Others might have liked to know that the 'Slocum' mentioned by Edmund Wilson in 1921 as lover of the poet Edna St Vincent Millay — 'a big red- haired British journalist, the Paris corre- spondent of the London Herald' — was in fact George Slocombe, who became the Herald's Paris correspondent in 1920. No mention of the poet-lover in Slocombe's 1936 memoirs, The Tumult and the Shout- ing — that's exactly the kind of secret that letters disgorge and memoirs do not.

Just occasionally the editors are tripped up by the bad spelling or the bad handwrit- ing of the correspondents. I think that when Queen Elizabeth I wrote to her cousin James VI of Scotland, The necessi- ty of this matter makes my scribbling the more spidy', she meant 'speedy', not 'spi- dery' as the Kermodes tentatively suggest.

Then there is James Joyce, a nightmare for any editor, who includes a parody-song in a 1934 letter to his son Giorgio and daugh- ter-in-law Helen. The song begins, as the Kermodes give it: Goodbye, Zurich, I must leave you Though it breaks my head to [illegible] Something tells me I am needed In Paree to hump the beds.

That 'illegible' seems a little defeatist. You don't need to decipher Linear B to guess, by a process of elimination, that the miss- ing word must be 'shreds' — mustn't it?