The Romance of a Letter – Has it disappeared from our world entirely?

As I sit here in the early morning watching a blanket of cloud in washed-out yellow rush past, I wonder why it’s in such a hurry. Probably running from an encroaching storm. It makes me think of all the letters I used to write and send to far away places, the sky being their steward. As a teen, I used to write reams while waiting anxiously for the post to arrive. It would then be my turn to soak in the words of my first love. Back and forth the letters went and new letters arrived for years.

I don’t think I quite realized at the time, that all the letter writing I did would serve as training ground for my novels. It’s not a wonder why I am drawn to epistolary works, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or Letters from Skye. There is a romantic quality about them. The idea alone of pouring your heart into words on paper is romantic. Heartache and joy seize the body in a more tangible way when it’s delivered in the handwriting of your suitor—the colour of ink chosen, the melody of the sentences and the beauty of the signature. Emails don’t quite capture it in the same way. Even the word electronic sounds mechanical, as though coming less from the heart and more from an assembly line.

It’s hard to argue that typewritten stories and letters can’t still be affecting. After all, I have gushed tears when reading Times New Roman. If the words are powerful enough, perhaps it wouldn’t matter how they were delivered. But ask yourself this. Do you remember the feeling of excitement waiting for that special letter to arrive in the post then tearing open the envelope, unfolding the paper, curling up in a cushy chair and being taken away? It’s true, you may well “curl up with a good book” as the expression goes, but I can honestly say, that I have never “curled up” with my laptop. Sounds almost comical.

It is becoming a rare phenomenon to receive a letter in the post these days. Bills and ads do not count. For a while I was writing, or rather typing a yearly Christmas letter, as the trend seemed to dictate, and sending them by post. I received a few myself and enjoyed the fact that someone else took the time to write about their year and put a stamp on it. That trend seems to be fading and now I receive maybe one or two a year by email. I do the same—by email now. Nice, but not quite as affecting.

After I had met my husband, who lived across the big pond from me, the handwritten letters flowed again. Now all bound together by a ribbon, each letter holds special memories. Can you imagine how incredible it would be to inherit or discover in a hidden box a collection of letters written by your ancestors? What a treasure it would be. Reading such letters would breathe new life into them, drawing out the richness of history. Would it feel the same discovering a collection of emails? Perhaps, but I would anticipate not.

For me, a handwritten letter begs the question, what can we tell about a person based on their handwriting? Right or wrong, we often connect personality to handwriting. Is it hurried writing in scribbles, suggesting little care for whom the letter is intended? Or is it pristine, suggesting care, education, authority or even snobbery? That is surely unsubstantiated and left to the imagination of the beholder. Though I have to admit, there was one person whose handwriting struck a chord every year when she would write a personal note at the end of her Christmas letter. It was the most elegant handwriting I’d ever seen like “a moving sonata for the eyes”, to quote my novel, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley. To me, her handwriting was an extension of her personality, because she was and still is just that, elegant.

Dailymail.co.uk suggests that based on the science of graphology or handwriting analysis, more than 5,000 personality traits are linked to how we write.

  • Closely written letters suggests a person is intrusive and crowds others
  • Illegible signatures mean a person is private and difficult to understand
  • Slant to the left and you generally like to work alone
  • Slant to the right and you are open to the world around you
  • Large letters means you have a big personality
  • Small and you are focused, meticulous and can concentrate easily

Based on this assertion and the handwriting alone, could the writer’s story be told or even hinted at if you discovered that collection of letters from your ancestor? It is something to consider no doubt and further romanticizes the idea. On the other hand, maybe it’s easier not to read between the lines, but rather consider the tone and style of writing and the feeling that permeates. As Anne Trubek writes in Pacific Standard Magazine, “When a new writing technology develops, we tend to romanticize the older one.” Perhaps that is exactly what I am doing here with keyboards having replaced much of today’s handwriting.

In any case, on this cold morning with its yellow-tinted clouds now replaced with a heavy, brooding sky, I choose not to believe that the romance of a letter has disappeared entirely. It’s a lovely thought to conjure up ideas of holding back the almighty keyboard and writing letters the old-fashioned way again—perhaps sending a friend a thoughtful handwritten letter once a in while. But the reality dictates something else. Our hurried lives and the ease with which we use a keyboard now, makes it much easier and faster. My romantic vision is that this will make us put more meat into our words, into our thoughts. It can drive us to produce more thoughtful letters (I hesitate to use the word emails as it still sounds impersonal). Though I will treasure the beautiful handwritten letters tucked away in my past, the ones wrapped up in ribbon, I’d like to think that I will strive to infuse a bit of romance in any writing that I produce. After all, isn’t that at the heart of all writers?

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