Collected Letters (Or Would Your Emails Be Worth Keeping For Posterity?)

"Winston dines at seven in a little blue sort of workman’s overall suit. He looks exactly like the good pig who built his house of bricks." Diana Cooper...
Publish date:
September 25, 2013
books, reading, letters, literature, diana cooper

If you thought your everyday email correspondence with your best friends was likely to be published at some point in the future, would you pay more attention to the content, spelling, grammar etc? I only wonder because when I read the published letters of some of my favourite authors, I marvel at the fluency and elegance with which they wrote, apparently on a daily basis, about this and that. Ok, they were authors to begin with, so naturally had a way with words, but still, they’re so entertaining and intelligent and insightful – it makes me look at my LOLzy emails, with cute animal photos attached, and cringe.

Some writers seemed so prolific – dashing off scribbled missives on a daily basis and managing to maintain several different correspondences at any one time. But I suppose when I think about how many emails I write each day, while also maintaining several Twitter feeds and sporadically checking my Facebook page AND doing my actual work, I’m probably producing the same volume of words.

Collected letters hark back to a time when the post was reliable enough to keep a proper conversation going – you could stick a letter in the post box knowing it would arrive at its destination the next day, or even that afternoon. This seemed to apply even if you lived abroad!

My favourite editions of correspondence have a heavy Mitford bias – I’m just fascinated by them and their contemporaries and they were truly excellent letter writers – brilliantly gossipy, indiscreet, erudite and funny. They were also on the spot during some of the most significant moments of the twentieth century and knew so many of the key players, from Churchill to Kennedy, so it feels like you’re getting a first hand, insider’s account of major historical events in between the anecdotes about marvellous parties.

All this thinking about correspondence (and anxiety about whether any of my waffly emails would be worth publishing) was triggered by the news that another of the great dames of that era, Diana Cooper, is the source of a new edition of collected letters. Darling Monster: The letters of Lady Diana Cooperto her son John Julius Norwich 1939 – 1952 is out in October and it’s sure to be a fascinating read, if the extracts are anything to go by.

Diana Cooper was one of the six women who featured in Judith Mackrell’s fantastic Flappers and she had a fascinating life. A society beauty, she broke with convention and defied her parents’ expectations by marrying a man who wasn’t an aristocrat and she worked to earn money to support his political ambitions (he eventually became the British Ambassador in Paris and Diana was fictionalised as the ambassador’s wife in Nancy Mitford’s Don’t Tell Alfred – all terribly incestuous!)

This book is a collected of the letters she sent to her only son, John Julius, when he was away at school in American during WW2 and in the years afterwards. They’re funny, poignant and reveal as much about the elevated circles and fascinating times she was living in, as the loving relationship between a mother and son.

So my other favourites:

The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters, edited by Charlotte MosleyThis is the book that started my fascination with the Mitfords and their peers in the ‘20s and ‘30s. It’s so complicated – imagine, six sisters, all writing letters to each other and using cryptic nicknames which frequently change as well as their own private made up language, ‘Boudledidge’. Charlotte Mosley does an incredible job of editing the letters into a coherent narrative which is the best introduction you could possibly get into the weird world of this unique family.

In Tearing Haste, Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte MosleyYes that's Deborah Devonshire aka Debo Mitford, Nancy's littlest sister who she nicknamed '9' because according to her that was her mental age. Paddy L-F is an incredible, lyrical writer, but I must confess it's Debo's scribbled notes which I find more interesting and entertaining because she had such a funny way with words and such an interesting circle of friends to chat about.

The Bookshop at 10 Curzon Street, letters between Nancy Mitford and Heywood Hill 1952 - 73, edited by John Saumarez SmithAnother opportunity to enjoy Nancy's sharp, often vicious writing and follow her adventures as she worked in the bookshop on Curzon Street, then relocated to France where she lived for the rest of her life.

The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, edited by Charlotte MosleyI went to a talk given by Selina Hastings about the collected letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh, which she’d edited into book form, and I asked her whether she thought these two famous wits would have been fans of Twitter if they’d been around today. She rather thought they wouldn’t – the whole fun of their correspondence was that it was so gloriously indiscreet and bitchy about the people they knew, and you can’t really do that on Twitter, well, you can, but it’s not advisable.

84 Charing Cross Road, Helene HanffThis is a wonderful book (which was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins) which follows the twenty year correspondonce between an American academic and a London bookseller. There's no romance, but plenty of wit and warmth as Hanff gradually breaks down Frank Doel's natural reserve through their shared love of literature and a deep friendship develops. The letter writers never meet, which makes me think of all the people who become friends on the internet, and how those relationships are as 'real' and important as any that exist in the non-virtual world.

And for the internet age...Talking About Jane Austen in Baghdad, The True Story of an Unlikely Friendship, Bee Rowlatt and May WitwitThis is the email correspondence between an Iraqi academic and a London mum of three who forged a strong bond despite the very different worlds they lived in. In the Preface Bee acknowledges the anxiety she feels about publishing private emails, but the importance of sharing their story and May's experiences in wartorn Baghdad in particular, made it essential to do so. It's a wonderful and important book that demonstrates how powerful a relationship in writing - whether it's email or epistolary - can be.

There’s something a little odd about reading letters that were originally written for one specific person – you do feel like you’re intruding on something private. But I suppose it’s slightly less intrusive than reading someone’s diary which has been published. Also it can be hard to fill in the gaps – know who all the characters referred to by nicknames are, understand the in-jokes – but good footnotes can help with that.

Do you write 'proper' letters anymore (I did when I was a teenager and I'm always happy to rediscover them - they're very sweet!) and would you be happy to see your correspondence published?

Darling Monster: The letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich 1939 – 1952, is published in hardback by Chatto & Windus on October 3rd, £25