Saturday, 17 October 2015

A Great Letter Writer: an inspiration for bloggers

On holiday in France this week, I've had time to read a few books that have sat on the 'to be read' pile for ages. One of them got me thinking.
It's a collection of letters by a great French woman of the 17th century, Madame de Sevigne* (1626-1696). (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read them in French: one day, later in retirement, maybe.) Her translator (Penguin Classics edition) describes her as one of the best letter-writers of any age: fluent, vivacious, funny, with a sharp eye for observation and the ability in turns to amuse, inform and even inspire.
She was a Parisian with family roots in Burgundy who had married into a prominent Breton family. Her grandmother was a saint, no less (at least, she was to be canonised in the 18th century, Sainte Jeanne de Chantal, a friend and disciple of St Francis de Sales). She moved easily around the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, knew everybody who was anybody in 'society', and lived through events that came to define the France of the Grand Si├Ęcle. So her letters are matchless chronicles of her own times, an invaluable source of information that is also full of entertainment, for she had a wonderful eye for the absurd.
We have one person in particular to thank for many of these amazing letters. This is her daughter Francoise. On her, M de S shed a motherly love that, it has to be said, bordered on the obsessive. (She had a son too, but he didn't get anything like the same concentration of maternal attention.) When Francoise married and moved away to Provence where her husband had been appointed governor, there began a stream of correspondence between the two that ended only with Madame's death. It's these letters that tell us so much about the dramas big and small that fascinated the Marquise. From the affairs of state to the little violations of protocol observed in Parisian salons, not to mention her daughter's marriage and pregnancies, her husband's casual attitude to money, the risks of travel in winter, the servant problem, the merits and (especially) the flaws of last Sunday's sermon, she writes so vividly that you feel you are witnessing events with her.
Letters, like diaries, make for great bed-time reading. They come in bite-sized chunks, and if the writer is any good, they are not simply a compilation of happenings and circumstances but a distillation of them, a way of finding meaning through reflection and writing. This has interested me as much as the content, how the art of writing can be such a powerful tool in the hands of an effective practitioner. At the same time as reading M de S, I've also been enjoying A. L. Kennedy's book On Writing, a collection of her marvellous Guardian blogs on what it's like to be a writer, how she creates a novel, the experience of dealing with publishers, agents and reviewers and so on. In her very different way, Kennedy demonstrates the same kind of flair. It's a precious gift. 
These books have made me think about my own enjoyment of writing now that I have more time to give to it. They've made me wonder, like many others, what is happening to letter-writing in the digital age. Maybe as a literary form, the traditional epistolary form is in decline nowadays: some of us have almost lost the ability to hold a pen let alone write intelligibly and legibly with it.
But electronic media open up new ways in which old traditions can be kept alive. Kennedy's weekly pieces are a good example of how blogging can perform some of the same functions as writing letters. When I write my blog, it feels a bit like an 'open letter': anyone can read it, but there are some who respond as if it's a quasi-personal communication. I'm pleased about that. The same goes in shorter form for platforms like Twitter and Facebook where the art of saying a lot in few words can lead to surprisingly interesting, elegant and entertaining interactions. I've no doubt that Madame would be an avid follower of social media if she were alive today.
As, I think, would the New Testament writers. It's worth recalling how much of the New Testament consists of letters: some very personal such as Paul's to Philemon, others for more general circulation like Romans, Ephesians and Hebrews. In these letters we overhear the goings-on in the churches of the 1st century, just as Madame lets us overhear the 17th.
Maybe there's a message not only in the content but the literary form itself: don't be afraid of opportunism in communication. Allow circumstances to inspire and suggest themes for reflection and writing. If something has grabbed your attention, share it. Be spontaneous and see what emerges. In a strange way, social media, far from drawing us away from time-honoured literary forms like letters and diaries, may be taking us straight back to them and helping us both to appreciate them afresh, and to imitate them in renewed and imaginative ways.  

*An apology to her memory and to all lovers of the French language: every time I insert acute accents in Blogger, they disappear from sight. Clearly this programme is worryingly Francophobe.

1 comment:

  1. Personally I prefer Sermons to Letters and am therefore grateful for "Christ in a Choppie Box", for which - many thanks.