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
Siècle. 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
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
*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.