A Love of Letters

July 16, 2010 at 6:53 am (Uncategorized)

I’m reading Patrick White’s collected letters at the moment, a vast selection edited by David Marr. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying it. I was given this book (I’m afraid I can’t remember by whom, although I think perhaps a university friend), many years ago now, and all of a sudden I was really seized by an urgent desire to read it. I’ve no way to account for this sudden appetite – I’m still yet to read a single one of his novels. It seems increasingly bizarre to me, now I’m learning more about him, that I was never once, in all my great many years of schooling, called upon to read a single one of his texts. This is a situation I shall have to correct for myself at the first available opportunity.

Patrick White, for those of you who don’t know of him, currently retains the title of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. He was almost as famous as a curmudgeon as he was a man of letters, which former reputation I am finding surprising as I read his prolific private correspondence (and this is only what survives – imagine if he hadn’t demanded the recipients destroy it all! His lifelong partner Manoly Lascaris complied, but I can’t help feeling pleased that so many of PW’s friends defied him on this count. And since Marr secured PW’s permission to collect and publish what remained before PW died, one hopes that the author might have been grudgingly pleased too), because he’s very good company indeed. There’s plenty of talk of his being bitter and cynical and miserable, but thus far very little evidence to support this version of himself that he evidently liked to cultivate. Still, all may be about to change… I’ve only reached his 40s. Maybe by the end he really is an incurable sourpuss, but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s a fascinating life journey through letters, and it reminds me, over and over, how much I love the epistolary form. So imagine my delight when I came home from my walk today to find a REAL LETTER waiting in the letterbox. It just. Made. My. Day. I badgered this friend – who returned to England from Australia a couple of years ago now – into becoming my pen pal a little while ago, because I was so desperate to keep my own letter writing alive, and deflated beyond tolerance by continuing to write letters to people who do not write back. It is thoroughly demoralising and wretched in a way few things are to have years of letters go off to a meet a great big unanswered dead-end. Poe of course was interested in missing letters, but I’m much more caught up in those that are never written in the first place. Over the years I’ve ended up feeling quite wounded, which is terribly unfair, I suppose, given no one asked me to start writing the damn things in the first place. My wanting people to reciprocate is distinctly not the same thing as their wanting to themselves, and any die-hard letter writer probably needs to accept that the only response to their efforts may be a deafening silence. In which case I would say, welcome to my world.

So I pestered A into signing her life away, and thus far I’ve managed to drag a princely total of two letters out of her. Today’s is the second, and it’s a huge improvement on the first – in which she cheated by enclosing lots of interesting clippings from the TLS, but very little in her own hand – it’s long and entertaining, and gives me WILD RENEWED HOPES for our future correspondence. I devoured it with a lunatic grin plastered all over my face, and felt such a surge of pleasure to have received it that anyone would think she’d mailed me some cake. When I glimpsed the handwritten envelope, just visible beneath all the bank statements when I cleared the box just now, I can honestly say my heart leapt. A letter! Oh, it’s a real letter! And it’s for me – happy day!

So if she thinks she’s got a hope in hell of being let off the hook now, then boy, has she got another thing coming. In fact, she really does – I’ve only to write and send it.



  1. Grad said,

    Of course, I am old enough to remember when writing letters was the only way to communicate. Long distance telephone calls were so expensive they were only used for dire emergencies. As a consequence I have a entire trunk of letters from as early as the 1950s, all neatly tied with ribbons. (I’m actually doing a post using them). I know *exactly* how you feel about the disappointment that comes from expecting a letter in return which never comes. I also remember the wonderful anticipation of waiting for the mail to arrive and the excitement when there is a letter in the post for YOU. You recognize the familiar handwriting, you open it before you get inside, and you read it over and over. It might be from a dear friend, a beau, a parent, an aunt or uncle, sister or brother. I also loved the accoutrements of writing letters…the fountain pens, the color ink (I had one friend who only wrote in peacock blue), and the stationary. Believe it or not, one put loads of thought into ones stationary. It said something about you. It WAS you. One would think that in writing this I am an ancient, but no. The lovely experience of writing letters is a recently lost art. Maybe your generation will bring it back. I hope so.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, I went to Canada pre-email, so letters were my main source of contact with Australia even so late as 1989-91. Phone calls, as you say, were reserved for special occasions and emergencies. I too have boxes of letters from those years and all the years since, as once I returned home, it took a number of years for email to entirely take over. I’m always sorry it has succeeded in killing off the art of letter writing, although I have embraced email from the very beginning.

      I can well believe that stationery was a supremely important part of the whole operation – I still love mooching around stationery stores, and have always wanted personalised paper – it’s just about the most civilised (okay, yes, and slightly pretentious) thing I can imagine. I don’t think age has anything to do with it, my dear – I recognise myself in everything you say.

  2. Annah said,

    Oh I love Patrick White. I read Patrick White A life by David Marr recently and just feel in love with the guy. He sounded like so much fun..would have loved to have been one of his Sunday lunch guests thats for sure. He would have served quite the feast in his home filled to the brim with modern art. He also would have been sure to make me cry (not hard) as he sounded like he could be quite mean. He was moody, but passionate..which to me, is just being open and alive…so all would have been forgiven! His days involved cooking, collecting art from the local Paddington art galleries, walking through Centennial Park with his dogs, writing and traveling….what a life! Oh, and picking fights with his lunch guests.
    I felt so connected to him that I actually got in my car and drove to his old house in Centennial Park and sat outside it for hours, while starting one of his novels. A family with young kids lives there now, which ruins the whole image I had of the eccentric goings on I imagined there..but I stalked his ghost at his old house none the less! Oh, I even took it a step further and visited his childhood home which is now the nursing home that Manoly then went to spend his last days. I just love being in or near the homes where great writers lived….I am so desperate for inspiration that I hope I can somehow take some away with me from these old homes.
    I am tempted to track down this book of letters now and fuel my obsession even more…
    I am as surprised as you that no-one in sydney seems to know of him…he is a freakin Nobel Prize winner for goodness sake!

    • doctordi said,

      Ah, thanks Annah, I was beginning to doubt my memory! I was *sure* he’d lived in Centennial Park, but he’s hit 50 now in the Letters, and he and Manoly are still living at Dogwoods, their property in Castle Hill – I was beginning to think I had that vaguely remembered detail all wrong. When he speaks of leaving Dogwoods, it’s in terms of fleeing Sydney altogether in favour of Adelaide, of all places, but so far the talk has been just that, although it sounds like the council is preparing to carve up the place, already making way for the Castle Hill of today.

      Well, sadly PW himself probably wouldn’t be surprised – he felt slighted in his day by Sydney, so he’d probably think his lack of profile today pretty bloody typical. I can almost hear him muttering, “Ugly brutish philistines…”

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    I also remember how exciting it was to get a letter. I still get excited when something arrives from Ebay, as impersonal as it is, by mail. It’s magical in a way that the internet isn’t. Something physical, intended for you, makes it’s way across the world and arrives in your mailbox. I started typing letters when I was a teenager because my handwriting is hard to read. But there is still something special in a handwritten missive.

    • doctordi said,

      Lilian, it wrenches at me that you write in the past tense, as though there’s no expectation of further letters – I do think it is such a special thing, a handwritten letter (PW evidently typed a number of his too, so you’re in good company there), and yes, I agree parcels are pretty damn exciting too. But letters hold a very, very special place in my heart.

  4. Norwichrocks said,

    Oooh, I LOVE letters. And note cards. And I’m lucky enough to have one female and two make friends back in the UK and France, as well as my mother, with all of whom I exchange such epistles a few times a year… not often enough to take the joyous novelty off them 🙂

    In fact, I am determined to ensure that my nieces and godchildren experience some of the delight in receiving their very own letters – I regularly write to them and draw little pictures and send little tokens. I think its beginning to work: I received a lovely handwritten letter, completely out of the blue (not my birthday or nuffink) from my 7 year old god-daughter a few weeks ago, which she had carefully written in tiny script on a carefully folded piece of paper all sellotaped into a home-made envelope covered in love-hearts. Bless her. It made my week.

    • doctordi said,

      That’s fabulous, Woo, I am so thrilled to think of your circle of active letter writers. That’s brilliant. How I’m down to one – and she took some convincing – I’ll never know, but it’s a very sad state of affairs. Yes, I love note cards too. I love all stationery and all handwritten things in mailboxes.

      That’s gorgeous about the next generation – lucky you!!!!

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