Ever since a friend gave me the new book of letters between the six Mitford sis ters I have been pea green with envy. My life seems utterly insipid beside that of Diana, Deborah, Unity, Pamela, Jessica and Nancy,
the six famous daughters of the eccentric Lord Redsedale. My own sister is splendid, but neither her work nor mine will ever bring us material like the afternoons of the 21-yearold Unity Mitford.
Munich, 19 September 1935: Darling Nard:
... I feel sure the Führer had pains, which I know he sometimes does have. For one thing he didn’t stand up when I came to the table which he always does. Also the skin around the corners of his eyes was yellow. And then he couldn’t seem to keep still, he moved backwards and forwards the whole time, with his hands on his knees, you know how he does... However he was in the most divine mood imaginable... We talked a lot about the Parteitag [party rally], he was terribly pleased at the way it had all gone off. He said he felt terribly flat now that it’s all over, & that it was so depressing driving away from Nürnberg, a few people in the streets for about 100 yards...
“Nard” is Diana Mitford—each sister had multiple nicknames—and she was the sort of über-blond beauty that got Hitler wound up about Aryan women. Her second marriage in 1936, at the home of Joseph Goebbels with Hitler present, was to Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascist party. God knows, I don’t want Nazi and fascist sisters, but there were four others and at least three of them superb writers. Nancy (The Pursuit of Love and U and non-U) was the most acclaimed author. She dressed in Dior and lived in Paris, devoted to her married lover—a courageous member of the Resistance and de Gaulle’s chief of staff. Jessica moved to California, joined the Communist party, married an American lawyer branded by McCarthy as one of the most subversive lawyers in the U.S., and wrote non-fiction including The American Way of
Death. Deborah married the future duke of Devonshire and turned Chatsworth, their stately home, into a font of profitable farm products. Though her published books are on country topics, she writes with Mitford wit and like an angel, which you have to in order to get me reading about goats. The letters are culled from 12,000 that survived the sisters—only “Debo” is alive—all handwritten except for Jessica’s.
No one writes letters now except the breadand-butter “Thanks for the wonderful dinner.” Even then our modern letter writers rarely follow rules by concocting some remem-
No one now concocts a remembrance that turns a viciously dull evening into heaven
brance that turns a viciously dull evening with sick-making food into heaven. Email, which has replaced the epistolary art, has its own social etiquette, namely to be short and to the point not 2 mention inane abbreviations. Difficult picturing lovers’ email as hard drives tied up in pink ribbon.
Letter-writing goes back thousands of years but heated up during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Historically (perhaps now) letters were indicators of status and breeding. Like conversation, they were used to manipulate, embellish, entertain, threaten, seduce and of course do business. On the way home from discovering America, Christopher Columbus got caught in a storm and his mind turned—as a good bourgeois parent—to his two sons. Who would pay their school fees if he came to a watery end? He picked up a quill and documented his accomplishments on the voyage for his Spanish patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, rolled up the letter in a wooden Madeira cask and threw it into the sea. This was not so much for posterity but rather what University of York professor William H. Sherman
has called “a father’s desperate petition for the future support of his children.”
The 18th century was strong on the epistolary book, which made authors’ quarrels especially amusing. Tobias Smollett wrote Travels Through France & Italy (my favourite letter contains his description of French women: “As their faces are concealed under a false complexion, so their heads are covered with a vast load of false hair, frizzled at the forehead, so as exactly to resemble the woolly heads of the Guinea negroes”). His approach to anything foreign was considered so full of spleen by author Laurence Sterne that he was moved to write A SentimentalJourney. This satirical novel gives Smollett the name Smelfungus—a cantankerous man addicted to exaggeration, who talks of being “flay’d alive” by cannibals: “I’ll tell it, cried Smelfungus, to the world. You had better tell it, said I, to your physician.” Samuel Johnson, in referring to his own letters, claims “... his soul lies naked” but he had doubts about the truthfulness of others, writing that there was “no transaction which offers stronger temptations to fallacy and sophis-
tication than epistolary intercourse.”
How-to books abounded. Letters, apart from business ones, were seen as a feminine task, and templates addressed feminine problems. The New Academy of Complements, for example, published in 1671, titled the letter to be written by abandoned women “A crack’t Virgin to her deceitful Friend.” Hand-wringing is the motif. “Nowyou appear so foul, that nothing can be more monstrous; is this the fruit of your Promises and Vows... how comes it then to pass, that you forsake me, mine my Reputation, and leave me to become the Map of Shame and Ignominy...” I long to use the Map of Shame bit but I suspect it was as unhelpful then as boiling bunnies is now.
A Vanderbilt University study says children taught cursive writing learn and express themselves better. If so, I have a few suggestions for our educators. How about letters “On Reprimanding a Person of Difference without incurring Hate Charges,” or “An Ailing Citizen to his callous Minister of Health.” The possibilities are, sadly, limitless. M
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