Lisa Jardine’s thoughts on letters and E-mails

Lisa Jardine is Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London. Her contributions to the Radio Four series “A Point of View” are always thought provoking and can be heard on the Point of View website.

Her latest  broadcast in the series just finished chimed very much with thoughts that I have been having of late. The immediacy of electronic communication can be very seductive. Never before have we been able to respond so easily and so quickly to thoughts and sentiments expressed by others thousands, or indeed only a few, miles away. But this is fraught with danger. The main ones being the temptation not to read the post correctly and to reply in haste. Oh yes, I am just as guilty of these sins as the next person.

It is infuriating for me to read an inaccurate  response to my one of comments. The latest incident being on the topic of phantom pregnancy in dogs and, as an aside, humans. A stupid woman in South Africa seems to have thought that I suggested that they occur in women who have been sterilised. In fact the only person to mention sterilisation was another correspondent who suggested that dogs and (their owners)  should be sterilised.  I’m afraid I told everyone that I am not possesed of a single syllable vocabulary with which to explain my suggestion that maybe, just maybe, it is the lack of breeding opportunity that causes these.

Well, back to Lisa Jardine: I have pondered long about whether to post just a link to her talk or whether to include her whole text which is available on the BBC NEWS MAGAZINE site. This raises all sorts of questions about copyright.

As far as i am aware the copyright in what follows is owned either by Lisa Jardine or by the BBC or jointly by both. In any case I publish this with no intention of  or expectation of gaining financially or materially by so doing. My intentions are merely to disseminate Lisa Jardine’s ideas to a wider audience and to express my support and admiration for the ideas expressed. Hopefully that will satisfy all parties. Especially as the majority of those who read this will already be aware of my admiration of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The modernist writer Virginia Woolf called letter writing “the humane art, which owes its origins in the love of friends”. In our frenetic world of electronic communication, we must remember to write with thought and consideration, says historian Lisa Jardine.

In these days of email, texts and instant messaging, I am not alone, I feel sure, in mourning the demise of the old-fashioned handwritten letter. Exchanges of letters capture nuances of shared thought and feeling to which their electronic replacements simply cannot do justice. Here’s an example.

In July 1940, with the country at war, Virginia Woolf published a biography of the artist, Roger Fry – champion of post-impressionism and leading member of the Bloomsbury Group. The timing could hardly have been worse. Fry’s reputation was as an ivory tower liberal who believed that art inhabits a self-contained formal space remote from the vulgar world. As France fell to Hitler’s troops and German planes pounded the south coast of England with increasingly regular air-raids, such artistic idealism seemed at best out of touch, at worst irrelevant.

Most of Woolf’s friends were politely positive about the book. But in early August she received a letter from Ben Nicolson, the 26-year-old art critic son of her close friend Vita Sackville-West, who was serving as a lance-bombardier in an anti-aircraft battery in Kent under the flight-path of the German bombers. As enemy warplanes passed low overhead, Nicolson attacked the adulatory tone of Woolf’s biography and accused Fry of failing to engage with the political realities of the inter-war years.

“I am so struck by the fool’s paradise in which he and his friends lived,” Nicolson wrote. “He shut himself out from all disagreeable actualities and allowed the spirit of Nazism to grow without taking any steps to check it.”

Woolf’s answering letter did not mince words:

“Lord, I thought to myself,” she wrote back. “Roger shut himself out from disagreeable actualities did he? What can Ben mean? Didn’t he spend half his life travelling about England addressing masses of people who’d never looked at a picture and making them see what he saw? And wasn’t that the best way of checking Nazism?”

Stung by Woolf’s condescending tone, and unpersuaded by her argument, Nicolson wrote again, criticising Fry and the Bloomsbury Group in yet stronger terms. This time Woolf took his comments personally and drafted a lengthy, rebarbative reply, in which she turned Nicolson’s attack on Fry and herself back on him. Nicolson’s own chosen career as art critic was hardly more engaged: “I suppose I’m being obtuse but I can’t find your answer in your letter, how it is that you are going to change the attitudes of the mass of people by remaining an art critic.”

Reading over what she had written, however, Woolf thought better of her stern tone and did not send the letter. Instead, she rewrote it in more measured terms, moderating her sharp remarks with an opening apology. “I think it’s extraordinarily nice of you to write to me,” she now began, “I hope I didn’t annoy you by what I said. It’s very difficult when one writes letters in a hurry as I always do, not to make them sound abrupt.”

It is this second version of the letter that was eventually dispatched, and which evidently satisfied its recipient, who called a truce on their differing views of Fry’s influence and reputation. In early September, Woolf wrote to arrange for Nicolson to visit, adding: “I love getting your letters,” and “I’m so happy you found the life of Roger Fry interesting as well as infuriating.”

Two things strike me in this exchange. The first is the simple good manners both correspondents evidence in the way they address one another and present their arguments, in spite of the real, keenly felt differences of opinion.

The second is the strikingly different outcome arrived at because Virginia Woolf restrained herself from dispatching her first, intemperate draft reply and carefully modified it so as not to hurt the feelings of the young man – a family friend, very much younger and less experienced than herself.

I have, of course, dwelt on this exchange for a purpose. In it, Woolf – using established letter-writing conventions – takes advantage of the time lapses between exchanges to recuperate, clarify, recast and take control of the argument. The result has the elegance of a formal dance – a kind of minuet, in which the participants advance and retreat according to well-understood rules, until they have arrived at a satisfactory outcome.

How unlike the rapid firing off and counter-fire of email messages in which many of us find ourselves engaged nowadays as our predominant means of communicating with colleagues and friends, and even with complete strangers. Each time I broadcast a Point of View, I receive large numbers of emails from people I have never met, while the script posted on the BBC magazine website generates hundreds of anonymous messages.

Very few of these observe the courtesies enshrined in traditional letter-writing. Many adopt a curiously curt tone: I have not consulted my sources correctly, they insist, or I have misled my listeners. “Call yourself a historian” is a regular, shrill opener – emails and posts have mostly dispensed with the niceties of “Dear Lisa” or “Yours sincerely.”

Yet if I answer such an email – and I do try to respond to them all – the reply that follows will be couched in very different terms. It will be prefaced by the kind of placatory remark Woolf used in responding to Nicolson: “I did not mean to imply criticism” or “I hope you did not think me rude.” It is as if between the first and the second response I have become a person – an actual recipient of the communication – rather than an impersonal post box. So the courtesy and simple good manners of more old-fashioned letter-forms are restored to our correspondence.

The most dramatic feature of electronic communication is surely its propensity to tempt us into dashing off a message in haste that we repent at leisure. As the emails ping into our inbox we answer them helter-skelter, breathlessly, without pausing to reflect on nuance or tone. As a consequence, misunderstandings often arise – “I’m sorry to have upset you,” a colleague will reply to an email I intended as a matter-of-fact response to a bit of university business.

No doubt I am sentimentalising the orderliness of written letters by comparison with emails. When feelings run high, an ill-judged letter can cause as much emotional damage as any dashed-off online posting. Here’s another example from Virginia Woolf’s prolific correspondence.

In 1938, she wrote to Vita Sackville-West – with whom she had had a passionate affair in the late 1920s – refusing to read a poem Vita had sent her via Woolf’s husband Leonard. Woolf was annoyed at hurtful remarks Vita had made about her:

“Leonard says you have sent a poem and would like to know what I think of it. Now I would like to read it and normally would fire off an opinion with my usual audacity. But I feel I can’t read your poem impartially while your charges against me, as expressed in a letter I have somewhere but won’t quote, remain unsubstantiated.”

Vita was appalled. Her response was a frantic telegram: “Horrified by your letter.” This in its turn elicited a further letter from Woolf the same day:

“What on earth can I have said in my letter to call forth your telegram? God knows. I scribbled it off in five minutes, never read it through, and can only remember that it was written in a vein of obvious humorous extravagance and in a tearing hurry.”

Woolf explained that she had been annoyed by a letter Vita had sent shortly after publication of her last book. She had written back asking Vita to explain a comment she had made that “one moment you enchant with your lovely prose and the next moment exasperate one with your misleading arguments”. What were the misleading arguments? Woolf had asked. Vita had not replied.

“It’s a lesson not to write letters,” Woolf now continued contritely. “For I suppose you’ll say, when you read what I’ve quoted from your own letter, that there’s nothing to cause even a momentary irritation. And I daresay you’re right. So let us leave it: and I apologise and will never write a letter so carelessly again.”

Virginia Woolf called letter-writing “the humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”, and devoted a good deal of emotional energy to using it to maintain her friendships.

Today’s electronic forms of communication may lack that emotional depth but they do enable us to connect more speedily and efficiently than I at least could manage with pen and ink. Still, when we take advantage of them, we ought always to heed Woolf’s warning, never to write carelessly. And, if we can, at least count to 10, and read over what we have written, before we press “send”.

Now go and read her on  Margaret Thatcheras well.



5 Responses to “Lisa Jardine’s thoughts on letters and E-mails”

  1. Grannymar Says:

    As a regular listener to “A Point of View”, I listen and often catch the repeat and the World Service broadcast if I am still awake, so the message is brought well home to me. My problem is that if I were to stop, think and worry about every word I wrote, I would never say anything at all. I know there are many who think that my silence might be a good idea.

  2. bitchontheblog Says:

    Dear David,

    I see you have everyone now chewing on their pencil.

    Counting (to 20) … sending my footman across town to deliver this billet to you in person. Eagerly expecting reply, post-haste.

    Benignly yours,

  3. magpie11 Says:

    Chewing on pencils? Another story to tell about childhood.

    When I was thinking about this post (internally debating) I remembered how Grannie used to tell me that “In the old days” you could post a letter at 10 am and it would be delivered by 2 pm….or even sooner. It was years before I realised that this occurred “in Town”.

    Incidentally, I am a firm believer in a good quality well sharpened pencil (lead Grade B rather than HB) is the best and most comfortable of writing implements.

    Did you know that one pencil has the potential to draw a 35 miles long line, write an average of 45,000 words and be infuriatingly annoying to teachers and others when used for drum solos. According to one source it can be sharpened 17 times. I think that is an underestimation.

    One thing to be said for a good quality pencil is the wonderful aroma of cedar wood (ah! keep a pencil in your wooly sock drawer to repulse “The Moth”?)when freshly sharpened. Another advantage is that documents written in graphite pencil do no fade so write you billet doux in pencil.

  4. bitchontheblog Says:

    Dear David,

    Thank you for your swift reply which I received on return of my rather tardy footman. Enjoying the afternoon sun here at the South Coast, my writing desk (in a room of my own) most becomingly still facing that gargoyle at the opposite building’s facade. Am contemplating whether, with your permission, to superimpose your own good likeness to make me feel even more comfortable.

    Am most anxious to imprint into that mind of yours – full of astonishing measurements and detail – that I do NOT, never have, never will, chew on a pencil. It is a disgusting habit, one of many I do take the liberty to frown upon. Neither have I ever bitten my finger nails. Both mannerisms (if you want to give them that grand name) seem to go together in many of my fellow human beings. My mother had no need to tell me, frightening me as only she can in the days when it was still easy to do so, that lead is a POISON. I can picture better ways of extinguishing the flickering light of my bright and shining self than lead poising. I’d prefer mercury any day.

    Whilst eschewing waste I have been forced to either dispose of a pencil one of my guests absentmindedly chewed on, or at least sharpen it down at its sad end. A most unsatisfactory solution to what shouldn’t be made a problem in the first place. As you will know: A pencil with both ends torpedo like does pose a considerable potential health hazard to an unsuspecting eye. You will agree that we do not need the Health and Safety Police to tell us so.

    As always refreshed to hear from you, my dear Friend aka Mine of Information. I hope this note, or rather my footman once he has recovered from his last mission, will find you in fine fettle, good mood and excellent health.

    With best wishes to your good Lady,
    As ever, devotedly yours,

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