Wednesday 14 September 2011



I spend a fair bit of time reading volumes of selected and collected letters - another arrived yesterday: the writer Robert Southey, poet laureate in his time but now regarded as one of the minor Lake Poets of whom the greatest were Wordsworth and Coleridge.

(We once spent three holidays renting Southey's house in Keswick, staying in Coleridge's rooms.)


I heard that Southey's letters were good from reading C.S Lewis's collected letters - three chunky volumes that I have been browsing for the past couple of years. (I also have Lewis's earlier selected letters and the specific sequence of the letters to his childhood friend Arthur Greeves.)


I began to get interested in reading letters as an extension of biographies - perhaps it was Tolkien's selected letters which opened my eyes to how good this form could be?

When I read through the New England Transcendentalists and their biographies, I naturally read the available letters of Emerson and Thoreau (as well as their journals) - but I particularly enjoyed the letters of Robert Frost, and re-read them several times.


Some writers just pour out the stuff. The letters of Lewis seem like a life's work in themselves - never mind all the books, essays and scholarship. George Bernard Shaw was even more productive of correspondence.


But why should it be worth reading correspondence?

The simple answer is that the writer is freer to say what they want; free from the constraints of satisfying editors and promoting sales - yet (unlike diaries and journals) at the same time constrained (and rewarded) by the need to be engaging, the need to interest their correspondent - which curbs extremes of selfishness and maudlin introspection.

When the writer and correspondent are old friends and the letters make a series, a conversation extending perhaps over years, correspondence can be really worthwhile: Jack Lewis's letters to his brother Warnie are, for me, some of the best writing he ever did.



Wurmbrand said...

Lewis also praised the letters of the poet Cowper and Dorothy Osborne's letters to her beloved.

There's a nice selection by H. J. Jackson of Coleridge's letters.

By the way, what about that rare genre, the house memoir? You get a bit of such writing in Lewis's Surprised by Joy; but he liked two whole books devoted to houses -- Sandeman's Treasure on Earth, and Lubbock's Earlham. I liked the former a lot, haven't read Lubbock yet.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I haven't explored the house memoir genre; the nearest is Recollections of a Northumbrian Lady 1815-1866 by Barbara Charlton.

I read this because of the surname link - she married the head of the Charlton 'clan' who inhabited the 'family seat' in Hesleyside, Northumberland.

The book was interesting and amusing due mostly to its unintentional (Pooter-ish) humour - the author's petty snobberies and spitefuless about various relatives!

She also had a high opinion of her own abilities as a 'doctor' - practicing on the local peasantry as a hobby.

Wurmbrand said...

Here's something about Sandeman's book that I wrote for the New York C. S. Lewis Society, and which I hope will encourage readers to look up this good, but little-known, book.

Lewis wrote to Phyllis Elinor Sandeman on 10 Dec. 1952 to thank her for the newly-published book Treasure on Earth, her account of Christmas 1906 at her family's great Cheshire country house of Lyme Park (called Vyne Park in the book). He praised her evocation of a child's consciousness of home life, and liked her illustrations for the book. The house had recently been given to the National Trust, and the book's epilogue, dated 1946, conveyed Mrs. Sandeman's reconciliation to the vanishing of ways of life the house had represented. She felt fortunate in being able to remember "a gentler world -- a world before total wars and atom bombs and horror camps and miserable starving slaves," but accepted the inevitable loss "of all earthly things; whether it was a world civilisation or a human being, or a house." Lewis responded sympathetically: "it isn't only Houses: the very earth is being destroyed, the shapes of the hills disappear, the rabbits are gassed." (Furthermore, in two letters to her a year later, he consoled her on the death of her husband, candidly referring to his own loss of his mother: "there is still too much of 'Mammy's little lost boy' about me.")

Sandeman unobtrusively gets across the near-absence of Christian significance in the Vyne Park festivities. Phyllis’s elderly German governess, called “Fräulein” despite her objections, tells fortunes by cards; Phyllis’s aunt Sybil, at least, takes this occultism seriously; but the old “patriarchal” custom of family and servants assembling for daily prayers has ceased, and the chapel has become a storage room for furniture and Fräulein’s bicycle. However, by 1946, though the great house is now no one’s home, the chapel is being used again, with, she learns, “‘afternoon services for the people who come to see the place.’” (Readers may think of the conclusion of Brideshead Revisited. Lewis did, and expressed his greater appreciation for Sandeman’s book rather than Waugh’s “odious” novel!)

Lewis had been thinking about the pre-1914 world lately, writing the late-Victorian Narnian Chronicle The Magician's Nephew and Surprised by Joy, with its memories of boyhood at Little Lea (see Walter Hooper's C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, pp. 186, 403). I recommend David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain, 1945-1951 as a depiction of what life was like while Lewis was working on these books.

Wurmbrand said...

Keats's letters have been much-praised. There is a nice one-volume selection by Robert Gittings.

Brett Stevens said...

Letters are also about conclusions, not trying to build up justifications in reverse for those conclusions as most arguments (content of novels/books) are.

For the same reason, interviews are powerful. They ask for a series of short conclusions to the derivation of an idea; as a result, you get in shorthand what would take 200 pages to develop and lose the point in the process.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Brett - which interviews would you regard as the best examples of the genre?

Wurmbrand said...

The taped conversation about science fiction between C. S. Lewis, Kingsley Amis, and Brian Aldiss that is transcribed as "Unreal Estates" in On Stories and elsewhere is not exactly an interview, but it's good reading. (I also wonder a lot about what became of that tape, and whether it might surface someday as an audio recording that one could play. I wish!)

Douglas A. Anderson and Verlyn Flieger have prepared a collection of the interviews with Tolkien, but apparently the publisher got cold feet about the project and I don't know if the book will ever appear. One of the best interviews Tolkien ever gave ended up being transcribed and printed in a fanzine, Ed Meskys' Niekas, circa 1966. This surely should be made more widely available. The interview was conducted by long-distance telephone with Henry Resnick, who used it as the basis for a profile article for the Saturday Evening Post.

I'm fond of an interview about traditional Orthodoxy with Seraphim Rose's colleague Abbot Herman, which was originally published in a New Age magazine called Gnosis and reprinted in the excellent but now defunct Epiphany Journal.

In the right mood, one can find the TV interview between Robert Graves and Malcolm Muggeridge amusing. In a different mood it would come across as two conceited chaps practically flirting with one another.

Wurmbrand said...

Here's one more "house memoir." I recommend it. Memories of Marbacka is a compilation of writings by Selma Lagerlof, compiled by Great Anderson for a Penfield Press paperback book ISBN 1-57216-048-9 drawing on 1930s translations of Marbacka, Memories of My Childhood, and The Diary of Selma Lagerlof.