of Letters Edited and introduced by Felix Pryor (Faber and Faber, £12.95) Lucy Jean Lloyd
Dear Reader, I have just finished The Faber book of Letters (1578-1939), and have to say what a good humoured volume it is. You will wish to read it aloud to your companions by a fire this winter, or gloat over it in bed just before you sleep.
For although it is packed with the letters of famous men of letters, this anthology is not trying to promote them as so many testimonials to posterity, nor as a series of literary or historical documents which shed light on the works and deeds of their authors.
There are, however, some pieces which may of course be invested with such portentous significance, such as Einstein's letter to FDR on the discovery of uranium, and of its being, "conceivable though much less certain that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed." On the whole it is Light-hearted in its approach, and Pryor even includes letters to Sherlock Holmes after it had been announced that he was retiring to take up beekeeping, and one famous letter from Hamlet to Orphella to prove it.
These are also letters which in an age of telephones and telefaxes might never have been written in the first place, viz the absent-minded Chesterton's missive to his wife, sent whilst he was on a lecture tour of the Midlands: "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?"
Having said this there are still even today more delicate matters which we more often commit to paper than phone through direct. Money, for example. Hence when Daniel Defoe writes to his boss in 1707 to ask why he has not been paid for five months, we are tempted to emulate his discreet use of paraphrases.
"If you were to Sec me Now without Subsistence, allmost Grown Shabby in Cloths, Dejected, you would be Mov'd to hasten My Relief in a Manner Suitable to that Regard you were Allways pleased to show for me" (The woHerful capitals are his) Even in those dark ages, however, the letter was clearly not just an expedient means of communicating with each other, but already a kind of luxuriat ion in writing itself, even a form of self-indulgence. JM Synge begs his correspondent in this vein not to be factual or newsy with him, but to "Write a nice intimate letter and tell me how your little mind is feeling."