PARIS — The envelope arrives with the address painstakingly handwritten and the stamp with the Queen’s head always evenly placed in the top right-hand corner. The postman stops his bike to slide the missive through the letterbox and the dog lets out two yaps. It’s time for me to make tea, and read. The letter comes from Joyce, my 75-year-old mother-in-law in England. It is always written on two sides of a single sheet, on good-quality paper that is devoid of fussy lines and margins, with no texturing or lavender scenting. It is simple, crisp white paper.
She writes in an easy, cursive script, a clear but relaxed style that does not seek to impress. Her words sit comfortably on both sides of the page; her thoughts flow neatly from one paragraph to the next. There no is jarring ending in the final paragraph, no postscript, no OMG or LOL, no smiley icons. Just words. The woman who writes these letters is recently widowed. Her husband was for decades Britain’s most popular angling columnist, filing his columns without fail until five days before his death at the age of 88. My mother-in-law nursed him at home for the final three years of his life, until he died, next to her, in his sleep. Her letter often takes four or five days to reach me but the feel of it instantly breaks through time and space. Sitting with the letter in my hands, I immediately envision her: There she is at the dining table, a cup of tea to her right, the radio switched off or turned down, her thoughts flowing through her fingers and onto the page.
Her letters inform us of the weather, of the kindness of neighbors, of the bureaucratic hassles of death, of the condolence letters she has received — in short, of all the bits and pieces of kick-starting life without the man she loved for 50 years. Once finished, she puts on her coat and bonnet and walks to the postbox, just in time for the 4:30 p.m. pickup. For her, writing a letter at a time of grief is part of seeing things through, a sign of the civility and commitment that bind societies. For her generation, duty and courtesy are as normal as breathing.
Will this fading generation, I find myself quietly asking, also be the last to write letters? Messages crafted by hand rather than bits of binary code? Writing that carries emotions rather than emoticons? Letter-writing is among our most ancient of arts. Think of letters and the mind falls on Paul of Tarsus, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Austen, Mark Twain; on love letters written during the American Civil War, or letters written to a parent by a frightened soldier at the battlefront. A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do. You savor their arrival and later take care to place them in a box for safe keeping.
Yes, e-mail is a wonderful invention. It links people across the world, destroying in an instant the hurdle of geography that confronts snail mail. Yet it is by its nature ephemeral and lacks the spark of character that only handwriting can provide. When you get an e-mail, you can never be sure that you are the only recipient — or even that it’s original. We have always liked to pore over the letters of great figures like Winston Churchill and Abigail Adams for the insight this offers into their lives: the writing, the crossings-out, the very feel of history on paper.
Sitting here, savoring the imminent arrival of the next letter from my mother-in-law, I wonder what will be the legacy of the digital letter-writing age.
Catherine Field is a journalist based in Paris.