On this week’s Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM, I decided to take a look at some literary depictions of that beloved (but dying?) art: letter-writing. Handwritten, hard copy letters have a special place in the novel tradition, both in terms of storytelling and form, but also plot development and reveals. The theme for this show was inspired by a couple of things: an old penpal of mine from when I was a teenager unexpectedly got back in touch; a friend of mine that I usually keep in touch with via text sent me a surprise letter through the post; and I’m currently reading a novel that weaves bits of letters, notes, reports and articles into its prose. So you can see why letter-writing was on my mind when I started planning the show!
I toyed with the idea of doing a whole list of epistolary novels (books where the stories is told entirely through letters), but I decided instead to go for stories where letters are an important plot device, but more importantly where letter-writers are significant characters. And most of the books were published in the twenty-first century, which raises the interesting question of why, in the age of social media and mobile phones, has the hand- or typewritten letter retained such power in our imagination?
You can hear the show on the player at the end of this post. But, as promised, here’s the list of books I featured. If you disagree with any of my choices, or if I missed your favourite, let me know in the comments!
I chose Cecelia Ahern’s debut novel as a good example of the power of letter-writing in fiction – in particular, the power of the love letter. While the story isn’t told exclusively through letters (and it certainly isn’t an exchange of letters, as we find in some epistolary novels), a series of ten very important letters play a pivotal role in the book – as reflected in its title.
Holly and Gerry are a (reasonably) happily married couple living in Dublin. But tragedy strikes. Gerry dies of a brain tumour, and Holly is left grieving and in pain. She withdraws from her family and friends and struggles to recover, but support appears from an unexpected source. A parcel arrives for Holly with ten envelopes, to be opened each month. The envelopes contain letters written by Gerry before his death (each ending with ‘PS, I Love You’) to offer support and comfort the Holly as she begins to look to the future. Even though this isn’t my usual genre of choice, Ahern’s book really testifies to the power of the written letter, and to the intimacy of the connections we feel when receiving a letter.
PS, I Love You was adapted into a film in 2007, starring Hilary Swank and Gerard Butler. The setting was shifted to Manhattan, and the letters arrive separately rather than all at once, but it is otherwise a fairly faithful adaptation.
From love letters to poison pen letters next… while anonymous malicious notes are a staple plot device in many a detective novel, I chose a book with a more sustained campaign of hateful correspondence. Christie’s The Moving Finger has an archetypal poison-pen writer… and (as you might have guessed) things soon take on a more murderous hue.
When Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the quiet town of Lymstock to allow Jerry time to recuperate after a plane crash, they are distressed to find themselves targetted by malicious correspondent. They receive an anonymous letter accusing them of being, not brother and sister, but secret lovers. And the Burtons aren’t the only victims – other Lymstock residents also receive nasty letters, including Mona Symmington, who is (apparently) so distraught at being accused of having had an affair that she (apparently) takes her own life. But when the Symmingtons’ maid Agnes is also found dead, it appears there may be more to it than first appeared. Scotland Yard arrive to investigate, but when they fail to make any progress, the vicar’s wife Maud calls in her own expert… Miss Marple.
The Moving Finger is an unusual Miss Marple novel in that it is narrated by Jerry Burton, and Miss Marple herself doesn’t make an appearance until quite late in the game. It was adapted in 1985 as part of the BBC series of Miss Marple adaptations with Joan Hickson. A looser adaptation was done by ITV for the Marple series in 2006 (with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple).
And from poison pen letters to something even more sinister now… but another book that testifies to the power of letter-writing (though it takes that to another level). I thought this list could definitely do with a horror title on it!
Little’s book tells the story of Jason Handford, a man with the talent for writing letters. As a child, Jason took part in a penpal project (for somewhat dubious reasons), and his experience of writing to his Japanese penpal revealed a talent for making things happen through the written word that excited him with its possibilities. Jason graduates to writing complaint letters to restaurants and other businesses, getting free stuff and compensation as a result. Of course, as this is a horror novel, things take a sinister turn. Jason’s talent for letter-writing brings him to the attention of someone with an agenda… though I’m not in the business of giving spoilers!
Fans of Little’s work will recognize some characteristic themes and tropes in Dispatch. For the purposes of today’s list, I was, of course, interested in the way letter-writing in presented. Particularly, I was fascinated by the subtle connection and comparison made between hard copy letters and internet commentary. Admittedly, Jason isn’t always a very likable character (not unusually for horror!), but Dispatch is still a great skewed take on the art of letter-writing.
Speaking of characters who are unlikable… here’s a pretty dramatic example! We Need to Talk About Kevin is the only epistolary novel on today’s list, though as it’s not an exchange of letters (we only see the letters of one correspondent), it works like a first-person narration with some direct address. It is, in some ways, a mirror-image of PS, I Love You. The letters in We Need to Talk About Kevin are an exploration of the lack of love.
Our narrator is Eva Khatchadourian, mother of the eponymous Kevin, who is writing to her estranged husband Franklin. Kevin has committed an atrocious crime, and Eva’s letters work through the background to this, and her own (and Franklin’s) role in the development of Kevin’s development. She examines her relationship with her son with a raw and brutal honesty, delving into some uncomfortable territory related to maternity, parental love and the nature/nuture debate. However, there is also a dishonesty to Eva’s narration, and the reader is constantly encouraged to read between the lines and consider the things she isn’t saying. It’s an unsettling read, but the story is really well-told and tests readers’ sympathies and perceptions throughout.
We Need to Talk About Kevin was adapted into a film starring Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in 2011.
I wanted to include a children’s book on today’s list, and given that I’ve already included my own personal favourite (Jan Mark’s The Dead Letter Box) on a previous reading list, I had to cast my net around for another title. And I found a real gem!
Doreen Cronin’s award-winning Click, Clack, Moo (which has wonderful illustrations by Betsy Lewin) tells the story of what happens when Farmer Brown’s cows get hold of a typewriter. Like a sort of surreal, children’s version of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Click, Clack, Moo sees the barnyard animals protesting the conditions on the farm – though the outcome is a little different to Orwell’s novel! Popular with teachers and school librarians, the book’s onomatapoeic refrain is fun to read out loud – but it also includes guidance for children on the correct way to phrase a polite letter. The slightly off-the-wall plotline is fun for adults too (though it’s political message is a little bit more ambiguous than Orwell’s!).
Almost all the other books on today’s list were written after the advent of email and mobile phones – and all five were written after the invention of the telephone and telegram. I thought it was only fitting to end this list with a book written before all those other means of communication crept in… and what better title could I choose?
I don’t think I really need to introduce Pride and Prejudice, except to say that letters play a huge role in driving and developing the plot. It is a truth universally acknowledged (though mostly conjectured through analysis of the published version) that Austen’s novel was originally written as an epistolary novel. When the original draft, entitled First Impressions, failed to find a publisher, she rewrote the story, developing it into a third-person narration. Nevertheless, a huge amount of the plot is carried through the many letters that are sent back and forth between various characters. Obviously, a lot of the letters are born of necessity – if the book were written now, I’m sure some of the communication would be via text or social media! However, there’s no getting around some of the key moments of written correspondence – it’s hard to imagine the contents of Mr Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth in Chapter 36 being communicated in any other way.
Pride and Prejudice has been adapted a number of times. Most versions cut down the number of letters sent (due to constraints of format), but I think I’m right in saying that every single one keeps that one all-important letter – Darcy’s explanation to Lizzie. Because sometimes things just have to be written down.
To hear more about all of these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can catch the show again here: