At first glance, there’s not much to recommend the postal service as a tool of Eros. It’s inclined to be slow and erratic, neither of which lend themselves to the urgency and gravity of love. Indeed, it’s my theory that most of the consumptive lovers in 18th-century literature weren’t sick at all. They were actually dying of frustration that a simple exchange with their sweetheart - “How are you?”, “Fine, thanks. How about you?”, “Fine”- could take weeks. It’s no wonder people were getting delirious and dropping dead at an early age.
So why is it that love stories still place so much emphasis on the written word? What is it about a handwritten letter, wending its way through the slow-cooker complexities of the postal service, that seems so much more romantic than, say, an email or a tweet?
Lost and Found
It’s a salient question for me because in my book, Lost and Found, handwritten letters are used as a vehicle for two strangers connecting and laying themselves bare. When I was planning and writing the story, I never once considered having them email each other instead, not because email can’t be expressive, but rather because modern modes of communication fundamentally change the nature of the interaction.
Imagine how different Pride and Prejudice would have been if Miss Bennet, Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy had been on Facebook. Or if Romeo and Juliet had spent the whole time texting each other.
It seems to me that human passion, in all its forms, is best cooked over a low flame rather than in the high-speed microwave of modern communications. We’ve become skilled at the real-time broadcast of our personal news, our random thoughts, our photos of cupcakes, etc, but I can’t help thinking we may have lost something in the process. In our desire for speed and immediacy, there’s a risk that our communications have become less meaningful, less personal, and yes, possibly even less romantic.
Naturally, there’s a time and a place for everything, but we need to recognise one fundamental truth: when we communicate by Twitter, instant messaging and the like, we’re not really writing to each other at all, we’re talking to one another. And while that’s still a wonderful thing, particularly when we’re talking about love, a letter and a conversation are not interchangeable. In its purest form, the act of writing a letter is a slow unfolding; it’s an introspective process that draws on thoughts and emotions that likely wouldn’t surface in the rapid-fire to and fro of email and WhatsApp.
In any discussion of this subject, it’s also worth remembering that not all love letters are actually welcome. This has always been the case, but now we put so much of our lives in the public domain and so freely interact with total strangers, misunderstandings can easily occur. Even a well-intentioned message can seem creepy, and persistence quickly pushes it into the realm of cyberstalking. Here, too, an old-fashioned letter offers hope because it has a built-in cooling-off period. If all texts, tweets and Facebook messages required an envelope, a stamp and a long walk to the nearest postbox, there’d likely be far fewer restraining orders and cringe-worthy morning-afters.
And in the rare event that a love letter provokes neither passion nor disgust, perhaps the handwriting itself can offer some much-needed clarity. Consult a skilled graphologist and you may well find that although the letter is very Jane Austen, the fantasies that prompted it are much more E.L. James.
Being realistic, of course, it’s more likely that we’ll experience a return to 18th-century tuberculosis than a modern renaissance of love letters, but let’s not forget this: in today’s age of speed and convenience, there’s still nothing that connects two people in quite the same way as a handwritten letter. Whether we’re making a declaration of eternal love or simply writing to a friend, it’s an opportunity to press the pause button on modern-day life and rediscover the simple, timeless pleasures of putting pen to paper.
Lost and Found by Tom Winter is out now, published by Corsair. Read an extract here.