Jane Austen to Chinua Achebe
by Michael Bird; Orlando Bird
Sometimes when caught up in our emails, Snapchats, texts and more, it is easy to forget that people once wrote letters. Yes, letters. A form of correspondence that called for careful writing and a time lag before having a thought and someone’s reading it. Well, this book honors that art of letter writing.
There are so many authors included that it is difficult to choose just a few. To whet your appetite, how about Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, Jane Austen, John Donne, D.H. Lawrence, Jack Kerouac of Stefan Zweig? Also, readers may find it fascinating to find out to whom each letter is written.
The book is organized into eight sections. Some of these are titled “Before they were famous,” “between friends,” “literary business” and “leave taking.” There are photos of the letters in each section which brings an immediacy to the pages.
This book can be read in any order or just dipped into. It offers a delightful exploration of the written word. Each letter is preceded by some context about what follows. Don’t skip the interesting introduction. It was insightful about women and letter writing among other topics.
I recommend this title. It offers an interesting read.
Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.
From the Publisher
Delve into the lives and work of some of the world’s great writers with this intriguing collection of correspondence!
Each letter is presented in the form of a reproduction of one or more pages from the author’s original manuscript or typescript. This is accompanied by a short commentary, followed by a transcript or translation of either the complete text of the letter (if it is reasonably short) or selected excerpts, with omissions marked by ellipses in square brackets. For longer letters, the transcripts and translations include content that can be matched with the reproduction on the facing page as well as text from other parts of the letter. With a few exceptions, such as letters from John Donne and Ben Jonson, who wrote before English orthography had become standardized, we have retained idiosyncratic spellings and unconventional or absent punctuation, with minimal editorial interpolations in square brackets.
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) to George Eliot | 25 November 1878
The story goes that when Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the wildly successful anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), met Abraham Lincoln in 1863, at the height of the American Civil War, the president identified her as the woman who had started the conflict. Whether or not Lincoln really said this, the tale reflects Beecher’s standing, and not just in her own country. She was the first American to write an international bestseller.
Across the Atlantic, George Eliot (see page 79) was living a quieter life. But she was still the most famous woman novelist in Britain, celebrated for giving depth and dignity to ordinary lives in novels such as Middlemarch (1871–2), and notorious for ‘living in sin’ with the philosopher George Henry Lewes. She regarded Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a work of ‘rare genius’, but it was Stowe who reached out to her, in 1869, with a letter praising the moral seriousness of her writing. Over the following decade, the pair kept up a warm, candid correspondence. They had their differences: Stowe was Christian with spiritualist tendencies, Eliot a staunch humanist. But they supported each other’s work, and when Eliot was writing Daniel Deronda (1876), which explored the injustices faced by British Jews, she sought Stowe’s advice. The lull in their correspondence that Stowe ascribes to her own ‘crisis’ may also relate to Lewis’s fragile state of health: he died a few days after this letter arrived.
Stowe refers to Eliot’s great last novel in this letter, in which she also encloses a new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (protections for authors in the nineteenth century left much to be desired, with copyright lasting just twenty-eight years). She reflects on what has changed since the novel first appeared. Slavery has been abolished and now, she notes later in the letter, there are even schools for African-American children that ‘would be an honour to any city’. Yet things remain ‘far from desirable or perfect’: America is still a segregated society. The struggle continues.
It seems a long time that I have not exchanged a word with you – not since Daniel Deronda retired into silence – A sort of crisis has come in my life – the quarter of a century allowed in copy right to a book has expired & in reviewing the same, we are led to prepare a new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As introductory a history of the work its causes & results is given and a bibliographic account of its various translations and editions has been prepared by Mr Bullen of the British Museum. I send you herewith a copy […]
I am quite sure that tho at this era of my life […] I am saddened by feeling that scarce one of the brave men who were with me in the first of the struggle are here now – & almost every one in England who at that time met & welcomed me are gone, – yet I should be sure of sympathy in a heart like yours in the joy & thankfulness in which to day I remember that slavery is no more – the whole structure of wrong and cruelty – melted, dissolved and gone […]
3 thoughts on “Taking up one’s pen: Writers’ Letters”
Ah, the nostalgia when paper, penmanship and thoughtful eloquence ruled our communications.
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Thank you, Joyce.