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Are e-mails sealing the fate of the simple letter?

June 17, 2002 

IT was a cold December day, made all the more bitter by the heartbreak of lost love. The young man settled down, picked up his quill and started to quickly scrawl on to paper his innermost thoughts.

"I have just ten minutes before the post goes," he wrote. "These I shall employ in sending you some songs."

That letter, now held at the National Library, was to his forbidden sweetheart Mrs Agnes McLehose, her Clarinda to his Sylvander, to whom he had already said his final farewells as she prepared to journey to Jamaica with her rich husband.

One of the songs he rapidly penned as the mail coach drew ever closer, began with the now famous words to one of the world’s most romantic of verses: "Ae fond kiss, and then we sever. Ae fareweel, and then forever...."

It’s an illustration of Robert Burns’ undoubted talent, his yearning for his true love and, indeed, his obvious ability to write a great many words, very quickly.

Today, more than 200 years after his death, that poignant letter still looks as crisp and fresh as the day it was hurriedly handed over to the passing mail coach.

Yet as news of sweeping job losses at Consignia, as Royal Mail is currently known, seems to indicate, such personal and re- vealing letters - the kind that we might want to keep tied in ribbon in a shoebox beneath the bed - are dying a slow but certain death.

And instead of putting pen to paper to convey our deepest thoughts, experiences and even day-to-day business like our forefathers did, we have come to rely on instanteous e-mail and mobile phone text messages.

As one city postman remarks: "What we have seen happen is the type of mail we are delivering change - the majority of first and second class mail being delivered is business mail or direct mail services.

"The situation got so bad last year that at one point posties were playing spot the stamp. You have to look to e-mail and text messaging as being the cause."

Yet, as Alan Marchbank, director of public services at the National Library agrees, there’s nothing quite like a handwritten letter to get the message across - even if you are Mary, Queen of Scots and you happen to be just six hours away from the gallows.

"It is a letter that has a poignancy about it which makes it not just any letter, but a historical document," he says. "What is amazing is that it has been preserved for all these years, yet, at first glance, its contents appear to have little value."

The letter, no doubt written as the executioner sharpened his blade in 1587, deals with what some of us may regard as being of little importance as the seconds of life ticked away. Her servants, she wrote, were to be looked after. She was, she added, to be "executed like a criminal at eight in the morning".

Addressed to Henri III of France, and written in elegant, intricate copperplate, it is eloquent, confident and defiant. Perhaps she chose her words carefully - after all, it was infamous love letters to the Earl of Bothewell which sealed her fate.

Nevertheless, says Alan, that final letter is simply "amazing".

Of course, today the doomed Mary would have been spared all that messing around with looping letters, fancy scrolls and flamboyant swirls - she could simply have sent a text message on her mobile phone: "Gne 2 gllws, c u l8r".

But letters, says Alan, say so much more than words alone. "People have a sense through letters of almost touching the other person. There is that feeling that people’s personality is conveyed in their handwriting. That’s not something you get from an e-mail or a text message.

"Today people don’t even bother to start their e-mails by writing something like ‘Dear John, nice to hear from you’. Writing an e-mail means not having to bother about formalities, which also means you can be very easily misunderstood - e-mails can sound quite snippy."

Letters, he adds, reveal more about the writer than simply the words on the page. "The Robert Burns’ letter reveals his clear and rolling hand, it becomes evident that he wrote very fast. He also wrote letters in English - except for one which he wrote in Scots. So despite being seen as a Scots writer, it seems he chose to write in Scots but was perfectly competent in writing in English. It all becomes important in understanding the poet and the person.

"Perhaps without that letter to Clarinda," he adds, "we would never had had the most brilliant of poems."

Of course, in the days before the telephone and personal computer ruled the world, there was just one way of communicating - whether it was to declare undying love to someone else’s wife, or to declare war. Letters were precious: perhaps the poignant final thoughts of a First World War frontline soldier, perhaps sealed with a loving kiss or marked private and confidential, all to be tied with satin ribbon and stored away for grandchildren to read.

Some, like those sent by Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, contained mini-stories and poems, as well as providing a vignette of their life and times. The poet Robert Browning once said that letters belong in "a self-enclosed circle", their contents to be consumed only by the writer and the addressee.

Yet his courtship letters, between himself and fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett, the invalid of Wimpole Street, form one of the most famous of romantic correspondences. They had only met some 91 times, but there were 573 letters from both sides revealing their mutual affection, a marriage proposal and plans for an elopement as well as his dry wit and her passion.

Romantic, highly personal and not for public consumption perhaps, yet even the most intimate love letters of the famous seem to have a habit of eventually appearing, in all their emotionally revealing and passionate glory.

"My darling: my affection is always the same. I love you like a soul. I slept too much and my head aches; the leg is far better than yesterday. Goodbye, my dear little darling," wrote Catherine the Great of Russia to her lover Peter Zavadovsky.

But would Lord Nelson have felt the urge to write to Lady Hamilton: "I only desire, dearest Emma, you will always believe that Nelson’s your one; Nelson’s Alpha and Omega is Emma", if he had been sitting in front of a computer screen, surrounded by metres of cable, yellow Post-it stickers and a Windows for Dummies manual?

Of course, for those who wish to cover their tracks, e-mail and text messages have, on the surface at least, enormous benefits.

Perhaps the pile of love letters which confirmed Princess Diana’s affair with Major James Hewitt would never have found their way into the public domain if they had come in ephemeral electronic format.

But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking those e-mails and text messages can’t be traced. As Professor Keith Stenning of the Human Communication Research Centre at Edinburgh University explains, they can also reveal secrets we may not wish to have exposed.

"Remember, that it was e-mail messages that were sent within Microsoft that led the American justice department to look into the company," he says. And I’ve no doubt that, just as certain letters have a place in history, so will certain e-mails."

He agrees that while letter writing seems to be dead on its feet, we appear to be communicating even more with each other.

"Where before we would write one letter to one person, now we simply send our e-mail to as many people as we want to. E-mail is just too easy to send, people are spending hours every day reading their work e-mails, most of which aren’t even relevent to them.

"Of course, the big problem with e-mails occurs when you do send someone who you don’t know that well a message or a card, and it takes them forever to download...

"Put it this way, you might not exactly endear yourself to them as much as you might had you send a letter."

Emotional ties

Despite our love affair with electronic communication, research suggests we still love to hear the thud of letters on our doormats.

Royal Mail research last year revealed that 84 per cent of us would rather receive that most romantic of correspondence, the Valentine card, by post than e-mail.

Indeed, an e-mail Valentine is, it seems, doomed to failure - just eight per cent of people questioned said they would be likely to develop a relationship with someone who pressed a button rather than taking time to buy a stamp.

Letters, says further Royal Mail research, represent memories for the many of us, with 87 per cent saying that they believed the widespread use of e-mail meant future generations would miss out on memories evoked by handwritten letters.

Some 39 per cent said looking at letters made them feel nostalgic, while 20 per cent said letters left them feeling "emotional".

And while sending an e-mail to follow up a business meeting was seen as generally acceptable, the majority of those questioned said it was never okay to send an e-mail as a personal thank you.

by Sandra Dick. Copyright © 2002

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