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The power and meaning behind a real letter


By Barbara Henderson

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ArtyNess by Barbara Henderson

A Friendship in Letters.
A Friendship in Letters.

I rarely leave the house these days. Do you?

However, I listen to the quiet streets. In these grim days of lockdown, I have rediscovered the joy of listening out for the postman.

As a teen I had pen-pals – it was a thing then. I waited eagerly for answers to my lengthy epistles, detailing the daily ups and downs of teenage drama.

Now, as a mother of young grown-ups, I am harking back to those days. The written word has power, but the hand-written word represents more – a personal connection, time taken and, I suppose, the token expense of a stamp.

Unlike emails and hastily composed texts messages pinged from our devices, snail mail spells effort. Snail mail says: You matter to me.

And so, just as I did during the last lockdown, I have begun to send postcards to my daughter in London every other day. I have nothing of huge significance to share; nothing but the daily ups and downs of middle-aged drama. But I know that these paper pointers will remind her that she is not forgotten, and that she is missed.

Just the other day, I had another kind of exciting snail mail. I had submitted a book manuscript to a publisher some weeks ago. I hadn’t had a response – not unusual in the industry – and had all but given up hope when two copies of a crisp publication contract arrived via snail mail, with handwritten signatures and a handwritten note.

Breathless with excitement, I ran into my husband’s study, waving the envelope in front of his face. You just can’t do that with emails – the immediacy of an actual letter lends itself to the theatrics which seem to come so naturally to me.

Literary history is littered (lettered?) with examples of books presented in letter format. The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis ranks among my all-time favourite books, and I remember reading The Letters of Rachel Henning, a fascinating account of a humorous and resilient Victorian woman’s pioneering life in Australia.

I devoured the letters by CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. Perhaps that is why I am so excited about the volume Sandstone Press published in November: In A Friendship in Letters, Dr Michael Shaw brings together correspondence between two of Scotland’s most famous writers for the first time.

Though they never met, Robert Louis Stevenson and JM Barrie developed a warm friendship, revealed in these amusing and gossipy letters, with vivid commentary on each other’s literary work.

Until recently, Barrie’s side of the correspondence was presumed lost by his biographers. This book reunites Barrie’s letters with Stevenson’s and contextualises them through an engaging introduction and a series of appendices, including a short story by Barrie.

Regular readers of this column will know that I miss no opportunity to celebrate Robert Louis Stevenson, whom I rate very highly indeed.

Every piece of snail mail is a rare, tangible time capsule of a person and of a moment. We have lost much in these past months.

Maybe this is something which we can regain. Is that the postman’s steps I hear?


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