I'd completed my assigned pages for the day and probably then some, but found myself baffled by the conversation among my excited classmates about "the valentine."
When I asked my teacher what was going on, he pointed me toward a certain page with a look of "what, you didn't do the reading?" Then I saw that the all-important page, which contained the story of Bathsheba Everdene sending Farmer Boldwood a prank valentine, which he read seriously, was torn from my book.
|Images from the Julie Christie film|
I was reminded of this incident twice recently. The other morning, when I saw some of Bright Star (oh dear, I could not get through it), I watched the cruel poet Charles Brown send Fanny Brawne a (beautifully) hand-drawn valentine through which he mocks her referral to his "suitcase-brown" eyes and the institution of love itself.
(I missed the second letter):
And then again, when I was driving and listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation, the writer Meghan Daum (whose terrific essay "My Misspent Youth" gave me a great sense of kinship during graduate school) was talking about the lost culture of mail, how proper paper mail has been replaced by catalogues, brochures, bills, and email.
So I thought back to the school where I read Far from the Madding Crowd, which was, in fact, a boarding school, and I remembered how, each day as we lined up to enter the dining room for lunch, the male and female prefects would descend the stairs, each holding a thick packet of letters, which they would distribute among the waiting recipients.
I remember how almost every pair of eyes would seek out the prefects, for surely making eye contact would mean that there was a letter waiting there in the stack. We hoped to will the presence of a letter into being, and the only thing better was to see your name on a list enclosed in a glass case beside the dining room, for that meant there was a package waiting (wrapped in kraft paper, tied up with string; cliche, but delightfully true).
I do love a book or a film with a letter. Just think of how Edith Wharton's Undine Spragg communicates her midwestern fish-out-of-water-ness when she moves to New York and writes on pigeon-blood stationery with silver ink (she does think better of it before sending the letter). Or Mr. Darcy's letter to Lizzy.
But I love a life with a letter even more.
|John Keats to Fanny Brawne, 1819|