Friday, February 11, 2011

Of Valentines and Other Letters

One of the more bemusing moments in my education came in Grade 10, when my class was reading Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd

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a great sense of kinship during graduate school) was talking about the lost culture of mail, how proper paper mail has been replaced by catalogues, brochures, bills, and email.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

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