One’s old correspondence painfully reveals the arrow of time, for you can never again be the person who wrote those letters. But the mail of those who influenced history, or those to whom history happened, reveals that the universe is cyclical, and that there is nothing new under the sun. The historian and author Simon Montefiore, who curated a collection of influential letters last year, makes a persuasive case for time’s cycle through the correspondence of personalities as varied as Suleiman the Magnificent (writing to his wife Hurrem Sultan) and Jacqueline Kennedy (writing to Nikita Khrushchev after John F. Kennedy’s assassination). The epoch covered ranges from the time of Rameses the Great (dismissing quack remedies for human infertility) to that of Donald Trump (rattling nukes at Kim Jong-Un, who rattled back).
Before the WhatsApp message made communications instantaneous, shallow and largely untrue, everyone wrote letters, and huge numbers survive in the archives of the world’s important figures. Interestingly, they experienced the same crises as we do. Jacqueline Kennedy writes to Khrushchev of her husband’s fear of little men starting a nuclear war: “While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint , little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. If only in the future the big men can continue to make the little ones sit down and talk, before they start to fight.” The very next letter in the collection is Emile Zola’s J’Accuse, and makes familiar reading in our times: “It is a crime to lie to the public, to twist public opinion to insane lengths in the service of the vilest death-dealing machinations. It is a crime to poison the minds of the meek and the humble, to stoke the passions of reactionism and intolerance, by appealing to that odious anti-Semitism that, unchecked, will destroy the freedom-loving France of the Rights of Man. It is a crime to exploit patriotism in the service of hatred…”
Equally direct is Mahatma Gandhi’s letter to Adolf Hitler, mailed on Christmas Eve, 1940, in which he calls him a friend (naturally, since Gandhi acknowledges no enemies) and states that Indians do not “believe that you are the monster described by your opponents.” There is no need to trust their version for, as the very next sentence states, Hitler’s own writings and pronouncements reveal his acts to be “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity.”
And then he goes on to explain the “unique position” of the Indian freedom movement: “We resist British imperialism no less than Nazism.” In a World War in which there were only two sides, he chose a third. There’s enough 20th century diplomatic correspondence on the record to fill an entire shelf of books, for what we now regard as policy often originated in letters. The Balfour Declaration, which re-drew the map of the Middle East, was contained in a letter to Lord Rothschild.
In contrast to such principled wisdom, elsewhere, we see that great men were as prone to foolishness as they are today. In 1944, we find TS Eliot of Faber and Faber writing to George Orwell to reject Animal Farm (1945), which will remain a bestseller so long as tyrannical states exist. The reason for the rejection is pettily practical: the allegory attacked Stalinism at a time when the USSR was an ally in the war in Europe. Strategic myopia is routinely required of editorialists, but a great dystopian satirist could have been spared the burden.
But most beguiling are the absurdities of everyday life. The little family secrets that, in ordinary families, outsiders don’t get to know about. Like the conjugal life of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the Charles-and-Diana pair of their time, which is revealed to have been characterised by coitus interruptus for seven long years. Her brother, the Emperor Joseph II, is sent to investigate, and reports to his brother Leopold II that they are a pair of boobies — “two incompetents together”. In recent years, there have been several attempts to exonerate Antoinette about the business of prescribing brioche to the poor who could not afford bread (she was genuinely committed to charity). But this little letter, just a few sentences long, devastatingly exposes the royal folly that would make the French revolution inevitable.
Letters of farewell are the last communication. Hadrian, dying in his villa in the ancient resort of Baiae, writes to Antoninus Pius, and includes a little farewell poem to his own spirit — “Little soul, little wanderer, little charmer…” It recalls a much more famous goodbye note from Rome: Catullus 101 or ‘Ave atque vale’ (‘Hail and farewell’), an intimate elegy addressed to his brother, who died young near Troy, and whose ashes the poet travelled to bid farewell to. That couldn’t be included here because it wasn’t a letter, but there’s the letter that Leonard Cohen sent to his muse Marianne Ihlen from Los Angeles as she lay dying in Oslo (he had bid farewell decades earlier when they broke up, in So Long, Marianne): “I’m just a little behind you, close enough to take your hand.”
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Speakeasy: Letters of Note’