BOOK REVIEW / Lust in the post: 'Intimate Letters' - ed Robin Hamilton & Nicolas Soames: Marginalia Press 12.99 pounds / 7.99 pounds; 'Letter Writing' - Nigel Rees: Bloomsbury, 14.99 pounds

THESE two books may never have sequels. The pen is not mightier than the phone call or electronic mail. 'Letter' could become a forgotten term, not just in books but in films and songs: E-Mail to Brezhnev, for example, or 'I'm gonna sit right down and fax myself a memo.'

In Intimate Letters, Robin Hamilton and Nicolas Soames have compiled a reminder of the time when lovers used the postal system: Cicero drops a line to Mrs Cicero, Benjamin Britten salutes Peter Pears. A famous lover is not necessarily a great letter-writer, though, nor are poets and novelists shown at their best in this private form. Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry can be embarrassing, she signing herself as 'Tig' or 'Wig', he as 'Jag' or 'Bogey'. Similarly, Violet Trefusis addressed her lover Vita Sackville-West as 'Julian'; Vita (also known as 'Mitya') who called another lover, Virginia Woolf, by the pet name of 'Berg', was also known as 'Mar' in letters from her husband Harold Nicolson (alias 'Hadji').

Robbie Burns was prepared to address Agnes McLehose as 'Clorinder' and sign off as 'Sylvander' but even so never got to undo his own hose in her bedroom. Voltaire had more luck with his niece, to judge from the fact that he wrote 'I kiss your pretty bottom'. Henry VIII declared that he hoped to be kissing the 'pretty ducks' of Anne Boleyn.

One society lady, faced with a tiresome correspondence from an elderly admirer, contracted out her replies to the playright John Gay. A Byron letter included in the collection may have been forged by Lady Caroline Lamb, to show that, contrary to appearances, he did really love her. Admirers of Rupert Brooke can only hope that his letter to an 18-year-old girl - 'Read, and forgive, and glory. Noel, stranger, I, Rupert, am writing to you' - also turns out to be a fake.

Fortunately, other correspondents over the years have been entertainingly direct. 'She is delightful in bed,' wrote Jean-Paul Sartre to his long-time partner Simone de Beauvoir after his three-night stand with a young girl. Simone did not seem to mind, to judge by her reply: 'I love you, oh yourself.' My favourite sweet-talking bastard is Pushkin, writing to his married girlfriend: 'How's your husband's gout coming along? I hope he had a good attack of it.'

Nigel Rees also quotes a Rupert Brooke letter, though by this point the poet has grown up and found a mature girlfriend. By following the instructions in Letter Writing, a 'Complete Guide to Personal and Professional Correspondence', readers will never hit the epistolary heights but they will avoid the depths of Tig and Wig. Here, for the socially challenged, is a guide for saying yes please, no thank-you, gissa job, I resign, I complain, we deeply sympathise.

They will not be much helped by the inclusion of a few hoary old after-dinner jokes. And there may not be many occasions when you need to know precisely how to begin a letter to the 'eldest grandson of a duke or marquess'. (I generally find that 'Dear Lord Snooty' does the trick.)

But if you are ever invited to become President of the Norwich Bible Society, you should read the reply of Lord Orford when he was asked in 1824. He snapped that he was a well-known gambler and blasphemer who had never distributed a religious tract in his life; how dare the society pretend he was fit to lead them in prayer? 'God forgive your hypocrisy,' he concluded. Now that's the sort of letter you won't find on the average electronic database.

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