First-class correspondence

Letters have a living, breathing intimacy more moving than any literature. By Roy Hattersley; The Oxford Book of Letters edited by Frank and Anita Kermode Oxford, pounds 20
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When George Eliot decided to set up house with GH Lewes, she wrote to assure her sister, Cara, that she did not underestimate the difficulties that lay ahead. "I am under no foolish hallucinations about either the present or the future and am standing on no stilts of any kind." Stilts on which she might have got above herself, or stilts from which she would come crashing down? The image is an examination question in itself. Yet Dr Johnson solemnly assures his disciples that letters, being written in the low and familiar manner of conversation, cannot be literature.

Happily, the idea that "good writing" requires a florid and formal style is less fashionable now than it was at the end of the 18th century. But there are still people who argue that personal correspondence should only be of interest to historians and archaeologists. Its value to antiquarians is beyond doubt. "Now for the bruise, take the following. Common wormwood either green or dry; strip clean from the stalks; fry them in sweet butter..." - Anna Carr, writing to Dr Symcotts in 1650, certainly helps us to understand how they lived then. But other people's letters have an appeal that transcends the information which they provide about the past. They are a keyhole through which we can watch the secret side of life.

The Oxford Book of Letters is a celebration of private correspondence. Public pronouncements written and published in letters form are usually omitted. So Lord Chesterfield's advice to Stanhope is ignored, and Dr Johnson's famous denunciation of Chesterfield himself is mentioned in the introduction, but not included in the collection.

In that introduction, Frank and Anita Kermode rightly ignore ponderous questions about "significance". They speculate about why so much of their anthology is the work of women, and they discuss the special fascination of messages concerning death and sorrow. But in general, they let the letters speak for themselves. The book could not have a better commendation. For it is 500 pages of delight in which even the tragedy is uplifting. It begins with Thomas More's farewell to his family (written on the eve of his execution) and ends with Philip Larkin's inconsequential pleasantries on the morning of "the big one ... Only tests, but of course they are looking for something". Utopia was more profound and The Whitsun Weddings more accomplished. But the letters - neither of which shows signs of the shaking hand - possess an extra ingredient. The blood is real. The most moving letters are written for friends and family, not posterity.

Although the Kermodes come very near to apologising for their sombre selection, More and Larkin, each on the point of death, are not typical of the anthology, which is often positively funny. Admittedly, the humour is usually oblique and often bizarre. But it is not possible to reproduce a belly laugh in a letter. Philip Sidney's promise to stab his father's secretary to death - as soon as that "very knave's" is proved beyond doubt - is a Grand Guignol of a high order. Groucho Marx's letter to Warner Brothers - refuting their exclusive claim to titles which included the word "Casablanca" - is surrealistic proof that he did not have to rely on SJ Perelman to provide his crazy dialogue. And AT Harris's complaint, written to the President of the Atlantic Railroad Corporation, that an Atlanta bound train had emasculated his prize bull, cannot fail to amuse anyone, except the bull. "He was a red bull, but he stands around these days looking blue." Even that sad story has a sub-text. The introduction tells us that it was discovered written out in EM Forster's commonplace book. The anthologists leave us to guess why the novelist bothered to copy down the strange story, if he did. I cannot find it in my copy and it is certainly not listed in the index.

Let us hope that the Kermode notes are absolutely accurate. For in most ways they are the model of what notes should be - brief, lucid and easily related to the text. There are, of course, one or two exceptions. Anyone who does not know that James Thurber was "a humorous writer" is unlikely to buy the anthology, and the description of John Steinbeck reads as if it has come out of a textbook on common errors in syntax. "In 1934 Steinbeck had not yet written his novels, especially The Grapes of Wrath (1939) which ensured his fame." But, in general, readers are told succinctly what they need to know. Other anthologists please take note.

The most interesting letters in the collection were written by men and women who need no introduction. Often what they wrote reveals aspects of their characters which the history books did not describe. We all knew that Horatio Nelson made an ass of himself over Emma Hamilton. But it comes as a shock to discover - by intrusion into his private correspondence - how great an ass he became. His fear that she would be seduced by the Prince Regent was so uncontrollable that he sent her detailed instructions about how she should behave in the Great Philanderer's company: "I shall, on that day, have no one to dinner. It shall be a fast day for me. He will put his foot near yours. I pity you from my soul, as I feel confident that you wish him in hell. Have plenty of people and do not say a word you can help to him. He wishes, I dare say, to have you alone. Don't let him touch you or sit next to you."

There is usually something appealing (if slightly pathetic) about old men who boldly express their love for young women, especially in writing. Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minister of Great Britain (aged 62) was actually drafting a letter to Venitia Stanley (aged 25) when he received the news that she was engaged to be married. He tore up what he had written and wrote in its place, "Most Loved, As you know well, this breaks my heart. I couldn't bear to come and see you. I can only pray God to bless you - and help me."

The embarrassed sympathy that we might feel for the 62-year-old statesman is at least slightly modified by the realisation that, at the time of his debilitating infatuation, he was leading Great Britain in a war of attrition. From the trenches, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother: "If I started into detail of our engagement I should disturb the censor and my own Rest. You will guess what happened when I say I am now Commanding the Company and in the line had a boy Lance Corporal as my Sergeant Major." The best letters, like all the best writing, are sufficiently understated to leave something to the reader's imagination.

They also educate - albeit often in small ways. Charlotte Bronte, writing from London to a school friend, described a lecture which she attended. Thackeray "met me as I entered - shook hands - took me to his mother whom I had not before met ..." Lord Carlisle introduced himself." So did John Taylor, Keats's publisher, and Isaac Williams, Newman's Oxford Movement adjutant. Charlotte was 35 and Jane Eyre had been published four years earlier. Abandon all thought of a moorland recluse locked away in Howarth Parsonage.

There is much to learn from the Oxford Book of Letters. But the reader barely notices how much detailed information is packed into its pages. That is because letters, even 400 years after they were written, retain a strange intimacy. They may not be literature. But they certainly are life.