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What makes a great letter writer?

Detail from 'Man Writing a Letter' by Gabriël Metsu

What makes a great letter-writer? There is only one rule really: the talent to write well, using words with skill, energy and vividness, drawing the reader irresistibly into whatever subject is discussed, without self-consciousness or posturing. It helps if you are one of those rare people who stand above their peers, not merely for their intellectually wide bearings but for their magnanimity, their largeness of spirit. The two don’t often go together.

These thoughts have come into my mind as I have been reading Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s Written in History: Letters That Changed The World. Obviously such an anthology is personal, reflecting the selector’s own tastes and interests. I am forced to say this collection is a very mixed bag. It includes some letters of genuine historic interest but all too many of those selected suggest that Sebag-Montefiore’s own inclinations too often lie in revelations of the seamier side of public figures, especially their interest in sex and decadence. The two often go together.

Why else include the deeply forgettable writer, Anais Nin, “whose correspondence with Henry Miller is so ablaze with sexuality, so awash with lubricity, it almost tastes of carnality.” A more exact way of describing it would be soft pornography (and indeed, Nin made her living for a while by writing pornography for a dollar a page). The fact that Sebag-Montefiore describes her correspondence as “sexy, messy, uninhibited, poetical, beautifully written, unhinged” and that she “gave new expression to female power, freedom and eroticism” tells us all we need to know about her.

Even when the letter writers are genuinely famous literary or historic figures, such as Napoleon, the Emperor Joseph II of Austria, Chekhov or Flaubert, the selector unerringly seizes upon unedifying correspondence and includes extra salacious details of his own, such as his long introductory note on Flaubert’s experiences in an all-male Cairo bathhouse.

Most of the letters here have neither been “written in history” nor “changed the world”. The few that might lay claim to this boast are written, inevitably, by tyrants or statesmen who have real power but few literary gifts. Harry S Truman’s letter of 1963 to a newspaper columnist explaining why he dropped the first atom bombs, are prosaically matter-of-fact, like the man himself. Hitler, writing to Mussolini on 21 June 1940 explaining why he is about to invade Russia exhibits all the appalling posturing, self-dramatization and duplicity of an aberrant psychology.

One of those worth reading, written to be published, is Emile Zola’s famous “J’Accuse” letter to the French president in January 1898 in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, a cause celebre which divided the country and revealed the virulently unpleasant roots of classic anti-Semitism in France. It shows Zola’s mastery of the pen alongside his righteous fury against establishment injustice.

Leaving aside an affecting letter from Lord Nelson to his mistress, Lady Hamilton in 1800, or an exuberant, merry, fantastical (and occasionally scatological) letter from Mozart to his cousin Marianne in 1777, my own favourite in this very uneven selection is Keats’ letter to the woman he loved, Fanny Brawne, in 1819: passionate, desperate and penned by a real poet (unlike the dreadful Anais Nin).

Incidentally, there is a letter-writer of genius whose penmanship did indeed help change the world, who is not included in the book: a convert Jew of indomitable spirit; brilliant, brave, demanding and insightful, loving and lovable, whose unforgettable phrases haunt us like Shakespeare’s. It is St Paul.