Arts & Books Books

A fascinating book undermined by sleaze

A formidable intellectual: Catherine the Great, painted by Ivan Argunov in 1762

Jack Carrigan on a flawed selection of famous letters

Written in History: Letters that Changed the World
By Simon Sebag-Montefiore,
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 272pp, £14.99/$20

A title such as this places a certain responsibility on the shoulders of the selector – he has made himself the arbiter of letters of real significance down the centuries, which will necessarily be a small group. In practice, Sebag-Montefiore has been idiosyncratic in his selection, following his own interests as a historian of Russia, including famous missives that could hardly be ignored as well as some curious specimens that have slender justification for their inclusion.

Among the well-known letters, rightly chosen, are Arthur James Balfour’s note to Lord Rothschild of November 2, 1917, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, committing the British government to helping to create a permanent Jewish homeland in Palestine. Seemingly no one foresaw the problematic consequences of this friendly gesture.

Another letter well worth reprinting is that of Émile Zola to the French president in 1898, his famous J’Accuse…!, in which the novelist records his outrage at the virulent anti-Semitism that led to the condemnation of a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, on trumped-up charges of espionage.

In this category also comes Harry Truman’s response to a newspaper columnist in 1963, laconically explaining his decision to initiate nuclear warfare against Japan. Prosaic and seemingly reasonable, it is chilling to recall what the US president unleashed on an unsuspecting world. In mitigation, warfare will sometimes make callous men’s attitude towards the body count. Here too is Hitler’s letter to Mussolini of June 21, 1944, also with momentous consequences, defending his decision to invade Russia with all his usual posturing, bluster, duplicity and talk of destiny.

With the exception of Zola, who writes with energy and skill, the above examples reflect political power rather than literary talent. Churchill managed that rare thing: he combined both, though his short letter to his wife, Clemmie, of July 1915, headlined “In the event of my death”, displays neither – albeit it does reveal his lifelong devotion to her.

Two unusual letters illustrating the easy power of expression shown by a couple of formidable intellectuals are Thomas Jefferson to a romantic interest, Maria Cosway, of 1786, and Catherine the Great to her lover Prince Potemkin, circa 1774.

There are also a few highly affecting inclusions: Vilma Grunwald saying goodbye to her husband, Kurt, in July 1944, knowing that the Holocaust was about to engulf them both; and David Hughes, a young pilot in the RAF, writing to his parents in 1940, full of life and courage. Weeks later he was shot down over the Channel; his body was never recovered. In this group I would include Keats’s heartfelt letter of 1819 to Fanny Brawne, giving intimations of his great poetic gifts as well as his early death.

Having said this, I must add that this anthology on such a fascinating theme is marred by a consistent thread of sleaze. There are all too many letters that are of no historic or literary value which appear to be included only because of their prurient value. It made me realise that whoever invented the “Bad Sex” literary award had a point. Delicately conveying romantic passion, as Lord Nelson does to Lady Hamilton in a letter of 1800, is one thing; sex by itself doesn’t read so well.

In a longish list of this form of soft pornography must be included Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera (undated) and Anaïs Nin to Henry Miller in 1932. Nicholas II of Russia’s intimate correspondence with his wife is deeply forgettable; and surely there is more to Flaubert’s correspondence than what is included here – a salacious description of his experiences in a Cairo bathhouse.

It is also slightly odd, indicating a lapse in critical judgment, to include a letter from Nelson Mandela to his wife, Winnie, from prison in 1969, that indicates his love and sympathy for her plight (which, it later became apparent, she did not return) but which is otherwise of no great interest; yet in the introductory note preceding the text the author quotes a long passage from another letter by Mandela which wonderfully reveals his wisdom, patience and magnanimity.

Generally, Sebag-Montefiore’s notes on each letter are unnecessarily long and full of irrelevant details. There is almost as much space given to his own opinions as those of the chosen letter-writers. His categorisation is also a distraction: readers don’t need to be given sections on “Blood”, “Love”, “Disaster”, “Folly”, “Fate” and so on. Such categories often collapse into each other.

It is revealing that the book’s only illustration is a graphic sketch by one of Stalin’s henchmen showing a particular punishment that the Russian leader had threatened to inflict on one of his enemies. Possibly Sebag-Montefiore thought it “edgy”; it is nothing more than crude.