The deserved success of Shaun Usher’s marvellous anthology Letters of Note has inspired several imitators, and Caroline Atkins’s sparkling collection makes an ideal companion volume. Here are missives both literary and otherwise, all of them destined never to be read by their intended recipients. Some are grave, some are tender; some are funny, several are vengeful or self-justifying. It’s a great idea for a book.
A letter which goes missing is of course a standard tragedy-inducing device in fiction. Romeo could have lived had he received Juliet’s letter; but perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is poor Tess Durbeyfield’s to Angel Clare. Never was a flap of carpet responsible for so much misery. Atkins includes some terribly sad real-life letters too: Captain Scott’s, addressed ‘To my widow’, and Van Gogh’s penultimate letter to his sainted brother, as well as a couple between doomed first world war sweethearts.
It’s not all sorrow and gloom, by any means. Several of the letters are hilarious, including Malcolm Bradbury’s response to a woman who’d sent him a huge pile of her unpublished novels. He tells her that he’s unable to lift her weighty manuscripts, on doctor’s orders, since ‘just the other day I strained my back, carrying about some royalty statements’. It goes on in the same vein. Here too is the letter devised by the characters in the TV comedy show The Young Ones, asking for an extension of overdraft facilities. Having decided that ‘Dear’ is too formal, and having agreed that anyone who works for a bank is politically suspect, they hap upon the opening ‘Darling Fascist Bullyboy, give me some more money.’ My favourite, though, is from Martin Amis’s first novel, The Rachel Papers. Tormented by resentment of his sexually successful father, our hero sits down to pour out his soul to the older man:
Forty minutes later I had written:
This has not been an easy letter to write.