Delving into the past to discover the lost art of the letter home and how Cambridge students communicated

Delving into the past to discover the lost art of the letter home and how Cambridge students communicated

  • Old letters and postcards

Before WhatsApp, before Facebook, before email even, the way generations of Cambridge students sent news home was via letter.

“Dear Mother, It was good to get your letter today; I am so sensitive to mail and really enjoy it…”, wrote Sylvia Plath (Newnham 1955) to her mother. Plath was in her first year at Cambridge at the time and many of her letters home include her impressions of Cambridge in the 1950s, where, she wrote, “a kind of golden promise hangs over the Cam and in the quaint crooked streets”. 

Strip Plath’s letters of the interpretation which comes with hindsight, and her concerns echo those of many students: “I am taking time early this sunny morning to limber up my stiff fingers in preparation for my Tragedy exam this afternoon and write you so you will know I’m still extant. Just. I have honestly never undergone such physical torture as writing furiously from 6 to 7 hours a day (for the last two days) with my unpracticed pen-hand,” she moans. “…It’s disgusting to think that two years of work and excellent, articulate, thoughtful papers should be judged on the basis of these exams and nothing else.”

Lost in the ether

Where will future generations find these touchpoints of familiarity across the years? Printed-out emails? Carefully archived text messages? Sir Salman Rushdie (King’s 1965) has entrusted his archive, including computer files, to Emory University in the US. But those of us who aren’t Sir Salman will have no actual things. No boxes of scrawled letters, either carefully stored in an attic chest or shoved randomly in the back of a drawer. Just… pixels.

And those precious details of ordinary lives, those not deemed worthy of archiving, will be lost to future historians. Who knows, after all, how many future Plaths are out there, pouring out their hearts to friends on WhatsApp or Twitter rather than committing thoughts to letter, to be forever lost in the ether? “Whatever the advantage of social media and immediacy of communications, [with the demise of the letter] something is lost – the things that happen under the radar,” says Steven Barnett (Pembroke 1971), Professor of Communications at the University of Westminster. “In a hundred years’ time there will be masses and masses of data but we’re less likely to have the kind of intimate insights into ordinary, everyday lives that letters to friends and family have traditionally given us.”

“In a hundred years’ time there will be masses and masses of data but we’re less likely to have the kind of intimate insights into ordinary, everyday lives that letters to friends and family have traditionally given us.”

Professor Steven Barnett

Speaking across the years

This is as much about format as it is about digitisation. The letters of American poet Tom Clark (Caius 1963), author of White Thought, live on in a small corner of the internet: the January 2002 edition of now-defunct online poetry magazine Jacket, to be precise. But the detailed and lengthy descriptions of Cambridge life in the early 1960s leap off the screen to speak, again, across the years. “Have been living for past three weeks in one of the old courts of this college, which was founded in the 14th century, it feels like a medieval chill still lingers in some of the old stone buildings. I’ve been coughing & sneezing for 3 weeks,” he writes. “One funny thing is local pronunciation of names of colleges, of which I was of course innocent & unknowing: Caius is ‘Keys’, Magdalen is ‘Maudlin’, St John’s is ‘SINjens’. Another is that the college locks up at 11 every night, like a fancy kindergarten (high walls with spiked fence on top). And a lady bustles into your bedroom every morning to make your bed at 7.30!”

Work looms large. “Still not getting down to work as I’d like to, two papers a week difficult for me (I go slow) and since the lectures here aren’t compulsory I’ve been too lazy (easy on myself) & missed a lot. Developing bad habits,” Clark writes. Later, he confesses to have given up on lectures altogether. “Have ceased to attend lectures, period. Doing reading and writing mostly on my own & only secondarily for my supervisor. I am not making much of a sensation as a scholar.” And food, as ever, is a preoccupation. “The food at college is hideous so I purchase for myself what I need and thus grow strong.”

Looking beyond the words

And actual letters may contain clues to something deeper than simply the words on the page. Everything adds something: the particular paper, sizes of paper, the signature, the distinctive hand of the person who has signed them. Even typed letters have their own identity, says Peter de Bolla, Director of the Cambridge Concept Lab which is housed in the Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge at CRASSH. “If you look back at 20th century archives, there’s also a very distinctive signature to typed letters – the typewriter that was used, the skill or ability of the typist – all those things are individual marks that you see in typed letters. You don’t see any of that in the electronic space. Some people are fastidious about correcting their electronic communications but most people let errors sit because of the rapidity in which they move across.”

The medium also affects exactly what we choose to communicate, says de Bolla. Emailing or texting lends itself to rapid and sometimes repetitive communication, whereas letters have a residue of formality about them. “You might ping an email across two, three, four or more times during a correspondence which is very different from setting out something in a letter, which has a much longer form. All of those things change the nature of what is actually communicated.”

Glimpsing the writer’s soul

And those distinctions, those intangible clues bound up with the ink and the paper, matter. Padma Desai discovered her father Kalidas Desai’s (Fitzwilliam 1925) letters in a decorative metal box given to her by her mother. They crossed oceans and continents to bring a taste of cold, damp, culinarily disappointing Cambridge to his friend Vishnuprasad Trivedi back home in India. “Considering I am in England, where sesame oil or proper spices or pulses or variety in vegetables are impossible to procure, I am getting very satisfactory food,” he wrote, with a note of resignation.

“As I glanced at the letters, I was overcome by a sense of bewilderment and joy: here was my father speaking to me across a distance of almost a century, a voice that had been stilled by his death just a few years ago,” says Desai, a professor at Columbia University, New York, and editor of the correspondence, published as From England With Love (Penguin).

She was overwhelmed, she says, by the sense that his letters had given her a sense of where her father ‘came from’, in all senses. “His love of Shakespeare and the English romantic poets, his frequent allusions to the Lake District, his passionate interest in gardening and his admiration of the English stage were all now obvious: they were screaming at one from his letters from Cambridge as an undergraduate at Fitzwilliam. There, he recounted to his friend the experience of listening to TS Eliot’s lectures, his travels in the Lake District, seeing Shakespeare staged in London, watching cricket matches and much else.”

His letters did not change her perception of her father, she says, they reinforced them. “Here, in embryo, were the seeds of the loves and passions that his children had witnessed in him. The act of receiving handwritten letters confers on one a glimpse of the writer’s soul.” As Plath, quite simply: “I must say, the best present anyone can give me is a fat typed letter.”

Article by Helen Massy-Beresford. 

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This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, edition 77. Find out how to receive CAM.