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Excerpt: 'Yours Ever: People and Their Letters'

We are by September and yet my flowers are bold as June. Amherst has gone to Eden.

-Emily Dickinson to Elizabeth Holland, October 1870

"Real time" — which isn't time at all, but rather simultaneity — seems these days always to be our goal in communicating between one place and another. So much so that one must ask: was the old passage of days and weeks, as letters traveled, "false time"?

A telephone call or instant message actually conveys one place to another, whereas letters always conveyed not only a place but a time as well, one that had already passed. If written vividly enough, they made the recipient forget that what he was reading about had actually taken place weeks before — the way an astronomer looking at the explosion of a star has to remember that he is in fact looking into the past, at something that happened ages ago and whose light is only now being delivered.

Distance — the fact that you are there and I am not — is the hardest fact against which letters were for centuries written, even if the distance was short and temporary, as it was between Elizabeth Holland in New York and Emily Dickinson in Massachusetts. Letters talked across it with information and sentiment, putting themselves at the service of both practical necessity and emotional luxury. Here in this first chapter we have news from elsewhere, letters containing anything at all and nothing in particular, catchall correspondence that never would have come into existence had its writer, or reader, just stayed home.

The warring red and white roses of Lancaster and York still bloom against all the black ink spilled throughout the fifteenth century by one embattled Norfolk family. The Paston Letters are a medieval document-drama, crammed with besieged castles, arranged marriages, tournaments, knightings, plague, lawsuits, highwaymen, pilgrimages and falconry. The members of the prosperous but always-imperilled Paston clan — along with their retainers, allies, patrons and foes — create, year by year, a sort of prose Canterbury Tales, a chronicle ripe with cunning and calamity. Each packet of "tidings" between home and London (where a father or brother is usually pursuing family interests) nearly bursts its seal with urgency. So much depends on these letters. When the Pastons ask for news of one another, they're not being polite. They require tidings on the spot. In the decades just before Richard III offered his kingdom for a horse, the Pastons would have given at least one manor house for a telephone.

At the heart of this multigenerational mini-series stand Margaret Paston and her husband John, a lawyer often away at the capital's Inner Temple. Affection and gossip aren't absent from their correspondence, but when Margaret wishes that John "be not chary of writing letters," and tells him she "would have one every day," she's asking that they be stuffed with information, not sealed with a kiss. The two-way traffic is, if anything, more crucial to him than her. Margaret offers, for example, her sense of what the local poor are wishing from the parliament in which her husband now sits: "they live in hope that you should set a way that they might live in better peace in this country than they have done before, and that wool should be provided for so that it should not go out of this land as it has been allowed to do before." She gives John warnings of his enemies ("I pray you heartily beware how you walk there and have a good fellowship with you when you walk out. The Lord Moleyns has a company of scoundrels with him that care not what they do"), and she supplies news of their predations close to home. Most spectacular is her report, on October 27, 1465, of how the duke of Suffolk's men have come to one Paston property and "ransacked the church and bore away all the goods that were left there, both of ours and of the tenants, and even stood upon the high altar and ransacked the images and took away those that they could find, and put the parson out of the church till they had done, and ransacked every man's house in the town five or six times."

At less turbulent moments, Margaret uses her letters to remind John that their sons need hats, or that she had no decent necklace to wear when the queen visited Norwich. She has, to say the least, a strong practical streak. Shortly after John is released from a brief stay in Fleet Prison, she reminds him to bring some "pewter vessels, 2 basins, 2 ewers and 12 candlesticks" home for Christmas. John Paston sometimes complains about how things are being managed in his absence ("I pray you put all your wits together and see to the reform of it"), but more often he has reason to compliment his wife's fearlessness: "I recommend me to you and thank you for your labour and diligence against the unruly fellowship that came before you on Monday last, of which I have heard report by John Hobbs. In good faith you acquit yourself right well and discreetly, and much to your worship and mine, and to the shame of your adversaries."

The Pastons' wealth was vastly increased by an inheritance from Sir John Fastolf, a rich Knight of the Garter to whom John Paston rendered long friendship and legal counsel. Fastolf's last will and testament — itself a sort of letter, through which the author speaks of many matters from beyond the grave — assured a constant volley of arrows and writs between the Pastons and those who sought to overturn their benefactor's wishes.

These struggles lasted many years beyond John Paston's death in 1466, after which two of Margaret's sons, both named John, continued to receive her strong-willed, advice-filled letters. The eldest, Sir John (or John II), was a courtier of King Edward IV, better at holding on to a jouster's lance than money. Having irritated his father ("I see in him," John Sr. wrote Margaret, "no disposition towards discretion nor self-control"), John II is now the constant object of his mother's scoldings. Usually in London instead of at the contested Paston properties, he exasperates her with his absence and pleas of poverty. She can't believe how infrequently he writes or, after five years, that he has still not had his father's gravestone made. She tells him that one lord "reports better of you than I think you deserve," and that she will not be responsible for his debts, not when her own encircled estates are bringing in so little: "We beat the bushes and have the loss and disworship, and other men have the birds."

Sir John will protest that his presence at court is important to the family's interests, but his younger brother ( John III) is the one literally left holding the fort. John III warns him that "your folk think that you have forgotten them," and suggests he spend more time with his tenants and less on his tournaments. John II does send some men to help defend the estate at Caister against the duke of Norfolk, but he doesn't show up himself to help, a dereliction that prompts his mother's most bitter letter of all:

I greet you well, letting you know that your brother and his fellowship stand in great jeopardy at Caister, and are lacking in victuals. Daubeney and Berney are dead and others badly hurt, and gunpowder and arrows are lacking. The place is badly broken down by the guns of the other party, so that, unless they have hasty help, they are likely to lose both their lives and the place, which will be the greatest rebuke to you that ever came to any gentleman...

Before one begins thinking of Johns II and III as those latter-day scions of Brideshead — the wastrel Sebastian and the rule-bound Bridey, with Margaret, in between, as Lady Marchmain — one should turn to the non-emergency letters that passed between the brothers, often on the subject of John III's search for a wife. The elder John does his best to help with a number of candidates, including one properous, immovable widow: "she prayed me that I should not labour further therein, for she would hold by such answer as she had given you before." When John III all on his own finally secures a bride, John II appears displeased not to have been needed: "This matter is gone so far without my counsel, so I pray you make an end of it without my counsel."

Even more than a suitable wife, John III craves a serviceable bird, so that he might get some exercise and society through falconry: "If I have not a hawk I shall grow fat for lack of labour and dead for lack of company, by my troth. No more, but I pray God send you all your desires and me my mewed goshawk in haste ... There is a grocer dwelling right over against the well with two buckets a little way from St. Helen's, who always has hawks to sell ... " What the older sibling finally produces is "as good as lame in both her legs, as every man's eye may see," but John III thanks him for trying.

The two seem most like brothers when John II writes about the Turk at court with a penis "as long as his leg" (and asks John III to be careful about showing this letter to Mother), or when the two of them ally against the family's chaplain, James Gloys, who has developed too much of a hold over Margaret. "Sir James and I are at odds," reports John III to his older brother. "We fell out before my mother, with 'Thou proud priest' and 'Thou proud squire', my mother taking his side, so I have almost burned my boats as far as my mother's house is concerned; yet summer will be over before I get me any master." A year after this incident, John II congratulates John III on the chaplain's death. "I am right glad that [our mother] will now do somewhat by your advice. Wherefore beware henceforth that no such fellow creeps in between her and you ... "

Gloys had sometimes composed Margaret's letters for her, an activity that left the younger Pastons open to his manipulations. Margaret should have understood their sensitivity on this point. Shortly after her husband's death, it was she who had counseled John II: "beware that you keep securely your writings that are of value, so that they do not come into the hands of those that may harm you hereafter. Your father ... in his troublous time set more store on his writings and evidence than he did by any of his movable goods."

Like deeds and wills, letters were instruments that helped a man to hold his place in the turbulent medieval world. The Pastons' constantly challenged claims to land and wealth required, as much as anything, paper proof. More than five hundred years later, the written tidings they sent among themselves are all that remain to vouchsafe even their existence. The family died out in 1732.

If we dispatch ourselves two centuries ahead and across the Channel to the world of Louis XIV, we will find Marie de Rabutin Chantal — Madame de Sevigne — in a perpetually clever orbit around the Sun King's court. "Receiving and answering letters takes up a large part of our lives," she writes in 1689, toward the end of a twenty-year exchange with Francoise de Grignan, her married daughter in Provence. Indeed, Madame de Sevigne owes her literary survival to the production of mere letters just as surely as her English contemporary Pepys secured his with nothing but a diary. Each made what is supposedly literature's supporting material into a finished product.

If one compares Margaret Paston's letters and Madame de Sevigne's, the most striking difference arises from the lack of necessity attaching to the latter. So little depends on them but pleasure. Vital information has become gossip, and letter writing transformed itself from a task into an art.

Though news of Louis XIV's court may not "last from one post to the next," Madame de Sevigne has managed to keep it fresh for three centuries. Even the stock market of the king's female favorites continues, in her reports of it, to absorb the reader. "Here is the present position: Mme de Montespan is furious. She wept a lot yesterday. You can imagine the tortures her pride is going through. It is even more outraged by the high favour of Mme de Maintenon." Part of the punch here derives from Madame de Sevigne's absolute regard for her absolute monarch. Unsparing of anyone else, she remains rapt by the king's generosity, friendliness and general near-divinity.

She declares to Francoise that she "cannot invent anything," pronouncing herself "quite satisfied to be a substance that thinks and reads." But more important, she is a substance on whom "nothing is lost." She more than once expresses contempt for exaggeration and "false details," though there was scarce need for anyone to resort to those in surveying the Sun King's domain. On April 24, 1671, she recounts the catastrophe befalling a Chantilly chef who let down the monarch's hunting party. Milking the suspense, she withholds the crucial verb until both the periodic sentence and no doubt Francoise are ready to burst:

Vatel, the great Vatel, maitre d'hotel to M. Foucquet and now to Monsieur le Prince, this man whose ability surpassed all others, whose mental capacity was capable of carrying all the cares of a state — this man, then, whom I knew, seeing at eight o'clock this morning that the fish had not come, was unable to face the humiliation he saw about to overwhelm him and, in a word, stabbed himself.

If only poor Vatel had possessed the sangfroid that the Marquise de Brinvilliers would exhibit five years later, after poisoning her husband: "She listened to her sentence in the morning with no fear or weakness, and at the end had it read over again, saying that the tumbril had seized her attention at the beginning and she had not followed the rest...She was given a glimpse of a pardon, and such a clear glimpse that she did not think she would die, and said as she climbed the scaffold, 'So it's serious?'"

The letters reveal a markedly modern mother-daughter relationship. Madame de Sevigne has time with Francoise — as Margaret Paston did not with her sons — to indulge feeling for its own sake. More than a soupcon of neurosis and passive aggression go into the envelopes. "When you want to be you are adorable," she writes at the start of their separation; she tells Francoise that her love for her is genuine, "whatever you may think about it." She asks why the daughter doesn't return her demonstrations ("Are you afraid I might die of joy?"), and her response to a report that Francoise has been crying sounds like an ancien-regime version of the classic I'll-just-sit-in-the-dark Jewish-mother joke: "I do urge you, dear heart, to look after your eyes — as to mine, you know they must be used up in your service." She cannot stop crowing once she's found the right wet nurse for her granddaughter ("This is how we manage your affairs"). She appends compliments with nudges ("I am delighted to know you are beautiful, and would like to kiss you. But how silly always to wear that blue dress!"), and she deploys feelings like troops: "Do you think I don't receive your caresses with open arms? Do you think I don't also kiss with all my heart your lovely cheeks and bosom? Do you think I can embrace you without infinite affection? Do you think that affection can ever go further than mine for you?" No, maman, no.

But enough about Francoise. Like all great letter-writers, Madame de Sevigne writes mostly for herself, inverting the paradox that governs the best diarists, who whether they admit it or not are really writing for others. She will "make so bold as to quote [herself]," and she knows that she writes too much ("I am producing prose with a facility that will be the death of you"), but what else is she to do when she does it so well?

She makes frequent pronouncements upon the proper way to compose correspondence, an activity so serious that even birdsong is an interruption: "I set aside part of this after-dinner period to write to you in the garden, where I am being deafened by three or four nightingales over my head." She urges Francoise to adopt a natural style, not to skimp on narrative and to put down what's on her mind right at the moment, even if the fifteen-day postman's journey may render it stale. She will give her daughter material to use in provincial conversations but expects a service in return: "Refer to certain people in our letters, so that I can say so to them." Explaining that "I have gone in for a lot of details but I am sending them because on a similar occasion I should like them myself," she promulgates a timeless epistolary standard: send the letter you'd like to receive. In the fall of 1676, she pays Francoise the ultimate compliment: "I have never seen such a brilliant letter as your last. I nearly sent it back to you to give you the pleasure of reading it." Nothing could better illustrate letter writing's movement out of utility and into aesthetics.

As befitting a friend of La Rochefoucauld's, Madame de Sevigne's style rises, at its best, to aphorism: "One can't prove that one is discreet, for by proving it one ceases to be so." Part of an age that knew how to put intellect over feeling, she can appear icily detached in her amusement. Her own granddaughter "is no beauty but she is very nice." If her outpourings of sentiment toward Francoise seem like rhetorical manipulation, the disdain with which she perceives her son's romantic entanglements comes straight from her head-ruled heart: "His emotions are quite genuine and quite sincere; in fact his heart is crazy. [La Rouchefoucauld and I] laughed a lot about it, even with my son, for he is good company and can cap anything. We get on very well together." Together they laugh at the spelling and style of his mistress's letters. When the young man distinguishes himself in the king's wars, his mother grows better disposed toward him, even if at the start of one military campaign she wearily notes how "the vogue for being wounded is setting in."

In assessing herself, Madame de Sevigne claims to resist both decorum and licentiousness; declares herself afraid of both other people's sympathy and her own self-reproach. (On the latter score she hasn't much to worry about.) She claims to be "very sorry" about an insufficiency of religious feeling, but the piety that comes most naturally to her is the mock variety, not offered at an altar but cackled behind a fan: "Everything you write about the Marans woman is delightful, and the punishments she will have in hell. But do you realize you will accompany her if you continue to hate her--just think that you will be together for all eternity. Nothing more is needed to persuade you to seek your salvation." She will promise to answer a packet of Francoise's letters when she's feeling "much less devout," and three days later, in reporting an embarrassment suffered by Madame de Gevres, she announces her own recovery from the lapse into spirituality: "My dear, I'm spiteful — I was delighted."

Three hundred years later, we would no more have her on her knees than we would ask Pepys to stop groping the servant girls.

Excerpted from Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon. Published by Pantheon. Copyright Thomas Mallon 2009.

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Thomas Mallon