Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Selected Letters – Edited by H. J. Jackson

I had been inspired to try Coleridge from reading The Lure of the Lake District, which specifically recommended some of Coleridge’s letters as further reading. This has been sitting on the “guilt pile” for a while, since the non-completion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poems. But I added it to the set to take away with us on a camping trip, and rattled through it.

He has an enviable list of correspondents, including Wordsworth and Humphrey Davvy. It is fascinating to read the correspondence between these “Greats” as just friends who mostly discuss ordinary matters. But in his earlier years he did not shy away from big topics, some of which remain contemporary as he discusses the benefits a minimum wage, and guaranteed work “from the parish” and his and Poole’s plans for a Pantisocracy, a classless society.

Aside from his letters on living in the Lake District, I was surprised by his frankness with his correspondents on the subjects of his ill health, both depression and pain-related. He is an entertaining, satisfying letter writer, and I’m now tempted to keep an eye out for the full letter collections should I find them in a second hand shop.

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Lady Susan – Jane Austen

Penguin Classics should be sold at all railway stations, and this one came from Birmingham New Street Foyles. Just the right length for my return journey home and saved me from the bestseller list or a magazine.Lady Susan

Lady Susan is a wonderful anti-heroine. Defying social conventions, she is making her own way in the world and choosing her husband her own way. I love that she does find her own way, in spite of being so far from the ideal of Regency womanhood.

It is a classic epistolary novel, with the whole book (except for the conclusion) told in the form of letters between and from the main characters, the majority of which are of course ladies with time on their hands to exchange details of other people’s lives. So of course my quote is from a letter between two of the men…

I have at this moment recieved your Letter, which has given me more astonishment than I ever felt before.

But of course to reveal what gives such astonishment would remove all the fun. It remains only to say that Austen’s wit shines through and this is well-worth reading.

Eta: What do you know, I’ve read this before!

Am I Missing Something – Iain Hollingshead

Am I Missing SomethingAm I Missing Something is the collection of unpublished letters to The Daily Telegraph from 2012-2013. Although the DT isn’t a newspaper I read (except when borrowing my Dad’s copy), this was on the returns trolley at the library, a lazy way to meet the resolution of reading outside my comfort zone.

It is an entertaining read, collecting an array of entertaining letters and astute observations about the world. There is a degree of “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”, but there’s far more letters from people who have a sense of humour. And at least the book acknowledges the stereotype as well. I suspect a large proportion of the letter-writers are also fans of the News Quiz and Now Show by the way in which both the news itself and the reporting style are turned to humour.

My favourite letter has to be:

SIR – What a fool I’ve been! For the past 50 years I have been labouring under the misapprehension that the payment of tax was mandatory. Thanks to Starbucks I now realise that it is voluntary. Put me down for a tenner, Mr Osborne, to cover my liability for the next two years.

Dave l’Anson, Formby, Merseyside

Daddy-Long-Legs – Jean Webster

Daddy-Long-Legs

This is an early 20th Century novel aimed at “college girls”, which would be a standard young adult market today. On the surface, it is an enjoyable charming set of letters which read quickly and paint a picture of a girl who is escaping a fairly grim background in an orphanage with a generous benefactor who is sponsoring her through college.

I have a fondness for books told entirely through letters, the pace at which they go and the difficulty in conveying information which happens in the gaps. I also like writing them, there’s something special about sending a nice handwritten letter. And even more special to receive one.

The “but” which follows involves spoilers…

But the twist at the end in which she accepts a proposal of marriage from her wealthy benefactor makes the whole book an uncomfortable read. Her deciding to take a wealthy husband rather than become a renowned author in her own right is problematic enough. The fact that this husband is her benefactor to whom she feels greatly indebted and who has controlled her social interactions and limited her contact with other potential suitors over the previous four years is deeply uncomfortable.

This book is of course a product of its time, in which marriages between equals were not the norm, and does make attempts to promote women’s suffrage. That doesn’t make the promotion of such an imbalanced relationship sit any more comfortably, the power is far too firmly on one side in every respect and this isn’t even recognised.

84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

I don’t normally enjoy books about books,  but 84 Charing Cross Road had the kind of cover that begs to be read.

It is a book of letters between a struggling New York writer and the London bookseller she finds to supply her with out-of-print British books.

The letters begin as a formal business exchange, buying books across the Atlantic in the days when this was done by letter. After about a year Hanff begins becoming more familiar with FPD along with a few of the rest of his staff, and the letters become more personal and charming.

I was disappointed by the second section where Hanff describes her visit to London in The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Instead of a friendly exchange this is a combination of travel diary, writing about coping with fands and gripes. There is a fraction of the charm of the first section. On inspection it appears that the second section was added for a later edition, after 84 Charing Cross Road was first published in the early 1970s.

Read it, just leave the second half!