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Monday musings on Australian literature: Women of letters

December 5, 2011
Women of Letters, edited by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Women of letters (Courtesy: Penguin Books Australia)

Letter-writing has a long literary tradition – both fictional and non-fictional. Epistolary novels, according to Wikipedia, go back to the 1400s, and I’m sure if you’re a reader you’ve read at least a few. My favourite Australian example is a gut-wrenching young adult novel Letters from the inside by John Marsden. But these are not my topic today. The other sort of letters are the “real” letters written to “real” people. If the letters are good enough and/or the people significant enough these also have a long publishing tradition. I’ve reviewed some here – by Jane Austen (of course)! Collections of published letters can be found for some of Australia’s famous women writers, including Christina Stead, Henry Handel Richardson and Miles Franklin. But these aren’t today’s subject either.

My subject is a specific book of letters compiled by two Australian women, Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire, from an initiative of theirs in which they asked Australian women (initially) to “‘pen’ letters to a theme and read them aloud”. Their aim was to raise funds for Edgar’s Mission, “a not-for-profit sanctuary for neglected, discarded and abused farmed animals” in Victoria. Their project commenced in March 2010, and has involved live “shows” in several Australian cities – and now, this book.

The letters have been organised under 16 “recipients”, such as “To the night I’d rather forget”, “To my first boss”, and “To the photo I wish had never been taken”, which gives you a sense of where this collection is going. They are written by 69 well-known (though not quite all so to me) Australian women (mostly!) writers, performers, politicians and so on. I will admit that I have not read the whole 400+ pages book yet, but with Christmas around the corner and a good cause, now seemed to be a good time to write about it. (No, I am not under a retainer for Penguin!). Three of the contributors are writers I’ve reviewed in my blog, so I reckon they’d be a good place to start:

  • Anna Krien “to my first pin-up”. Trouble was Anna Krien was a tomboy and not like other little girls. When they wanted “love”, she wanted friends, so she turned to her cat, Tiger. It’s a light-hearted letter with a serious core about the damage that little girls can do to little girls (“the twisted best-friend bully dichotomy”), something Margaret Atwood explored to great effect in Cat’s eye.
  • Alice Pung “to the moment it all fell apart”. It contains anecdotes from her latest book, Her father’s daughter, presented as a letter to her father. She leads us on about an online relationship only to … but I won’t tell what, except to say it’s to something typically reflective of her and her father’s experiences.
  • Helen Garner “to the letter I wish I’d written”. That sounds like an apposite recipient for a writer who has never shied from controversy – but in fact, being Garner, her contribution isn’t the expected. Rather, it’s a series of letters to her “gazombies”, to people who’ve died, friends who’ve suddenly disappeared from her life, and people who crossed her path but became missed connections. They’re “fragments” that add up to a disjointed but very Garner-ish whole. She thanks the science teacher who taught her that “hot air rises”, she’s sorry that she lost contact with her “nanna” because “my adolescence extended right into my thirties”, she tells a man she regrets not accepting his offer to dance because blokes who can dance “are very thin on the ground”, and she writes to her three ex-husbands thanking them for what they gave her and telling them “there is nothing to forgive”.

There are a few contributions from men, mostly “To the woman who changed my life”. There are light-hearted letters such as actor Jane Clifton’s to her “1991 Nissan Pintara with only 20 000km on the clock” that she calls “the Nissan Piñata, because no matter how many times you get hit, you are the gift that keeps on giving”, and singer Georgia Fields’ to Mariah Carey telling her that “next time I’m at a party and your name comes up, I’m not going to sit quietly and pretend I don’t know you …”. But, I’ll conclude with actor Claudia Karvan’s letter to love, itself, in the “A love letter” section. It’s a cheeky little number telling love she is “eternally grateful for your landing on my shores” but suggesting:

You have a strange habit of departing, and departing quite swiftly. So quick your footsteps aren’t heard. No doorbell sounding the arrival of your cab, just bang, you’re gone […] You really are quite the magician.

This is, as you’ve probably worked out, a book for dipping into. The letters might be artificially created but there’s a lot of art in them – of letter writing, of life. Just the thing, really, for a post-Christmas read.

Do letters play a role in your life? Do you like to read them? Do you write them?

Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire (curated)
Women of letters: Reviving the lost art of correspondence
Camberwell: Viking, 2011
413pp
ISBN: 9780670076093

(Review copy supplied by Penguin Books Australia)

12 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2011 3:44 am

    I love both reading and writing letters (though I am not always the best correspondent). I like epistolary novels too. This sounds like a wonderful book and for a good cause too.

    • December 6, 2011 9:53 am

      I’m not surprised Stefanie – though it’s hard finding time to write letters isn’t it? Another thing I like about this book is it’s production – it’s a big book that opens beautifully. I love paperbacks that flop open nicely in your hands without needing to have their spine yanked!

  2. December 6, 2011 7:33 am

    This sounds like a terrific gift idea that will be a perfect fit for one of my friends. I will go in search of it immediately.
    I love writing and receiving letters; snail mail or email. In fact I love them so much, that I have practically forgotten how to talk over the phone. I dread that ringing! I have a shocking ability to either ramble, spewing out inane rubbish, or to clam up so completely as to have people say ‘are you still there?’
    On the other hand, put a pen in my hand or a keyboard beneath my fingers and there’s no stopping me.

    • December 6, 2011 9:57 am

      Oh good, Edgar’s Mission will thank you, Karen Lee. I’m with you, I much prefer writing (or face to face communication) to the phone. Like you I either talk for the sake of talking or clam up. No kudos to Mr Bell from me! I write one letter a week to a friend in California, and have done since 1994. My husband asks why we don’t email (because I love those too) but we both like the crafting of a letter. Our letters tend to be a little longer than an email and are I think more carefully structured. (We do email occasionally for urgent stuff – organising a visit, checking addresses when people have moved, sending a quick birthday message etc) – but the weekly letter in the mailbox is such a treat amongst all the window envelopes!)

  3. December 6, 2011 10:45 am

    I haven’t written paper letters for years, except for work purposes but I do write long email letters. I like the way I can edit an email before posting – no more crumpled balls of paper or serious crossings-out. Incidentally, the letters in this book sound more like blog entries to me – letters written by real people but with the idea of a wide audience and the unlikelihood of an equal exchange with the recipient.

    • December 6, 2011 10:55 am

      Oh Judith, I (my friend and I in fact) do cheat. My weekly letter is wordprocessed, which makes it even odder that we then mail it. Hubby says, why don’t you send it as an attachment BUT it’s not the same, somehow. There’s something going on that I can’t quite put my finger on .. because I do send a lot of emails and so use edit facilities for long ones.

      I like your observation re these letters … they aren’t letters in the “real” sense. Equating them with blog entries is pretty appropriate I think. I understand they originated in something like performance art at events or a poetry reading. I guess one could say they take the “form” of a letter (formally addressed to “someone” or “something” and signed off) but the “presentation” of a blog or a performance in the one-to-many sense. That intent does change them – fundamentally? – doesn’t it? Good point.

  4. December 6, 2011 2:14 pm

    This sounds like a really lovely book, ma. I love your comment about the letters being art though artifical in a sense.

    • December 6, 2011 8:00 pm

      Why thank you Hannah … you can dip into it when you are here sometime. There are some young writers, comedians, etc that might interest you.

  5. December 6, 2011 6:18 pm

    I used to write twenty page rambles to an American boyfriend twice a week so yes I am a veteran letter writer! though that’s not to say there was ever any structure or goal or much sense, nor that I ever reached the other shore with my ideas. I sort of miss that and something has been lost. I hand-wrote a letter to a dear friend this summer and it felt more stilted than it would have been on a screen. I still do postcards though, love them.
    This book does sound like a lovely affair, Christmas finger food!

    • December 6, 2011 8:02 pm

      Trust a writer to come up with a metaphor like that! I like it. I still do postcards a bit too, but not as much as I used to for some reason. I think I get more tired when I travel now, or we go more and stop less. One of those!

  6. December 8, 2011 2:05 am

    Can’t say I’ve ever read a book solely of letters, and of those mentioned Garner’s sounds the most interesting.

    I like books written in episolary fashion, but it’s been years since I’ve actually read one.

    • December 8, 2011 8:23 pm

      Must say I don’t leap to do so … even with a good writer they can be a little dry en masse. My Jane Austen group has been doing her letters in “batches” and have really enjoyed reading them this way.

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