This week the Persephone Post has been putting up little scraps of signatures and letters from one of its staff member’s grandmothers-in-law. One of those scraps is a letter from George Eliot declining an invitation to collaborate on a stage adaptation of her work. It’s signed “ME Lewes,” which was the name Eliot adopted to acknowledge her scandalous relationship with the already-married critic George Lewes. They called it a marriage though legally it wasn’t. (It was all a bit complicated, Eliot’s love life was.) Actually Lewes had died a couple of years before she wrote this letter, and it never was Eliot’s legal name, but there she was, still using it. Just three months after writing, as Persephone notes, she’d marry her last husband, and be dead by the end of the same year.
Setting aside the strangeness, in the current material constraints of the publishing world, of any author declining adaptation for her work (think of all the money the BBC has made off of their wonderful Daniel Deronda miniseries), the very existence of the note made me sort of sad, and worried. No one writes this sort of thing anymore, and of course there are wonderful projects like Letters in the Mail that revive the tradition of writing letters to each other but it won’t ever be quite the same.
To be clear, when I feel nostalgia about little notes like these, I don’t mean all the boring stuff that people write long articles about, you know, all that Twitter is alienating us from each other and Facebook now mediates all of our friendship and we will never have any meaningful connections again etc., etc. There are elements of truth in those articles but I think they oversimplify. (I know that you are shocked, shocked to discover that such “think pieces” are not always well thought-out.) There isn’t any real reason that reaching out electronically has to be inferior. After all, if you read Eliot’s letter at that link, you will see it’s not that much more personal than a quick, emailed “Thanks but no thanks.” That her hand actually made those strokes probably brought little comfort to the addressee’s soul. There are more words, perhaps, but that is the only difference in form, and frankly they’re a little inelegant, a lot of throat-clearing. It’s possible, has always been possible, to find more elegance and beauty in short sentences. I’m pretty sure, anyway, that that’s what accounts for the small amazements Teju Cole has been able to create with his “small fates.”
No, what I’m worried about is that soon there will come a day where I can’t come across scraps of paper like this, simply because they don’t exist. I’ll have to read a printout from an email account. I’ll have to comb through long reams of paper that all look the same, that haven’t any coffee spilt on them, or a mark whose nature — is this a tear? Or just an oily finger from a letter read over a lonely dinner? Or actually, did I just make that smudge and is the librarian about to claw my eyes out? — I can speculate over. There will be no corrections or additions in the margin. No lines x’d out when a second reading revealed the sentence in question to be a little harsh. When you are doing archival research, those little material nuances are the things you end up obsessing over. The letters you can’t find are always the best ones. But email will, in its bovine, obedient fashion, record every particular of the back and forth, the spell-check stay the hand of the perfectionist. No one’s grandmother-in-law will die, and no one will find this thing pasted in a scrapbook, its original provenance quite unguessable.
I suppose in that on the spectrum of the faults of progress, “your technological advance will make my historical research a less romantic pursuit” does not count for much. Still, it’s something I think about. Look at all the mileage you can get out of just how Eliot signed her name.