I never rip it right open. I usually hold the letter in my hands for a minute, thinking about the long distance it has come, the water it has crossed, the person on the other end who has taken the time to sit down and put pen to paper.
Sometimes I have to wait for the right moment before I can open it. I never want to read a letter from abroad when I am agitated or in a hurry or distracted by some mundane matter.
But when the moment is right, I settle down on my favorite sofa, the one where the late afternoon sun slants across my shoulder. In that calm and quiet spot, I carefully slit open the envelope. I sip the words slowly, letting them swish around in my mind. I savor their flavor and their meaning. I note their nuances and subtleties. I picture the person who wrote it and the place where he wrote.
A letter, an old-fashioned handwritten letter from abroad, is something I can tuck in my book and read again later. It is something I can take with me wherever I go. It is something I can save forever, tied up with others like it, bound together and stored in a drawer.
So where is the Virginia Woolf connection in all of this? Well, we all know she wrote and received lots of letters — volumes in fact. Five of them sit on my bookshelf.
But two other things have made me think about letters. The first was a note I received from Cecil Woolf, nephew of Leonard and Virginia, who wrote to say that he and his wife Jean Moorcroft Wilson had spent 12 days in South Africa, where they spoke at the University of Capetown. Cecil’s talk was titled “As I Remember Them: Virginia and Leonard Woolf.” His missive was dated Jan. 26, and I thought about the significance of that date as well.
The second thing that made me think about letters was the much-discussed news that Angelica Garnett has published a new volume of short stories, The Unspoken Truth: A Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories. These stories are not letters. But Garnett has been quoted as saying that the stories are autobiographical, not invented, for the most part.
Those things led me to ponder the similarities between real life and fiction and the differences between real life stories and the lives we share via letters. Both are edited, either formally or informally. Both alter the realities of our daily lives. Both stay true to those realities.