Letters from the past

A hand-written letter lies on a table, along with an envelope and a vase of pink flowers

My mother is one of four daughters. Before chat groups, email and txt messages were around, Mum, the only one of the four still living in New Zealand; and her sisters, who all live in different places in Australia, would send each other regular handwritten letters as a way of communicating, staying up with each other’s news, and sharing the day-to-day of family life.

One of my aunts in particular, would save all Mum’s letters, and every now and then, collate them and send them back to her, redesigned as collages: snippets of Mum’s writing reinvented with creative additions – collages and comments. And recently a collection of Mum’s letters were returned to her, in their original format, so that she could look after them and choose what to do with them.

This keeping, collecting and archiving of personal correspondence is an age-old tradition: we have volumes and volumes of letters that have been published over time, that are readily available from your local library (from voices such as Vincent Van Gogh, Ralph Ellison, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Audre Lorde, Ahmad Sirhindi and Willa Cather) and others survive in museums, archives and scrapbooks or attics.

Letters from those living in Aotearoa provide a picture of life here in times past, Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield both have published collections, and collections of wartime correspondence exist in books (eg Letters from Gallipoli: New Zealand Soldiers Write Home by Glyn Harper) and archives. Hundreds of letters by tangata whenua can be found in the Sir Donald McLean papers (National Library) and the Grey Collection (Auckland Libraries).

Letters are incredibly valuable for historians, researchers, and individuals who are interested in learning more about their own family history. They provide insight into the social and cultural context of a particular time period and make for interesting and enlightening reading decades and centuries on. And the handwriting! Styles have changed over time, and being able to see words physically written by someone’s hand opens up the imagination. Scanned images of original letters make for great visual additions to a printed book, as well as being a way to preserve these vulnerable artifacts in a digital format.

Letters are a specimen of times past (how often do we receive hand-written letters in the post these days?), so if you have a collection sitting in a box on a shelf, think about how you could include them in your story – maybe as memory prompts, or even as a complete story in themselves, an unedited record of a part of your life.