It aptly emerged around Valentines Day last month, the one-sided cache of letters that the Tasmanian Archives were letting the Hobart public in on to celebrate something or other, maybe just the day of Cupid’s arrow itself. A story was published in the local newspaper, an interview on ABC radio. Through those letters the tyranny of distance was writ large, even when the distance only amounted to that from Bushy Park, up in the Derwent Valley, to the inner city suburb of Newtown. Nothing today. They were his letters. No record of her replies remain. He later was to become the head of a family prominent in Tasmanian affairs, but as a young man, in the 1870s, he was working in the hop-fields and kilns of the Valley. Long hours; daylight to dusk. To visit his town girl back then would require a horse and trap down to New Norfolk, followed by a river steamer into the city. Getting together was therefore problematic, thus the missives between them. They amounted to nearly 200 from him to her, over a period of around two years. The words in these paper communications were delicately intimate, but also gave a portal of intricate detail into a working man’s life amidst the hop-bearing vines in our neck of the woods. Records show they did eventually marry and started to spend a life together. But after a couple of years she was taken from him by TB – but her memory, as well as their devotion, will now last an eternity. Letters allow that.
Fast forward, now, to a novel that I loved, set a century and a bit further on in the Melbourne of around the Bicentenary year. Here Russian woman, Galina, after a chance meeting in St Petersburg, has migrated to Yarra City to begin a new life. Once here she has the other party in that meeting, who loves her, as well as his parents, to assist her in assimilating.
Mother Sylvie collects old letters, an inclination that later turned into a passion. It commenced when she uncovered an enticing one under the floorboards of her home. She finds peering into the lives of others, by reading their mail, is a salve to the mundane everyday existence with her husband, Leopold. Later she is obliged to write a life changing letter of her own. Hubby adores her, but their lives are defined and constrained by his secret.
It’s a beautiful journey, working our way through ‘Invented Lives’, as Galina Kogen disentangles herself from her Russian Jewish past and embraces Australian life, even if she cannot completely embrace Andrew Morrow, who adores her. He’s the man who, in part, was the reason she was in this often perplexing new land, having made a perilous escape to arrive here. She found life with democratic freedom very different to being under the communist thumb. The choices in the shops: just the choices all around. And when she starts to think she has found her forever home on the other side of the world, the past comes crashing back again.
This is a tale of memories, Russian snow and Australian heat, culture clash, different forms of love and the power of letters.
Of course these days digitality has cruelled the standing of letters as a means of personal communication. Auspost has yet again informed the country, in its yearly report, of the ever-diminishing returns from their letter carrying operations, causing another postage price rise and notice of further cutbacks being a possibility for mail delivery services. The world of Galina and Sylvie was perhaps the last hurrah for the post as a force in people’s lives.
‘In a way she (Sylvie) couldn’t explain her letters acknowledged her – much like an absorbing novel did, although in a more personal and targeted way’. As she related to Galina, ‘I get to experience other times, places, people, emotions through letters…I feel remade.’
Sylvie is speaking of her letter collection. She has been doing some soul searching of late about the paucity of her life with the urbane Leopold and is confiding in her new friend, a friend whom she hopes will soon move to the next level in her relationship with son Andrew. ‘Then there’s handwriting. You’re reading something direct from another’s hand. You’re touching their hand – that’s how it feels to me. And I particularly like letters that are hard to decipher. You have to pour over these; it’s the intensest intimacy.’
‘And how much more precious does a letter become – not to me, the collector, but the original recipient – when the writer of the letter has died. Think of it: for the wife who lives on after her husband, the man whose brother has passed away, the woman who’s lost her best friend, death does not alter their letters…You’re able to sit by yourself reading your beloved’s words. Savouring them, responding to them, just as you did when they were alive. Death, which changes almost everything, leaves letters untouched.’
‘…all letters are communications’, Sylvie continued on page 218, ‘all letters speak to someone, all letters invite the reader into the heart and mind of the writer. There’s something deliciously clandestine about letters. I love everything about them.’
Little did Sylvie know what was just around the corner. I’m sure, as with myself, she’d be saddened by the demise of her passion in the world of the C21st. There are some throwbacks, battling against the tide; some lovely people, whom I cherish, even continuing to send off epistles to me. But back in the 90s I had my own world wide net – people from all over the globe who wrote to me and I wrote back. They were called pen-friends. Going to the letter box was a highlight of the day. These days my mail box is full of requests for money, envelopes with windows and unsolicited advertising – apart from a few treasured items. Emails, as well as platforms like Messenger etc, fill the void, of course. They are exceedingly welcome, but it’s not quite the same.
Sylvie’s world will never come back, but I still sit here many mornings scribing away anyway. Hopefully the recipients are, like her, not being put off by my increasingly indecipherable scrawl – for, you see, I just love it.
Andrea Goldsmith’s web site = https://andreagoldsmith.com.au/ =