Recently I came across a sad story, about an artist who fell in love with her sitter. The social mores of the time meant that she could not express her feelings for him. Instead, she wrote a letter declaring her love, and slipped it between the finished portrait and its frame, knowing he would almost certainly never see it. The letter finally came to light when the painting was cleaned in the twentieth century. Apparently the sitter and the artist both married and lived as happily ever after as anyone might expect to, but he never knew that she had loved him.
What fascinates me about the story is the possibilities represented in the existence of that letter. Suppose the gentleman had found it almost immediately; what would he have done? Or what would have happened if he’d found it later in life? Or if his wife had found it? Suppose it had never been discovered at all. In fictional terms the power of a letter lies as much in its potential to initiate as in anything actually realised; the letter written but not read, read but not answered, or read by another person, the wrong person even. So much is still possible, so much is not yet said or acted on. Until the moment the recipient acknowledges the letter’s existence, it remains a liminal thing, potent yet inert.
This slim volume of what editor L. Timmel Duchamp terms "epistolary fantasies" engages with the possibilities of the letter, as eighteen writers address eighteen potential recipients. We peer voyeuristically over their shoulders as they do so. Yes, it’s a self-conscious exercise, but isn’t any letter? The writer always has an audience in mind, even though the eventual reader might not be the one they anticipated. Here, the conceit is that the intended recipient will never, ever (with one exception) read the letter. What freedom this invites.
Of the putative recipients, the famous dead are popular choices, and comprise a varied crew—Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, alongside John Dalton Hooker and Madame De Farge. I particularly liked Duchamp’s own letter to Alice Sheldon, and Victoria Elisabeth Garcia’s missive to Sarah Winchester. The fictional are far fewer in number, though Carol Emshwiller offers two for the price of one in her brief but illuminating letter to Abiel and Beal Ledoyt. Heather Lindsley takes junk mail very seriously in a very amusing way, yet her letter is tinged with an underlying sadness. And yet, the letters which most attracted me were those to the unknown people, such as Nancy Jane Moore’s letter to Lula Mae Cravens, her grandmother’s best friend, or Ada Milenkovic Brown’s letter to Sofia, a very troubled woman. So much not known, so much to be said. And then there are the letters that challenge our idea of what a letter is. Leslie What writes to Timmi Duchamp, the one living recipient, enclosing other letters. With the imprimatur of that framework, reality’s edges blur in very intriguing ways, prompting the reader to reflect on what it means to write or receive a letter. So, a slim volume, yes, but filled with potential, great fun to read, and thought-provoking too. What more could one ask from a book, or a letter?
Maureen Kincaid Speller is a freelance copyeditor, a part-time student taking a degree in English Literature, and a full-time reader; in her spare time she eats, sleeps, and grows plants.