Monday, May 6, 2019

The drama of letters

"I quoted the postscript. The letter had, as I said, been burned and it was not all legible. I ask you again why it was that you were so pressing that Sir Charles should destroy this letter which he received on the day of his death."
 -- Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles

For a time, we were calling it "snail mail," so enthused were we with our new e-mail. Now we don't really call it anything at all, as it just doesn't come into conversation all that much. But in the time of Sherlock Holmes, it was everything.

Postscripts. Legibility. Information you could burn. In one statement from Sherlock Holmes to Laura Lyons, we get so much of that medium of a bygone age. Not to mention the fact he's saying those words to a typist, someone whose entire job it was to transcribed the handwritten to a one-of-a-kind typeset document, often used for letters.

"What word starts with 'e' and ends with 'e' and has only one letter?" the riddle goes, and that riddle has gotten a bit harder to answer as years pass. (The answer, spoiler alert, is "envelope.") But in Sherlock's time, it was right in front of your face. So many letters in the original Canon!

Letters that will trigger war. Letters that will ruin marriages. Letters that cause Sherlock Holmes to act immediately. All kinds of human activity were communicated in letters, and each left a single backup copy behind (we won't get into later innovations like carbon paper), making them rare and precious when their contents went beyond the normal bland dealings of the everyday.

And what was once an everyday commonplace that we moderns shared with old Sherlock is now a subject worthy of a symposium lecture. All the traces about the sender that Sherlock gleaned from a single letter. All the postal byways of Victorian England. Even the mud on Watson's shoe had something to do with mail service.

Sometimes I think I miss letters, but then I remember why I don't use them any more. The trips to the post office, stocking up envelopes and paper, the lack of a searchable archive of what I wrote. All this blogging I do was once thoughts sent to a single person (not the same person every time, of course), and often never shared beyond that. Recent Sherlock Holmes mystery letter subscriptions show that we enjoy receiving letters . . . we all just got tired of sending them.

So the drama of letters that existed in Sherlock's day is gone now, having moved to Twitter and Facebook where blackmailers weep at losing the chance to threaten exposing our bad moments, as they're already on display. Poor Charles Augustus Milverton -- one more job lost to technology!

But it all adds one more facet of fascination to that world-in-a-bottle we call the ACD Canon.

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