The Power of Letter Writing

Among the many narrative techniques which were experimented by the authors of the eighteenth century, the epistolary novel was by no means the form which had the most effective and powerful impact on the mind of readers. Just guess, it was as if you could intercept some correspondence which was not addressed to you and you were free to peep into somebody else’s live, having knowledge of their emotions, secrets and confessions without even feeling guilty. You have also to consider that it was a time when people had no many other chances of diversions like today and while reading you were not distracted by notification beeps, telephone calls and modern noise in general. Therefore, letters, with their dates, names of the places, recipient names and even the time of the day, gave that sense of realism which made the reading seem more true and therefore, intense.

The greatest proof of what I’m saying  is  Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, whose impact was enormous in the Europe of the eighteenth century. Werther ‘s agonies of love were shared by an entire generation of readers, who were so affected by the overwhelming power of the emotions, which seemed uncensored as made accessible by the letter form, which provoked the first – and dangerous – process of mass imitation. Thousands of young men copied Werther’s outfit, which consisted of a strange combination of colours: custard yellow trousers and waistcoat plus an electric-blue jacket. If you wore those clothes, it meant  that you were or you wanted to be thought of as a brokenhearted, sensitive young man, exactly like their hero. Yet, this collective folly took a very dangerous turn, in fact, the imitation process didn’t stop at clothes, they wanted to live the life of their idol and even make his tragic end, therefore, The Sorrows of Young Werther led to as many as 2,000 cases of copycat suicides among young men.

Yet, this impressive power of epistolary novel could be experimented on women as well, to convince them, for example, of the advantages of pursuing a highly moral conduct. Of course, it was a man who took a trouble to endeavour such enterprise, Samuel Richardson, who created on this purpose  two opposite characters both for station and choices of life: Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela apparently seems to be the less fortunate of the two heroines.  She is a beautiful maidservant, whose country landowner master, Mr. B, attempts to seduce and rape her multiple times, but unsuccessfully. Eventually, Mr B  changes attitude and ends up falling in love and marry her. The entire title is, in fact, “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”, so the moral was that any correct behavior would have rightly compensated sooner or later. The story, you may well understand was quite unlikely to happen at those times. A rich man marry a servant at those times? Impossible. By the way,  Pamela was such a great success that Richardson  even wrote a sequel.  But what would happen if one yielded, for any reason? That was the lesson that Richardson would have imparted in his other, very long, masterpiece: “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady“.

Clarissa Harlowe is an extremely beautiful tragic heroine, who, differently from Pamela, seems to be destined to a brighter fate. She belongs to the upper class and has inherited a large sum of money from her grandfather, but she is not free. Her family wants her to marry Mr Solmes who is a rich, but ignorant and unrefined sort of person, a man she despises.  To avoid this marriage, she consents to an elopement with Mr Lovelace (nomen omen, watch out Clarissa!!), but the latter turns out to be a very violent man who will drug and rape her. She eventually manages to escape from Lovelace’s clutches, but she gets sick and finally dies like a saint. So women, choose! I you don’t want to end up like Clarissa you know what to do. By the way, I guess, Richardson must have thought it a very difficult task to convince us to behave properly, as he employed one million words to write Clarissa. Did it work? I don’t think so. I would suggest any man with such and intent to be a bit shorter, as I/we usually get lost after a thousand words. Top.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grand Tour

grand 1Year after year always more and more many students of my school decide to experience a student exchange programme in order to improve their knowledge of a foreign language. The destinations may range from the English-speaking countries like the U.S.A., Ireland, England, Australia  to the more exotic ones like Japan, China or Taiwan. At first they are convinced it will be only a matter of studying in a new school, changing habits for a while and why not, enjoying the exciting flavour of independence, to understand very soon that they have been involved in something more complex than simply learning a language. I want to use the words of one of my students to explain it, who, once invited to report about her one year experience in Taiwan, was happy to say with such eager eyes that she felt like having lived a whole life in that year and even more.

grand 3Sterne would have called it a “Sentimental Journey“, where sentimental refers to those emotions that arise from both the vision of a new landscape and the confrontation with completely different habits and cultures. The belief that travelling was a fundamental step for the “Bildung” of an adolescent is not something new, but it was rooted more or less in the seventeenth century, when it became fashionable among the young offspring of European aristocracy, artists and cultivated men to undertake a travel to Italy or better a “Tour“. The term “tour” replaced “travel” or “journey” as it marked the peculiar nature of this kind of voyaging, which was particularly long and broad, with start and finish in the same place. Many countries were visited but the dream destination was Italy.

grand 4In 1670, Richard Lassels coined in his “Italian Voyage” the expression “Grand Tour” a neologism that would have been universally adopted since then. For the “grandtourists” Italy was a mythical place, an open-air museum where the climate was always sunny and bright and nature wild, uncontaminated. The wealth of its archaeological sites, the legacy of Renaissance, the extraordinary musical vein were powerful appeals, but that was the myth as the reality these travelers found was very often quite disappointing.Impoverished countryisde, lifeless ports  and towns, dusty cultural activities and political institutions that seemed so rusted if compared to the more advanced European models, especially those in England. Goethe, who  had toured Italy for a couple of years, marked the contradictions of the country in his “Italianishe Reisen”  and in a second trip to Italy 1790 he sentenced: “Italy is still as I left it, still dust on the roads, still cheating habit. If you look for German honesty, you will look in vain.There is liveliness here, but no order and discipline. everybody thinks only of itself,  politicians included…..” uhmmm, if he could see Italy today, I think he would use more or less the same words. However, despite some bad reviews, the Italian seduction still worked.

grand 5The phenomenon, in fact, became wider and rich travelers had the habit of touring in the company of valets, doctors, musicians, painters. The Earl of Burlington , Richard Boyle, arrived in Italy with fifteen people besides his  gardener and accountant, Lady Marguerite Blessington used to travel on double spring carriages provided with mattresses and pillows and William Beckford, the son of a wealthy London merchant, was accompanied in his second trip to Italy by the artist JR Cozens, the Rev. John Lettice, his guardian and factotum, the doctor  Projectus Errhardt, the harpsichordist John Burton and by such a large party of friends that once in  Augusta he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria. An anonymous traveler wrote: “this travel mania is so widespread, that there is not one wealthy citizen that doesn’t  wish to enjoy the beauties of Germany, France and Italy”. Furthermore the new extraordinary archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompei (1748) had enriched the itineraries of the “grandtourists”.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the modernization of society (new roads and railways, industrialization) the new generations of “grandtourists” seemed to have less time and money at their disposal. The length of the “tours” started to shorten and the new travelling rhythms  were signs of  the impoverishment of those cultural aspirations which had characterized them for more than a century. Travelling became less “sentimental” and more diversion, a sequence of organized information rather than a personal discovery. Hence these students, who have had the chance to experience the world just like the “grand tourists” used to do, are the last, fortunate “romantics”.

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