The speed at which text messages and emails have eclipsed other modes of communication is amazing. Today, Adrian Mole’s diary would be a record of tweets, St Paul would eschew epistles for a blog and Mr. Willoughby would be bombarded with text messages, leaving Miss Marianne to nurse a strained thumb as well as a broken heart.
For all the techno-whizz of BlackBerrys and iPhones, few can fail to feel a thrill when something stiff and crisp drops on the mat. This explains why stationery, although no longer the practical necessity of Jane Austen’s day, is in demand even in these wobbly economic times. “Recessions make people reappraise what is important to them. This is why something as personal as letter-writing is enjoying a resurgence,” says Kit Harrison of Leeming Brothers, which produces engraved stationery in a converted Hampshire milking parlour where every sheet is fed by hand into the presses.
“A handwritten letter is a pleasure for both the author and recipient,” Harrison continues. “It’s impossible to produce or read such a thing in haste; it demands that one takes time out from frenetic everyday life. There’s no backspace or delete, so it focuses the mind. Using a beautiful pen only adds to the glorious experience but it isn’t essential – putting down the words is what counts. There’s warmth to a letter whereas people are weary of email. It’s short, aggressive, and cold, and is associated with work. We are so overloaded with electronic messages that many go ignored but a letter or beautifully printed invitation will be treated as something important.”
If email is fast food, a handwritten message on an engraved letterhead represents a Michelin-starred offering. “It’s a wonderfully sensuous experience,” says Emma Woolley from smart Bond Street stationer Smythson, whose clients include Gwyneth Paltrow, Naomi Campbell, and Ralph Fiennes. “It’s all about the feel of the paper, the sound of the envelope opening, and the crinkle of tissue paper lining.”
Woolley believes the written word is enjoying a renaissance as a reaction to the immediacy and often thoughtless nature of electronic communication. “Because stationery is no longer viewed as utilitarian but as a symbol of style and personal taste, it has become even more desirable,” she says.
Words such as “quarto” and “post quarto” – old-fashioned paper sizes produced by high-end purveyors – are music to the ears of connoisseurs. To mention thermography in such company is akin to offering blended whiskey to a single-malt purist. “Thermography mimics die-stamping but is fairly easy to spot. While not all would admit to it, I’m sure everyone instinctively runs their finger over invitations and letterheads to see whether they are the real thing,” chuckles Harrison.
“Thermography tends to produce slightly shiny lettering whereas it is matt with die-stamping. However, you also get bad engraving,” he warns. “Although it is desirable to see the imprint on the reverse side, you don’t want there to be too much bruising of the paper around the letter.”
Certain fonts are available only through die-stamping, and so have an immediate but subtle cachet. Watermarks are sought after also but these, too, can be faked. “True watermarks are part of the paper-making process but they can be added afterwards. These sit on the surface of the paper rather than being part of it,” says Harrison.
Although demand for stationery remains high, buying patterns have altered. “Imperial Blue is our most popular ink but hot on its heels are fuchsia and dark chocolate. People are definitely bolder, and because of this we’re thinking of introducing more colourful shades of paper,” Harrison continues.
Kathryn Pepper, who runs Stonesby, a personal stationer, agrees that tastes are becoming less conventional. “Anything goes in terms of typesetting and colour, especially with younger customers and those living in London; turquoise and pink are as popular as black and navy. Men and women have different attitudes to stationery. Men are terribly decisive and nearly always order the same thing every time whereas women like to ring the changes,” she says.
All stationers, including Pepper, report that demand for smaller paper sizes and correspondence cards is rocketing. “I think it reflects the fact that people still appreciate the importance of writing letters but don’t have time to put down reams. Cards account for over 60% of my business these days,” Pepper says. But while size may be diminishing, weight isn’t: “The heavier the paper, the better it seems. Fabulous-quality paper may be a luxury but works out better value than buying a greeting card in a shop; even in the supermarket, the cheapest is at least £1.”
Leicestershire solicitor Sarah Peppiatt takes great pleasure in letters from her four children. “I keep them all and I’m sure we’ll look back and laugh at their sameness. They tend to report on whether they made a team and how the match went. They usually ask me to send their love to their siblings before asking lots of questions about the dog and their ponies,” she says. “I remember my brother-in-law telling me that his mother wrote religiously every Sunday night and all he was interested in were the goings-on of the dog, so it shows nothing changes. I think it is more about the continuity than content,” Sarah maintains. “Certainly, letters are wonderful to hold on to and the written word has great power. I have a vivid memory of my father writing a very stern letter when I was at school. I’d been caught out of my house in the middle of the night and had tried to hide a lit cigarette under a bed. Its impact wouldn’t have been the same on an email.”
PLEASURE, NOT CHORE
The enthusiastic reception for In Tearing Haste, a collection of letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor published in 2008, bears testament to the fascination of letters and how entertaining well-written ones can be. “I think the book was so popular because of the two writers’ characters: they are able to communicate their joy of life so well,” says the book’s editor Charlotte Mosley, who has also edited the letters of the six Mitford sisters, including Debo, and the correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. “They are all such brilliant writers that it had the effect of putting the brakes on my letter-writing for a spell because I felt rather inad-equate in comparison,” she confesses.
While the prose may be dazzling, the handwriting proved challenging. “Paddy Leigh Fermor’s is like barbed wire and terribly difficult, and although Evelyn Waugh’s looked easy at first glance, this was very misleading. However, deciphering it is all part of the pleasure and bad handwriting should never be an excuse not to write,” she says.
According to Mosley, the key to a good letter is approaching it like a short story: “It should have a proper beginning, middle and end, and you must keep your reader in mind and orient the content towards them, just as you would when making conversation. Above all, it should be viewed as a pleasure rather than a chore.”
With thank-you letters, Emma Woolley advises not to start with “thank you”. “It makes a note much fresher and chattier if you can leave it as late as possible,” she says. Debrett’s suggests they should be sent within a week to 10 days but Rosie Nickerson believes in striking while the iron is hot. “Put pen to paper within 24 hours of a party or a shoot. If you wait longer, some of the details will become blurry, making the job much harder,” she says.
Sarah Peppiatt recalls her parents receiving a thank you for her sister’s 21st six months later. “It began by asking whether they remembered a party they’d once given. They thought it was hilarious and it made me think that it’s better to write late than never at all.” With the appeal of crisp vellum and the opportunity for a little quiet contemplation, one wonders why anybody would want to wait so long.