By Paul Sharville
Let’s talk about e-mail. Back in the old days, Edwardian Britain was nuts about writing. There were at least seven postal deliveries a day – from early morning to tea-time. Some of those were letters of epic proportions, but the majority comprised brief messages on postcards that related to the mundane but essential organisation of the day’s events. Sounds familiar? Yes, the pre-cursor of social e-mail was being practised a hundred years ago with as much vigour as we bring to electronic correspondence today – and for pretty much the same reasons.
It’s 1900, you live in Crystal Palace and you have a mate in Orpington. You rattle off a card over your boiled egg inviting yourself over for the Edwardian equivalent of a beer, music and Playstation evening at his place (some stout, a clutch of Gilbert and Sullivan sheet music and the chance to marvel at his recently acquired magic lantern slides of Egyptian Treasures). You pop the card in the post and await the lunchtime reply, hopefully in the affirmative. He gets the card at about 10.30 a.m., is impressed with the picture of some dinosaur sculptures in Crystal Palace Park, and tries to top you with his replying card (which arrives back at your place at 3.30 p.m.), showing a man in a very large flat cap riding a bicycle past the Anchor and Hope in Orpington High Street. All that remains is for you to jump on the train which of course, in those days, is a fast, reliable, comfortable and cheap form of public transport.
An Edwardian person would wonder where that train service had gone today (as indeed we all do) but he or she would certainly recognise e-mail and embrace it heartily, understanding immediately its role as a facilitator of social events while eventually seeking refuge in its familiarity as a gentle form of communication; unhurried, composed, considered. The Edwardians wrote beautiful letters, full of their uninterrupted thoughts and eagerly awaited and valued by their recipients. At least, I assume the replies were eagerly awaited, but I suppose there is a very good chance that the insane ramblings of Cousin Angus, the only inhabitant of a remote Scottish island and a man who considered clothing an extravagance, went straight in the fire as soon as they arrived.
Today, e-mail has re-introduced letter writing to several generations of non-communicators and they’ve taken to it like a penny stamp to a postcard – almost as if it never really left us. We love it. True, the grammar and construction of e-mails is extremely shaky these days. Some people say, "I can’t stand e-mail. It’s so impersonal." Well whose fault is that? If you’re not prepared to punctuate, capitalise or express your feelings with as much gusto as our ancestors did, what do you expect? Stick an Edwardian lady in front of a PC in 2005 and you watch her go: "My dear Elizabeth. I simply cannot wait for the arrival of broadband internet access. I think I shall be physically sick and have to take to my bed if this interminable delay goes on much longer. Roger says it’s going to revolutionise the internet, which is already so unbelievably marvellous that Doctor Ebsworth has recommended I take it twice a day for my health. In fact, I’m so excited by the whole thing I’m going to have to stop typing right now and faint [bonk]. PS: Camilla’s got a naughty JPEG. You simply must see it. I fainted."
The Edwardians also knew one other crucial thing about letter writing and its place in social interaction. It was simply there to keep distant relationships as warm as toast until they could meet up, which they did as often as they could (and promptly fainted with over-excitement). Take a leaf out of their address book: use e-mail to keep in touch with your friends and family, never shy away from expressing yourself fully so that your true character is not eroded by your time apart, and beware the ‘e-mail only’ relationship.
Paul is a freelance writer.