Remember, Remember: The Letter That Tipped Off The Authorities

As any fule kno, the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605 was a failed assassination attempt against King James I by a bunch of Catholics led by Sir Robert Catesby.

But did you know that the plot was undone by a letter? This anonymous missive was sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26 October 1605.


‘My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.’

A subsequent search of the House of Lords early in the morning of November 5 found former soldier Guy Fawkes standing guard over 36 barrels of gunpowder. He and seven other conspirators were convicted on January 27, 1606 and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.



Great Places To Write Letters: Gothic Cottage, Stourhead

The Gothic Cottage on the beautiful Stourhead estate in Wiltshire was probably built in the late eighteenth century as a shepherd’s hut, but was dardled up in ‘gothick’ style in 1806 by the estate’s third owner Richard Colt Hoare. In the mid-1890s it was converted into a summer house, and by 1908 Lady Alda Hoare was using it as a place to write her letters.

Intriguingly, many of these letters would have been to Thomas Hardy, with whom Lady Alda struck up an epistolary friendship in 1910 when she wrote to him asking for an autographed copy of Far From The Madding Crowd. Hardy replied: ’I shall have much pleasure in signing the book according to your wish, on which you show a diffidence that is not shared by many who have far more cause for feeling it.’

The correspondence endured for 24 years, and in fact Lady Alda wrote not just to Hardy but also to his wives Emma and Florence. After Emma died in 1912, Hardy told Lady Alda: ‘As you know she was very fond of you and I regret now that I did not bring her to see you at Stour Head. But alas I thought her in the soundest health .’


Are Letters ‘Drifting From Our Lives’?

Charlotte Higgins has written on her Guardian blog about the lost art of letter-writing. As Charlotte mentions, we have known each other a long time – and I can confirm that I have perhaps a dozen letters from her in my collection, most of them written between 1990 and 1993. The correspondence dried up shortly after that as we both moved to London. So the letter I sent her the other week which she mentions was the first in nearly twenty years…


‘The Most Dreadful Thing To Witness’: Queen Victoria’s Letters About Childbirth

Before the medicalisation of childbirth in the last century women laboured at home and were attended, in the main, by women.

It was a communal event. Sometimes so-called ‘confinement notes’ were kept, but on the whole childbirth was scarcely mentioned in letters (or diaries, or novels) of the time, being yucky and moreover something that happened to women. When it was mentioned it could be hard to work out what the hell was going on, eg this from George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life: ‘The delicate plant had been too deeply bruised and in the struggle to put forth a blossom it died.’

Queen Victoria’s confinement notes, which she sent to her daughter Victoria the Princess Royal in Prussia, were destroyed because they allegedly cast the monarch in an undignified light. Victoria was an odd one: repulsed by the physicality of labour, but keen to be involved and fascinated by emerging pain-relief technologies like chloroform.

A famous letter from Victoria to the Princess Royal discusses what she called the ‘shadow-side’ of marriage.

What you say of the pride of giving birth to an immortal soul is very fine, dear, but I own that I cannot enter into that; I think much more of our being like a cow or a dog at such moments; when our poor nature becomes so very animal and unecstatic.

When she attended the labour of her daughter Princess Alice, she described it to the Princess Royal in a letter:

Thank God!  All goes on most prosperously… But I thought it the most dreadful thing to witness… Quite awful! I had far rather gone through it myself. It is far more dreadful to be born into this world than into the next!

Men of the period were inclined to stay away. The novelist Anthony Trollope counsels his friend John Lewis Merivale in a letter dated November 12, 1850:

John – don’t make an ass of yourself – when the time comes – but go to your office… as usual. You won’t be wanted at home & there is no awful bore so horrid as waiting till the Doctor chooses to say it is all right. I stayed at home during the whole of the first affair – but I wisely kept utterly out of the way of the second…

If, unfortunately, there should be a third occasion, & which I begin to hope there will not be, I shall certainly take care to let Rose, the Doctor, and the nurse have the house to themselves for the fortnight at least.

Letter-Writing Heroes: 1. Charlie Windsor

Fascinating and ridiculous, the way the government has blocked the disclosure of 27 confidential letters written by Prince Charles to ministers over a seven month period. Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, said the letters were ‘particularly frank’ and contained the prince’s ‘most deeply held personal views and beliefs’.

The mind boggles.

This blog applauds Charles’ letter-writing diligence. Twenty-seven letters over seven months isn’t bad – unless you’re the recipient, in which case you’d probably tire fairly swiftly of this sort of thing:


Personally, I dig the underlining – the perfect answer to the question, ‘How could I make this letter even more bullying and crotchety?’

Another Gutenberg elegy

An interesting contribution to the literacy debate was made this last weekend, at Cheltenham Literature Festival, by Dame Gail Rebuck, chairman and chief executive of the Random House Group. Asked whether people would still be reading in 50 years’ time, she replied: ‘For me the question is, what will they be reading? Is long-form narrative at risk?’

The book she cited in support of her fear that ‘over many generations… the part of our brain that is devoted to long-form reading would atrophy’ was Proust and the Squid by the American child development expert Maryanne Wolf.

Proust and the Squid is a fantastic book – one I turned to frequently when I was writing the in-praise-of-slow bits of For the Love of Letters. One of the questions Wolf asks (and answers) is this:

Will the present generation become so accustomed to immediate access to on-screen information that the range of attentional, inferential and reflective capacities in the present reading brain will become less developed?

She makes the point that, while our thought processes are set to accelerate exponentially over the next 50 years as we grapple with digital multitasking, this isn’t necessarily a good thing because the need for delay is built into our brains: ‘delay neurons’ regulate signal transmission, allowing ‘sequence and order in our apprehension of reality’. Speed the world up too much and our relationship to it is thrown out of kilter.

Regaining the habit of long-form letter-writing can help us slow the world down and lead us on to the path mapped out by Carl Honoré in his book In Praise of Slow. (Honoré’s interest in slow movements was sparked when he was browsing in an airport bookshop and found, to his distress, a book titled The One-Minute Bedtime Story.)

‘Slow reading’, one of the strategies Honoré advocates, has long had charismatic advocates like Sven Birkerts – the author, way back in 1994, of the brilliant The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Even then, when the internet was for nerds only and mobile phones drew chuckles in restaurants, Birkerts noticed that ‘a finely filamented electronic scrim has slipped between ourselves and the so-called “outside world”’ and warned against the ‘ersatz security of a vast lateral connectedness’.

The inability of his students to read and understand Henry James novels was, thought Birkerts, evidence of a growing impatience with the ‘so-called duration experience, that depth phenomenon we associate with reverie’.

Sofa, so good: the genius of William Cowper

One of the heroes of For The Love of Letters is the eighteenth-century poet and hymn-writer William Cowper, who has a museum (half) devoted to him in Milton Keynes, close to where he lived at Olney in Buckinghamshire.

Cowper was a reclusive eccentric who wore only green and brown clothes (‘almost as natural to me as a parrot’) and, on his bald head, a cap or bag.

He isn’t discussed much nowadays, but he gave us the phrases ‘Variety’s the spice of life’ and ‘God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform’. Although he found solace in hardcore evangelical Christianity, his certainty that he was doomed to eternal damnation eventually became all-consuming, and he spent his last years waiting mutely for God to do his worst.

As a young man he studied law and intended to practise. But at 32 he had his first nervous breakdown, triggered by a memory of an event from his childhood – he was walking home from school when a skull thrown by a gravedigger rolled over and struck him on the foot. He spent some time in a madhouse near St Alban’s, after which – as one critic has it – he ‘sought in the infinitesimal a cure for the disease of brooding on the infinite’.

He went to live in Huntingdon with a couple called the Unwins, but when the Reverend Morley Unwin was killed after a fall from a horse, he and Mrs Unwin moved to Olney to be near their friend the Reverend John Newton, a former slave-trader who had seen the error of his ways and found God. Actually, Newton sounds like a psychopath. He had a reputation for ‘preaching people mad’ and was eventually hounded out of the parish.

At Olney, Cowper worked in a summerhouse the size of a sedan chair, producing small poems like ‘On the Death of Mrs Throckmorton’s Bullfinch’ and long ones like ‘The Task’, written after Cowper’s friend and patron Lady Austen suggested he prove his skills as a blank versifier by writing a poem about a sofa.

Thus first necessity invented stools,/Convenience next suggested elbow-chairs,/And luxury the accomplished Sofa last.

‘The Task’ was enormously fashionable at the time (1785) – it was one of Jane Austen’s favourite poems.

Cowper liked cuckoo clocks but disliked travel: he never left England and was once traumatised by a visit to Norfolk (‘I have been tossed like a ball into a far country…’).

He was modest about his abilities, declaring: ‘I have no more right to the name of poet than a maker of mouse-traps has to that of an engineer.’

That such a man should be one of the sharpest, most casually hilarious letter-writers of his time is strange. But it’s true, even if what his letters have to chronicle is the smallest of small beer.

The following letter, written to his friend William Unwin on August 6, 1780 when Cowper was 49, is wryly wise about the importance of process in any kind of correspondence – in making an effort for the sake of making an effort because, in undertaking to correspond, you have established a form of social contract.

You like to hear from me – this is a very good reason why I should write – but I have nothing to say – this seems equally a good reason why I should not. Yet if you had alighted from your horse at our door this morning, and at this present writing, being 5 o’clock in the afternoon, had found occasion to say to me, Mr Cowper you have not spoke since I came in, have you resolved never to speak again? it would be but a poor reply if in answer to the summons I should plead Inability as my best & only excuse. And this by the way, suggests to me a seasonable piece of instruction, and reminds me of what I am very apt to forget when I have my epistolary business in hand: that a letter may be written upon any thing or nothing, just as that any thing or nothing happens to occur…

 A letter is written, as a conversation is maintained, or a journey perforn’d, not by preconcerted or premeditated means, by a new contrivance, or an invention never heard of before, but merely by maintaining a progress, and resolving as a postillion does, having once set out, never to stop till we reach the appointed end. If a man may talk without thinking, why may he not write upon the same terms? 

 It’s a good question. But of course the answer is: because not every man can write as fluently and funnily as Cowper.