Letters for sale
I ONCE wrote in this column about how the coming or the telephone had all but finished off the art—indeed the very practice—of writing letters to keep in touch with people you cared for. Because with a telephone handy, you can make instant contact and talk things over, you don’t have to sit down and put things on paper.
The language of letters is not the language of small talk. In letters the sentences are composed to express precise thoughts and quite often polished. But, of course, their special virtue is that they form a record, to be read again and again to recapture the feelings of the time and place of their writing.
And that is why letters have been like the very bricks and mortar of all biographical narrative. As an example I had cited E.M.Forster’s The Hill of Devi, a book almost wholly built upon the letters Forster "wrote home" to describe his " bewilderment and pleasure at being plunged into an unknown world."Those letters were written in the early 1920s, when Dewas had no telephones. If one had been handy, and had Forster used it to speak to his friends and relatives back in England instead of writing those letters, there would have been no Hill of Devi.
While in Dewas, Forster was in his mid-forties, and only narrowly known as a writer. But in 1963, when I first got to know him, he was well into his eighties and had achieved the status of a guru. With age, he had become frail and a little hard of hearing, and his fingers, stiffened by arthritis, could not hold a pen for long. That was when he happened to read my novel The Princes and wrote to me what I have always called a ‘fan’ letter, thanking me for writing the book at all, and that some of the incidents in it had ‘heartrending’ parallels with his own experiences in Dewas.
Encouraged by that letter, I went to see Forster when I was next in England. He gave me lunch, showed me his favourite haunts in the vicinity of King’s College, and before parting, presented me with a copy of Santha Rama Rau’s dramatisation of A Passage to India—after inscribing it: ‘To Manohar Malgonkar On his Greatly Valued Visit to Cambridge E.M.Forster’.
E. M. Forster died in the summer of 1970. In October of that year, I was again in England and had gone to see John Morris who lived in Henley-on-Thames. Morris had been a lifelong friend of Forster’s and over lunch, he told me with an air of pride how he had turned down an offer of eight thousand pounds from an American University for the letters Forster had written to him over the years and which he had preserved. Instead, Morris was going to leave those letters in his will to the Forster papers at King’s College Cambridge.
I didn’t ask Morris how many letters there were, but, since he had not been all that close to Forster, I doubt that there could have been more than two or three dozen—and worth eight thousand pounds!
This were all hand-written letters—I don ’t think Forster ever learnt how to type; and in any case, if the letters had been typed, they might have lost half their value. As it was, each of those letters was like a two-hundred pound note—not that there are two-hundred pound notes!
But the value of even hand-written letters differed sharply, as I was to discover when, years later, I sowed my own three Forster letters to buyers in London. Mine were worth only about fifty-pounds apiece, I was told. Because, when he wrote them, late in his life, Forster’s reputation , at any rate, the value of the letters he wrote in his twilight years, had taken a dive.
Sure I was disappointed, but not because I had any intention of selling those letters even if their price had been right. In fact the point I wish to make is that the concept itself, of making a profit from cherished personal belongings is alien to our nature. No matter how hard-nosed or hard-pressed we are , we cannot bring ourselves to part with iconic possessions, and as proof, I cite the fact that there just are not any people in India, either private collectors or institutions who would buy or sell old letters from famous people.
I remember when, some 20 years ago, I was an active member of a history research group, a colleague who has now reached doyen status among Maharashtra’s historians, Sadashivrao Garge, while going through some mouldy old family records in the house of a gentleman in Kolhapur, unearthed a letter sent by Shivaji, the Founder of the Maratha Kingdom. The owner of the papers did not even make a token protest at our group appropriating the letter for our collections. He would have been quite within his rights to insist that the letter—a rare historical document —should remain in his family. Anyhow, we neither offered him money, nor did he ask for any.
Similarly, a close friend of mine, Cecil Barretto, had inherited four letters of Mahatma Gandhi, handwritten letters which Gandhi had sent to Barretto’s father who was a prominent dental surgeon in Nagpur in pre-Independence days. To be sure these letters were purely of a patient-to-doctor nature, but Barretto’s father had kept them among his most cherished possessions, and I have no doubt that Barretto himself would have felt affronted if someone had suggested that he should put them up for sale. As it was he gave them away to the Gandhi Memorial Foundation in Delhi.
In England, had they been, say, Winston Churchill’s letters to his dentist, they might have figured in a Christie auction.
In India, for one thing we just don’t like the idea of selling private letters. For another, there is no market for them. In England and America, they’re merely another commodity, and both buyers and sellers advertise in the papers.
And just as today, the world of dotcom can be disrupted by some prankster hacker, similarly, in the world of handwritten letters, there were young men who got a lot of fun—and profit, too—by provoking famous men and women into writing letters to them—which letters they promptly sold to some eager buyer. A postcard scribbled by Bernard Shaw was as good as a ten-pound note.
But why Shaw? Letters even from quite obscure writers could often be turned into a source of profit, as this true story about Max Beerbohm illustrates.
But wait ! Max who—did you say?
Never mind who I—said he was not very well-known, didn’t I? Beerbohm was a cartoonist and critic of the first decade of the twentieth century, and he is best known for his irreverence for the sacred cows of his times, Queen Victoria, King, Edward VII, and Rudyard Kipling. But Beerbohm also wrote a couple of novels, and of them, one called Zuleika Dobson, had won him many ardent fans.
Among these fans was a rich American who was also a collector of original manuscripts. So when a young man who was trying to put himself through college approached the rich man for a donation, he was told: "you can buy for me the manuscript of Zuleika Dobson, and I’ll pay for your college education."
Somewhat naively the young man wrote to Beerbohm asking him if the manuscript was for sale. It wasn’t, and Beerbohm wrote to say so. But, as was his practice, Beerbohm had also embellished his letter with a marginal cartoon.
The young man promptly took the letter to his rich patron and sold it for a lot of money, and after that kept writing to Beerbohm and pestering him with carefully thought-out inquiries. Beerbohm’s routine replies earned him enough money to put himself through college.
Beerbohm, for his part, had absolutely no idea that he had as good as paid for the college education of a young man in distant America.
And what better purpose can one have for old letters than to help some young person somewhere to get a well-rounded education?
Oh, yes; those Forster letters I possess. I’m still hoarding them, but some day soon I’ll be writing to the authorities in charge of the Forster papers at King’s College, Cambridge, whether they would like to have them.
As a gift, of course!