More than kisses, Chris Hobley

Posted Love: New Zealand love letters
Sophie Jerram
Penguin, $24.95,
ISBN 0 14 029010 9

In March 1888, James Crooks left Wanganui on the 300-mile walk back to his home in Petone, hoping to pick up odd jobs so as to be able to send some money to his wife and sons. Times were hard, but though Crooks was not destined for fame or fortune, we know that his love for his wife and family helped him persevere. We are afforded this glimpse into James Crooks’ life simply because he, like many other New Zealanders through the years, was a letter writer.

Posted Love – New Zealand love letters is derived from an exhibition held at the National Library Gallery in Wellington in mid-1999, which was based on letters from the collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library and supplemented by letters and e-mails held in private collections. Reading another’s correspondence is a peculiar experience. Letters are, by their very nature, a highly personal form of communication, and even more so the love letter: “more than kisses, letters mingle souls”, said John Donne. Still, a surprising number of New Zealanders have proved willing to share their hearts with a wider audience in this collection, which in itself reveals an interesting side of our nation’s letter writers.

The collection is remarkable too for its range. It spans a period representing almost the whole of the country’s recorded history, and the lives of the famous (former Prime Minister Peter Fraser, artist Toss Woollaston, and Katherine Mansfield), and the not-so-famous (we know nothing more of Alan and Alice than their names). It also takes on far more than romantic love (gay and straight), revealing filial, maternal and paternal love with the deftness and tenderness that is often the characteristic of personal writing – delivered from the heart rather than for a mass audience.

Ironically, however, the book’s range is also its weakest point. The physical presence of the letters in the Posted Love exhibition, their tangibility as well as their content, was an important part of this ambitious attempt to answer some big questions about how New Zealanders feel about love, and how time and media have changed the way these feelings are expressed. Well-designed though it is, Posted Love the book can only offer a once-removed experience compared with the connection that comes from reading the letters in their original forms. As a consequence, I was sometimes uncomfortably aware just how thin the thematic thread running through the collection is; and it seems to fall awkwardly between a souvenir coffee table book and a work of historical research.

Nevertheless, Posted Love offers some genuinely fascinating insights into how New Zealanders have thought and written about their lives and loves, and also presents some achingly moving stories about how both of these have ended. Perhaps more importantly, by giving a voice to those who without it would have none, this book inspires us all to pick up a pen (or fire up a computer as the case may be) and simply write.

 

Chris Hobley is a writer and new media producer based in Wellington.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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