The Noble Art of Letter-Writing

Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné (1626-1696) attribué à Claude Lefèbvre,

‘May this year be happier than those which preceded it; may peace, repose and health be yours in place of all the fortunes you do not possess but which you deserve; in short, may your future days be woven with silk.’

As my New Year’s greeting to readers, I can’t think of better words than those written by Madame de Sévigné to her cousin Le Compte de Bussy-Rabotin in January 1687. They are also a fitting introduction to today’s blog, which gets passionate about letters, and teachers.

There’s currently there’s a bit of a revolution going on at La Poste, France’s postal service. Reduced delivery services, the abolition of  the famous ‘timbre rouge’ (first-class stamp), replacing it by a more ‘environmentally friendly’ on-line service – these and other changes have provoked cries of outrage from users, and even an article in  The Times, asking if this spells the end  of ‘three centuries of glorious correspondence’, of ‘wonderful epistolary prose’ much of which has made its way into print for the delight and education of future generations.

Fascinating insights into the lives of authors

I am an ardent reader, and writer, of letters. On the book-shelves are the collected letters of Flaubert, Monet, Tolkien and others; piled up on another shelf are boxes labelled: ‘Letters, 1980s, Letters, 1990s’ etc. Some of the oldest are from my grandmother, whose blue airmail missives regularly crossed the Atlantic, recounting family news and dispensing such gems as ‘I hope you are keeping well my dear take a good stiff glass of Andrew’s or Enos in a morning to clear your stomach, inner cleanliness you can’t beat it and you feel on top of the world.’ (In a similar elan of more appealing prophylactic advice, Madame De Sévigné wrote to her daughter ‘If you are not feeling well, if you have not slept, chocolate will revive you.’)

Boxes and boxes of precious letters

One famous writer, and one letter in particular, have been much on my mind in recent weeks.

In November, returning to my  (never-ending) Work in Progress, I encountered an unforeseen problem. The manuscript is peppered with quotes from favourite authors and artists which I had naively thought I could share under the terms of what is known as ‘fair use/fair dealing’ i.e. the right to use short quotes by authors still under copyright. Further research sent me plummeting down a legal rabbit hole. Loosely speaking, most writers who have been dead for more than 70 years (UK and France) and 50 years (USA) are considered to be ‘in the public domain’ (i.e. can be freely quoted). There are, however, exceptions; and for works still under copyright, the definition of ‘short quotations’ is open to interpretation.

For the past couple of months I’ve been writing to various publishers about permission to quote from copy-righted works. Their replies have ranged from two sentences sent via i-phone citing a hefty fee to responses of a more compassionate  nature. In particular, one publisher has been a shining beacon in the best of the French ‘belles lettres’ tradition, albeit in the form of ‘beaux e-mails’. This is the Editions Gallimard, with whom I have been engaged in the most sympathetic and gracious of correspondence about permission to quote from a letter by Albert Camus.

Albert Camus, sketch by Petr Vorel,

Camus died in a tragic accident 53 years ago this month, aged 46. In 1957, three years before his death, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.’ (His exquisite acceptance speech – humble, generous, immensely moving – can be heard here, with an English translation here.)

On receiving the news of this honour, Camus wrote first to his mother, then to his former primary school teacher, Louis Germain, both of whom were of great significance in his life. Camus was still a baby when his father, an agricultural worker, was killed in the First World War. He was brought up in Algiers, in a poverty-stricken household ruled by his grandmother; his illiterate, partially-deaf mother earned a meagre income as a cleaner. For the young Albert, school was an escape, a sanctuary from the bleakness of his existence at home (in Le Premier Homme, referred to below, he describes poverty as ‘a fortress without a drawbridge’). Throughout his life he remained devoted to the man whose teaching had lifted him out of such a fortress, and to his mother, who believed in the opportunities offered to her son through an education which she had been denied.

Folio Edition of ‘Cher Monsieur Germain,…’ by Albert Camus.

The special bond which existed between Camus and Louis Germain is beautifully illustrated by their correspondence between 1945 and 1959, recently published by Gallimard:Cher Monsieur Germain,…’, (Editions Gallimard, Collection Folio,  May 2022) in which Camus continues to address his former mentor as ‘Cher Monsieur Germain’ and the latter replies ‘Mon cher Petit’. (In a letter of 22 November 1957, Germain recounts how profoundly touched he was to read Camus’s letter, saying ‘To me, you’ll always be ‘mon Petit’, in spite of Mr Nobel’).

The book also contains a chapter from an unfinished autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme, in which Camus describes his childhood in Algiers, and the experience of going to school. ‘Monsieur Bernard’ (Germain) is the teacher who opens new worlds to his pupils; in the magic of his classroom, the young ‘Jacques’ (Camus) flourishes, eventually passing the scholarship exam enabling him to continue his education at the lycée.

The part where ‘Monsieur Bernard’ goes to see the mother and grandmother of ‘Jacques’ in order to persuade them of the worthiness of allowing the 9-year-old to continue his schooling rather than finding a job, is so beautifully written I defy anyone to read it and remain dry-eyed.  The publisher notes that this special edition, in which, for the first time, the correspondence  appears in its entirety, stands as an homage to the magnificent bond of gratitude and tenderness linking the two men.

The ‘Nobel Letter’ written with Camus’ characteristic humility and gratitude, asserts that he would never have become the man he was without the generous and helping hand that Monsieur Germain held out to him as a poor child.  It has become a touchstone of belief, a credo for teachers and educators. On April 30th 1959, Germain writes about his guiding pedagogical principles, one of which was the conviction that each child should be allowed to find ‘his own truth’– by which I take him to mean a conviction that education is not the same as indoctrination.

Grave of Albert Camus BlueBreezeWiki, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Camus’ words came to the forefront of national attention in October 2020 when France was reeling after the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamic terrorist. Paty was given a national homage at the Sorbonne, symbol of the Enlightenment; one of the texts read out at the ceremony, by request of the family, was ‘Cher Monsieur Germain…’ It was a reminder of the inestimable value of education and freedom of speech and the importance of defending them; on a more personal level, it touched a chord with teachers everywhere, recalling the sense of achievement and special joy that comes when students express their gratitude, especially in the form of a letter.

Prophylactic advice from Grandma

Letters can be kept, and re-read; in my case, those from students have been preciously preserved along with Grandma’s airmails. In some cases they have been joined by further correspondence from the authors, including wedding invitations and announcements of births.

One such series is from a former student in the USA, now a grandmother. In this year’s Christmas greetings and family news roundup, she shared a memory:

‘You know, I remember so fondly the way you brought in fun and current ideas to our French class – it was just right for 13-year-old girls!…It does my heart good to stay in touch.’

It does my heart good too, dear Pam, and those words came at a time when I needed to hear them.

Shortly before Christmas, a cherished friend, with whom I’d worked for more than 20 years, died too soon and too suddenly. His widow and children asked me to speak on behalf of his former colleagues at the funeral service. Struggling to compose a eulogy that would do him justice, I recalled something Camus had said in his acceptance speech in 1957: Les vrais artistes ne méprisent rien, ils s’obligent à comprendre au lieu de juger (True artists scorn nothing, they make it their job to understand rather than to judge.) Our friend, as well as being a teacher, was also an accomplished musician and respected choirmaster. The open-mindedness, intuition and empathy necessary for such a role were qualities which also made him a remarkable communicator in the classroom. Even after he took on the many responsibilities of Head of Department, his office was always open. His generous spirit and lack of pretentiousness were of great comfort for those in search of advice or simply a sympathetic ear, his enduring sense of fun and joie de vivre a tonic for those in need of cheer. He was also a great believer in the importance of education and its power to transform lives.

There’s a common saying, taken from G.B. Shaw: ‘Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.’

There’s another, this one attributed to Victor Hugo: ‘He who opens a school door closes a prison.’


This blog is dedicated to the memory of Michael O’Donoghue, closer of prisons, happy man, husband of Marie-Hélène, father of Emilie and Raphaël, grandfather of Nina and Edwin.  Cher ami, we miss you.

Thanks to Elizabeth, for sending the Times article, and sincères remerciements to Monsieur C.G. at Gallimard.

Book news!!! Congratulations to the wonderful Helena Whitbread, who this month received an Honorary Doctorate from The University of Sheffield. An appreciation of Helena’s work can be found here

Miss Anne Lister and Mrs Helena Whitbread: a marriage of two minds

Copyright Laurette Long 2023