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Should A Dead Author’s Private Letters Become Public?

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

One of the few things that stood out to me while I was reading Possession was this issue of publishing letters of dead authors.

The long-winding story in Possession is partly about this issue, and it touches on a real situation we’ve seen many times over. For example, excerpts from Elizabeth Bowen’s love letters to Charles Ritchie (and many diary entries about him) were published in 2009 as Love’s Civil War: Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie, Letters and Diaries 1941-1973.

The book’s editor, Victoria Glendinning discusses how she came across the letters in this Guardian article:

I met Charles Ritchie for the first time in the mid-70s when I was researching my biography of Elizabeth Bowen. I visited him in the London flat that he and Sylvia were renting on a trip from Ottawa. He found it difficult on that first occasion to talk to me about her, feeling, as he said, that she might just come into the room at any minute. In the event it was Sylvia who kept coming into the room. Her side of the story remains untold.

Ritchie never gave me Bowen’s letters to read for my book. He had his secretary type out interesting but impersonal extracts – about London on VE day, for example, and about Iris Murdoch staying at Bowen’s Court. In the two decades between Bowen’s death and his own, he fretted constantly about what he should do with her letters, and proposed destroying them, as he had destroyed his to her when they were returned to him. He said he could not bear anyone else ever to read them. Some of his friends, myself included, urged him to bequeath them, with an embargo, to a university library. This did not appeal to him. In the end he culled them, removing the most intimate material either by cutting, tearing, taking out whole pages or, sometimes for consecutive weeks or months, whole batches of letters. There is nothing, for example, about the death of Bowen’s husband, nor about her feelings following the loss of Bowen’s Court, nor about the worst of her resentment of his married state.

That’s what the scholars always say, right? “Donate these highly intimate letters to the university library—for research, of course!”

It just make me uncomfortable. My first reaction is simply, “Would Elizabeth Bowen have approved of this?” I understand that this guy excerpted her letters, and didn’t even hand over the originals. But, still, would she approved of her words—written solely to one person in great private and intimate detail—being published to potentially millions?

I don’t think so.

And I think that’s a pretty big issue in the world of literature today—that of publishing the works of deceased authors without their prior permission. Another less intimate example is David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Would DFW, known to be such a highly detailed perfectionist, been okay with having a rough, incomplete draft of a novel being published?

Should we even have to ask that question?

If Frank Lloyd Wright had died halfway through building a famous house, would anyone feel comfortable living in that house—without a ceiling, without running water, with no doors? That’s what this is.

I don’t get it. I feel like it’s highly intrusive and, honestly, morally questionable to publish any piece without the author’s consent—alive or dead. But, especially, ESPECIALLY, when it involves private letters.

Here’s hoping we can ignore our voyeuristic side and avoid feeding this monster. The more we read, the more they’ll publish.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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