In our Stories That Teach series, we take a close look at our favorite tales to see what they can teach us about craft. We’ve examined the fictional lessons and social relevance of Susan Minot’s story “Lust,” dissected the elegant sentences in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties,” and considered what makes Steven Barthelme’s “Heaven” so effective. In our February edition of Stories That Teach, we discuss one of our old favorites: “Letter to the Lady of the House” by Richard Bausch. Here, we question the notion that sentiment is for suckers and examine what makes this romantic—but realistic— epistolary story so moving.
“In “Letter to the Lady of the House,” sheer sappiness bumps up against moments of ugliness. Grand proclamations about the nature of love follow descriptions of the mundane. Its sentimentality is not only excusable; it’s extremely effective.”
Discussed by Sadye Teiser
I will admit that I used to listen to Richard Bausch’s story “Letter to the Lady of the House” (as it was read on This American Life) every Valentine’s Day. And I would cry. The entire story takes the form of a letter that a husband writes to his wife the night before his seventieth birthday. She has gone to sleep after an evening of petty arguing and, after some whiskey, he decides that the best way to make his feelings known is by writing her a good, old-fashioned letter.
There is a reason why people disparage Hallmark sentimentality. After all, isn’t one of the first things that we learn in writing workshops the old adage Show Don’t Tell? It’s easy to dismiss a sentimental story as having flimsy craft. But letters encourage us to be direct. Especially when they are written to someone we love, they promote sappiness. A letter is a particularly risky form for a story to take. So, how do you write a successful story in the epistolary form? And is schmaltz really so bad for fiction?
Richard Bausch’s story “Letter to the Lady of the House” first appeared in The New Yorker way back in 1989. I will admit that it has many lines that would be at home in a Hallmark card. However, several elements save the story from falling into a pit of mushiness. First, its sentimentality is often combined with harsh, but realistic, observations on marriage. Second, although it has its abstractions: the story is rooted in the commonplace.
The letter starts out by recounting the small stuff. The husband, John, and his wife, Marie, fight about whether or not the pepper that the husband puts on his potatoes will upset his stomach. She goes to bed angry. He drinks whiskey. He watches TV. He thinks about how they have to prepare the house for their children and grandchildren’s visit tomorrow. He considers leaving: going for a walk around the block, or sleeping in a hotel for the night, or perhaps never returning at all. He makes this decidedly ungenerous proclamation:
I saw our life together now as the day to day round of petty quarreling and tension, that it’s mostly been over the past couple of years or so. And I wanted out as sincerely as I ever wanted out of anything.
Now, that is something that you would never find on a greeting card. However, it is a realistic thought for a couple in the middle of a fight, after decades of marriage. Then, of course, the tone softens. The husband stands in the bedroom doorway and looks in on his wife, asleep under the covers, and thinks only of her smallness, her vulnerability. He goes for a walk in their neighborhood. He is seized by the fleeting but strong feeling that this is his last night on this earth. Well, of course, he returns home and gets a little bit sentimental. (I usually start crying right around here:)
When I stood in the entrance of our room and looked at you again, wondering if I would make it through to the morning, I suddenly found myself trying to think what I would say to you if indeed this were the last time I would ever be able to speak to you. And I began to know I would write you this letter.
There is, fittingly, a story embedded in the letter. The protagonist chooses to write about the summer of 1933, when he was fourteen years old and went to stay with his cousin Louise and her new husband Charles. John describes, in detail, the day that he arrived. The story is made up of small, domestic pieces. Charles picks him up at the train station. Louise shows him around their modest cottage, with faded paint and worn furniture, with great pride. (He remarks: “Of course the quality of her pride had nothing to do with the fineness, or lack of it, in these things, but in the fact that they belonged to her, and that she was a married lady in her own house.”) They sit in the small, hot living room, drinking lemonade and waiting for a fan to be delivered. Charles listens to Louise singing softly in the kitchen and remarks on the beauty of her voice. It is obvious that they are entirely content and very much in love with each other.
It’s a small, simple scene. But, of course, John knows what happened to the newlyweds after that moment, and he reminds Marie. They moved to Colorado and never had kids. Charles had a terrible accident at work and was in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. On a recent visit, Louise had confided in our protagonist that she had come to hate Charles. Whatever love John witnessed between them that long-ago summer had simply vanished. Louise asks John how it is that he and Marie have managed to stay in love.
In “Letter to the Lady of the House,” sheer sappiness bumps up against moments of ugliness. Grand proclamations about the nature of love follow descriptions of the mundane. Its sentimentality is not only excusable; it’s extremely effective. It mirrors life. Humans can, after all—mostly in private—be extremely sentimental. We can also be unkind, and cranky. “Letter to the Lady of the House” taught me not to be scared of sentiment in stories. In context, it can be extremely effective. I will leave you with the story’s final lines:
Because what I wanted finally to say, was that I remember well our own sweet times, our own old loveliness. And I would like to think that even if at the very beginning of our lives together, I had somehow been shown that we would end up here, with this longing to be away from each other, this feeling of being trapped together, of being tied to each other in a way that makes us wish for other times, some other place, I would have known enough to accept it all freely for the chance at that love.
And if I could, I would do it all again, Marie. All of it. Even the sorrow. My sweet, my dear adversary, for everything that I remember.