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.