Cover of Lace by Shirley Conran

Set in a world without smartphones or computers, it is no surprise that paper abounds. Characters communicate via letter or telegram. They book long-distance phone calls and wait hours for the connection. Letters appear throughout the story in a most casual fashion.  Indeed for them, typewriters, blotting paper and carbon copies are more than nostalgic artefacts.

The letters described are wonderful. They incite rage on opening or contain things concealed in boxes of chocolates. The handwriting is scrawled or neat. Thus letters, along with the odd telegram, act as a support network offering a version of life coaching as well as gossip.

Look at Judy who apparently writes like she talks and only sends a letter when there is something to say.  Naturally, I love that she uses green ink. She acts as a ‘post box’ for scribbled love notes sent between the schoolgirls and their suitors. Purchasing a Hermes diary with a gold pencil makes her feel more sophisticated and European.

Then Pagan uses a chain letter (presumably such things had a better reputation in the past) to kick off her fundraising efforts. At another point, clearing out her Grandfather’s desk she finds a box of letters her father wrote at boarding school.

The girls of L’Hirondelle write home asking for money for extra needlework lessons so that they can have a new ball dress. These days they’d be rumbled as the photos appeared on Facebook.

More letters…

Elsewhere, Kate writes to Pagan every day to support her until a telephone can be installed. She endeavours to use correct terms (writing paper, not notepaper) and purchases a delightfully retro-sounding ruled exercise book to track the stock market. A suitor delights her with a number of trinkets including a jewelled pencil.

The reader can deduce that  Madam Sardeau is not a stylish woman when she uses the kitchen notebook and pencil to record her conversation with Lili. However, Lili clearly has better taste as suggested by the description of her engraved cream writing paper.

Quite frankly email and social media would have ruined the plot. Would Robert have been able to come between Pagan and Kate if they hadn’t been communicating by letter? Would Judy have been able to get away with pretending she had an older sister? Maybe. Maybe not.

But my favourite bits though are the ones that describe Maxine’s stationery related activities.  I longed, as a late 80s teen, to trade my cream writing case for a maroon office in a suitcase like hers. Naturally, I made assumptions that went along with being in possession of such a thing. Specifically, I would be travelling around the world in enormous comfort and luxury paid for by someone else. And packing homegrown peaches to eat on plane flights. Naturally, I loved that Maxine wrote her thank-you letters before going to bed. A habit I would dearly have loved to emulate if I ever wrote thank you letters after parties.

I see Lace as a reminder that there is a definite glamour in the handwritten. The characters portrayed show that it isn’t a smartphone that makes someone successful at their business – it’s the ability to communicate with style.