“Month of Letters” is the perfect time to check out “Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence”

Do you ever write letters to your friends and family anymore? Me neither.

Maybe it’s time to change that. If you miss connecting through the written word, here’s a challenge for you: Author Mary Robinette Kowal will launch The Month of Letters Challenge in February.

Here’s how Kowal explains the challenge:  “In the month of February, mail at least one item through the post every day it runs.  Write a postcard, a letter, send a picture, or a cutting from a newspaper, or a fabric swatch. Write back to everyone who writes to you. This can count as one of your mailed items. All you are committing to is to mail 24 items.  Why 24? There are four Sundays and one U.S. holiday. In fact, you might send more than 24 items. You might develop a correspondence that extends beyond the month. You might enjoy going to the mail box again.”

The Month of Letters Challenge reminds me of a simpler time, when friends and family told their stories in beautifully calligraphed letters on stiff paper and eagerly awaited visits from the postman. If you prefer this to 140-character Twitter soundbites, or if you’re considering taking the challenge, you might want to check out Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence, edited by Emily Herring Wilson, a book that features the letters written by famed gardener Elizabeth Lawrence to her friend and mentor Ann Preston Bridgers during the 1930s and 40s. The letters reveal a kinder, less hurried time when the strong bond of friendship was nurtured through the art of letter writing.

Ann Preston Bridgers, who first studied drama at Smith College and later lived in New York City to be close to Broadway, was the pride of Raleigh, North Carolina, where she founded the Little Theatre, a New Deal Federal Theatre project. In 1927, she coauthored with George Abbott Coquette, starring Helen Hayes. In 1929, Coquette became Mary Pickford’s first talking movie. The role won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1930. Ann, like George Abbott, was a great encourager of the young. Her talent for friendship and for identifying the talent of others led to her correspondence with Elizabeth Lawrence, who would become one of America’s best garden writers.

Elizabeth, a graduate of Barnard College and the first female to graduate from the landscape design program at what is now North Carolina State University, was struggling to make a career for herself in Raleigh at a time when there was little work for landscape designers, especially women and especially in the South.

When Ann moved back to Raleigh in the early 1930s, she and Elizabeth struck up a friendship that continued after Elizabeth moved to Charlotte in 1948 and endured until Ann’s death in 1967. They were two women of different generations (Ann was the older) who valued their opinions and their privacy and did not conform to images of the so-called Southern lady. Ann encouraged Elizabeth to find a way to live as she wished and guided her to write articles for some of the new women’s magazines. Elizabeth was already making a splendid garden, and with Ann’s help she began to write about her passion. By 1942, she was so successful that her book, A Southern Garden, was published. It is still considered a classic.

Although only a small number of Ann’s letters were preserved, editor Emily Herring Wilson discovered a treasure trove of Elizabeth’s letters to her mentor. Through those letters, readers can glimpse what life in a Southern town was like for women, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. Elizabeth discusses family, friends, books, plays, travels, ideas, and, of course, writing. In 2004, on what would have been her 100th birthday, Elizabeth (who died in 1984) was featured as one of the 25 greatest gardeners in the world by Horticulture magazine. That acclaim would never have come her way without her friendship with Ann Preston Bridgers.

If you participate in the Month of Letters–or if you read Becoming Elizabeth Lawrence— please share your experiences with us in the comments section below or on our Facebook page. Or heck, write us a letter to tell us about it. We’ll keep an eye out for the postman.

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