On a recent trip to the cinema I went to see Letters To Juliet, the latest in a line of rom-coms from the other side of the pond. I confess I am a bit of a sucker for a good old soppy story – the more idealistic and unrealistic the better – but there was something else than just a heavy dose of syrupy sweetness that attracted me to this latest release. As you may be able to gauge from the title, it carries a link to the most famous romantic heroine of all time – none other than Juliet Capulet. Leading lady Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, a wannabe writer who while on a trip to fair Verona stumbles across a mysterious wall filled with notes and numerous women scribbling away. Intrigued, she does some – rather convenient, by all accounts – investigating and discovers that the letters are all addressed to Juliet, written by the lovelorn and those in need of emotional guidance from the only person who could ever possibly understand their plight, the biggest star-crossed lover of them all. The letters are collected each day by four women acting as ‘the secretaries of Juliet’, who respond to them under the penname of Miss Capulet. Sophie gets to play at being Juliet to help reunite an English woman who wrote a letter in 1957 with her Italian sweetheart.
Unfortunately, the film was rather short on literary insights and ran high – even for my tastes – on schmaltz, bordering rather dangerously on being completely cringey at times (especially when you factor in the obviously fake ‘British’ accent of the male love interest). But nonetheless, it wasn’t a total write-off. For a start, it has raised my anticipation levels even higher for the upcoming Merseyside Community Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. But also it had left me feeling very intrigued indeed; I had never heard of the phenomenon of the letters that continue to be written to Juliet before the release of the film. I’ve read up since on the ‘work’ carried out by the real-life secretaries of Juliet and have been charmed, saddened and uplifted in equal measure by what I’ve learnt. Whatever the story of love lost or hoping to be found, from teenage girls asking what they should do to find their dream boyfriends to troubled prison inmates lamenting the complete loss of love from their lives, it strikes me that there is something perhaps unexplainable but certainly special about all of the letters. They are all testament to the incredible power of literature; that so many from all corners of the world would be so moved by reading about one young girl’s experience of forbidden love, feel that the only person they could confide in, seek solace from and look for answers to all of the burning questions of the heart is a fictional character (of course, whether Juliet is the best person to take direction from is questionable). To think that in a time of incredible despair and despondency in an individual’s life that comfort and peace of mind can be sought from a piece of literature is something quite astounding indeed, but at the same time it seems perfectly understandable. It’s what us at The Reader Organisation have been saying all along. Okay, so maybe composing a letter to one of Shakespeare’s creations may be stretching things a little…but then it’s down to what works for the individual. Perhaps it doesn’t give us all of the answers, or indeed the most satisfactory ones, but reading does give us insights into areas of life we’d never even considered it might benefit – and it’s good for the heart and soul.
And leading on from these ideas is this poem by Thomas Hardy. It’s a poem that I, from first reading it, found particularly reassuring. Maybe it’s got something to do with the title which I think produces such a brilliant image – the idea of words floating along, being blown to anyone who needs them by a sheer force of nature is something not only soothing but really quite ingenious. Granted it’s more of a steely shake-up than a sugar-coated assurance, but it’s like everything: sometimes what we need to hear isn’t the easiest thing to swallow. Yet I still find it comforting, perhaps because of its reasoning that everything faces its trials and tribulations at some point. And still things continue.
(And for anyone who’s interested in discovering more about the secretaries of Juliet, visit The Juliet Club.)
The Wind Blew Words
The wind blew words along the skies,
And these it blew to me
Through the wide dusk: “Lift up your eyes,
Behold this troubled tree,
Complaining as it sways and plies;
It is a limb of thee.
“Yea, too, the creatures sheltering round –
Dumb figures, wild and tame,
Yea, too, thy fellows who abound –
Either of speech the same
Or far and strange–black, dwarfed, and browned,
They are stuff of thy own frame.”
I moved on in a surging awe
At the pathetic Me I saw
In all his huge distress,
Making self-slaughter of the law
To kill, break, or suppress.
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)