In March last year, as lockdown was starting to seem inevitable, Lauren turned to her colleague Paul with a proposition: “Will you be my penpal?” Though they had worked together for two years, it was only recently that they had started messaging after hours. Now they had talked more over text than they had in person, making being together in the office a bit awkward.
Their conversation was not obviously flirtatious, at least not as Lauren, 26, saw it; but she was enjoying herself enough to want to keep up contact through the lockdown – however long it might last.
Paul, 31, not only agreed to her semi-joking suggestion; he escalated it. “He bought envelopes,” says Lauren. “That’s when he really committed.”
At the same time as the pandemic precipitated a society-wide shift towards technology, it also saw us return to a time-honoured tradition: writing letters. In June, a survey by the children’s charity Plan International UK found that more than two in five Britons had written letters during lockdown, citing its benefits for their mental wellbeing. The US Postal Service reported a similar increase early last year.
There are many reasons why we might have felt moved to put pen to paper through the pandemic: to process our thoughts and feelings, to feel connected to other people, to spend time off screens. But the emotional turbulence and isolation also set the scene for especially intimate, charged correspondence – and to send letters that might have otherwise gone unwritten.
“As lockdown hit, the feelings hit – I had so much I wanted to say,” says Marcus, 23. He reconnected with a university friend in a series of letters last year. “We admitted a lot to each other over paper. The last letter I wrote to her was pretty much confessing that I’d really liked her back then – that I felt I’d missed my chance, and I still think about her.”
Suspended by the pandemic between past and present, many people chose to reach out. If any couple captures this spirit, it is Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck: together again 17 years after ending their engagement. Their rekindling seemed sudden when it first came to light in April, before it was reported that they had been exchanging “loving and longing” emails for months. (A source said Affleck proved to J-Lo that he could “own her heart” with his pen.)
Whether the pandemic proved a prompt to express extant feelings, or they developed through the exchange, it points to a revival not just of letter-writing, but of love letters – and there are historical parallels that help to explain it.
Through lockdown, people had to consider how to express themselves from a distance, just as they did in the 18th century, says Sally Holloway, research fellow in history at Oxford Brookes University, who is studying love letters of that time.
But writing a letter today has the added significance of having been chosen over a more immediate form of communication, such as a phone or video call. “It is a particular gesture of commitment to take the time to put your feelings into words, which might enable you to write things that you may not feel able to say in person,” says Holloway.
“The whole process of writing an email or letter creates this new object, which the recipient can keep in order to read over your sentiments again and again.”
Now more than ever, a letter’s lasting value lies in “the investment of time”, says Holloway. And in lockdown, many had time to spare.
“I never would have reconnected if I hadn’t sat and thought about what we could have been,” says Marcus. “It’s the genesis for this whole feeling. Before lockdown, I’d never have had the time to sit down and pen a letter about my feelings to someone miles away.”
For Lauren, writing letters to Paul, then walking the hour or so to his house to hand-deliver them became “a bit of a ritual” through the lockdown.
The task lent structure to the formless weeks, while the writing itself was a welcome creative prompt. “The world just became so small… It was a cool way to explore my previous experiences through someone else’s eyes,” she says.
Their letters started out long and lyrical, and progressed to works of art. “They got more and more detailed and illustrated, followed by poems, drawings, spilling out life stories,” says Lauren.
Within the exchange, there was also an undeniable eagerness to impress. When Lauren, an artist, sent Paul a watercolour, he dug out his paints and sent one back. Often Lauren, feeling pressed to reply, would “just start writing about completely random things”; Paul was both more ambitious in his replies, and faster.
“He definitely sent more than me,” says Lauren. “He showed me up a bit.”
About six weeks in, Paul sent her an intricate calendar marking milestones not just in the lockdown but their correspondence. Only then, much to her flatmates’ amusement, did it dawn on Lauren: “I was like, ‘Ohhh – I think this guy really likes me.’”
And yet they only spoke once on the phone, and their in-person exchanges were short. “We would just drop the letters in each other’s letterbox and kind of run away,” says Lauren. “It wasn’t illegal for us to talk from a few feet away – we could have.”
There was an element, she admits, of wanting to preserve the romance. One time Paul met her at his letterbox. “He came out wearing the most hideous trousers,” Lauren grimaces. “They were three-quarter length, brown, baggy… The illusion was totally off.”
Then, after eight weeks in New Zealand, where Lauren and Paul live, the lockdown lifted and they had no reason to write any more. Lauren felt trepidatious: who would they be to each other, off the page?
Our relationships have always been shaped by the times and technologies. Love letters flourished through the
18th century because of the massive growth in literacy, says Holloway. People did not just read epistolary romance novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or The New Heloise, they were inspired by them. “The letter became this important genre to navigate romantic relationships… You found out whether you were on the same page, literally and figuratively.”
Over time, conventions evolved – such as writing in a more familiar, affectionate style and concluding with a flurry of post-scripts. “Some people wrote seven, eight, nine post-scripts, as if they couldn’t tear themselves away,” says Holloway.
To see those frenetic, consecutive fragments today, it is hard to miss the parallel with text messages. Equally, suggests Holloway, personalised wax seals added extra emotional meaning to letters without words, just as gifs and emoji do now.
It could be argued that even before the pandemic, we were living through a new era of (short-form, fast-paced) epistolary romance – in online dating.
Recent figures from the Pew Research Center found 30% of US adults have used a dating site or app, and 12% have started serious relationships through them, making messaging often the first step towards love. (And sometimes last: a 2016 survey found that 72% of online daters found poor spelling a turn-off.)
Given our dependence on digital communication, even couples who meet “IRL” get to know each other through the written word now more than they did 50, or even 15 years ago. And by preventing us from meeting in person, the pandemic sent the word count skywards.
Tinder reported not only more messages sent in 2020 than in the previous year, but conversations that were 32% longer, even after it introduced its function for video dates; Match and Bumble figures showed similar increases.
“Not on here for a penpal” is a grumbling caveat common in dating app bios – but through these unprecedented times, many were glad for just that. Writing in Time, Raisa Bruner described her “forever-online boyfriends of the pandemic”: app matches she never met, but messaged daily for companionship and support.
It speaks to the possibility of establishing an emotional connection at a physical remove. Decades of research, such as into long-distance relationships, have established that proximity is not a necessary precursor to intimacy. On the other hand, the speed and ease with which we can communicate digitally does not always reflect the depth of the relationship. When it has never been so easy to share, who you confide in could be incidental.
Constance, 32, from southwest England, spent the first lockdown messaging a man she had kissed on a night out a few weeks earlier. “It quickly progressed into speaking every day, sending playlists, talking about issues we were having with housemates, navigating the intensities of lockdown,” she says.
She was grateful for the company and distanced perspective – “a satellite person to talk to”, who could only take her at her word. Their messages became longer and more intense, “opening up about painful things, difficult things,” says Constance. “We sort of emotionally exposed ourselves.” Eventually she asked for some space. “It just felt like too much. We hadn’t met since that one evening.”
When they met for a coffee after lockdown, Constance found her correspondent to be quite different to the confident, chatty man she had envisaged – but he confided in her as though their relationship neatly transcended the digital space.
“Obviously it was a bit awkward. I had to explain that I wasn’t really feeling the physical chemistry,” says Constance.
She wonders now whether she ever felt that attraction, or if their messaging had allowed them to invest in a fantasy. “You can do that in writing where it’s almost removed from the other person… but I need them to be there in front of me to know if I really like them.”
The relative sparseness of written communication leads our subconscious to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about our correspondents – but rarely accurately, says Jeff Hancock, founding director of Stanford University Social Media Lab. Meeting them in person is then like seeing “the movie that’s based on the book: you come away a little disappointed”, he says. “Our imagination is much more powerful and engaging.”
Likewise, writing allows us a degree of control over our self-presentation that would otherwise be effectively impossible. “When we are doing things digitally only, I can take time to write, to edit myself… We create who we want.” When our impressions of someone clash with our in-person cues, says Hancock – “there’s some adjustment to be done.”
For Lauren and Paul, their first meeting was a little awkward, but no more so than might be expected post-lockdown. “It was actually a really nice transition,” she says. As they settled into their new relationship, Lauren realised the extent to which Paul had opened up in his letters: “He’s quite quiet and introspective – a sensitive soul.”
But those tendencies, so conducive to their correspondence, were not so supportive of their relationship. Lauren and Paul broke up earlier this year, after 10 months together, though they remain close friends.
The letter-writing was foundational in their getting together, Lauren says, but not to their split: “It was such a beautiful way of getting to know each other and it led to an amazing friendship… We just weren’t that compatible.” Lauren doubts that she will ever again start a relationship by writing, just because it felt so specific to “the madness of lockdown” – but the exercise in being vulnerable was refreshing and valuable, she says. She still displays a few of Paul’s artworks, framed, on her bedroom wall as a cherished reminder. “The nature of letter writing gave the relationship a start that it wouldn’t have had otherwise… I think it was really productive in testing something.”
Just as increasing literacy led to love letters, the pandemic has already forced innovations in how we connect from afar. A recent survey by the Kinsey Institute and Cosmopolitan magazine found that 70% of people who started going on video-dates in lockdown planned to keep doing so. But far from the free-love free-for-all some predicted post-pandemic, the survey also revealed a surprising desire for commitment. More than 50% of singles said they were now looking for a serious relationship; 33% said they’d wait longer before meeting a date in person, and 37% said the same of having sex.
It suggests a change not just in our relationship priorities, but in how we pursue them through tech – and a return to deliberate, slow-burn romances, such as those that might in the past have unfolded through letters.
Slowly, an app aiming to digitise “the traditional experience of penpals”, makes this desire for a “slower but better pace” explicit. It connects strangers around the world to write to each other, delaying their messages to allow for anticipation to build – just as with the post.
The app presents itself as an antidote to superficial connection, “for those who yearn for meaningful conversations in the era of instant messaging”. Notably, it took off through the pandemic, says cofounder JoJo Sales. From February 2020 to January 2021, Slowly saw an 85% increase in new users and a 57% increase in activity compared to the previous year. Now it tallies a massive 4.5m users.
Megan, 26, and Vlad, 29, started corresponding through Slowly early last year. All they knew about each other was their username, cartoon avatar, and their locations: her in Illinois, in the US; him in London.
“There was no expectation or underlying agenda,” says Vlad. “You don’t have any pictures, you don’t hear them, there’s no swiping: that left room only for your imagination, your creativity, and your interest in replying to the other person.”
Their similarities – not just in likes and dislikes, but values – were revealed letter by letter. They shared important moments in their lives, and mundane ones from their days. Megan says they bared their souls on the page: “It was different to how I’d even message friends… It was one version of ourselves – but a very true, essential one.”
After a month of corresponding through Slowly, they swapped numbers. The instantaneousness of messaging – more conducive to repartée and humour through gifs, memes and emojis – accelerated their growing attraction. “We were vibing,” says Megan.
For Vlad, the “defining moment” was their first video call: “It’s one thing to visualise the person who is writing the letters and the messages, and completely different to actually see them.
“Once physical attraction was also established…” – Vlad laughs, embarrassed – “we understood that this was something incredibly special, and we should not stay 7,000 miles apart.”
From then on, their Slowly romance moved fast. In September, three months after their first letter, Megan flew to London with a return ticket booked for two months’ time. She checked into a hotel near Vlad’s flat.
“I remember standing in front of her door, almost shaking,” says Vlad. “It was bizarre to make the connection that she was no longer 2D on a screen.”
But, he says, “there was no dissonance or disparity between the written Megan and the in-person Megan – she is exactly the kind, beautiful person that she is in her letters as she is in real life.”
Megan’s return flight went unused. The couple are now living together in the Hague – where Vlad could relocate with his job, and Megan was eligible for residency – and recently became engaged.
Their early letters now read as the start of a love story. Not long after meeting Vlad in London, Megan shared a heartfelt account of their relationship with Lockdown Love Stories, artist Philippa Found’s project bringing together more than 1,100 pandemic romances – to surprise Vlad, and make it feel more real.
“I thought it would be an excellent way of putting this down to history,” she says. “I love love stories like the one I’m experiencing – I would love to read something like this, and know that it exists.” Their published story was a fitting final chapter for their romance forged through words. It was given the title: “The stuff of novels.”