To the Letter
How To Write the Perfect Letter, Part 3
The golden age of letter-writing was not like the golden age of ballooning or the golden age of Leeds United: it is neither easily definable nor much celebrated. And the decline of the English letter has a similarly smudgy past.
Certainly it began before the fax or email; for many it started in 1840, with the first adhesive stamp. The snobbish and the well-to-do believed cheap postage would lead to the equivalent cheapening of an art form best left to the professionals. When the Victorian writer George Saintsbury considered the history of letter-writing for an anthology, he used a phrase that had already become a cliché: ‘the Penny Post killed it’.
And it has apparently been dying ever since. In January 1919, when the Yale Review reported that ‘the art of writing letters has been lost’, it was able to assign other reasons for this sad fact: ‘Some lay the blame upon the telephone, the typewriter, the telegraph, upon the railroad that benumbs a letter-writer with the knowledge that his letter, which should ripen in a postboy’s bag, will be delivered a thousand miles away at 2.45 tomorrow. Some say the art went out with the goose-quill. But most ascribe the loss to the modern art of leisure.’ The theory from 1919, sounding somewhat familiar at the beginning of the twenty-first century, ran as follows: we were too busy with work, travel and the pressures and demands of modern life to sit down for a minute, let alone think and write a letter.
Or as Henry Dwight Sedgwick had it at Yale, ‘Hurry has been set on a pedestal, and Scurry has been set on a pedestal, and the taste for leisure has been snuffed out.’ (In a family association of which one imagines he would have been proud, H.D. Sedgwick was a distant relative of the Warhol protégé Edie Sedgwick, who did write the occasional letter, most famously to Warhol after he was shot: ‘I am saying prayers for you . . . don’t know how much good they do, but at least you will know I care, and care tremendously.’)
There was still some hope: ‘There are, and always will be, convalescents, cripples, confirmed idlers, guests marooned in country houses on Sunday mornings,’ Sedgwick wrote, and it was to them that we should entrust the future art of letters. Was there anyone else to blame for this death of letter-writing just after the Great War? Yes: schools. ‘Oddly enough, teachers of literature teach almost anything other than the art of letter-writing. Boys and girls from twelve to twenty are set writing essays, theses, compositions, as if Tom, Dick, Molly and Polly were going to write essays throughout their lives to their parents, lovers, husbands, wives, children, and old cronies.’ The teaching of English, alas, was ‘dominated by the grammarians who desire passionately that every boy and girl shall recognize at sight and call by name a “partitive genitive” or an “adverbial clause”, and by educational reformers who regard speaking English and writing English as machinery and not an art. Both sets despise the loafer, and the art of letter-writing.’
In 1927, in the introduction to an anthology of English Letter Writers, the compiler R. Brimley Johnson also wondered
whether letter-writing wasn’t already a subject for mourning. And what a loss that would be: ‘Letters we value reveal the impulse to share beauty and sorrow with another; to give all we have learned and gained from life; to lift a little from the burdens, that, borne alone, would crush and kill; they are of the vision and the understanding which is art.’
In 1929 the Prairie Schooner in Nebraska was writing a similar obituary. ‘It has been said, and with some reason, that the art of letter-writing is to be numbered among the lost accomplishments,’ wrote Gilbert H. Doane. ‘Certainly there has been a decided decline in the writing of letters. As I go home year after year, and meet old friends and acquaintances, the question is always the same: “Why haven’t you written?” And it is always answered: “I’m such a poor correspondent, I’m so busy, and so rarely have the leisure to write a decent letter”.’
No one actually used the phrase ‘the golden age of letter-writing’ in these doomy dispatches, but it was certainly ‘golden age’ thinking – that bemoaning aura that descends on culture when its once-influential practitioners become aware of their own failing powers. By most sensible standards, or at least quantifiable ones, letter-writing had never been healthier as the nineteenth century drew to a close: more people were writing more regularly over greater distances at lower cost than ever before. Mail volume per head of the population in Great Britain rose steadily throughout the century, from 3.1 items sent in 1839 to 13.2 in 1850, 47.5 in 1880 and 116.7 in 1910. From 564 million in 1860, the number of letters delivered by the Post Office had roughly doubled every 20 years.
Another indicator of health came from a still booming literary sub-genre: the letter-writing instruction manual. These still consisted of standard lists of correct forms of address and farewells, and their abundance and titles could take up half a market stall: The Secretary’s Assistant: Exhibiting the Varied and Most Correct Modes of Superscription, Commencement and Conclusion of Letters to Persons at Every Degree of Rank (1842); The Art of Letter-Writing Simplified; by Precept and Example; Embracing Practical Illustrations of Epistolary Correspondence of Every Age, in Every Station and Degree, and Under Every Circumstance of Life (1847).
It wasn’t long, of course, before Punch began to rip its way through them with delight. Less parody than reality, the oft-used template of a letter from a regretful son to a father asking for paternal assistance received the reply: ‘All your long letter may be boiled down like spinach, into three words: “Pay my debts”.’
In the United States, there was much strict and practical guidance regarding paper and ink, and a consideration of what may be considered gaudy. ‘For all formal notes, of whatever nature,’ wrote Richard Alfred Wells in Manners, Culture, and Dress of the Best American Society in 1891, ‘use heavy, plain, white, unruled paper, folded once, with square envelopes to match. A neat initial letter at the head of the sheet is allowable, but nothing more than this. Avoid monograms, floral decorations and landscapes. Unless of an elaborate and costly design they have an appearance of cheapness, and are decidedly in bad taste.’
Another etiquette guide, Miss Leslie’s Behavior Book by Eliza Leslie, offered further assistance: ‘If the tint is bluish, the writing will not be so legible as on pure white. The surface should be smooth and glossy.’
As with Samuel Richardson in the 1740s, the genre was not short of well-known authors willing to join the fray. In 1888, Lewis Carroll produced an item he deemed so indispensible to a fulfilling and creative life that he couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly manage without it. ‘The Wonderland Case For Postage-Stamps’ consisted of a simple folding wallet with 12 pockets marked for various denominations of stamps from half a pence to one shilling. Not a huge revolution in postal technology, but Carroll claimed he invented it after many frustrating encounters with letters to be sent overseas, and other packages requiring irregular postage rates: with a fully stocked ‘Wonderland’ one would never be short of the correct sums again. It was named, of course, after the Alice books, and it was Alice that would ensure the Wonderland’s success. ‘Imitations of it will soon appear, no doubt,’ Carroll wrote. ‘But they cannot include the two Pictorial Surprises, which are copyright.’ The surprises were two new illustrations of Alice, one holding a baby, one holding a pig. But there was another reason for buying the case – a booklet entitled Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing.
This consisted of three parts: ‘How to Begin a Letter’; ‘How to Go On with a Letter’; ‘How to End a Letter’. The instruction was more interesting than the architecture, not least because Carroll assumed that the majority of his readers had barely written a letter before. ‘If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through,’ he began, ‘in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer, and as to your correspondent’s present address (otherwise you will be sending your letter to his regular address in London, though he has been careful in writing to give you his Torquay address in full).’
The next instruction seemed a little less obvious: you should address and stamp the envelope before starting the letter. ‘And I’ll tell you what will happen if you don’t,’ Carroll predicted. ‘You will go on writing till the last moment, and, just in the middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that “time’s up!” Then comes the hurried wind-up, the wildly scrawled signature, the hastily fastened envelope which comes open in the post, the address, a mere hieroglyphic, the horrible discovery that you’ve forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case, the frantic appeal to every one in the house to lend you a Stamp, the headlong rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed, and finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead Letter Office, marked “address illegible”!’
Then there was guidance about where to put your own address, and a command to write this in full at the top of the sheet. ‘It is an aggravating thing – I speak from bitter experience – when a friend, staying at some new address, heads his letter “Dover”, simply, assuming that you can get the rest of the address from his previous letter, which perhaps you have destroyed.’ Inevitably Carroll also advised to put the date in full, which will help, years later, in compilation.
How to go on with a letter? ‘Write legibly. The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule! A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly. Of course you reply, “I do it to save time.”’ Carroll reported that one friend’s letters were so badly written that it would take a week to decipher the hieroglyphics. ‘If all one’s friends wrote like that, Life would be entirely spent in reading their letters!’
With regards to content, the best subject at the outset would be your friend’s last letter. If one refers to specific points, quote the words exactly to avoid conflict; if there is controversy, take care not to repeat yourself. If you have written anything that may offend, put the letter aside for a day and then read it as if you were the recipient. ‘This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead.’ Carroll’s other rules:
If your correspondent makes a severe remark, either ignore it or soften your response; if your friend is friendly, make your reply ever friendlier. Don’t try to have the final word: let an issue run its course courteously. ‘Remember “speech is silvern, but silence is golden”! (N.B. If you are a gentleman, and your friend is a lady, this Rule is superfluous: you won’t get the last word!).
If you ever insult your friend in jest, make this very obvious.
If you write that you’re enclosing a cheque or someone else’s letter, ‘leave off writing for a moment – go and get the document referred to – and put it into the envelope. Otherwise, you are pretty certain to find it lying about, after the Post has gone!’
At the end of a sheet, find another one: ‘whatever you do, don’t cross! Remember the old proverb “Cross-writing makes cross reading.”’ (Carroll admitted to inventing that proverb himself.)
And then there was one final admonition. ‘When you take your letters to the Post, carry them in your hand. If you put them in your pocket you will take a long country-walk (I speak from experience), passing the Post Office twice, going and returning, and, when you get home, will find them still in your pocket.’
Two years later, the popular weekly journal All The Year Round (established by Charles Dickens in 1859) published its own version of letter-writing instruction, inspired by the new depths to which its anonymous author perceived the art had fallen. It began with something incontrovertible: ‘There are letters, and letters. Though little is needed to write a letter, to write a good letter is another matter.’ The highest attainment was to paint in words ‘like an artist, and write like an author; but there will be nothing stiff or ungraceful in his pictures, because they keep so close to Nature. No matter how trivial the occurrences related, they are facts in which both writer and reader have a mutual concern and that, together with the easy, chatty style in which they are related, gives them a charm which never fails to make them acceptable.’
Not everyone could write like this, of course, and not everyone could be taught to, but All The Year Round was keen to provide tips as to how we may at least aspire to greatness. The first referred to the most common bugbear – illegibility. ‘If ever there was a time when writing has been made easy it is this present time, when even the poorest are well taught, when schools are plentiful . . . when paper, pens and ink are all good and cheap.’ But people just couldn’t be bothered to write clearly, the writer complained, or if they couldn’t write clearly they just couldn’t be bothered to improve their writing, and if they did improve their writing they were often so mean that they would write not on ordinary paper but on scraps or even the margins of torn newspapers. The worst offenders were apparently bishops, the nineteenth-century version of doctors: ‘The fact that these right reverend gentlemen are many of them not good, or, rather, are very bad scribes, has grown so notorious, that the saying “he ought to be a Bishop, he writes so badly” is becoming quite a general one.’
But what of those whose writing is fine but just don’t write? ‘This is more generally the fault of young people, and arises chiefly from thoughtless selfishness. Their thoughts and their time are engrossed with their own pleasures and pursuits. It is more amusing and interesting to write to young people of their own age than to write duty letters to parents and relatives.’ Do these terrible people not write at all? ‘A shabby, ill-considered, stilted letter is written at wide intervals to those whose whole life has been spent in their service, while folios of trash are lavished on bosom friends to whom they owe no duty whatsoever.’
Could there be worse crimes still? Apparently so. The poet William Cowper was credited with a phrase equally attributed to his contemporary Jane Austen – that letter-writing may be best described as the art of silent speech, the notion that the best letter to a friend was a ‘talking letter’, something that read as if you were telling it to them over tea. This still makes sense to us today: ‘passing from one subject to another, as the thoughts spring up . . . omitting nothing that would be of interest, and telling everything in a simple, natural way.’ But very few people actually write in this free-flowing, clear-stream way, and who or what is to blame? It is the letter manuals. Too many people ‘assume an unnatural, stilted, verbose style, quite different to their manner in ordinary conversation, using a vocabulary much more polysyllabic in its nature than is their wont. For “mend” they write “repair”, for “enough” “sufficient ” and so on, till their letters are no more like themselves than if someone else had written them, and one of the greatest charms of correspondence is entirely lost – its identification with the writer.’
But there were other, ever more ingenious ways of getting a message across. Cards have been send through the post since the beginnings of the mail (the writing tablets from Vindolanda are arguably the earliest), but their heyday occurred at the start of the twentieth century, the picture postcard coinciding with mass coastal holidaying (the British Postal Museum and Archive estimates that between 1902 and 1914, up to 800 million cards were sent annually).They said what postcards always did: wish you were here, weather mixed, love to all at home. But they were an open and unguarded form of writing, open to prying eyes at every step of their journey, and occasionally a more intimate message was required. This came in the form of a code, and was delivered by the tilting of a stamp (in much the same way as a stroke or symbol on a letter concealed a preordained message prior to 1840). A stamp stuck upside down in the top left hand corner would mean ‘I love you’. A stamp on its side in the same position meant ‘My heart belongs to someone else’. And so on, through the permutations. (Upside down, top right corner = Write no more. Upside down in line with surname = I am engaged. Centred on right edge = Write immediately! At right angle, top left corner = I hate you. The stamp-tilting tradition is maintained today in situations where mail is subject to external scrutiny and censorship, in particular in prisons and in the military.
Further complication arrived by post from Scandinavia. Sweden was particularly enamoured with the possibilities of tilting, as the North Carolina Scandinavian stamp specialist Jay Smith makes clear in his interpretation of a Swedish postcard from 1902. This shows eight stamps at distinct angles and their (translated) meanings: ‘Burn my letter’; ‘Fidelity is its own reward’; ‘I cannot accept your congratulation’; ‘You have survived the trial/examination’; and, perhaps reflective of those long dark Scandinavian nights, ‘Leave me alone in my grief and pain’.
In 1938, what may be the most useful manual of all was pub- lished in Shanghai. Written by Chen Kwan Yi and Whang Shih, Key to English Letter Writing was a guide that served double duty: it taught the Chinese how to compose personal and business letters in slightly creaky English, and it provided its English readers with invaluable insight into personal and corporate Chinese customs we may not have otherwise been aware of. Unlike Anglo-American guides, these letter templates did not usually concern misfiring sons and their long- suffering fathers, or how best to address a duchess. Instead, the examples were both more mundane and, conceptually, more profound.
They also show extreme generosity, such as this example for the newlywed. ‘I have heard from Mr B that you were married to Miss C last Wednesday. I beg your acceptance of the accompanying fish as a trifling token of my affection.’ And when that marriage proves fruitful? ‘Allow me to congratulate you on the birth of a child in your family. I beg you will accept the accompanying basket of mixed fish which I send you in celebration of the happy event.’ Would a promotion, perhaps in the legal profession, also yield a fish gift? Sadly not. ‘Sir, I learn with pleasure that you have been admitted to the bar and have established yourself in private chambers . . . Please accept the accompanying bicycle as a slight token of my wishes for your future success.’
The New Yorker came across the Chinese manual in New York’s Chinatown in the middle of September 1939, two weeks after the outbreak of war in Europe. Everything, even near- calamity, was the excuse for a party: ‘The fire which occurred in your neighborhood last night must have caused you considerable alarm,’ another letter surmised. ‘I was very glad to hear that your house escaped . . . Please accept the accompanying dozen of champagne with best congratulations.’
But one should exercise caution, for the bestowing of presents may be seen as overstepping the mark, particularly when romance has not yet blossomed. ‘In the present stage of our relation to each other,’ a young woman is encouraged to write to a pushy suitor, ‘I do not feel justified in accepting gifts, which in my opinion are only compatible with friendships of close intimacy and long standing.’ Something clearly worked: 75 years on, the average well-educated Chinese person’s grasp of English is stronger than the average well-educated English person’s grasp of any dialect of Chinese (with letter manuals taking only some of the credit), and congratulatory tokens of fish are no doubt still testing the resolve of Chinese postal workers from Quanzhou to Jinchang.
But this is not all. Key to English Letter Writing also contains a summary of shortened forms of popular Western Christian names, helping to ensure that letters may be addressed less formally once intimacy is attained. If you have a friend called Charles, you may, after a few letters, address him as ‘Chaos’; if he is Thomas, then ‘Jommy’ will bring him delight; and if he is Stephen, you will have a correspondent for life if you call him ‘Steenie’.
Extracted from To The Letter: A Journey Through A Vanishing World by Simon Garfield (Canongate Books [UK] and Gotham Books [US] ).