Victorian letter writing guides
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As letters became more and more popular as a means of communication, guides sprang up accordingly about just how one was to write a letter, what was proper, and what was out of the question. Many Victorian conventions shine through the guides, and are a valuable way of understanding certain tensions in nineteenth century England, such as a certain "artful artlessness" that came about as the result of the urge to speak from the heart, but never more than was proper.
A letter’s physical appearance, in addition to content, was a key concern for letter-writing guides. For men, they advocated as plain paper as could be made available, and for women a light spritz of perfume was sometimes acceptable. Other sources, however, disagreed, and suggested high outward ornamentation such as ribbons, flowery drawings, and interesting colors could be used by females, but part of this may have been the date of the guide, as vogue changed by the decade. Earlier in the century, ribbons were very popular, but fashion changed to heavy cream paper in the 1880s and then monogrammed letterheads by the end of the nineteenth century. The manner of sealing the letter also changed over the course of the years. Originally it had been wax wafers and dried gum, but as time went on colored wax became more prevalent, the use of which was dictated by social conventions. Black wax was always associated with mourning, but red wax was to be used in letters between men, particularly those dealing with business, and letters from men to women. Women were free to use a range of colors, no matter the correspondent. Even ink was hotly debated; though all sides agreed on bold black ink, blue was sometimes suggested as an alternative, and all other colors shunned, though most letter-writing guides acknowledged that they had once been in fashion.
Letter writing guides simultaneously advised writing with absolute feeling and being cautious about saying too much, or saying the wrong things, regardless of whether or not these wrong things had real feeling behind them. Many guides cautioned that anyone could read your letters and thereby make inferences about you, even if those who you corresponded with assured you that they burnt your epistles.
The caution about appearance in letters was doubly stressed in matrimonial letters, even as women and men were encouraged to still write from the heart. Men were warned against complimenting their chosen bride too heavily, as it seemed insincere; rather, their moral traits and the feminine virtue of indifference were set as prime subjects to appreciate in a marriage proposal. Women, meanwhile, were urged not to be too unguarded in their letters, even in the acceptance of a proposal, to only thank and address the man’s moral qualities. Love letters did not end in ‘love,’ but more frequently simply as ‘ever your friend.’
|“||From a Gentleman to a Lady confessing a Change of Sentiment. 
Miss Rachel,--Your note has opened my eyes to the folly and wrong of the course I have pursued of late. All night I have been pacing my floor, trying to decide what course it was my duty to pursue, and I have decided to answer you as frankly as you desire.
I will not attempt to excuse myself, for I deserve your anger, but I will only say that I was myself deceived in my own feelings. When I asked you to marry me, I believed that we were congenial, and that I could make you happy. I was not rich, but had sufficient, as I thought, for comfort, and thinking you would be content with a moderate competency, I invited you to share mine. Closer intimacy has proved my error. Your extravagant wishes are utterly beyond my means, and your bitter and sarcastic remarks upon those of your friends who are not wealthy prove that you covet a life of luxury.
Again, for you ask for frankness, you have so often pained me by your uneven and sullen temper, that I foresee a life of misery for both after marriage.
I know that honor binds me to you, and therefore will not ask for my release if you do not desire it, but will, if we marry, endeavor faithfully to make you demand the reasons for my coldness, I have given them.
Leaving our engagement entirely in your hands, I am, Ever your friend, Henry Hendricks.
|“||From a Gentleman to a Lady Requesting an Explanation of Unfavorable Comments upon him.
Dear Lucy,--I have just had a long interview with a mutual friend of yours and mine, who has surprised me by repeating your unfounded assertions with regard to me. Of course, what is merely your opinion, I have no right to resent, though I regret that it should be so unfavorable, but I have a right to demand your grounds for asserting that I am an arrant flirt, a hypocrite, and concerned in more than one dishonorable transaction.
Will you have the kindness to inform me with whom I have flirted, how played the hypocrite, and in what dishonorable transactions I have been concerned.
|“||Reply to the Foregoing.
Paul Smith, Esq.,--The high tone of your letter might impose upon one who was not so well acquainted with your history previous to your arrival at this place as I happen to be. My opinion was founded upon a knowledge of your life while you resided in St. Louis.
When I inform you that Mrs. Carrie Ryder is one of my most intimate friends and constant correspondent, you will not again request a list of your misdoings. If you consider your course of conduct in deceiving your uncle, endeavoring to ruin your young cousin Charles, and attempting to elope with an heiress of fifteen, honorable, I can only say that I differ in opinion.
The value of letters
Aside from their use as a means of correspondence, letters can be seen as an accurate representation of people’s lived experiences during different historical eras, and much information can be gleaned from what we read in letters both public and private. Letters tend to be valuable for many reasons, and were used in Victorian times for several purposes. Some of these purposes are laid out by James Willis Westlake, who was a public school teacher born just prior to the Victorian era in England in 1830 and who moved to America at a young age, which is where he published his book. First, Westlake says letters are valuable in acquiring knowledge of past people and events. Secondly, he believes they are important in gaining insight into the moral lives of great people after which one’s own behavior could be modeled. Finally, Westlake claims that one may use the letters of well-written and eloquent individuals to adapt and improve his or her own letter-writing style. In the New London Fashionable Gentleman’s Writer, we find an example of the third usage of letter writing: a collection of quaint correspondences between hopeful men and the ladies they wished to court. Such a manual may have been used by anxious men as they prepared to write to their love interests and express their feelings, and perhaps by women as they decided how best to accept or reject the advances.
Some prominent figures of the day turned to letter writing as a creative outlet. Emily Dickinson used her letters to push back against the constraints which women, herself included, faced during the era. Letter-writing was one of the few literary pursuits in which women were allowed to participate, and Dickinson used this to her advantage, infusing traditional letter-writing with her own artistic flair in order to develop her skills as a writer. George Howell, an amateur Victorian artist, used his letters to his brother as a space to entwine his words and his artistic works. Similarly, Beatrix Potter, an author/illustrator, often included pictures in her letters as a means of comfort and relief from the pressures she faced from her family.
Children were taught the art of letter-writing, as well; they were particularly taught to form letters neatly with instructive books filled with drawing and line instruction. One of these such books, “Elementary Drawing Copy Books,” incorporated traditional alphabet practice with instructions on drawing elements of the natural world. Aside from proper handwriting, young boys and girls were taught to compose letters for different reasons. Girls’ writing books taught them to use their writing skills for household management tasks, while those for boys taught proper form for business correspondence.
- Anonymous 1851, p. 37
- Frost 1867, p. 99
- Jacques 1857, p. 76
- Anonymous 1851, p. 40
- Frost 1867, p. 32
- Frost 1867, p. 121
- From Frost 1867, p. 126.
- Frost 1867, p. 124.
- Frost 1867, p. 124.
- Westlake, James Willis (1876). How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, Showing the Correct Structure, Composition, Punctuation, Formalities, and Uses of the Various Kinds of Letters, Notes, and Cards. Sower, Potts & co.
- Herringshaw, Thomas William (1914). Herringshaw's National Library of American Biography. American Publishers' Association. p. 648.
- Richardson's New London fashionable gentleman's valentine writer, or, The lover's own book for this year : containing a very choice selection of original and popular valentines with appropriate answers. Boston Public Library. Derby : Thomas Richardson. 1828.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Tingley, Stephanie A. (1996). 'A Letter is a Joy of the Earth': Emily Dickinson's Letters and Victorian Epistolary Conventions. The Emily Dickinson Journal. pp. 202–208.
- Golden, Catherine (2010). "Benefits and Blessings, Letters Home, Friendship, Death Notices, Courtship, and Valentines by Penny Post". Posting it : the Victorian revolution in letter writing. University Press of Florida. pp. 201–202. ISBN 0813035414. OCLC 578666117.
- Jordan, John O.; Patten, Robert L.; Curtis (2003). "The Art of Seeing: Dickens in the Visual Market". Literature in the marketplace : nineteenth-century British publishing and the reading practices. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521452473. OCLC 258611868.
- Morison, Stanley (1962). The English Writing-Masters and Their Copy Books, 1570-1800; A Biographical Dictionary & a Bibliography. With an Introd. on the Development of Handwriting by Stanley Morison. Illustrated With Portraits of the Masters and Specimens of Their Hands. OCLC 624400989.
- Jacques, D.H.. How To Write. New York City, New York: Fowler and Wells, 1857. Print.
- Anonymous. The American Letter-Writer, and Mirror of Perfect Politness. Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1851. Print.
- Frost, Annie S. Frost's Original Letter Writer. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1867. Print.
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