Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Reading and Writing Letters

Despite my difficulties with pen and ink, I do manage to compose very nice handwritten thank-you notes. Conventional letters are very easy to write. More formal letters are even easier. After all, as Miss Manners points out, to reply to a wedding all you have to do is parrot back (more or less) the invitation: Mr. and Mrs. Very Polite accept with pleasure the kind invitation of Mr and Mrs. Genial Hosts for Saturday, the first of May at twelve o'clock noon. Thank you notes are a little more difficult, but if one follows Miss Manners' basic rule ("It must not start with 'Thank you for the . . . .' It must include some favorable mention of the item, and must avoid mentioning that [one] . . . already has one."), you will not go far wrong.

I adore getting letters, so I can't help feeling pleased that email has become so prevalent, though it might be nice if less of it consisted of lame jokes, cute animal photos and trite spirituality. The ephemeral nature of email and the ease of sending it makes its composition unintimidating. Not so the pen & ink letter, not so -- which is why books of sample letters are still being published. But I doubt if any of the current ones are as entertaining as Familiar Letters On Important Occasions by Samual Richardson.

Two friends had asked Richardson to prepare “a little volume of letters, in a common style, on such subjects as might be of use to those country readers who were unable to indite for themselves.” (Sort of like science nerds and MBAs.) Richardson agreed on condition that he could also include instructions on “how to think and act justly and prudently in the common Concerns of Human Life.” It was published in 1741 and was an immediate hit. Five further editions appeared before the author's death in 1761.

Richardson was a letter writing genius who later* went on to write three successful epistolary novels: Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1740); Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748); and Sir Charles Grandison (1753). It's not surprising that he segued into novels. The examples in Familiar Letters are filled with dramatic potential.

For example, in the very first letter, "To a Father, against putting a Youth of but moderate Parts to a Profession that requires more extensive Abilities," the writer advises the recipient against choosing the legal profession for his second son William who "has neither talents for the law, nor ever will have the presence of mind necessary to make a figure at the Bar." Instead, he counsels that William be apprenticed to a merchant, or even a creditable wholesale dealer where, despite his very moderate talents, "very often, more money is to be gained than in professions that require an extraordinary genius, a perpetual attention, and a close and intense study; which yet very seldom succeeds."

Further, ". . . tho' I hope it will never be so in your case, yet nothing has been more common, than that of two sons, the eldest brought up to the estate, the other to trade, in the revolution of twenty or thirty years, the latter, thro' the extravagance of the former, has made himself eldest, as I may say; for, by saving while the other has been spending, he has found means to keep the estate in the family, tho' it has been transferred upon the youngest, and, as it has then proved, the worthiest branch." Now there's a novel waiting to happen!

Or what about about Letter LXII: "A young Woman in Town to her Sister in the Country recounting her narrow Escape from a Snare laid for her, on her first Arrival, by a wicked Procuress." I don't know if his readers had much need of this particular sample in their own correspondence, but I doubt not that it was frequently read.

Even more exciting are some of the sequences of letters, the first of which introduces an interesting situation which subsequent letters carry forward. The reader follows breathlessly, wondering what will happen next.

Letter CV: A threatening Letter from a Steward on Delay of Payment Letter

CVI: The Poor Tenant's moving Answer

Letter CVII: The Steward's Reply, giving more Time Letter

CVIII: The poor Man's thankful Letter in Return

Or better still:

Letter XV: From a young Lady to her Father, acquainting him with a Proposal of Marriage made to her

I think it my duty to acquaint you, that a gentleman of this town, by name Derham, and by business a linen-draper, has made some overtures to my cousin Morgan, in the way of courtship to me . . . . But, I assure you, sir, I have given him no encouragement; and told him, that I had no thoughts of changing my condition, yet-a-while; and should never think of it but in obedience to my parents . . .
Letter XVI: The Father's Answer, on a Supposition that he approves not of the young Man's Addresses

Letter XVII: The Father's Answer, on a Supposition that he does not disapprove of the young Man's Addresses

. . . I would have you neither wholly encourage nor discourage his suit; for if on inquiry into his character and circumstances, I shall find, that they are answerable to your cousin's good opinion of them, . . . I know not but his suit may be worthy of attention. But, my dear, consider, that men are deceitful, and always put the best side outwards; and it may possibly, on the strict inquiry, which the nature and importance of the case demands, come out far otherwise than it at present appears. Let me advise you, therefore, to act in this matter with great prudence, and that you make not yourself too cheap; for men are apt to slight what is too easily obtained.
Letter XVIII: The young Gentleman's Letter to the Father, apprising him of his Affection for his Daughter.
I take the liberty, tho' personally unknown to you, to declare the great value and affection I havew for your worthy daughter, whom I have had the honour to see at my good friend MMr. Morgan's . . . .

Letter XIX: From the Cousin to the Father and Mother, in Commendation of the Young Gentleman
. . . Mr. Derham has shewn me his letter to you; and I believe every tittle of it to be true; and really if you and my cousin approve it, as also Cousin Polly, I don't know where she can do better. I am sure I should think so, if I had a daughter he could love. . . .
Letter XX: From the Father, in Answer to the young Gentleman

After this letter Richardson cannot restrain himself from breaking into narrative:
The father in this letter referring pretty much to the daughter's choice, the young gentleman cannot but construe it as an encouragement to him to prosecute his addresses to her; in which he doubles his diligence (on the hint that she will soon return to Northampton) in order to gain a footing in her good will; and she, finding her father and mother not averse to the affair, ventures to give him some room to think his addresses are not indifferent to her; but still altogether on condition of her parents consent and approbation. By the time then that she is recall'd home . . . there may be supposed some degree of familiarity and confidence to have pass'd between them; and she gives him hope, that she will receive a letter from him, tho' she shall not promise an answer; intirely referring to her duty to her parents, and their good pleasure. He attends her on her journey a good part of the way, as far as she will permit; and when her cousin his friend, informs him of her safe arrival at Northampton, he sends the following letter.
Letter XXI: From the young Gentlemen to his Mistress, on her Arrival at her Father's
As your good father in his kind letter to me, assured me, that he should consult your inclinations, and determine by them and by what should offer most for your good; how happy should I be, if I could find my humble suit not quite indifferent to your dear self, and not rejected by him! . . . I hope you will condescend, if not to become an advocate for me, which would be too great a presumption to expect, yet to let your good parents know, that you have no aversion to the person or address of, dearest madam, Your forever obliged, and affectionate humble Servant.
And here Richardson breaks in again:
As this puts the matter into such a train, as may render more writing unnecessary; the next steps to be taken being the inquiry into the truth of the young man's assertions, and a confirmation of his character; and then the proposals on the father's part of what he will give with his daughter; all which may be done best by word of mouth, or interposition of friends; so shall we have no occasion to pursue this instance of courtship farther.

*He started the letter writing manual in 1739, but took time off to write and publish Pamela, so it actually came out before Familiar Letters.


sartorias said...

I don't remember seeing this--it's great

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I guess it didn't get reprinted much. No copies on Amazon and lists only seven copies. Mine was printed in 1928 by Dodd, Mead, & Co.

Esther said...

Thanks for sharing this!