“Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female” says Mr. Tilney to Catherine, heroine of Northanger Abbey. He soon reveals his satirical side, though, when he continues: “the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars. . . A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.” Ouch! How is a lady supposed to learn to write “agreeable letters”, but avoid those stereotypical pitfalls? Let’s turn to some lady-focused literature to find out.
To start with, I want to turn back to one of my favorite 18th century conduct books, The Polite Lady. An epistolary work itself, The Polite Lady embeds letter-writing advice in a long missive on making good use of one’s time and avoiding the pernicious vice of idleness (Letter 28). At this point in the volume, the daughter, Sophy, has left school and is paying a long visit to her aunt in London. Portia, the mother character, is concerned that Sophy erroneously thinks her learning is complete because her formal schooling is over, and so recommends a vigorous course of revision and study alongside the pleasures of town. After exhorting Sophy to read history, plays and novels (only the most blameless kind), Portia turns to letters. Such extensive reading will not only entertain,
. . . they will likewise give you a natural, easy, and elegant manner of expressing your self, whether in speaking or writing. This, my dear, though seemingly a trifling accomplishment, is, in reality, a most necessary part of polite education ; and it is as great a shame for a young lady not to be able to tell a story with ease and fluency, or to write an elegant and genteel letter, as not to know how to dance a minuet.
Portia goes on to recommend reading “a collection of familiar epistles,” of which the best examples are in French. Only then does Portia advise her daughter to try writing to her friends to practice the good style she’s soaked up from her reading. As in everything, “practice is the only means to arrive at perfection.”
As always, Portia gives very little practical information about how to write a letter. The one hint she does provide echoes oft-repeated advice to write as if you were speaking face-to-face with your correspondent:
There is only one general advice I would give you in this case ; When you are going to write a letter, sit down and compose your mind ; disengage yourself from every other care and concern ; recal[sic] to your memory the idea of your absent friend ; represent her to your imagination, as if she were actually present, and were talking and conversing with you ; and after you have heated your fancy, and warmed your heart, by this imaginary conversation, then give full scope to the natural overflowings of your soul ; take the pen, and write down whatever comes uppermost in your mind, without ceremony or restraint. By this means you will write with greater ease, elegance, and propriety, than if you should sit for hours together, musing, and studying, and racking your brain, for turns of wit, and flights of fancy.
The Complete Letter-Writer (1772 edition) expresses the same idea thus: “When you sit down to write a Letter, remember that this Sort of Writing should be like Conversation ; observe this and you will be no more at a Loss to write, than you will be to speak to the Person were he present ; and this is Nature without Affectation, which, generally speaking, always pleases.” Jane Austen, in her Jan. 3, 1801 letter to Cassandra, refers to this ideal: “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter” (Texts of JA’s letters online).
For some more detailed advice about writing lady-like letters, I turn to the long-running periodical, The Lady’s Magazine. Letter-writing is the topic of one in a long series of “Occasional Papers Addressed to the Ladies,” attributed to the editorial pseudonym “Nestor.” Other topics in the same year, 1790, often overlap with the ethical concerns of The Polite Lady– the cultivation of virtues and rejection of vices, the benefits of good conversation, proper amusements for ladies.
Nestor muses that letter-writing is especially important for ladies: it “is a very useful accomplishment, and to the fair sex particularly so, because they have not always, or so often, those opportunities of meeting their friends which the men enjoy.” He goes on to contrast the pain and sadness of parting with the happy intimacy that correspondence can foster. Nestor has several “precepts” to help his “fair readers” write letters easily and pleasantly.
1. A fluent and ready hand
Uh-oh, I’m already in trouble! The English Roundhand writing style I’ve been working on is definitely “a large copy-hand,” that is, a hand modelled on copy-books like The Young Clerk’s Assistant. When copying moral maxims, I do “spend so much time on a word” that I “forget the thought!” I’ll have to work on adapting what I’ve learned to “the pen of a ready writer.”
2. Learn to Spell
Nestor sounds a bit like Henry Tilney here when he says “the great objection that has been made time out of mind to the letters of women” is “that they are wrong spelt.” I’ve already spent some time thinking about the slightly more flexible spelling rules of this era, so with some luck I won’t embarrass the fairer sex in the eyes of censorious gentlemen!
3. Respond Immediately
Oh dear. I’ve often been guilty of procrastinating in the past even when corresponding via email, a spontaneous medium mercifully free of inkwells that need filling and quill pens that need mending.
4. Never delay
Yes, Nestor, I heard you the first time! He make some good points about the perils of procrastinating in the age of postal delivery: ‘when the post is just going out’ it is much better to have only to fold up your letter, than to write it.”
Jane Austen mocks the use of this sort of excuse in “Amelia Webster,” an epistolary spoof in the first volume of stories she wrote as a young girl. After one short sentence, the heroine concludes her letter: ” I have a thousand things to tell you, but my paper will only permit me to add that I am yr. affect. Freind, Amelia Webster” (JA’s Fiction Manuscripts Online).
5. Conversational Subjects
Just as The Polite Lady, The Complete Letter Writer, and Jane Austen herself advised, Nestor also compares good letters to conversation, in this case the “infinite variety” of subjects that both admit.
6. Avoid Imitation
I’m so glad Nestor diverges a little from The Polite Lady here. While Portia considered letter-writing primarily as a way of practicing the style one has absorbed through copious reading, Nestor urges his readers to cultivate their own genius, “no matter how small or great.” He still suggests that we should read “the best letters” in English and French, but only to learn “how neatly and elegantly these authors begin and close their letters” and not in order to copy them.
7. Practice, Practice!
This “Occasional Paper” closes on a note of encouragement that once again echoes The Polite Lady: “Frequent practice, so far from exhausting, will increase your resources.” You won’t be sorry, old Nestor assures us! Armed with this advice, I feel a little closer to writing a letter that Henry Tilney would not sneer at. I’ll let you know how I progress!
Pssst: Do you want to know more about The Lady’s Magazine? You’re in luck! There’s an ongoing research project at the University of Kent called “The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre.” Check out the project blog or follow it on twitter!