Excellent at Little Things: a conversation in letters about letters

screenshot-books.google.com 2015-05-29 00-09-59Now that I’ve been thinking about letters in Jane Austen’s era, I’m seeing them everywhere! It seems that for writers of both fiction and non-fiction, letters were a natural choice for formatting their work. Magazines and other periodicals were no different: a huge portion of their content takes the form of letters. Even long essays might be presented as letters, beginning with a salutation like “Dear Sir” and ending with “Yours, etc.”.  Many more pieces are similar to the “letters to the editor” you might see in modern magazines and newspapers- they are from ordinary readers and often comment on the content of the magazine or offer suggestions. Such letters from readers sometimes create little conversations over several numbers. When I was looking for information about letter-writing, I came across just such a conversation in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1795.

The first part of the conversation appears in the issue for November 1795. A reader signing himself J. Feltham had some pet peeves to share with”Mr. Urban”, the pen-name of the editors of the magazine. One of them was about sealing letters:

SealingLettersA copy
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 904. (Google Books)

Mr. Feltham is pointing out one of the annoying quirks of the way letters were folded and sealed. If you’re puzzled by letters from this period, check out my post on the basics, Anatomy of a Regency Letter.  Since the paper a letter was written on was usually folded up to form a neat packet without an additional envelope, part of the writing might end up under the seal.  Many modern sealing waxes pop off the paper without too much trouble, but it seems that things were different in Jane Austen’s era- most letter-readers ripped or cut the paper flap rather than trying to break the seal or remove it from the paper.  This meant that a small part of the 3rd page of a long letter could be lost.  Mr. Feltham recommends leaving a space in your writing on that part of the paper to avoid confusion.

OpeningRegencyLetters

In the December issue of the Gentleman’s magazine, a reader who signs himself “Z.” concurs with Mr. Feltham’s recommendation (which had appeared on p. 904) and adds a note on the topic from the book he’s been reading:

SealingLettersB
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 998 (Google Books)

It took me a little pondering to figure out exactly what Mr. Job Orton was recommending when he says “turn to the next. . . and not to go on obliquely”. I think he is suggesting that the letter-writer use both sides of the first leaf of his letter, rather than skipping page 2 and going straight on to page 3 (as I have numbered them in my diagram). Mr. Orton then goes on to echo Mr. Feltham’s advice about reserving space on the page where the seal will go.  I had to laugh when I read about the unintelligible letter he got- can you imagine getting a message with a page and a half of preliminary fluff, only to have the single most important words blotted out by a seal or wafer?

Z. left out from his quotation the best part of Mr. Job Orton’s letter, which I found in an 1805 edition on Google Books:

JobOrtonLittleThings
Letter 23, “Letters to a Young Clergyman” by Job Orton, 3d. ed., 1805. (Google Books)

What a great excuse for being particular about details! There’s my aspiration for this blog; that a great lady might give me the character of being “excellent at little things.”  I agree with Mr. Orton, that “there is more in this than most people are aware of.”

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