It’s one of my favorite scenes in all the novels: Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville, passionately defending women’s constancy in love – Wentworth covertly writing what he feels while he listens to her words – the sudden change in Anne’s feelings as she realizes that he has understood her and has finally broken his silence about their shared past.
And of course the letter itself is a joy to read, with unforgettable phrases like ‘I am half agony, half hope.’ Captain Wentworth’s writing is a means of participating in the conversation he overhears, and Austen’s representation of the text suggests that he begins the letter without any of the usual formalities. He just puts his pen to paper and pours out his heart. I chose a running hand for my version of his letter. It seemed most appropriate for a Naval captain who writes so many logs, ledgers, and official reports.
I tried to express Wentworth’s speed and furtiveness with my increasingly messy writing- at one point he adds “I can hardly write.” He does finish his letter a little more conventionally than he begins it, with his initials and a post-script.
The physical features of the letter itself are only barely described- we only learn that it’s hastily folded, hastily sealed, and almost illegibly addressed. I decided to seal this letter with one of the yellow wafers I made, since that is the hastiest and least conspicuous means of sealing a secret love note.
I haven’t opened the seal, but when I do I will imagine myself in Anne Elliott’s place, devouring the words of this most romantic of letters. For now I will tuck it in my writing desk as a little Persuasion keepsake. Do you have a favorite letter from Jane Austen’s novels? One which you would most like to receive for yourself? Let me know in the comments!
This was the perfect opportunity to put my handwriting skills to use, but what could I write about? Even though my focus is on lady-like accomplishments, the formal, English handwriting styles I’ve been practicing are also suitable for business correspondence. I decided to write a business letter from manufacturers that might have provided some of England’s famous industrial products to Mme. Bettinger. Of course, that decision meant I had to do some more research to carry my plan out- I don’t know much about British manufacturers, and even less about how they carried out business abroad! In the end, I found enough interesting material to write two quite different letters.
Letter 1: Shipping Muslins to Menden
When I was looking for inspiration, I found more than I expected at Eunice Shanahan’s postal history site– a letter sent from Mitholm (near Halifax in England) to a Tyrolese tradesman concerning a shipment of cotton goods via Altona in the summer of 1814. It’s in bad French- apparently the best means of communication between an English businessman and one whose native language was either German or Italian! The letter seemed so perfect as it was that I borrowed the text, changing only the date, place, and addressee to suit Mme. Bettinger’s context. The original letter is described here, including a transcript. Here’s a rough translation of my version, provided by my husband (who has much better French than I do):
Mrs Bettinger, Menden Near Halifax, 20 May
We wrote to you the 23d of last month, since which we have not received any of your valued [letters]. This present [letter] we are to submit an invoice & Samples of your order dispatched to Hull to be embarked for Altona to the address of Messrs. H. Vander Smissen & Son with directions to receive them at once and send them on immediately to Menden we have no doubt that you will receive them in good time for your need & we have every confidence that you will approve their qualities, the Samples for the most part are coming in a separate package to be dispatched by coach from Altona to Menden It is always our pleasure to receive your new orders & to serve you as well as possible.
We send you cordial salutations, Turner Bent & Co..
I figured that if Altona, near Hamburg in modern Germany, was the sea-port of choice for a package going all the way to Bolzano (now in northern Italy), it would be the right port to send a package destined for Menden, only 340 km distant. I wonder if Turner Bent & Co. used Altona as a shipping hub during the long war with Napoleon in order to detour around hostile France? Peace was settled in the spring of 1814, but more direct trade-routes may not have been re-established to places like Bolzano by the time the original letter was written.
The first page is an invoice for goods shipped from Halifax to Menden via Hull and Altona, as described in the body of the letter. Most of the invoice is nonsense, I’m afraid, since I couldn’t find many complete models to follow. Please don’t check my math- I am totally baffled by non-decimal currency! I need to add arithmetic to the list of accomplishments to acquire in the future. In place of Thicksett and Velveret listed in the original invoice, I put in some fabrics more suitable for fashionable summer ladies’ gowns.
Since the letter mentioned accompanying samples, I pinned a few pieces of fine cotton to the invoice- but forgot to take a picture before sealing them up in the letter. I had written some picturesque color-names on the invoice before I realized I didn’t have any samples of those colors to include, so we’ll just have to pretend that the jonquil and cocquelicot samples will be in the package sent by coach!
The postal marks on the outside are based on the ones on the original letter with the dates adjusted (see the image at the top of this post). Some of them were hand-written in ink or pencil, and so were easy to copy. If anything, I should have made them rougher and harder to read! Next time, I’ll use my most-worn quill and scrawl more haphazardly. Other marks were stamped on at the post office and required some ingenuity and modern materials to replicate. If you’re interested, I may post more about that technique another time.
Letter 2: Regarding Your Bill . . .
This letter is not based on any particular letter from the past, but I did borrow phrases from 19th c. letter-writing manuals. I was also inspired by something I read on a website about 18th century Birmingham manufacturers and their continental trade. Some letters are known which document a 1763 trip through Europe by a travelling agent for hardware merchants Glover & Chamot: “Wherever he went, he took orders for goods which he sent back to Birmingham, checked out what the competition was doing, sent back market research, ran status checks on new customers, cajoled old customers whose accounts were overdue (being careful, of course, not to offend them so that they did not place a new order) – all the tasks generally associated with a sales job then and now, in fact.” (Shena Mason at revolutionaryplayers.org.uk).
I don’t know for certain that English manufacturers were still using travelling agents like that almost 50 years later in 1814, but I liked the idea so much I made this letter focus on the upcoming visit of a similar agent. It was fun trying to strike a balance between “Pay the rest of your bill” and “We’re nice, please buy more from us.” I wanted to leave the re-enactors free to decide what goods Mme. Bettinger bought from this Birmingham manufacturer, so I didn’t mention any specific products in the letter. I got the name of the company (Hobday Biddle & Ryder) from a trade-card in the V&A’s collection that also doesn’t mention what the company actually traded in! Since my French is even worse than the clerk’s at Turner Bent & Co, I left this letter in English. Here’s a transcript:
Mesdames, Birmingham, May 16
I duly received your favour of the 27th ultimo inclosing a payment of 100 pounds, for which I thank you. I have no wish to be troublesome to any customer, and so I propose the following arrangement concerning the balance of your account, which I trust you will find both convenient and expedient.
Our agent Mr. Ryder, who gave such a good report of the flourishing state of your business at his visit last October, is at present on the Continent again and will return to Westphalia at the end of June. The uncertain state of the roads do not allow me to name the day of his arrival in Menden more exactly. Be assured, however, that he will not fail to call on you with my best compliments and those of Mr. Biddle. Mr. Ryder carries with him samples of our latest manufacture, which I flatter myself you will find to be the most elegant ever yet produced at the price. Should these samples meet with your approval, Mr. Ryder will be most happy to take a new order, provided you will be so good as to settle the balance of your account with him directly. I remain, Mesdames,
your humble servant,
I used similar postal marks on this letter, adjusting the dates and the costs. Let’s pretend that both letters were placed in the same mail bag in the Foreign Section of the General Post Office in London and made their way to Menden together.
Materials and Techniques
I tried to make each of these letters a little different- in part to disguise that these letters were both written by one person! I used two different papers that have a textured “laid” finish, like many writing papers of the time. I’ve fallen in love with one of them, a soft creamy text-weight sheet made by Hahnemuhle. I got it at John Neal Booksellers, but it’s available elsewhere too. It is soft but strong and has a pleasing texture that reminds me of old paper. The other paper I used is called Canson Ingres (also from John Neal). It is a very pretty brighter white, but I found the surface felt harder and the laid texture much more pronounced. On the textured side of the paper, my quill snagged and skipped over the laid lines. The sheets I bought were large, and I considered trying to match the dimensions of early 19th century writing-paper. But in the end, there were so many variables and choices among those sizes I decided to cut each sheet into quarters to get the most out of each one. The resulting “quartos” are well within the recorded size range of writing papers for the period.
I used quill pens and iron gall inks to write both letters. I wrote with a “Running hand”, but I made slightly different choices on the two letters to help suggest that they were written by two different people. For example, I used rounded capital Ms in one letter, and pointy Ms in the other. The English letter had lots of terminal ds which I finished with exuberant swoops!
Finally, I used slightly different letter-folds and I sealed one letter with sealing wax and the other with a wafer. Wafers have come up alongside sealing wax over and over again in descriptions of letter-writing- I shall have to write more about them soon!
Now 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:
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.
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:
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:
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.”
“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!
Envelopes as we know them- ready-made paper enclosures for cards and letters- were not in use until much later in the 19th century. But Jane Austen uses the word ‘envelope’ in Volume 1, Chapter 21 of Pride and Prejudice, when Caroline Bingley sends a farewell letter to Jane Bennet after the Netherfield Ball:
Soon after their return a letter was delivered to Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and was opened immediately. The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand. . .
What does she mean? I came across this definition for the noun envelope in Sheridan’s dictionary, 1804 edition: “A wrapper, an outward case.” It seems that the word did not yet have the very specific definition it has today. Austen probably meant us to imagine a separate sheet of paper wrapped around the letter. Why would Caroline Bingley bother to wrap her letter with an extra sheet of paper when so many letter-writers of this period work so hard to keep their letters to one sheet?
In other words, English letter-writers are caught between etiquette and the postal system- if they are writing a formal, respectful letter, they can signal their intention by adding a “cover” to their letter. But that additional sheet of paper doubles the entire charge for mailing it. Since ordinarily the recipient of the letter pays the postage, an ‘envelope’ condemns the addressee to pay an exorbitant price for that respect.
Miss Bingley’s entire letter is a carefully crafted statement. Her “elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well-covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand” shows off her wealth with its expensive paper and her accomplishments with its refined handwriting. The letter’s contents celebrate her exalted social circle in the city, far beyond country-mouse Jane’s reach. Miss Bingley’s use of the formal envelope may be ‘respectful,’ but it is not friendly. The letter is designed to show Jane that they will not be intimate in the future. That extra piece of paper, as much as the contents of the letter itself, leads Jane to say “Does it not expressly declare that Caroline neither expects nor wishes me to be her sister. . .?”
That leaves me with the question- was Miss Bingley so cruel as to send this two-sheet letter by post, making the Bennets pay double for the privilege of breaking Jane’s heart? Austen’s wording isn’t explicit, but it suggests to me that even Miss Bingley did not stoop so low- she had her servant deliver this poisonous little missive from Netherfield by hand.
When I first started looking at online images of letters from Jane Austen’s era last summer, I often felt confused about what I was seeing. Maybe it’s because I haven’t handled real letters from that period to get a first-hand sense of their size and how they were folded. Maybe it’s because different archives photograph their letters differently, making it hard to compare them. Maybe I just didn’t see an explanation that clicked for me. So, although there are many articles and blog posts about Regency letter-writing on the web (see links at the end of this post for some), I’m going to add another one- the post that might have helped me last summer. Do keep in mind that, while there are conventions, individual letter-writers practiced many different techniques in different situations: there are a lot of possible variations.
The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge(YMBC&GUK) from 1815 has some simple, practical advice about writing letters. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of basic knowledge for granted: “The most convenient form for a letter is, a sheet of quarto paper, written on three succeeding pages.” What?? Let’s decipher that statement.
“Quarto” means a sheet of paper that is one quarter of a paper-manufacturer’s full sheet. As Entick’s dictionary (1791) puts it, a quarto is “The size of a sheet when twice doubled,” that is, folded in half twice. So the size of a quarto sheet depends on the original size of the full sheet. A wide variety of different sizes and qualities of writing paper was available to Jane Austen and her contemporaries. Just take a look at the British statutes regulating duties on paper from the 1780s– full sheets of writing paper measured anywhere from 22 inches by 30 1/4 inches (“Imperial”) to 12 1/2 inches by 15 1/2 inches (“pott”)! One common size was Post paper, which measured 15 1/4 inches by 19 1/2 inches in the full sheet, so a quarto sheet measured 7 5/8 inches by 9 3/4 inches. To put it simply, “quarto” letter paper could range in size from somewhat larger than standard 8.5×11 inch paper (A4 paper if you’re not in the US) to somewhat smaller.
Most paper was made of cotton and linen fibers which rendered it strong, soft, and less likely to turn brown and crumbly than later 19th century paper. Fine writing paper was treated with a gelatin size and hot-pressed to make it smoother and less absorbent. In Jane Austen’s day, traditional paper-making techniques were used alongside new industrial processes. She used both “laid” paper, a traditional style distinguished by prominent textured lines or stripes, and “wove” paper, a new style of smoother paper that lends itself to industrial production. Today, only special artist’s papers and fancy stationery are at all similar to the paper produced at that time. Most modern paper is made of bleached wood pulp with lots of different sizing and coating agents, including clay.
There are so many variables in sizes and qualities of paper that it’s hard to make generalizations! Each of the different types of paper, from pott to foolscap to post, had different weights and different qualities- it would take a paper expert to tell them apart and describe them all. This variation can be helpful if you’re trying to recreate period letters, though- many sizes of paper are appropriate, including modern standard paper. And, depending on your time and place (before or after wove paper became common) many different kinds of fine stationery and artist papers are usable.
Writing the Letter
When you fold a quarto sheet in half, you have a little two-leaf pamphlet with four writing surfaces. If, as the YMBC&GUK says, you write on “three succeeding pages” the fourth page remains blank. Envelopes as we know them don’t come into use until much later in the 19th century, and so to close the letter for mailing the writer simply folded the paper. That blank fourth page then becomes the outside of the letter, where the address is written and the letter is sealed. Some of the archives that share images of letters photograph only the whole, unfolded sheet, so you can see the outside of the letter together with the first page. Other archives show images of each individual page of writing, without an overview of the whole sheet.
Jane Austen took pleasure in a long letter, and when she ran out of room on the usual three pages she would write on the parts of that fourth page that she knew would be folded inside the letter or covered by a flap. If that still wasn’t enough room, she would “cross” her letter, turning the paper 90 degrees and writing right on top of the already-written page. I get the feeling that writers would only “cross” letters sent to intimate friends and family- people who knew the writer’s handwriting well already and who were hungry for all the news that could be shared. Why not add additional sheets? Postal charges in Britain during this period were relatively high. Charges were calculated by weight, distance, and number of sheets included. Two sheets of paper would double the price!
Folding and sealing the Letter
The YMBC&GUK suggests one simple way to fold a letter, but also implies that many writers used more complicated folds to try to keep their letters private:
In folding up a letter, the modern fashion is at once simple and sensible ; at the same time that if any part of the contents are to be kept particularly secret, they may be rendered quite inaccessible to the most prying curiosity. For it is obvious, that a person who is resolved to act so dishonourably, as to endeavour to discover the contents of a letter entrusted to his care and protection, will not be restrained from so base an action by the most intricate form in which the letter can possibly be made up. The most proper way to fold a letter, written on quarto paper, is to turn up two inches of the page, at top and bottom, and then turn over the inner margin which is double paper to within an inch and a half of the open outer margin, which folded down will give sufficient hold and space for the application of the wax or wafer.
If you tuck the larger bottom flap into the top flap, you can ensure that only one leaf of paper is caught by the seal. This is especially important since many people seem to have ripped or cut the top flap around the seal to open it. That’s just one way to fold a Regency letter for mailing- I’m sure there are many more, proper and improper!
As you can see, it’s difficult to find order in the chaos of minutiae related to letter-writing. It’s such an important and appealing part of Jane Austen’s novels and Regency life more broadly, but as an every-day practice for so many people it’s as varied as people are. But I hope I’ve been able to outline some of the main features, and maybe help clear up some confusion. Let me know if I’ve caused more confusion than I cleared up!
The Book of Trades: The Paper-maker – This 1807 children’s book provides simple descriptions of contemporary trades; a good introduction for modern readers since it doesn’t assume you have prior knowledge!
About Wove Paper – on James Whatman’s invention of “wove” paper in the 18th century.
Cyclopedia of Useful Arts (1852-4) – almost 40 years too late for Jane Austen’s period, but the paper sizes discussed are similar to the earlier data and are presented in a simple chart.
How to Post a letter, 19th century style– The Acasta’s blog shared this link in a post about their mail packet project. It shows another method of folding a letter, based on a real example. Great step-by-step How-To!
This week I was busy getting these letters ready to mail to 1814! I just took them to the post office this morning (swaddled in a boring modern envelope). I’ll share more details about the research and materials that went into them soon. I started doing some research on letter-writing in Jane Austen’s era last summer, so I jumped at the chance to dust it off and make something tangible with it. I may have gone a little overboard!
There’s still some time to write a letter of your own to the milliners and their friends at Mme. Bettinger’s shop in 1814- the cut-off date for mail is May 15. You don’t need to study period handwriting to participate- I did because that’s my thing! Also, I am over-the-top nerdy about this stuff.
What do real letters from Jane Austen’s era look like? As I’ve been planning to write some letters for the year 1814, that question has broken down into many very specific ones: What did people’s ordinary letter-writing handwriting look like? How were letters folded and sealed? How were they addressed? What marks did post offices and postal carriers add to the letters? Did local and international letters look different? To help answer these questions, I’ve been looking at images of actual letters from the period. I’ve found a number of helpful online resources that I’d like to share with you today.
Jane Austen’s Letters
Of course I need to start with Jane Austen’s own letters, although the harvest is sparse on the web. While her surviving fiction manuscripts are readily viewable online, Austen’s letters are not as accessible. The Morgan Library has made a few images available of their collection of Jane’s letters to Cassandra. The images offer tantalizing glimpses, as only one side of each sheet is depicted. Don’t miss a very good introductory essay on the technical details of Austen’s writing- her ink, pens, and paper.
Being a famous writer seems to be the best way to get your letters preserved and readable online, as seen on the website accompanying the exhibit “Shelley’s Ghost” put on by the Bodleian and the New York Public Library. Both institutions have extensive collections relating to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his circle. His circle is quite illustrious- his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wrote Frankenstein as a teenager after all! Her parents had also been sensational celebrities in their day- Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were both famous radical philosophers, and it was their fame that drew Percy Shelley to Mary initially.
My favorite letter in the exhibit is pictured above. The main part of the letter was written by Mary’s father in May 1816 after Shelley (already married) had run off with Mary and her step-sister to the Continent. Godwin was cold and a bit stern in his letter to the runaways, but then he passed the paper on to his step-daughter Fanny Imlay. She filled in every bit of blank space that remained with her own letter, full of love and hurt at their sudden secret departure. She even wrote on the “outside” of the letter, on the flaps that would get folded in when she closed it, just as Austen did in the letter to Cassandra shown above. She then sealed it with her own seal, engraved with her name “Frances.” It’s addressed to Poste Restante in Geneva and is pocked with a variety of postmarks picked up on the long journey from London.
The other letters in this online exhibit are just as poignant, ranging from the last letters written by Mary Wollstonecraft before her death in childbed to the heartbreaking suicide note left by Percy’s first wife. I’m also fond of a letter from one of William Godwin’s female fans in 1800– it’s full of significant underlinings, tears of extasy, and a request to burn the letter (something he obviously didn’t do!). Even if you’re not a fan of Frankenstein or the tempestuous lives of the Romantic poets, these letters have so many details of letter-writing practice to offer!
Shelley’s Ghost – There are lots of amazing artifacts to explore in this online exhibit, including Mary Shelley’s drafts of Frankenstein and Percy Shelley’s doodles! The section of the exhibit titled Shelley and Mary seems to have the highest density of letters, but there are gems scattered throughout. Some parts of the letters are transcribed for easy reading, while others you may have to zoom in to read (be patient- the zoom takes a while to load).
The Abinger Collection at the Bodleian – A large collection of all kinds of papers related to this family. Look for “Correspondence” in the Table of Contents, and click through to find links to images of individual letters.
Letters from the War of 1812
And now for something a little different: Indiana University’s Lilly Library has an online exhibit on the War of 1812 which is full of letters written by famous statesmen and ordinary folks alike, mostly from the American side. The ones I’m most fascinated by are a group from American sailors who were impressed by the British Navy, then captured by the Dutch and held as prisoners of war. If you are an American history buff or a reader of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, you’ll know how important an issue the impressment of American sailors was in the lead-up to the war. The sailors wrote or dictated impassioned letters to the American consul in Holland, Sylvanus Bourne, complaining that their imprisonment was unjust since they were not really British combatants and had been wrongly impressed to begin with. This cache of letters is full of interesting details like different styles of handwriting and spelling. Best of all, it includes images of each page and the outside of the letter, or “cover,” which shows the address and seal.
The whole collection of War of 1812 manuscripts is pretty fantastic, extending from 1776 to 1879. Unfortunately it’s a little difficult to navigate in IU’s Archives Online- new tabs and viewing windows proliferate- but it’s worth clicking around until you figure it out.
War of 1812 MSS in Archives Online at IU – Each document is listed by date in the sidebar on the left. I recommend you use the search bar to narrow the field. I searched for ‘letter” to weed out the legal and bureaucratic documents also contained in the archive. A search for “impressment,” turns up the Sylvanus Bourne letters mentioned above as well as some internal US government letters on the topic.
Postal History and Collectors’ resources
There is an active community of history buffs and collectors who focus just on postal history, especially in the UK. The kind of postage stamp you can collect and put in an album was not invented until 1840. When looking at earlier periods, the “pre-stamp” era, historians and collectors focus on the written and stamped marks made by postal workers on the “cover” of the letter, the part that faces outside when folded. Unfortunately for my purposes, they aren’t always as interested in the whole letter!
Letters from the Past – This page is an amazing resource, containing pictures and analysis of many individual British letters dating from 1660 to the 1890s – a large number of them from Jane Austen’s era. The author, Eunice Shanahan, has a lot to say about the contents and contexts of letters as well as the post-marks! She also has special expertise in the Regency period, so check out the links at the bottom of the page for more on the postal service of that era. I’d seen some of this info re-published at other sites like VictorianWeb, so I was very glad to find that the Shanahans are still going strong and adding to their website!
Ebay search for “pre-stamp” in the stamps/philately category- Seriously! Postal history collectors and dealers sell a lot of ordinary correspondence from Jane Austen’s era on ebay, and that means there are a lot of informative images available in one place. Some listings focus on the postmarks on the cover, but others sell and share pictures of complete letters. Look for listings that say “Letter” or “Entire” rather than “Cover.” It’s a great way to see every-day correspondence from non-famous people.
I hope that gives you a lot to chew on! Have you found any online treasure troves of period letters? Is there something that’s been puzzling you about correspondence from Jane Austen’s era? Let me know- I’d love to hear from you!
A quick update- I feel ready to celebrate my accomplishments by making a “Schoolpiece” or sampler of my elegant 18th century handwriting, but I’ve run into some difficulties reproducing a writing blank. I’ve been grumbling in frustration for a while rather than writing and posting. Sorry!
But I’ve gotten very excited about a project that will use my handwriting skills in a new way. Sabine of the amazing bilingual blog Kleidung Um 1800 has sent out an open call for letters as part of her re-enactment of a Milliner’s shop in Westphalia (now part of Germany) in 1814. It’s modelled on the HMS Acasta’s Mail Packetwhich seems to be on hiatus this year which has been postponed to September this year. If you’d like to learn more (and maybe contribute a letter of your own), check out these posts on Kleidung Um 1800 (look for the English portions in italics beneath each paragraph of German):
I’ve had a lot of fun researching and planning letters, and I can’t wait to share with you what I’ve learned! While I put the finishing touches on that project, I have some posts planned about other writing-related topics from Jane Austen’s era. Don’t forget to check out my Pinterest boards and my Tumblr!