East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Mediums of improving conversation, brilliant wit, and moral obligations

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Some things never change. I get an idea for a story, I start doing a modicum of research. Three Letters from the Country (because I am going to write it!) is going to be a ghost story set in a country house and told through letters. Ergo, I research old country houses, possibly of the British persuasion, for a map and hopefully some interior shot (to make my descriptive work easier), and I do research letter-writing during the Victorian and Edwardian era (because I want my letters to be formally convincing).
And I take notes, because I am also writing an article about research for writers.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on Pexels.com

So, letter writing in the Victorian era… now that’s a surprising subject because we often forget that back in the time letters were all that was available for interpersonal communication. No phone calls, no emails, SMS, face time, voice chat… only letters.
And even a superficial search through the web reveals a number of things.

One, for instance, that I did not consider at all, is the attention that was paid to the material side of letter writing – the choice of paper, and ink, and pen nib, and envelope, and sealing wax…
In our time of standard A4 or Letter sized white printer paper, this is something we might overlook. There was at the time a Guild of Stationers in London, and their services were regulated by a very strict set of “sacred rules”.
As for the letter-writers, they also were bound by convention. Quoth Wikipedia…

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.

Letter-writing handbooks were a thing, back in the time – but really, I saw letter-writing handbooks circulate when I was in the Air Farce, at the tail end of the 20th century. A basic form of self-help literature, these books were often very specific – like, handbooks for men that wanted to write to women with possibly romantic developments in mind. Things like the 1828 (and therefore NOT Victorian) 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. Today we have “pickup artist” handbooks – one wonders if it’s progress at all.

Much more interesting for my project, more recent and more generic, and printed in the US in 1883, is another book that can be found online in the Internet Archive. It’s called 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, and it’s quite interesting. In fact, I am particularly interested about the formalities bit, because I plan my letters to be in line with the formalities of the time – up to a point.

The salutation is the term of politeness used to introduce a letter, as Dear Sir, My Dear Friend, My Honored Father. Business letters generally begin with Sir, Dear Sir, Messrs. or Gentlemen. Never use ‘gents.’ for Gentlemen, nor ‘Dr.’ for Dear. For a letter addressed to a married woman or a single woman not young, the proper salutation is Madam, Dear Madam, or My Dear Madam.

— Polite Life and Etiquette, 1891

For the rest, in terms of content and structure, I’ll have to take into account both the story, and my letter-writing main character’s personality.
Considering that Valerie Trelawney is a rather non-conformist, not to say modern and liberated woman, I don’t think she’ll place much stock in prescribed structure and form.

“Ladies, when writing to gentlemen who are not related to them, should make their letters mediums of improving conversation, brilliant wit, and moral obligations, and always of so high and pure a tone, that they would be fit for publication should they ever be needed.”

— Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette, 1881

But the web is full of other wonders, such as this list of rules for ladies writing letters…

  1. Don’t write an anonymous letter.
  2. Don’t conduct private correspondence on a postal card, as they are considered a “cheap” version of a letter.
  3. Don’t use lined paper for formal letters.
  4. Don’t write on a half-sheet of paper for the sake of economy.
  5. Don’t underline words. Let your choice of vocabulary and expressiveness of thought convey your depth of feeling.
  6. Don’t use abbreviated words, as it indicates the letter was written hastily.
  7. Don’t erase misspelled words in letters of importance; do recopy the entire letter.
  8. Don’t use a postscript except in very friendly letters.
  9. Don’t fill up margins with forgotten ideas and messages but instead add an extra sheet to the letter.
  10. Do give every subject a separate paragraph.
  11. Do write letters by hand; the typewriter was considered the most vulgar thing to use on a personal letter!
  12. Do match the writing style to whom the letter was addressed to; for example, a letter to a business tradesman should be polite but distant in its tone.
  13. Don’t refold the letter; rather, do be sure to fold it correctly the first time.
  14. Do read the letter over carefully before sending.

Quite interesting, I believe – and I also found out that there exist clubs and groups of people, today, that write Victorian letters as a pastime. A fascinating hobby. There is, in fact a Victorian Letter Writers Guild, and I have to admit I was disappointed to discover that the 2020 subscription to their pen friends list closed three days ago.

All of which, will be handy as soon as I start writing (hopefully later tonight), and might even feel like overkill – but with research, it usually happens. Learning when to stop is often more important than knowing where to begin.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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