Thursday, April 22, 2010

Book 6 of 15: "'What Shall I Say?': A Guide to Letter Writing for Ladies"

This is a little museum reproduction of a book originally published in 1898. After listing the proper forms of address (starting with the queen, then proceeding through the greater and lesser ranks of nobility, clergy and professional men) and a few pithy pieces of advice on the mechanics of letter writing itself ("No one admires a 'style' which is difficult to read, and if you hanker to be 'admired,' as all vain persons do, you would, for your own sake, do well to choose some other field in which to 'show off' than in affecting an eccentric handwriting"), the rest of the book consists in examples of various types of letters.

I think the author of this book must have a had a stifled longing to be a novelist, because these letters are entertaining stories in and of themselves. With titles like "From a governess to her mother saying she is unhappy in her situation" to "From young lady to her lover, who urges immediate marriage", these letters are bunches of little windows into late Victorian social life. In many cases, the letters are answered by a second example, and sometimes two! For example, the letter "Asking lady to sing at a concert" is followed by "Reply-favourable" and "Reply-unfavourable."

You'd think the Victorians would surpass us in courtesy at every occasion, so it was interesting to read some sentiments in these letters that wouldn't be polite to write in a modern email. For instance, in a birthday letter, a young lady says to her mother: "How can I express my joy at having you still with us to congratulate on another birthday?" Can you imagine that on a Hallmark card? "Happy birthday, Mom, I'm so glad you're not dead yet."Reading this book made me realize that mortality is avoided in modern conversation in a way it wasn't when this book was written.

I think my favorite, though, was the section of love letters. There are several in a row dealing with responses to marriage proposals - some accepting and some declining. A couple of the declining ones are very kind - expressing the lady's hopes that the gentleman will find someone who can love him as much as he deserves, etc. - but one of them reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

I thought from my manner of receiving your smallest attentions, that it would have been evident to you that those same attentions were disagreeable to me. You will do me the justice to acknowledge that I never on any single occasion gave you the least encouragement.

Hoping you will come to your senses, and forget me as soon as possible.

I am, yours truly,


In twenty-first century terms: burn.

Very fun book. Definitely worth dipping into, and, honestly, a useful little tome if you're at a loss for words, even in 2010. The language might be old, but the sentiments are recognizable even 100 years later.

peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell


betsy said...

OK Jess,
I am looking forward my next birthday card from you
"dear mom, I'm so glad that you are not dead" is perfectly acceptable!
provided it is heartfelt.

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

That is wonderful! Can I borrow it?

Girl Detective said...

But then, in Victorian times, death was a much more present threat than it is now.

This does indeed sound fascinating. The turn-down letter reminds me of Lizzie's mid-book speech to Darcy in P & P.

Dr. Alice said...

That's marvelous, and I too thought of Pride and Prejudice when reading the turn-down letter.

I once got a lot of fun out of reading a book of business correspondence and composing a letter of recommendation using every cliche the book said not to use. I gave the letter to a co-worker who got a laugh out of it - I know this sounds weird, but the business we worked for at the time was closing down and writing the letter was kind of therapeutic.