Manuscripts and Special Collections

Helpful advice on letter writing

March 21st, 2011 at 12:03

A fascinating little book was recently donated to Special Collections. Very worn, and with one or two loose pages, it really needs some conservation, but the content is intriguing. Dating from the 1870s it is entitled Beeton’s complete letter writer for ladies and gentlemen. It is described as “a useful compendium of epistolary materials gathered from the best sources and adapted to suit an indefinite number of cases”. It consists of examples of letters covering a range of social and business circumstances, from advertising for a good cook, to breaking off an engagement.

Are you a tradesman, attempting to get payment from a slippery customer? Here is a range of letters, always polite but becoming progressively more pressing. “I trust you found my statement correct, and were satisfied with the quality of the articles supplied…” moves on smoothly to “Were I in a position to wait longer for a settlement it would afford me pleasure to do so, but at present it is quite out of my power. I beg therefore you will hand a cheque to my collector on Thursday…”

Maybe you are a lady whose fiance had appeared to have lost interest? “I have lately observed with very great sorrow that your interest in my society and my plans has been rapidly lessening, and I fear now it has no real existence….” But no! It seems that the gentleman had been experiencing financial difficulties, and felt his position was untenable. “But why did you not tell me you were in difficulties and I would have told you you were dearer to me than ever…”

There are letters accepting and refusing a missionary’s proposal (“constitutionally unfitted to reside in a climate so trying as Africa…”), applying for employment, offering sympathy on the death of a friend’s wife, and letters from parents to sons and daughters who are away at school (“You cannot imagine the pain I experienced on hearing from Mr. ___ that your conduct at school was such as to call for grave censure…”)

Most of these letters were, we understand, taken from genuine sources, but we cannot know to what extent these templates were used by readers; some of the simple business letters would no doubt have been helpful, and the book includes useful tips on forms of address. But as a whole, the book conjures up a different world, and gives a fascinating insight into the social and business customs and conventions of our ancestors.

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