Page images
[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

cultivating a good epistolary style; and appears to consider that our own countrymen have been surpassed by the French in that branch of composition. As letters,' he says, 'are written on all subjects, in all states of mind, they cannot be properly reduced to settled rules, or described by any single characteristic; and we may safely disentangle our minds from critical embarrassments, by determining that a letter has no peculiarity but its form, and that nothing is to be refused admission, which would be proper in any other method of treating the same subject. The qualities of the epistolary style most frequently required are ease and simplicity, an even flow of unlaboured diction, and an artless arrangement of obvious sentiments. But these directions are no sooner applied to use, than their scantiness and imperfection become evident. Letters are written to the great and to the mean, to the learned and the ignorant, at rest and in distress, in sport and in passion. Nothing can be more improper than ease and laxity of expression, when the importance of the subject impresses solicitude, or the dignity of the person exacts reverence.

'That letters should be written with strict

Epistolary Style.

[ocr errors]


conformity to nature is true, because nothing but conformity to nature can make any composition beautiful or just. But it is natural to depart from familiarity of language upon occasions not familiar. Whatever elevates the sentiments will consequently raise the expression; whatever fills us with hope or terror, will produce some perturbation of images, and some figurative distortions of phrase. Wherever we are studious to please, we are afraid of trusting our first thoughts, and endeavour to recommend our opinion by studied ornaments, accuracy of method, and elegance of style. The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is communicated, or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the absent either love or esteem; to excite love we must impart pleasure, and to raise esteem we must discover abilities. Pleasure will generally be given, as abilities are displayed by scenes of imagery, points of conceit, unexpected sallies, and artful compliments. Trifles always require exuberance of ornament; the building which has no strength can be valued only for the grace of its decorations. The pebble must be polished with care, which hopes


Lord Collingwood

to be valued as a diamond; and words ought surely to be laboured, when they are intended to stand for things.'

Not less sound are the directions on the subject of letter-writing which are given by Lord Collingwood,-himself an admirable letterwriter, in a communication addressed to one of his daughters, dated July 1809: When you write a letter,' he says, 'give it your greatest care, that it may be as perfect in all its parts as you can make it. Let the subject be sense, expressed in the most plain, intelligible, and elegant manner that you are capable of. If in a familiar epistle you should be playful and jocular, guard carefully that your wit be not sharp, so as to give pain to any person; and before you write a sentence, examine it, even the words of which it is composed, that there be nothing vulgar or inelegant in them. Remember, my dear, that your letter is a picture of your brains; and those whose brains are a compound of folly, nonsense, and impertinence, are to blame to exhibit them to the contempt of the world, or the pity of their friends. To write a letter with negligence, without proper stops, with crooked lines, and great flourishing

on Letter-writing.


dashes, is inelegant; it argues either great ignorance of what is proper, or great indifference towards the person to whom it is addressed, and is consequently disrespectful. It makes no amends to add an apology for having scrawled a sheet of paper; or bad pens, for you should mend them; or want of time, for nothing is more important to you, or to which your time can more properly be devoted. I think I can know the character of a lady pretty nearly by her handwriting. The dashers are all impudent, however they may conceal it from themselves or others; and the scribblers flatter themselves with the vain hope, that, as their letter cannot be read, it may be mistaken for sense.'


Among other curious characteristics of modern times, most persons must have been struck by the vast number of begging-letters which find their way into the hands of a sympathizing public; and of late years it would appear that the fabrication of these documents has become a regular branch of



business.1 Although invariably cast aside by every one who pretends to possess the smallest amount of common sense, in many instances, unfortunately, they attain their unworthy object, and thus the evil is steadily perpetuated. Usually characterized by an utter disregard of logic, grammar, and orthography, they are sometimes very skilfully put together; and, from time to time, very elaborate examples are quoted in the public prints. It has been alleged that the most frequent recipients of begging-letters are ladies and clergymen, in consequence of their being generally regarded as more compassionate and tender-hearted than unsentimental, cold, cast-iron men of the world. Sterne takes the same view of the

1 During the year 1867, upwards of 2000 begging-letters were investigated by the 'Mendicity Society,' Red Lion Square, London, of which more than one half were found to be undeserving of notice.

2 A late legal friend,—a shrewd observer of human nature, – systematically disregarded all testimonials as to character and qualifications granted by clergymen, whose certificates he considered far too laudatory to be consistent with truth. There can be no doubt that many others besides clergymen are too much disposed, in writing such documents, to over-estimate the good, and to overlook the bad points of the parties to whom they relate; and accordingly the testimonial system is now beginning to be very generally distrusted.

« PreviousContinue »