How to Write a Letter

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In the middle of a house-move I came across many books I didn’t know I had, among them pamphlets that I had picked up for their curiosity value as long as twenty years ago, and tucked out of sight among the overpowering hardbacks. Busy as I was, now, in the turmoil, I couldn’t resist sitting down among the packing-cases to read How to Write a Good Letter: A Complete Guide to the Correct Manner of Letter Writing by John Barter, F.S.Sc., Revised and Enlarged by Gilbert Foyle (London, W. & G. Foyle, 135 Charing Cross Road, W.C., 1912).

At the time I picked up this treasure, I was reminded of Max Beerbohm’s essay of 1910, “How Shall I Word It?,” he having come across a complete letter-writing manual at a railway bookstall; I feel it was rather more old-fashioned than mine. In Max’s booklet a young man writes to “Father of Girl he wishes to Marry.” In mine, the young man may alternatively write to the girl herself, but not, be it noted, addressing her by her first name.

The ever-incomparable Max, in his essay, was led on to compose some “model” letters of his own, such as Letter from Poor Man to Obtain Money from Rich One and Letter to Thank Author for Inscribed Copy of Book, each with its Beerbohmesque sardonic twist.

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In my case, my novelist’s imagination takes over. For example, “Leslie Dale of 328 Brondesbury Road, Kilburn N.W.” writes the following Proposal of Marriage.

5th April 1907

Dear Miss Hall
As I take my pen in my hand, I am wondering if you will think this letter rather premature, but the gist of the matter is that you and you alone are the one ideal woman in all the world for me. My mind is in a chaos as to whether your sentiments are the same concerning myself, and I cannot rest until you send me your answer to this question. Are you willing to share my lot?
  …I will try my utmost to do all that is in my power to make your life happy and free from care, that there may never occur one moment of regret in taking the step I wish. You are to me my guiding star. Now please tell me whether you are going to make me the happiest or most miserable man on earth. Do as your heart dictates.
  Awaiting with impatience your reply.
Yours hopefully,
Leslie Dale.

It does not take a great deal of novelist’s imagination to conceive that Miss Hall is mightily thrilled by this fairly passionless missive, and loses no time to take it along to show her bosom friend, Miss Bellamy. She finds the latter lady, however, in a state of acute palpitation, having herself just received a Proposal of Marriage from her admirer, Herbert Clark. With trembling hands the girls exchange letters, only to find, on perusal, exactly the same wording, their suitors having both had recourse to the model letter in Messrs. Foyles’ popular publication. Naturally, they decline their respective proposals. An example of the most dignified wording for that occasion is ready to hand in the manual:

I am truly sorry if my letter causes you pain, but through circumstances over which I have no control, I am obliged to decline the great honour you offer me…

We do have a Reply of a Gentleman in Explanation of his Conduct, but it does not apply to Miss Hall’s young man:

26 Albert Square,
London, N.W.
13th August, 1907.

My own Darling,
For so I must still address you, has cruelty entered into your tender nature, or has some designing wretch imposed on your credulity? My Dear, I am neither false nor perjured. My sole reason for walking with Miss Brown was that I had been on a visit to her brother, who you know is my Solicitor. And was it any harm to take a walk in the fields along with him and his sister? Surely no; in you are centred all my hopes of happiness; my affections never so much as wander from the dear object of my love. Do not entertain for a moment these groundless jealousies against one who loves you in a manner superior to the whole of your sex; let me beg of you an answer by return, as I will be most miserable until I hear from you.
Yours, for ever,

In an aside, our Gentleman is warned never to write “My Dearest Katie,” lest the loved one be moved to reply “Am I to understand that you have other Katies?”

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust

Drawing by Edward Gorey

Although the Love and Matrimony section is crowned by a charming letter from Napoleon to Josephine, 1796, other headings are well represented. There are business letters such as that concerning “the machinery that you made for our grinding department twelve months ago” which makes one go into a dream of wonder over grinding departments. There are specimen letters “Requesting Payment of an Account,” and a “Reply to an Advertisement for a Governess,” which are the soul of tact and good breeding.


We are a long way from the twelfth-century father of epistolary rhetoric Boncompagno da Signa, and further still from that immortal letter-writer, Paul of Tarsus. We are in the more modest daily lives of our great-grandfathers, grandfathers or even our fathers as the case may be. Our handbook has something for everybody, the stationer, the railway company; and if you should chance to be the Queen of England at a loss how to frame a letter to the President of the United States, this is what you write:

Buckingham Palace,
22nd June 1860.

My good Friend,
I have been much gratified at the feelings which prompted you to write to me, inviting the Prince of Wales to come to Washington. He intends to return from Canada through the United States, and it will give him great pleasure to have an opportunity of testifying to you in person that these feelings are fully reciprocated by him. He will thus be able, at the same time, to remark the respect which he entertains for the Chief Magistrate of a great and friendly State and kindred nation.
  The Prince of Wales will drop all Royal State on leaving my dominions, and travel under the name of Lord Renfrew, as he has done when travelling on the Continent of Europe.
  The Prince Consort wishes to be kindly remembered to you.
I remain ever, your good friend
Victoria R.

This essay is drawn from The Informed Air, published this month by New Directions.

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