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Letter-Writers
by [?]

Since old Leisure died, we have come to think ourselves altogether too fine and too busy to cultivate the delightful art of correspondence. Dickens seems to have been almost the last man among us who gave his mind to letter-writing; and his letters contain some of his very best work, for he plunged into his subject with that high-spirited abandonment which we see in “Pickwick,” and the full geniality of his mind came out delightfully. The letter in which he describes a certain infant schoolboy who lost himself at the Great Exhibition is one of the funniest things in literature, but it is equalled in positive value by some of the more serious letters which the great man sent off in the intervals of his heavy labour. Dickens could do nothing by halves, and thus, at times when he could have earned forty pounds a day by sheer literary work, he would spend hours in answering people whom he had never seen, and, what is more remarkable, these “task”-letters were marked by all the brilliant strength and spontaneity of his finest chapters. He was the last of the true correspondents, and we shall not soon look upon his like again. With all the contrivances for increasing our speed of communication, and for enabling us to cram more varied action into a single life, we have less and less time to spare for salutary human intercourse. The post-card symbolises the tendency of the modern mind. We have come to find out so many things which ought to be done that we make up our minds to do nothing whatever thoroughly; and the day may come when the news of a tragedy ruining a life or a triumph crowning a career will be conveyed by a sixpenny telegram. In the bad old days, when postage was dear and the means of conveyance slow, people who could afford to correspond at all sat down to begin a letter as though they were about to engage in some solemn rite. Every patch of the paper was covered, and every word was weighed, so that the writer screwed the utmost possible value for his money out of the post-office. The letters written in the last century resembled the deliberate and lengthy communications of Roman gentlemen like Cicero: and there is little wonder that the good folk made the most of their paper and their time. We find Godwin casually mentioning the fact that he paid twenty-one shillings and eightpence for the postage of a letter from Shelley; readers of The Antiquary will remember that Lovel paid twenty-five shillings postage for one epistle, besides half a guinea for the express rider. Certes a man had good need to drive a hard bargain with the Post Office in those pinching times! Of course the “lower orders”–poor benighted souls–were not supposed to have any correspondence at all, and the game was kept up by gentlemen of fortune, by merchants, by eager and moneyed lovers, and by stray persons of literary tastes, who could manage to beg franks from members of Parliament and other dignitaries. One gentleman, not of literary tastes, once franked a cow and sent her by post; but this kind of postal communication was happily rare. The best of the letter-writers felt themselves bound to give their friends good worth for their money, and thus we find the long chatty letters of the eighteenth century purely delightful. I do not care much for Lord Chesterfield’s correspondence; he was eternally posing with an eye on the future–perhaps on the very immediate future. As Johnson sternly said, “Lord Chesterfield wrote as a dancing-master might write,” and he spoke the truth. Fancy a man sending such stuff as this to a raw boy–“You will observe the manners of the people of the best fashion there; not that they are–it may be–the best manners in the world, but because they are the best manners of the place where you are, to which a man of sense always conforms. The nature of things is always and everywhere the same; but the modes of them vary more or less in every country, and an easy and genteel conformity to them, or rather the assuming of them at proper times and proper places, is what particularly constitutes a man of the world, and a well-bred man!” All true enough, but how shallow, and how ineffably conceited! Here is another absurd fragment–“My dear boy, let us resume our reflections upon men, their character, their manners–in a word, our reflections upon the World.” It is quite like Mr. Pecksniff’s finest vein. There is not a touch of nature or vital truth in the Chesterfield letters, and the most that can be said of them is that they are the work of a fairly clever man who was flattered until he lost all sense of his real size. If we take the whole bunch of finikin sermons and compare them with the one tremendous knock-down letter which Johnson sent to the dandy earl, we can easily see who was the Man of the pair. When we return to Walpole, the case is different. Horace never posed at all; he was a natural gentleman, and anything like want of simplicity was odious to him. The age lives in his charming letters; after going through them we feel as though we had been on familiar terms with that wicked, corrupt, outwardly delightful society that gambled and drank, and scandalised the grave spirits of the nation, in the days when George III. was young. Horace Walpole was the letter-writer of letter-writers; his gossip carries the impress of truth with it; and, though he had no style, no brilliancy, no very superior ability, yet, by using his faculties in a natural way, he was able to supply material for two of the finest literary fragments of modern times. I take it that the most stirring and profoundly wise piece of modern history is Carlyle’s brief account of William Pitt, given in the “Life of Frederick the Great.” Once we have read it we feel as though the great commoner had stood before us for a while under a searching light; his figure is imprinted on the very nerves, and no man who has read carefully can ever shake off an impression that seems burnt into the fibre of the mind. This superlatively fine historic portrait was painted by Carlyle solely from Walpole’s material–for we cannot reckon chance newspaper scraps as counting for much–and thus the gossip of Strawberry Hill conferred immortality on himself and on our own Titanic statesman. But Walpole’s influence did not end there. Whoever wants to read a very good and charming work should not miss seeing Sir George Trevelyan’s “Life of Charles James Fox.” To praise this book is almost an impertinence. I content myself with saying that those who once taste its fascination go back to it again and again, and usually end by placing it with the books that are “the bosom friends” of men. Now the grim Scotchman lit up Horace’s letters with the lurid furnace-glow of his genius; Sir George held the serene lamp of the scholar above the same letters, and lo, we have two pieces that can only die when the language dies! What a feat for a mere letter-writer to achieve! Let ambitious correspondents take example by Horace Walpole, and learn that simplicity is the first, best–nay, the only–object to be aimed at by the letter-writer.