Letter-Writers by James Runciman

Story type: Literature

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.

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We have forgotten the easy style of Walpole; we do not any longer care much for Johnson, though his letters are indeed models; we have no time for lovely whimsical elaborations like those of Cowper or Charles Lamb; but still some of us–persons of inferior mind perhaps–do attempt to write letters. To these I have a word to say. So far as I can judge, after passing many, many hundreds and thousands of letters through my hands, the best correspondents nowadays are either those who have been educated to the finest point, and who therefore dare not be affected, or those who have no education at all. A little while ago I went through a terrific letter from a young man, who took up seventeen enormous double sheets of paper in trying to tell me something about himself. The handwriting was good, the air of educated assurance breathed from the style was quite impassive, and the total amount of six thousand eight hundred words was sufficient to say anything in reason. Yet this voluminous writer managed to say nothing in particular excepting that he thought himself very like Lord Byron, that he was fond of courting, and that his own talents were supreme. Now a simple honest narrative of youthful struggles would have held me attentive, but I found much difficulty in keeping a judicial mind on this enormous effusion. Why? Because the writer was a bad correspondent; he was so wrapped up in himself that he could not help fancying that every one else must be in the same humour, and thus he produced a dull, windy letter in spite of his tolerable smattering of education. On the other hand, I often study simple letters which err in the matter of spelling and grammar, but which are enthralling in interest. A domestic servant modestly tells her troubles and gives the truth about her life; every word burns with significance–and Shakespeare himself could do no more than give music of style and grave coherence to the narrative. The servant writes well because she keeps clear of high-sounding phrases, and writes with entire sincerity. It is the sincerity that attracts the judicious reader, and it is only by sincerity that any letter-writer can please other human creatures. Beauty of style counts for a great deal; I would not sacrifice the exquisite daintiness of epistolary style in Lamb or Coleridge or Thackeray or Macaulay for gold. But style is not everything, and the very best letter I ever read–the letter which stands first in my opinion as a model of what written communications should be–is without grammar or form or elegance. It is simply a document in which the writer suppresses himself, and conveys all the intelligence possible in a limited space. To all letter-writers I would say, “Let your written words come direct from your own mind. The moment you try to reproduce any thought or any cadence of language which you have learned from books you become a bore, and no sane man can put up with you. But, if you resolve that the thought set down shall be yours and yours alone, that the turns of phrase shall be such as you would use in talking with your intimates, that each word shall be prompted by your own knowledge or your belief, then it does not matter a pin if you are ignorant of spelling, grammar, and all the graces; you will be a pleasing correspondent.” Look at the letters of Lady Sarah Lennox, who afterwards became the mother of the brilliant Napiers. This lady did not know how to put in a single stop, and her spelling is more wildly eccentric than words can describe, yet her letters are enthralling, and natural fire and fun actually seem to derive piquancy from the schoolgirlish errors. If you sit down to write with the intention of being impressive, you may not make a fool of yourself, but the chances are all in that direction; whereas, if you resolve with rigid determination to say something essential about some fact and to say it in your own way, you will produce a piece of valuable literature. Of course there are times when dignity and gravity are necessary in correspondence, but even dignity cannot be divorced from simplicity. Supposing that, by an evil chance, a person finds himself bound to inflict an epistolary rebuff on another, the rebuff entirely fails if a single affected word is inserted. The most perfect example of a courteous snub with which I am acquainted was sent by a master of measured and ornamental prose. Gibbon, the historian, received a very lengthy and sarcastic letter from the famous Doctor Priestley, of Birmingham. Priestley blamed Gibbon for his covert mode of attacking Christianity, and observed that Servetus was more to be admired for his courage as a martyr than for his services as a scientific discoverer. Now Gibbon knew by instinct that the historic style would at once become ludicrous if used to answer such a letter; so he deserted his ordinary majestic manner, and wrote thus–

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“SIR–As I do not pretend to judge of the sentiments or intentions of another, I shall not inquire how far you are inclined to suffer or inflict martyrdom. It only becomes me to say that the style and temper of your last letter have satisfied me of the propriety of declining all further correspondence, whether public or private, with such an adversary.”

A perfect sneer, a perfectly guarded and telling rebuff. But I do not care to speak about the literature of quarrels; my concern is mainly with those readers who have relatives scattered here and there, and who try to keep up communications with the said relatives. Judging from the countless letters which I see, only a small percentage of people understand that the duty of a correspondent is to say something. As a general rule, it may be taken for granted that abstract reflections are a bore; and I am certain that an exiled Englishman would be far more delighted with the letter of a child who told him about the farm or the cows, or the people in the street, or the marriages and christenings and engagements, than he would be with miles of sentiment from an adult, no matter how noble might be the language in which the sentiment was couched. Partly, then, as a hint to the good folk who load the foreign-bound mails, partly as a hint to my own army of correspondents,[1] I have given a fragment of the fruits of wide experience. Remember that stately Sir William Temple is all but forgotten; chatty Pepys is immortal. Windy Philip de Commines is unread; Montaigne is the delight of leisurely men all the world over. The mighty Doctor Robertson is crowned chief of bores; the despised Boswell is likely to be the delight of ages to come. The lesson is–be simple, be natural, be truthful; and let style, grace, grammar, and everything else take care of themselves. I spoke just now of the best letter I have ever read, and I venture to give a piece of it–

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[1] Written when Mr. Runciman answered correspondents of the
Family Herald.

“DEAR MADAM,–No doubt you and Frank’s friends have heard the sad fact of his death here, through his uncle or the lady who took his things. I will write you a few lines, as a casual friend that sat by his death-bed. Your son, Corporal Frank H. —-, was wounded near Fort Fisher. The wound was in the left knee, pretty bad. On the 4th of April the leg was amputated a little above the knee; the operation was performed by Dr. Bliss, one of the best surgeons in the Army–he did the whole operation himself. The bullet was found in the knee. I visited and sat by him frequently, as he was fond of having me. The last ten or twelve days of April I saw that his case was critical. The last week in April he was much of the time flighty, but always mild and gentle. He died 1st of May. Frank, as far as I saw, had everything requisite in surgical treatment, nursing, etc. He had watchers most of the time–he was so good and well-behaved and affectionate. I myself liked him very much. I was in the habit of coming in afternoons and sitting by him and soothing him; and he liked to have me–liked to put his arm out and lay his hand on my knee–would keep it so a long while. Towards the last he was more restless and flighty at night–often fancied himself with his regiment, by his talk sometimes seemed as if his feelings were hurt by being blamed by his officers for something he was entirely innocent of–said, ‘I never in my life was thought capable of such a thing, and never was.’ At other times he would fancy himself talking, as it seemed, to children and such like–his relatives, I suppose–and giving them good advice–would talk to them a long while. All the time he was out of his head not one single bad word or idea escaped him. It was remarked that many a man’s conversation in his senses was not half so good as Frank’s delirium. He seemed quite willing to die–he had become weak and had suffered a good deal, and was quite resigned, poor boy! I do not know his past life, but I feel as if it must have been good; at any rate, what I saw of him here under the most trying circumstances, with a painful wound, and among strangers, I can say that he behaved so brave, so composed, and so sweet and affectionate, it could not be surpassed…. I thought perhaps a few words, though from a stranger, about your son, from one who was with him at the last, might be worth while, for I loved the young man, though I but saw him immediately to lose him.”

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The grammar here is all wrong, but observe the profound goodness of the writer; he hides nothing he knows that bereaved mother wants to know about her Frank, her boy; and he tells her everything essential with rude and noble tenderness, just as though the woman’s sorrowing eyes were on his face. It is a beautiful letter, bald as it is, and I commend the style to writers on all subjects, even though a schoolmaster could pick the syntax to pieces.

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