THE ART OF LETTERS
As a fan of history and of the 18th century in particular, I have always had a fascination with letters. In the days before telephones and internet, letters were not only the primary means of communication, but an occupation and an art form. Letter writing was a respected employment of one’s leisure time. Horace Walpole, one of the Georgian era’s most notable “men of lettters” wrote thousands of them in his lifetime, filled with politics, news, and juicy gossip. His titillating missives comprise a fascinating historical record of the times.
Another prolific letter writer was Lord Chesterfield, who is best remembered by his copious letters to his bastard son, replete with wit and wisdom and spanning everything from history, literature and philosophy to advice on life and love. Chief among Lord Chesterfield’s counsel was to impart upon his son, the manners and graces of a true gentleman.
The 400 or so surviving letters were collected by the son’s widow in 1774 and published in a hefty tome titled Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman .
True politeness is perfect ease and freedom. It simply consists in treating others just as you love to be treated yourself.
A man’s good breeding is the best security against other people’s ill manners.
A thousand little things, not separately to be described, conspire to form these graces, this je ne scais quoi, that always pleases. A pretty person, a proper degree of dress, an harmonious voice, something open and cheerful in the countenance, but without laughing; a distinct and properly varied manner of speaking; all these things and many others are necessary ingredients in the composition of the pleasing je ne scais quoi, which everybody feels, though nobody can describe. Observe carefully, then, what displeases or pleases you in others, and be persuaded that, in general, the same things will please or displease them in you.
“Never seem more learned than the people you are with. Wear your learning like a pocket watch and keep it hidden. Do not pull it out to count the hours, but give the time when you are asked.”
“Women are much more like each other than men; they have, in truth, but two passions, vanity and love: these are their universal characteristics…. He who flatters them most pleases them best; and they are most in love with him who they think is the most in love with them. No adulation is too strong for them; no assiduity too great; no simulation of passion too gross; as on the other hand, the least word or action that can possibly be construed into a slight or contempt is unpardonable, and never forgotten.
“Advice is seldom welcome, and those who need it the most, like it the least.”
Sadly, this last was the case with this father’s sage advice to his son!
THE EPISTOLARY NOVEL
Nowhere is the 18th century love of letters more prominently demonstrated than in the most popular books of the era. The novel in epistolary form first came into popularity through Samuel Richardson‘s bestselling Pamela (1740) later followed by Clarissa (1749), still the longest novel in the English language.
John Cleland’s erotic novel Fanny Hill (1748) was also written in this form, as were several popular French novels to include Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos who employed the style to great dramatic effect.
The implements of letter writing were elegant in themselves, a quill pen, parchment paper, sand for blotting and sealing wax. A properly folded and wax sealed letter required no envelope.
To honor this lost art of letters, one of my contributions to the Embracing Romance “Favorite Things” holiday basket is a gift box of multi-colored sealing wax complete with a collection of decorative seals that I hope the winner will both employ and enjoy!
MY ROMANTIC PURSUIT QUESTION:
What was the name of the epistolary novel written by Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire?