The Lost Art of Letters by Victoria Vane

Les liaisons dangereuses George Barbier 4


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!


clarissa-2Nowhere 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!



What was the name of the epistolary novel written by Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire?

Follow Victoria Vane:

Romance Novelist

VICTORIA VANE is an award-winning author of smart and sexy romance with works ranging from wild comedic romps to emotionally compelling erotic romance. Her books have received more than twenty awards and nominations to include the 2014 RONE Award for Treacherous Temptations and Library Journal Best E-Book romance of 2012 for The Devil DeVere series. She lives the beautiful upstate of South Carolina with her husband, two sons, a little black dog, and an Arabian horse.

16 Responses

  1. Collette Cameron

    This was wonderful. I used to be an avid letter writer with fancy, scented stationary. I miss those days but not my sloppy handwriting.

  2. JoannaM

    Lovely post! Just today I stopped at Barnes and Noble and almost bought a set of calligraphy for “beginners” but I thought that I really don’t write any handwritten letters any more. However this post has made me want to start that again. I remember the feeling of getting letters of friends in the mail and I want that feeling back. I’m going back tomorrow and getting my calligraphy set 😉

  3. Sandra Owens

    I love the colored sealing wax and decorative seals, Victoria. What a great and unique item to add tot he gift basket.

  4. Maggi Andersen

    Very interesting, thanks Vicki. It is a shame we’ve lost the art of writing letters.

  5. hollybushbooks

    I remember my mother using sealing wax when she wrote letters. I was going to wax my Christmas cards this year and didn’t get it done.

  6. Barbara Monajem

    I wonder what Chesterfield’s wife thought of his advice about women??

    Lovely gift. Recently I did some research about seals and sealing wax for a story I’m writing. Fascinating stuff!

  7. Donna _A

    I recently won a letter written to me by the author. I just received it today and I got such a thrill. I can’t recall the last time I got a personal letter via snail mail. I immediately had visions of the future and my letter going up at auction. It’s a nice fantasy.