For the long-time readers of my blog, I warn you, I may have posted this before. It's probable. However, this sort of thing bears repeating. So enjoy.
Epistolary as well as personal discourse is, according to the mode in which it is carried on, one of the pleasantest or most irksome things in the world. It is delightful to drop in on a friend without the solemn prelude of invitation and acceptance – to join a social circle, where we may suffer our minds and hearts to relax and expand in the happy consciousness of perfect security from invidious remark and carping criticism. We may give the reins to the sportiveness of innocent fancy, or the enthusiasm of warmhearted feeling. We may talk sense or nonsense, (I pity people who cannot talk nonsense), without fear of being looked into icicles by the coldness of unimaginative people, living pieces of clockwork, who dare not themselves utter a word, or lift up a little finger, without first weighing the important point in the hair balance of propriety and good breeding.
It is equally delightful to let the pen talk freely, and unpremeditatedly, and to one by whom we are sure of being understood, but a formal letter, like a ceremonious morning visit, is tedious alike to the writer and receiver – for the most part spun out with unmeaning phrases, trite observations, complimentary flourishes, and protestations of respect and attachment, so far not deceitful, as they never deceive anybody. Oh the misery of having to compose a set, proper, well worded, correctly pointed, polite, elegant epistle! – One that must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, as methodically arranged and portioned out as the several parts of a sermon under three heads, or the three gradations of shade in a schoolgirl’s first landscape!
For my part, I would rather be set to beat hemp, or weed in a turnip field, than to write a letter exactly every month, or every fortnight, at the precise point of time from the date of our correspondent’s last letter, that he or she wrote after the reception of ours – as if one’s thoughts bubbled up to a wellhead, at regular periods, a pint at a time, to be bottled off for immediate use. Thought! What has thought to do in such a correspondence? It murders thought, quenches fancy, wastes time, spoils paper, wears out innocent goose-quills – “I’d rather be a kitten, and cry mew, than one of those same” prosing lettermongers.
Surely in this age of invention something may be struck out to obviate the necessity (if such necessity exists) of so tasking – degrading the human intellect. Why should not a sort of mute barrel organ be constructed on the plan of those that play sets of tunes and country dances, to indite a catalogue of polite epistles calculated for all the ceremonious observances of good breeding? Oh the unspeakable relief (could such a machine be invented) of having only to grind an answer to one of one’s “dear five hundred friends!”
Or, suppose there were to be an epistolary steamengine – ay, that’s the thing – steam does everything nowadays. Dear Mr. Brunel, set about it, I beseech you, and achieve the most glorious of your undertakings. The block-machine at Portsmouth would be nothing to it – that spares manual labour – this would relieve mental drudgery, and thousands yet unborn - - - But hold! I am not so sure the female sex in general may quite enter into my views of the subject. Those who pique themselves on the elegant style of their billets, or those fair scribblerinas just emancipated from boarding school restraints, or the dragonism of their governess, just beginning to taste the refined enjoyments of sentimental, confidential, soul-breathing correspondence with some Angelina, Seraphina, or Laura Matilda; to indite beautiful little notes, with long-tailed letters, upon vellum paper, with pink margins sealed with sweet mottoes, and dainty devices, the whole deliciously perfumed with musk and attar of roses – young ladies who collect “copies of verses,” and charades – keep albums – copy patterns – make bread seals – work little dogs upon footstools, and paint flowers without shadow. Oh, no, the epistolary steam engine will never come into vogue with those dear creatures. They must enjoy the “feast of reason, and flow of soul,” and they must write. Yes, and how they do write!
But for another genus of female scribes – unhappy innocents! Who groan in spirit at the dire necessity of having to hammer out one of those aforesaid terrible epistles. They, in due form, date the gilt-edged sheet that lies outspread before them in appalling whiteness, having also felicitously achieved the graceful exordium, “My dear Mrs. P.” or “My dear Lady V.” or “My dear – anything else,” feel that they are in for it, and must say something. Oh, that something that must come of nothing! those bricks that must be made without straw! those pages that must be filled with words! Yea, with words that must be sewed into sentences! Yea, with sentences that must seem to mean something, the whole to be tacked together, all neatly fitted and dovetailed so as to form one smooth, polished surface!
What were the labours of Hercules to such a task! The very thought of it puts me into a mental perspiration, and, from my inmost soul, I compassionate the unfortunates now (at this very moment, perhaps), sitting perpendicular in the seat of torture, having in the right hand a fresh-nibbed patent pen, dipped ever and anon into the ink bottle, as if to hook up ideas, and under the outspread palm of the left hand a fair sheet of best Bath post, (ready to receive thoughts yet unhatched), on which their eyes are riveted with a stare of disconsolate perplexity infinitely touching to a feeling mind.
To such unhappy persons, in whose miseries I deeply sympathize - - - have not I groaned under similar horrors, from the hour when I was first shut up (under lock and key, I believe), to indite a dutiful epistle to an honoured aunt? I remember, as if it were yesterday, the moment when she who had enjoined the task entered to inspect the performance, which, by her calculation, should have been fully completed. I remember how sheepishly I hung down my head when she snatched from before me the paper, (on which I had made no further progress than “My dear ant,”) angrily exclaiming, “What, child! have you been shut up here three hours to call your aunt a pismire?” From that hour of humiliation I have too often groaned under the endurance of similar penance, and I have learned from my own sufferings to compassionate those of my dear sisters in affliction. To such unhappy persons, then, I would fain offer a few hints, (the fruit of long experience), which, if they have not already been suggested by their own observation, may prove serviceable in the hour of emergency.
Let them --- or suppose I address myself to one particular sufferer – there is something more confidential in that manner of communicating one’s ideas. As Moore says, “Heart speaks to heart” – I say, then, take always special care to write by candlelight, for not only is the apparently unimportant operation of snuffing the candle in itself a momentary relief to depressing consciousness of mental vacuum, but not unfrequently that trifling act, or the brightening flame of the taper, elicits, as it were, from the dull embers of fancy, a sympathetic spark of fortunate conception. When such a one occurs, seize it quickly and dexterously, but, at the same time, with such cautious prudence, as not to huddle up and contract in one short, paltry sentence, that which, if ingeniously handled, may be wire-drawn, so as to undulate gracefully and smoothly over a whole page.
For the more ready practice of this invaluable art of dilating, it will be expedient to stock your memory with a large assortment of those precious words of many syllables that fill whole lines at once, “incomprehensibly, amazingly, decidedly, solicitously, inconceivably, incontrovertibly.” An opportunity of using these is, to a distressed spinner as delightful as a copy all m’s and n’s to a child. “Command you may, your mind from play.” They run on with such delicious smoothness!