The Lost Art of Letters

The Lost Art of Letters

Letter writing, that old-fashioned art we hardly practice any more, has changed a great deal since Jane Austen’s day. Writing letters back and forth flourished in the days before electronic communications but now it’s in danger of dying out completely. This was brought home to me recently when I had a conversation with my son. This is the same son who moved out of our house last June. He recently discovered that he can no longer hand deliver his rent check to his landlady and  told me he was going to have to mail his checks from now on.

Me: So you’re going to need to buy some envelopes and a book of stamps this weekend.

Son: And I put the stamps on those little things you use to hold the letter, right?

Me: Envelope. You mean envelope.

Son: Right.

Me: You put a stamp on the envelope and put your check inside it.

Son: What kind of stamp?

Me (slightly shocked): The kind you buy from the post office! And then you have to put your landlady’s address on it.

Son: That goes on the front, right?

Me (deadpan): No, the back.

Son: Oh, that’s the side with the little flap, right?

Me (trying not to laugh): Yes, the flap. That’s the back. Just kidding, you put the address on the front. You put the stamp on the back.

Son: OK.

Me: Just wait till you have to put your return address on it. That’s really confusing.

Son: I’m going to need some help figuring this out.

At this point I laughed out loud. This is the kid who taught me to use HDMI cables! But it got better.

Son: Then you put the letter in one of those big containers, right?

Me (blank stare): What?

Son: One of those metal containers they have outside post offices, right?

Me: You mean mailboxes?

Son: Nods

Me: You don’t have to go to the post office. You can just put the letter in your own mailbox at home.

Son: Oh, you mean they’ll pick up your mail and take it with them when they come to drop stuff off for you?

Me: Yes. They do both at the same time, at least in most places.

Son : Cool!

Yes, sending letters via the post seems to be dying out! But in Jane Austen’s day upper class people wrote a lot of letters, both for business and for pleasure. A substantial part of any gentleman or gentlewoman’s day was given to correspondence. Jane herself is estimated to have written some three thousand letters over her lifetime (!), and every novel she wrote has the heroine writing and receiving letter. Letters in her day must have been what phone calls, emails or text messages are to us.

Knowing how to write a letter in regency England was a complicated task! To start with, the letter writer had to pick the kind of paper they were going to use. Paper was generally made from cotton and linen mixed together, and each paper producer used their own unique combination of these elements. They all had their own standard sizes, weights, textures, and other qualities. Each paper was so unique, in fact, that paper producers sometimes applied a watermark to their own brand to make it readily identifiable to the buyer.

The letter writer also had to choose a quill pen, the ink they wanted to use, a pen knife (to sharpen the quill as needed), and either sand or blotters to use during their writing (to dry the ink). Quill pens and pen knives came in a dizzying array of choices, from dull and practical to ornate and costly. A writer’s choice of these instruments, like their choice of writing paper, revealed much about their personality, their social status, and even their finances.

The postage charged for a letter depended partly on how many pages were in the letter, so the writing space inside a letter was at a premium. It was not unusual for a letter writer to fill up as much of the paper as possible and then turn the page on its side and write over the previous lines at a right angle.

Envelopes did not yet exist, so once somebody finished writing their letter they folded the left over blank sections of the paper so as to cover up the written portion. Then they wrote the address in that blank portion. Of course, to do this the writer had to make sure there actually was a blank section! There were guides on how to fold a letter in the most practical yet attractive way. Without a doubt writing a letter took some careful planning!

Finally, the letter writer had to choose how to send their missive. Here, too, there were choices. In town, for letters going to recipients in the same part of town, the penny post delivered mail the same day and was pleasingly inexpensive. But letter writers who wanted to send a message to another part of town usually had to hire a messenger to carry it directly. The messenger would be paid by the recipient, not the sender. Outside of town the system was still fairly rapid, taking two or three days in most cases, but the recipient still usually paid to receive the letter. There were times when the recipient simply could not afford to accept it.

In Austen’s day certain government officials could also choose to “frank” the letter, meaning that they would pay the delivery charges up front and the recipient would pay nothing. (You may remember that Edmund uses his father’s status to do this for Fanny in Mansfield Park.) Eventually the government realized that having postage paid up front was the most efficient way to go, and from then on it was customary to buy a stamp to place on the letter to show that the cost of delivery had been paid. But that change did not come about until well after Austen’s death.

Letters are key to many events in Austen’s novels. For example, take the events of Pride and Prejudice. The Bennets find out about Mr. Collins’ impending visit by letter. Caroline Bingley flirts with Mr. Darcy as he writes to his sister and even offers to mend his pen for him. After Darcy’s failed proposal to Elizabeth, he tells her the truth about Bingley and Wickham in a letter. When Elizabeth is visiting Derbyshire she finds out about Lydia’s elopement via a letter from Jane. And Elizabeth receives crucial information about Darcy in a letter from her aunt Gardiner. The list could go on and on!

My son, alas, still does not know how to send a letter. He discovered that he could pay his landlady electronically and the teachable moment was gone. Eventually he will have to learn but it seems unlikely that he will ever sit down, Darcy style, to pour out his heart to the woman he loves using paper and pen.

Here’s a quick trivia challenge for you: can you guess how many times letters are referenced in Austen’s six main novels? Which novel uses the word letter the most? Which one uses it the least? Let me know in your comments below, please!

27 Responses to The Lost Art of Letters

  1. Thanks for sharing your conversation. I can definitely imagine having a similar conversation with my kids when they move out. It’s funny how things change. Not that long ago I was trying to explain to my kids what a vcr was and how it worked.

  2. I have no idea about the numbers but I loved the post. As for paper, you should visit Japan. They have whole stores devoted to just paper. Paper for every kind of occasion. Wait! I think we have some of those in the US of A. I remember a paper store in Evanston Il where you could by hand made paper, as well as all kinds of textures and even take a class in paper making if you desired. Love letters, but mostly my come via email. Happy New Year!

  3. Thank you for sharing this info. Anyway, I have only read 2 JA novels.. I know, please don’t frown too much (But I read so many P & P variations 😉 I will just guess most of my answers. 13 letters were referenced in her novels, P & P used it the most and maybe Persuasion had the least.;)

  4. I love writing letters! Partially it’s because I am abnormally vain of my penmanship, but I just love the scritch of pen on paper. I have written with dip pens (with steel nibs and wooden handles or a feathery quill type…but still with steel or brass nibs so that I don’t have to mend the pen with a penknife), with glass dip pens (these are great fun as the grooves in the glass hold a lot of ink and I only have to dip the pen every second line or so), and with fountain pens.

    My children gave me a fountain pen for Christmas, and for those who would like to write with a fountain pen, it’s an excellent beginner pen: the Pilot Metropolitan (so many colors and styles from which to choose!!!) with an italic nib which they purchased through Goulet Pens site for $18, plus an additional cartridge one can use to refill the ink rather than purchasing expensive Pilot pre-fabricated ink cartridges. The refillable cartridge allows for more frequent changes of ink color…which I love. One must use fountain pen ink specifically or the inner workings of the fountain pen may become gummed-up and cause leakage. Goulet Pens has a very informative YouTube channel with information on fountain pens, inks, nibs, paper–the works. I’m currently using a lovely teal Diamine fountain pen ink.

    I have owned much more expensive fountain pens (Waterman pens retailing for over $250 but which were either gifted to me or on serious sale on Amazon for under $50), but this $18 pen writes just as smoothly, if not even more so, than the expensive fountain pens. The italic nib adds a calligraphy-like flourish that I love while allowing for speedy writing flow. I tend to prefer fine nibs over medium or bold as they use less ink, bleed through paper much less if at all, and make my penmanship look very nice. 😉

    Because I became ill in the weeks before Christmas, I never mailed Christmas cards, so I am writing replies via letter (using a lined parchment-type paper with black scrollwork in the corners and my Metropolitan filled with the teal ink) to all those family and friends who sent us cards but whom I have not seen for the past year or more. I have set a schedule to write one reply per day which won’t be too hard on my hands (I have rheumatoid arthritis…which is one of the main reasons I switched to fountain pens as I don’t have to press down), and it’s just so much fun to write on such lovely paper with such a splendid pen and beautiful ink. I feel so Austenish!

    So I quite enjoy the fine art of letter writing, and if one would like to step up and feel a bit Austenish, one may get started with a fountain pen for $20 (or my glass dip pen was about $5 on Amazon a couple of years ago), $6-10 for a simple colored fountain pen ink (or about $20-$27 for iridescent or color-change inks), some nice parchment-style paper from Amazon or an office supply store, and some decent envelopes, and one is all set to correspond much more personally than the mere typing of an e-mail missive. Goulet Pens’ YouTube channel also includes a list of fountain pen inks that work well on notebook, copy paper, or other inexpensive paper without bleeding through, so one can write with fountain or dip pens all the time if one so desires! 🙂

    Happy “penning,”
    Susanne 🙂

  5. Elaine, very informative post. I think, also, that Jane may have made her own ink? At least a time or two? Can’t find the reference. I have numbers for some of the novels, but not all. These are not my counts but cites I’ve found: 21 quoted or cited in S&S; 22 actual and 44 ref’d in P&P; 4 actual, 18 ref’d, suggestions of a couple of more in Persuasion. Just finished Emma and it has half a dozen (didn’t count). NA maybe half a dozen. MP, maybe a dozen? Mostly while Fanny is in Portsmouth. I’d love to know the actuals for all; or if your numbers are different from mine.

    • Collins, I used my Kindle to search out all the references to letters and came up with numbers similar to yours. P&P had the most and NA had the least. I will give exact numbers in my next post. I’m glad you liked this one! I never heard of Jane making her own ink but it’s certainly possible. It’s amazing she found time to do as much writing as she did!

  6. That love letter in Persuasion must be one of the most famous of all!! I loved writing letters and had pen pals and an aunt I used to write to many years ago. I still get one letter, and send one, every Christmas. She’s an old girlfriend of one of my brothers who I was very close to and we stayed in touch. My daughter laughs at me and says we are the only two people she knows who still actually write to each other. I love getting it and opening the envelope to get at the news. Aah memories!!

    • Opening an email simply doesn’t have the romance that an old fashioned letter has, does it? I agree, Wentworth’s letter in Persuasion is absolute perfection!

  7. Hehehehehehehehehe! Sorry, but the instructions to your son and his responses are hilarious. Letters definitely are a lost art. Phone calls and texting are eventually forgotten, but letters can last for centuries. Who knows? Maybe in the future, letters will become in vogue again. 🙂

    • I hope they do! My husband I wrote a ton of letters to each other when we were dating and we still have all of them. I wonder if our kids will read them one day.

  8. Thankfully, my children are old enough to still write thank you notes without their Mother (me) texting a reminder! I have no idea the answer to your questions. Will try to find out, but I hope you will tell us in a future post.

    • I definitely will! It was interesting to me that my daughter, who is six years older than my son, DOES know how to send a letter. She and her brother went through the same school system so it’s obvious when teaching letter writing went out of the curriculum.

      Yes, I will give the answers in a future post!

  9. The Least: Northanger Abbey. The most: P&P.

    I’m guessing, of course. I love this story with your son. LOL! It was not that long ago that we were teaching this in school. I suppose it went by the wayside as did cursive writing. That is too bad. I have a writing buddy and we still use snail mail. We have been friends since 1962 and have been writing letters ever since. We each have a shredder with the understanding that after we read our letters, we shred the evidence. You can imagine the rant-fest we have with each other. It is like a black hole in space… we let each other vent and then it is over. It saves a lot on therapy. Who knew!

    I love nib pins, seals and sealing wax. I’ve used that for letters to my friend. There is a knack to using a nib pen to get the ink flow just right. I needed a padded envelope to send it in order to preserve the seal. LOL! I suppose that is a weakness of mine. I can count on one hand how many times we have texted each other and still have fingers left over. Letter writing is such a lost aart. I don’t think I will go quietly into the night giving that up. Thanks for this delightful post. I want that pen set in your opening post. The one in the text is an obvious antique and out of my league. I’ve seen sets similar to the first one and think they are so cute.

    • Your friendship with your friend is amazing! And enviable. I have one or two friends I’ve had since elementary school and I recall exchanging letters with them way back in the day. But now we stay in touch mostly on FB. A long time friend is a real treasure!

    • Yes, I have a sealing wax kit that my kids gave me for my birthday a couple of years ago, but the seal is the Hogwarts’ crest! 🙂 I need to order one with my initials, and I’ll feel less Harry Potterish when I use sealing wax!

      And yes, one definitely must send such a letter in a padded envelope to preserve the seal! 😀

      I had a penpal from across the country when I was a young mother. We met online in a homeschooling forum, and we “clicked” as we shared the same first name (which we both hated…”Susie” which I later changed and she did not. We started writing letters to one another, addressing each other as “Anne” (myself) and “Diana,” after the characters in Anne of Green Gables. We still exchange Christmas cards on occasion, so although I did not receive one this year, I believe I will add her to my list of letters written as Christmas card replies as I didn’t send out any cards for Christmas (I was ill for most of December).

      I do love sealing letters, though!! I just need to get some better-quality envelopes first…and more padded envelopes! 😉

      Susanne 🙂

      • Well, ‘Anne,’ I almost bought a Harry Potter seal back when I was reading the series. I had put off reading it until my students wanted to talk about it and I couldn’t discuss it with them. I read five books during one summer break. When school started, I was loaded for bear. My students loved it. They market Potter merchandise so beautifully that I barely resisted a beautiful stamp. I am on the lookout for a new stamp as we speak… non Potter, of course.

        My friend and I are not on any of the social media forums so, for us, snail mail it is. I suppose we are old school. She hates talking on the phone. I don’t mind but she would rather write out her thoughts and not have her train of thought interrupted. That way she can say what she wants to say and go on to the next train. I understand and am perfectly fine with whatever is most comfortable for her.

        Last December hubby was so sick we didn’t have Christmas at all. I understand and hope you are much better. Blessings and thank you for your comment.

  10. That was very funny, your conversation with your son, and what a nice post, Elaine. I love the picture of the unfolded letter. I always struggle with how to word that properly in our work so that I’m being accurate with describing the letters sent and received, but won’t confuse anyone who doesn’t know that the envelope and the letter are oftentimes the same piece of paper.

    As to the trivia… oh dear. Umm… Pride and Prejudice the most and Emma the least? That’s my guess 🙂

  11. I’m not sure, there was a lot of letter writing in Austen s time. I may have to do some research!lol

Comments are precious!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.