Friday, October 15, 2010

When Email Fails: Lewis Carroll on How to Write a Letter

by Stephen J. Gertz

The Net has been compromised; it's lights out for email. Time to get out a piece of stationary, a pen, and write an old-fashioned letter. But how? What's a 21st century citizen to do? Ask Mr. Dodgson!

How to Begin

"If the Letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer, and as to your correspondent’s present address (otherwise you will be sending your letter to his regular address in London, though he has been careful in writing to give you his Torquay address in full).

"Next, Address and Stamp the Envelope. 'What! Before writing the Letter?' Most certainly. And I’ll tell you what will happen if you don’t. You will go on writing till the last moment, and, just in the middle of the last sentence, you will become aware that 'time’s up!' Then comes the hurried wind-up—the wildly-scrawled signature—the hastily-fastened envelope, which comes open in the post—the address, a mere hieroglyphic—the horrible discovery that you’ve forgotten to replenish your Stamp-Case—the frantic appeal, to every one in the house, to lend you a Stamp—the headlong rush to the Post Office, arriving, hot and gasping, just after the box has closed—and finally, a week afterwards, the return of the Letter, from the Dead-Letter Office, marked 'address illegible'!

"Next, put your own address, in full, at the top of the note-sheet. It is an aggravating thing—I speak from bitter experience—when a friend, staying at some new address, heads his letter 'Dover,' simply, assuming that you can get the rest of the address from his previous letter, which perhaps you have destroyed.

"Next, put the date in full. It is another aggravating thing, when you wish, years afterwards, to arrange a series of letters, to find them dated 'Feb. 17,' 'Aug. 2,' without any year to guide you as to which comes first. And never, never, dear Madam (N.B. this remark is addressed to ladies only: no man would ever do such a thing), put 'Wednesday,' simply, as the date!

“'That way madness lies.'”

This is important stuff. We're so used to auto-addressing and dating with email that we may completely forget these essentials. And I have met people who, having actually never written a physical letter,  don't know from stamps. (N.B. They're those little squares you stick in the upper right corner of the envelope to  provide a financial incentive for the Post Office to deliver the letter).

Getting On With It

"Here is a golden Rule to begin with. Write legibly. The average temper of the human race would be perceptibly sweetened, if everybody obeyed this Rule! A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly. Of course you reply, 'I do it to save time.' A very good object, no doubt: but what right have you to do it at your friend’s expense? Isn’t his time as valuable as yours?

"Years ago, I used to receive letters from a friend—and very interesting letters too—written in one of the most atrocious hands ever invented. It generally took me about a week to read one of his letters. I used to carry it about in my pocket, and take it out at leisure times, to puzzle over the riddles which composed it—holding it in different positions, and at different distances, till at last the meaning of some hopeless scrawl would flash upon me, when I at once wrote down the English under it; and, when several had been thus guessed, the context would help with the others, till at last the whole series of hieroglyphics was deciphered. If all one’s friends wrote like that, Life would be entirely spent in reading their letters!...

"...My second Rule is, don’t fill more than a page and a half with apologies for not having written sooner!

"The best subject, to begin with, is your friend’s last letter. Write with the letter open before you. Answer his questions, and make any remarks his letter suggests. Then go on to what you want to say yourself. This arrangement is more courteous, and pleasanter for the reader, than to fill the letter with your own invaluable remarks, and then hastily answer your friend’s questions in a postscript. Your friend is much more likey to enjoy your wit,  after  his  own anxiety  for  information has been satisfied. In referring to anything your friend has said in his letter, it is best to quote the exact words, and not to give a summary of them in your words. A’s impression, of what B has said, expressed in A’s words, will never convey to B the meaning of his own words.

"This is specially necessary when some point has arisen as to which the two correspondents do not quite agree. There ought to be no opening for such writing as 'You are quite mistaken in thinking I said so-and-so. It was not in the least my meaning, &c., &c.,' which tends to make a correspondence last for a life-time.

"A few more Rules may fitly be given here, for correspondence that has unfortunately become controversial.

"One is, don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

"Another Rule is, when you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it! If, when you have done your best to write inoffensively, you still feel that it will probably lead to further controversy, keep a copy of it. There is very little use, months afterwards, in pleading 'I am almost sure I never expressed myself as you say: to the best of my recollection I said so-and-so.' Far better to be able to write 'I did not express myself so: these are the words I used.'

"My fifth Rule is, if your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards 'making up' the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way—why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels! Which is like the Irishman’s remonstrance to his gad-about daughter—'Shure, [sic] you’re always goin’ out! You go out three times, for wanst that you come in!'

"My sixth Rule (and my last remark about controversial correspondence) is, don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember 'speech is silvern, but silence is golden!' (N.B.—If you are a gentleman, and your friend is a lady, this Rule is superfluous: you won’t get the last word!)

"My seventh Rule is, if it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship. Suppose, for instance, you wish to remind your friend of a sovereign you have lent him, which he has forgotten to repay—you might quite mean the words 'I mention it, as you seem to have a conveniently bad memory for debts,' in jest; yet there would be nothing to wonder at if he took offence at that way of putting it. But, suppose you wrote 'Long observation of your career, as a pickpocket and a burglar, has convinced me that my one lingering hope, for recovering that sovereign I lent you, is to say ‘Pay up, or I’ll summons yer!’ he would indeed be a matter-of-fact friend if he took that as seriously meant!

"My eighth Rule. When you say, in your letter, 'I enclose cheque for £5,' or 'I enclose John’s letter for you to see,' leave off writing for a moment—go and get the document referred to—and put it into the envelope. Otherwise, you are pretty certain to find it lying about, after the Post has gone.

"My ninth Rule. When you get to the end of a notesheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper—a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but whatever you do, don’t cross! Remember the old proverb 'Cross-writing makes cross reading.' 'The old proverb?' you say, inquiringly. 'How old?' Well, not so very ancient, I must confess. In fact, I’m afraid I invented it while writing this paragraph! Still, you know, 'old' is a comparative term. I think you would be quite justified in addressing a chicken, just of of the shell, as 'Old boy!' when compared with another chicken, that was only half-out!"

That's a lot of rules! Clearly Lewis Carroll is stretching the definition of "eight  or nine words," wise or otherwise, for amusement. I think we're into 800-900 words at this point; the dreaded Circulating Decimal. 

How to End the Damned Thing

"If doubtful whether to end with 'yours faithfully,' or 'yours truly,' or 'your most truly,' &c. (there are at least a dozen varieties; before you reach 'yours affectionately'), refer to your correspondent's last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his: in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!

"A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant (as so many ladies suppose) to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about. For example, your friend had promised to execute a commission for you in town, but forgot it, thereby putting you to great inconvenience: and he now writes to apologize for his negligence. It would be cruel, and needlessly crushing, to make it the main subject of your reply. How much more gracefully it comes in thus! 'P.S. Don't distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter in town. I won't deny that it did put my plans out a little, at the time: but it's all right now. I often forget things, myself: and 'those, who live in glasshouses, mustn't throw stones', you know!'

"When you take your letters to the Post, carry them in your hand. If you put them in your pocket you will take a long country-walk (I speak from experience), passing the Post-Office twice, going and returning, and, when you get home, will find them still in your pocket."

Happens to me all the time...

In discussing the Postscript, Carroll is clearly referring to my mother and my dear Aunt Marilyn. When it's time to say goodbye, begin approximately twenty minutes ahead of the time you actually need to leave because it will take that long to get out the door. When Raymond Chandler wrote The Long Goodbye there was no mystery, as far as I was concerned.

I'll gloss over the chapter on Stamp Cases. The Wonderland Postage-Stamp Case, which Dodgson invented in 1889, was nothing more than a handy stamp organizer, and was sold to accompany this pamphlet.

Author's Presentation Copy.
Mabel Burton, the recipient of this copy upon its publication in 1890, was one of Dodgson's young girl acquaintances, whom he met in 1877 when she was eight years old. In his diary entry for August 16th of that year he wrote: "Mabel herself is entirely charming, and without an atom of shyness. I never became friends with a child so easily or so so quickly."

The penultimate rule - and it is iron-clad: When writing a letter to a little girl adult men should avoid all references to their correspondent's comely mien, tresses, rosy cheeks, and how delicious she looks in a pinafore. Resist the impulse to express her attractive traits, how the two of you are soul-mates and can't leave the relationship to the Fates. Make no references to play-dates. In short, avoid jail-baits and prison gates.

Finally, do not, under any circumstances, use emoticons or texting shorthand to express yourself. Mr. Dodgson would disapprove - in around 800 - 900 words, minimun.


CARROLL, Lewis (pseud. of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing. Oxford: Emberlin and Son, 1890. First edition. 16mo (3 13/16 x 2 7/8 inches). 44 pp. Stitched pamphlet, without wrappers.

Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing was very popular, going into five editions 1890-1897.

Williams 61. Williams, Maden and Green 223.

Images courtesy of Bonham''s - Oxford, which offered this copy at their Oct. 12, 2010 sale 18153, lot 228, estimated at $960 - $1,280. It did not sell.

1 comment:

  1. oh i've found this via ms thorne
    and being a letter writer
    of the extreme and very much so sort
    i have so loved
    this post.
    as i continue to say, "more mail, less e-mail. "


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