Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Letter Writing in the 18th Century


Letter writing in the 18th century was the only way of communicating with friends and family when you wanted to share your news or simply converse with someone long distance. Without having the luxury of enclosing a snapshot or sharing a web link, in order to convey your message you had to hone your power of description.

To begin a letter, the date, and the place you are staying, be it your home or the home of someone your are visiting was always written at the top of your letter to give the recipient an idea of when and where you are when you write. This may seem unimportant to us, but mail delivery was not so efficient back in Georgian/Regency England as it is today, so marking the place in time you are gives the reader of your letter an idea of how much time has elapsed since you put pen to paper. It will also allow them to enquire about those your are visiting or your family if you are at home.

The body of your letter would be filled with your news, but keeping in mind there is no social media to rely upon, if you are speaking of someone your reader has not had the pleasure of meeting, a short description of that person was necessary to give a full picture to the item you are relating. Pen portraits were very important aspects of the 18th century letter adding depth. They consisted of a physical description of the subject as well as any mannerisms that are observed, their personality and their situation in life. If your reader has no idea who you are speaking of, the item you are writing about will not have relevance to them and quite frankly will be a bore to read. It was important to give a full view of your situation so that it will impact your reader as it has impacted you.

Saying you enjoyed an outing is a fine topic for your letter, but who accompanied you on this outing, what was the general mood of the outing and was it enjoyed by all? These are the things letter writers of the Georgian Era expanded upon. What was the tone of the conversation? Did you learn something new about an acquaintance that may be of interest to your recipient? Nothing was left to the imagination so that you could give the full scope of your experience in your letter.

Often times those you are with would ask to be remembered to the person you are writing to and vice versa. It was good manners to be cordial and remember those who have extended invitations to your correspondent, especially if you are on friendly terms. Letters were things of import and often shared with one’s family or friends so that on replying to a letter you may include all the sentiments offered after the reading giving it the feel of a shared conversation.

When closing your letter, the use of flowery endearments were not uncommon. These little flourishes are very much like the hugs and kisses we add to our modern day letters. Some are very direct, such as “Your devoted sister,” while others were more metaphoric “I am Madame, your most humble and obedient servant.” Still others, elude to a flowery sign off by beginning as the examples above but after two or three words trailing off with “etc, etc” which was also acceptable. One usually signed their full name at the end of a letter. Jane Austen often would use her given and surname when writing to her beloved sister, Cassandra. It was just the form of the times.

And so we have a simple formula for writing an interesting letter, something the Georgians didn’t think twice about but for those of us who don’t put pen to paper regularly, a frustrating dilemma of what to write. Hopefully armed with a little information about letter writing in the 18th century it won’t be such a chore to sit down and dash a letter off to your swap partner. After a time, you will be sending off missives without even thinking of what to write.

After reading this you may be worrying that you have to give a full scale account of your day or week but this is not necessary for our purposes. This is just to give you an idea of the form a letter took in the 18th century. You may choose your own content or refer to the blog where there is information about some of the characters, events and places in the village which you may want to remark upon.

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