Nothing so fortifies a friendship as a belief on the part of one friend that he is superior to the other.—Honoré de Balzac, 1847
The art of writing a really good letter ranks unquestionably among the most valuable accomplishments of woman, and next to that of conversing well.
In both cases, the first thing to be avoided is commonplace, because whatever partakes of the nature of commonplace is not only vulgar but ineffective. I know not how I can better define this term, so frequently used and so little understood, than by saying that commonplace consists chiefly in speaking of things by their little qualities rather than their great ones. Thus it is commonplace to speak of religious persons as using cant, to speak of distinguished characters as being well or ill dressed, and to speak of the works of Shakespeare as being peculiar in their style. It is also commonplace to use those expressions of kindness or sympathy which custom has led us to expect as a matter of course. And we never feel this more than in cases of affliction or death, because there is a kind of set phraseology made use of on such occasions, which those who really feel would often be glad to vary if they only knew how. It is commonplace to speak of some fact as recently discovered to those who have long known it. But above all that is genuine in commonplace, the kind of flattery generally adopted by men when they mean to address themselves pleasantly to women deserves the credit of preeminence. Indeed, so deficient, for the most part, is this flattery in point, originality, and adaptation that I have known sensible women who felt more really flattered by the most humiliating truths, even plainly spoken, because such treatment implied a confidence in their strength of mind and good sense in being able to bear it.
Commonplace letters are such as, but for the direction, would have done as well for any other individual as the one to whom they are addressed. In description especially, it is desirable to avoid commonplace. A correspondent making the tour of the Lakes tells you that on such a day she set off to the summit of Helvellyn; that the first part of the ascent was steep and difficult, the latter more easy; that the view from the summit was magnificent, extending over so many lakes and so many other mountains, and there ends the story; and well for you if it does end there. But such writers, unfortunately, often go on through a whole catalogue of beauties and sublimities, no single one of which they set before you in such a manner as to render it one whit more attractive, or indeed more peculiar in any of its features, than the King’s Highway.
The first consideration in commencing a letter should be: “What is my object in writing it?” If simply for the relief of your own mind you take up the pen, remember that such a communication can only be justified by pressing and peculiar circumstances, and that it ought only to be addressed to the nearest and dearest of your friends, whose love for you is of such a nature as to pardon so selfish an act.
A higher object in writing is to give pleasure, or afford benefit, to an absent friend. It is therefore necessary to place yourself in idea in her circumstances and consider what she would most wish to know. If her affection for you be such, and such I am aware affection often is, that she has no desire beyond that of receiving intelligence concerning yourself, let your descriptions of your state and circumstances be clear and fresh, so that she may see you as you really are and, as it were, live with you through the enjoyments or the trials of every day. How strong and lively may be the impressions thus conveyed—how deep the interest they excite, provided only the writer will condescend to be sufficiently simple—sufficiently sincere!
It is, however, only under peculiar circumstances, such as change of scene and situation, that young persons can have much of this kind to communicate. What then are they to say? Shall the minute details of family affairs be raked up to fill their letters? This is at least a dangerous alternative, more especially as it too frequently induces a habit of exaggeration, in order to make what is called “a good story” out of a mere trifle; and thus that worst kind of falsehood, which is partly true, becomes perpetuated through the medium of pen and paper.
From The Daughters of England. The author of thirty-four books, Ellis was a popular writer of Victorian conduct literature, publishing advice books, novels, and short fiction focused on the self-improvement of middle-class women and advocating for the “perfect balance” of the three-class system. Her books, including The Mothers of England and The Wives of England, called on devout women to set the moral tenor of their households and the nation. She died in 1872, one week after the death of her husband, William Ellis, a Congregationalist missionary.