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XXII. women's letters.

“Would you desire,” says De Quincey in his “Essay on style,” “at this day to read our noble language in its native beauty, picturesque from idiomatic propriety, racy in its phraseology, delicate yet sinewy in its composition, steal the mail-bags and break open all the letters in female handwriting.” This he goes on to demonstrate, he himself writing in that involved and elaborate style of which he was so fond — a sort of Coleridge-and-water, or perhaps one light say, Coleridge-and-air-full of cloudy glimpses and rich treasures half displayed. Had De Quincey imitated the women's letters he described, his writings would have a longer lease of life. And in the same spirit with him, but in a better style, speaks one of the most cultivated of American scholars, himself a delightful letter-writer, Joseph G. Cogswell, first librarian and organizer of the Astor Library. This is his statement of the matter:

To preserve the true spirit of friendly correspondence, I conceive, requires more exercise of the [111] affections of the heart than of the powers of the mind, and it is for this reason that ladies commonly excel us in epistolary writing. I know of no reading more dry and uninteresting than the letters of great men; I mean particularly among the moderns, for those of Cicero and Pliny I never read, and of course pretend not to judge of their merit. I am not so gallant as to acknowledge that females possess a superiority of intellect, nor so illiberal as to deny them an equality; but in all the requisites necessary to the attainment of a pleasing and interesting style of letter-writing they are far above us.


This was not a bit of dulcet flattery, for it was addressed to a man. It was founded on an observation that we all may make. We listen to the reading of letters from some foreign country, perhaps. If they are written by a man, they may be very good, perhaps brilliant; but if so, it is probably because the man himself is known as brilliant; we are rarely surprised by finding a man's letters much better than we should have expected of him. With women, on the other hand, the surprise is constant; we may almost say that every woman writes better letters than we should expect of her; that a third-rate woman writes better than any but a first-rate man. Whence is this difference? [112]

It may come, first, from the closer observation of details by women, the result of the early training of their lives, this being also based on a quality of original temperament. Now details are what we need in a letter; for philosophy and general grasp we go to a book. Method, order, combination, are quite unimportant in a letter; we need to know what each man or woman described was doing at a certain time — where they stood, what they wore, what they appeared to have had for breakfast or to expect for dinner. This is what a letter should bring us; the logic and the deductions may come in separate packages. Now the letters of women will vary with the period; they may be stiff or they may be gushing, but they will give details. I remember an educated American who, on returning from Egypt, could only say, when asked to describe the Pyramids, “Oh yes, enormous things-enormous things!” But the stupidest woman that ever climbed a Pyramid could at least tell you afterwards, when she had recovered her breath, something about the Arab who dragged her up and the terror that took her down; and it is by comparison with these that we find the Pyramid truly enormous.

De Quincey's own theory of the advantage enjoyed by women as letter-writers is somewhat different from this; he attributes their superiority to [113] their being more frankly emotional, and even excitable. “Now there is not in tie world,” he says, “so certain a guarantee for pure idiomatic diction, without trick or affectation, as a case of genuine excitement. Real situations are always pledges of a real natural language. It is in counterfeit passion, in the minical situations of novels, or in poems that are efforts of ingenuity,” that women write badly. These same women, if they labored under a formal responsibility “might write ill and affectedly,” he thinks; but their letters are composed “under the benefit of their natural advantages,” De Quincey holds. Yet he must remember that women, like men, or more than men, are influenced by current fashion; and letters, as well as anything else, may be conventional and over-elaborate. Miss Austen and Miss Anna Seward died within a few years of each other; but Miss Austen's novels are simple, direct, and graphic, while Miss Seward's letters, so filled with wit and anecdote that they are good reading to this day, almost always rise into something inflated ere they close. Thus, after a delightful epistle to the then famous poet Hayley, sloe must needs close with this apology for too long a letter: “But be still, thou repining heart of mine; stifle thy selfish regrets, and with a sincere benediction on thy favorite bard, that health, peace, and fame may long be his, arrest the pen thou art so [114] prone to lead through thy mazes, governing it, as thou dost, with resistless despotism.” Yet all this is simplicity itself compared to the habitual inflation of Miss Seward's style when writing anything that is not a letter-as, for instance, her life of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. And I perfectly remember certain maiden ladies of Boston, who were justly renowned in my youth for what they would have called by no briefer name than “epistolary correspondence,” who modelled their style upon Miss Seward's, and would have disdained to close a letter with a sentence of one clause or a word of one syllable. They wrote charming descriptions, yet were never satisfied without getting on their stilts at the end, or at least dropping a stately old-fashioned courtesy to their audience. Probably they would have written even their “epistles” of love in this formal style; we know that Abigail Adams did, for one; and that she wrote a letter asking John Adams to buy her a supply of cheap pins, and signed it “Portia.”

1 “Life and letters,” p. 14.

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