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Examining Letters of Love and Courtship

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 4 months ago









Person/Proper Noun


Ideas Common to 19th Century




Professor G.A. Gaskell:


            George Arthur Gaskell was born in 1844 and died in April of 1885 at the age forty-one. By the time of his death, he was nationally recognized as one of America’s most skilled penmen and renowned calligraphers.  Among his several writings, the Complete Compendium of Elegant Writing (1873) sold more than 250,000 copies over a span of ten years and “inspired a whole generation of penmanship students, many of whom became prominent calligraphers” (http://people.virginia.edu). In addition, he authored The Penman’s Hand-Book (1883) and Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms, Education, Social, Legal and Commercial (1881), a text which “no self-respecting Victorian gentleman or lady could do without reading” (http://people.virginia.edu). 

            As noted in the title page of the “Compendium,” Gaskell was the Principal of Bryant & Stratton’s College, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Jersey City Business College, Jersey City, New Jersey and was editor of the first monthly journal dedicated to calligraphy and penmanship. He was a pupil of the “Log Cabin Pen Art School of Platt Rogers Spenser, whom he greatly admired ... and came to New York after the war and worked with John D. Williams and others who taught him off-hand flourishing” (www.zianet.com).

A former associate, L.G. Wilberton M.D., wrote the following description of Professor Gaskell:
About the year 1882-1883 I accepted a position in the Bryant & Stratton College, Manchester, N.H., and remained with them a year as a teacher of Bookkeeping and other subjects. At that time Prof. G. A.Gaskell was president of that college. He was in the height of his penmanship skill. 
Professor Gaskell was still a young man and of excellent personal appearance. He would be classed as a handsome man, about six feet tall.  His bearing was erect and [he had] pleasing manners. He was a natural orator and speaker as well as a teacher of first rank. He excelled in teaching others.  Penmanship was his favorite subject, and he did much to advance the study of good writing; in fact he became a national figure in the penmanship profession. He evolved a style of writing that was purely his own.  He was a real artist and master in describing how each letter should be made, carefully showing the right and wrong way in forming letters and figures. The students soon became interested to learn how to write well. The results were that his students became excellent penmen and teachers.
Shortly after I left Manchester, Prof. Gaskell died. My opinion of him stands high and I am sorry he died so young.  (www.zainet.com)
            Charles T. Cragin, an associate of Professor Gaskell at the Bryant & Stratton Business College, speaks of Gaskell as being very professional and quite reserved. In Some Reminiscences of a Queer Genius and a Couple of Promising Youngsters (1903), Cragin states Gaskell was, “about forty years of age [actually, he was about 32], of medium height, with very dark hair and clear-cut features.  He always dressed quietly, but with faultless taste, was reserved and low of voice, yet he at once impressed a visitor as a man of ability and refinement, and such he was on most occasions” (www.zainet.com).

            Gaskell became well renown not only for his penmanship talents but for his national advertising campaign practices as well. In his advertising he would illustrate “before” and “after” examples of penmanship from individuals who had used his course of study.  Samples from some of his most outstanding students, such as L. Madarasz and W.E. Dennis, author of Studies in Pen Art (1914), were used as prototypes in magazines throughout the country.  Though there is a dispute as to whether he was the originator of the “before and after” style, “he was the first to adapt it to educational advertising” (www.zianet.com).

            In contrast to his ornate advertising and claims of eccentricity, Gaskell was noted by one of his instructors as “a very modest and unassuming man.  He never bragged about his own writing and he was ever ready to admit the excellence of the work of others” ( www.zainet.com).


Conduct Books:


        Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms falls into the category/genre of conduct book. Conduct books were extremely popular in the nineteenth century. They offered varied and detailed advice on conduct for their readers—Gaskell’s covered topics as varied as letter writing, penmanship, marriage, and housekeeping. Though such books addressed both men and women and were even written by both sexes, they usually had more advice for women than men, and Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms is no exception (Morrison, Donawerth). In her study of conduct books, Lucy Morrison notes, “If women readers of the early nineteenth century had followed middle-class conduct books’ guidance to the letter, they would have been demure and competent daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers who sacrificed any personal desires to those of their surrounding dependents. They would have had little idle time, also, had they kept up with the latest conduct books being published” (202).
Commentary on the Text



Historical Background of Epistolary Practices
            With the rise of electronic capabilities, e-mails and text messages have become a stronghold in written communication and the practice of letter writing is rare; letter writing being defined as the actual transaction of sending a letter via postal services. As a concerned writer warns in the early twentieth century: “The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card” (Post). Letters of today usually fall into two categories: business and personal. But most received are not letters at all, rather they are consumer notices and bills. One may think that letters are just the spoken word written on paper; however, they play a much greater role in the literary world and date back much further than any other literary source.
            As far back as Egyptian times, 2686 BC, letters have been found written on bowls and papyrus as tokens of blessings and memories, which are buried with the dead (“Letters”). Letters also play a significant part in ancient texts such as the Bible and have been widely used through the twentieth century. During the eighteenth century, letters were sent without envelopes, using another sheet of paper sealed with wax to serve as the cover of the contents. Mostly red and blue wax was used to seal the letter but when sending news of a death, black wax was used to notify the recipient before he/she opened the bad tidings (“Letter Writing”). The recipient of the letter would pay the postage, much like when one makes a collect call today, which meant the number of letters was relatively small in comparison to the latter nineteenth century, when the Penny Post was introduced, making the cost of sending and receiving letters fairly cheap. In 1835, a letter from Edinburgh to London could cost as much as a day’s wages and the system of payment slowed the postal process, for sometimes the postman would have to make several trips in order to acquire payment. Once the Penny Post was put into practice, the cost being a penny to send a letter, and the stamp system in place, letter writing became a much wider spread practice (Shanahan). In addition to the postal system playing a huge role in the availability of patrons to send letters, there were pre-scripted methods on how to write letters, which came from letter-writing manuals or templates. A plethora of writing handbooks, which guided readers on the composition of letters, emerged during this time as a response to the influx of letter writers. These handbooks, much like Gaskell's "Compendium," seemed to answer the etiquette questions when it came to epistolary practices. 
Letter Writing Manuals as Education and Social Morality
            Toward the latter half of the sixteenth century, letter-writing manuals, like Gaskell’s “Compendium,” began to appear in English. Up until this time, the manuals were printed in Latin, which was the language of intellectuals, implying that the manuals were not meant for the non-academics in society (Porter 127). During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, letter-writing manuals served as a means for education and schoolmasters could teach letter-writing assignments that “could incorporate lessons on Latin and English grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhetoric, and composition” (178). Letter writing not only facilitated learning aspects of education but also conveyed the importance of letters in vocations, such as “[writing] a letter to an unreasonable landlord or a delinquent customer” (178). The writing manuals could also serve as a means for a less literate person to write a letter using a template instead of paying a dear price for a public writer (Chartier 3). In essence, a person of lower education could learn similar skills to an educated person with the help of a manual. However, some might argue that the form, in itself, was not directed toward the “ordinary” reader but more to the “middling bourgeoisie” because the letter writing manuals “appeared remote from the needs or skills of the ordinary readers” (4).
Not only did the manuals offer hope of providing skills for basic education and vocational skills, they also served as behaviour manuals by indicating what were the appropriate social conventions of the age (Porter 178). Model letters did not only provide insight to the letter-writer, but they also taught the common reader about social practices (Chartier 5). In addition to giving a blueprint of social etiquette, letter-writing manuals introduced ways to deal with the dramas of life, such as letters of “condolences” or “excuse,” which urge readers to assess ethics and morality (Porter 207). Gaskell shows this sense of morality in "Reply, Stating the Lady's Engagement to Another," where the woman writes to tell a potential lover that she is engaged to another man, "I feel that it would be dishonorable in me to keep you in any suspense, where the answer must be unfavorable" (223). The woman keeps her honor, or morality, by expressing honesty to the addressed gentleman. Manuals often possessed such examples, in order to perpetuate the accepted moral and ethical standard of the day.In totality, letter-writing manuals became essential to the nineteenth century way of life, not only in education, vocation and moral issues, but these manuals also taught one how to live in culture based on a social hierarchy.
Letter Writing Manuals as Social Control
However, because letter-writing manuals serve as a type of pre-scripted dialogue, some argue that these templates were just another form of control on social interactions. Writing manuals “distinguished between the learned, who complied naturally with the conventions that civility required, and the uncouth, whose use of writing was yet untamed” (Chartier 7). This separation became distinct and occurred between the letter writer, who followed a template completely with no invention of his/her own and the letter writer, who was competent enough to go beyond the examples in the book. Writing manuals serve as a form of control because “they furnished for imitation by the unskillful a set of rules and examples whose professional and social value resided precisely in the fact that they had been confiscated by a body of specialists or by a particular milieu” (7). This can be shown in “Unfavorable Reply, on the Ground of Poverty,” where the letter writer rejects the recipient because he is not wealthy enough; “What hope of happiness with our unsettled prospects, and worse than small means?” (Gaskell 223). The implied belief is that one cannot attain contentment without money and prospects, which leads the reader to trust that not only is it socially unacceptable to marry outside of one's economic status but that happiness relies on wealth. To the unskillful, these manuals functioned as education and the information inside them could lead readers astray with notions of what ‘should be’ contrasting with what is. A novice nineteenth century writer could use this template because he/she took to heart the idea that love cannot exist outside the reign of money and could deny a fruitful union on the basis of that idea. The impact that these manuals had on the nineteenth-century way of life from educational to social interactions is clear; therefore, the power to manipulate societal interactions was able to be used on many different levels as a form of social control.
Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms as a Conduct Book
It is unsurprising that a conduct book like Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms would try to exert a social control over its readers, especially the female readers, who would have made up the largest part of the conduct book audience. However, the genre of the conduct book is far from simplistic and, upon further analysis, conduct books can shed new light on the history of women writers. Beyond just offering domestic advice, Mary Poovey studies conduct books as contributing to the dilemma for women who wanted to assume the position of writer. Conduct books made authorial agency problematic for women since “women were encouraged to display no vanity, no passion, no assertive ‘self’ at all” (21). Lucy Morrison supplements Poovey’s discussion in her study of a dozen or so conduct books. Morrison notes that nearly all of these books, by both men and women, discuss women as writers. Morrison, though, views this optimistically, suggesting that “these texts’ consideration actually subversively promotes the idea of women as writers” (204).
As a conduct book, Gaskell’s text certainly does work to restrain women writers. He clearly defines different roles for men and women in their writing of letters, and men have more freedom. Gaskell encourages men to write naturally and express themselves without inhibition: “The gentleman should write as he would talk were he in the presence of the object of his affection.” But the rules are a bit stricter for a woman who writes to her beloved. Gaskell cautions women that “her betrothed will respect her more for a quiet, affectionate dignity in writing, than if she put too much of her sacred feelings on paper” (222). In short, men have authorial agency to make decisions and express themselves while women lack such agency. However, despite these early warnings from Gaskell, the majority of his text, in the use of an illustration of a woman writer and in his various examples of letter writing, could be interpreted as encouraging women writers. In reading all of Gaskell’s “rules,” women could discover that they did have the power and intelligence to write, and they then could have used this writing in ways that Gaskell did not intend; they could appropriate his ideas and use them to empower themselves as authors.
Illustrating the Women Writer
Illustrations of women involved in literary acts were common in nineteenth-century periodicals, and Gaskell follows this trend in his highly illustrated handbook. In Educating the Proper Women Reader, Jennifer Phegley analyzes several depictions of women reading from the British periodicals Cornhill Magazine and Belgravia: A London Magazine. Regarding the illustrations from the Cornhill Magazine, Phegley notes that these visuals of women readers often serve to further message that women’s literacy is a dangerous thing since reading and writing is outside of their traditional domestic roles and, even more, such practices should be overseen by a male (93-101). However, the illustrations from Belgravia, a magazine founded by the woman writer Mary Elizabeth Braddon, depict women reading independently or with other women, and “they read for their own personal benefit rather than for the good of others” (128). Phegley argues that such illustrations are one way that Braddon advocates for women reading free from the guidance of men (127).
Consideration of the illustration that prefaces Gaskell’s discussion of “Letters of Love and Courtship,” certainly contributes to Phegley’s analysis of these Victorian visuals, and it also brings her work on British periodicals into a transatlantic dialogue. Though Gaskell’s overall message appears oppressive to women, this illustration offers surprising freedom and agency. The woman writes alone here, and she is very involved in the process. She is surrounded by shreds of paper, indicating that she has been revising her work and has been engaged in the writing process for some time. Her expression is thoughtful, emphasizing that writing requires a certain intellectual power that this woman is capable of conjuring. This particular illustration aligns more with those that Phegley found in Braddon’s Belgravia; it offers women independence and agency in their literacy. In this way, such an illustration arguably confirms Morrison’s suggestion that conduct books could subversively promote women writers, even while trying to define their “proper” role (204).
Sentimentality in Letters
Gaskell’s examples of letter writing construct a highly sentimental version of authorship. Interestingly, it is male authors that are shown as the most sentimental. In“From an Ardent Love to a Lady,” an “ardent” man declares that he can longer “restrain” himself and must express his love to a woman. He writes: “I have loved you from the very first day we met, and always shall. Do you blame me because I write so freely?” The male writer can express his feelings openly and romantically to a woman. In her “Favorable Reply,” though, she must not show such effusive sentimentality. She merely comments that she is “blushing” and reminds him that they must consult their parents before “making any serious engagement” (223). Further, in his preface to these example letters, Gaskell even emphasizes that such reserve is necessary for women to maintain their feminine reputations: “A lady’s letter should always be dignified. Even though there may be an engagement existing at the time of the writing,” Gaskell reminds his readers, “it may be severed, or other parties may chance to see the epistles intended for one person’s perusal only” (222).
It does seem, though, that sentimentalism is permitted between women. In “From a Young Lady to her Mother,” Gaskell’s only example of woman-to-woman letter writing, the “young lady” writer gushes to her mother: “It seems ungrateful to think of loving anyone but you, but, oh mamma, if you saw Will Carpenter you would forgive me, I am sure. He is so handsome, so gentle in his manners, and yet so sensible and accomplished!” (225).There is a sense of established trust when women communicate, and their writing can be more emotional, honest, and even sentimental.The tone here is entirely different since the exchange is between women.
Though this sentimental quality in women’s letters to one another could easily be overlooked or simplified, Jane Tompkins has written a great deal about the power of the sentimental, arguing that female-authored popular domestic novels of the nineteenth century, often dismissed as “weak-minded pap,” actually offer sharp critiques of society (122-127). Sentimentalism, then, gives women a voice and a point of view in the Victorian era. Tompkins’ observation, when applied to these example letters, could once again demonstrate that Gaskell’s handbook, in an effort to restrain women’s voices, provides them with authorial agency instead. He unknowingly encourages sentimental and truthful writing among women, allowing them to establish powerful bonds that men will not be a part of since women must remain more demure in writing to the opposite sex. Sentimental letter writing, much like sentimental novels, could work to create a powerful social connection and engagement among these women who otherwise were forced to remain voiceless. Keeping this analysis in mind, Gaskell’s conduct book might have served to shape women’s behavior in ways he could have never imagined.

Works Cited

Chartier, Roger, Alain Boureau and Cecile Dauphin. Correspondence: Models of Letter-
Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. Trans. Christopher
Woodall. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.
Cragin, Charles T. “Some Reminiscences of a Queer Genius and a Couple of Promising
Youngsters.” Business Institute. Rochester, New York. 1903
Donawerth, Jane. “Nineteenth-Century United States Conduct Book Rhetoric by
Women.” Rhetoric Review 21.1 (2002): 5-21
Gaskell’s Compendium of Forms, Educational, Social, Legal and Commercial,…the
Whole Forming a Complete Encyclopedia Reference. 4 March 2008.
Green, Ross. George A. Gaskell. 14 June 2000. 4 March 2008. <http://www.zianet.com>
Henning, William E. An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and
Calligraphy. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2002.
“Letters to the Dead.” Digital Egypt for Universities. 2000. University College London.
 “Letter Writing Style of 1775.” British Royal Navy Living History.2004. HMS
Richmond, Inc. 18 Mar 2008. <http://www.hmsrichmond.org/writing.html>
Morrison, Lucy. “Conduct (Un) Becoming to Ladies of Literature: How-To Guides for
Romantic Women Writers.” Studies in Philology 99.2 (Spring 2002): 202-28.
Phegley, Jennifer. Educating the Proper Woman Reader: Victorian Family Literary
Magazines and the Cultural Health of the Nation. Columbus: Ohio State UP,
Post, Emily. “Longer Letters.” Etiquette. 1922. Bartleby.com. 18 Mar 2008.
Poster, Carol and Linda C. Mitchell, eds. Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction: From
Antiquity to the Present. Columbia, SC: South Carolina UP, 2007.
Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works
of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.
Shanahan, Eunice and Ron Shanahan. “The Penny Post.” The Victorian Web. 24 Oct.
2006. The Victorian Web Online. 31 Mar 2008.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-
1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Group Members


 Member Name



 Juliette Chisholm University of Missouri-Kansas City Eng. 555D
 Helen Marlin University of Missouri-Kansas City Eng. 555D
 Lauren Obermark University of Missouri-Kansas City Eng. 555D






Comments (3)

Anonymous said

at 9:04 am on Mar 24, 2008

This is a very exciting and informative page. I truly like and enjoyed the writing of responses to marriage offers made in this time period. It clearly shows how formal and serious unions were in this time period. The letters represent coutship, dedication, and the commitment put into forming marriages. Exciting. Loretta Mason

Anonymous said

at 7:58 am on Apr 3, 2008

The idea of letter writing in the 19th century is very interesting, especially when it comes to women writing. The fact that they were expected to be so full of sensibility but at the same time restrain themselves from actually showing this seems extremely odd. Of course, women were allowed to write very sentimental letters to other women, so I wonder, why not to men as well? They were supposed to be sentimental, right? It would only make sens for social norms to decree that if a woman wasn't overly sentimental in her letters she was being cold. Perhaps it was because men were perceived as being more distant and calculating and since they were supposed to show more sensibility in letters and they were out of practice of being sentimental, it was yet another thing to help strengthen the men. What I mean is, men were supposedly by nature generally unsentimental and since women were overly sensible to not make men look so bad when writing a love letter, women were supposed to downplay their "strength" of being sentimental

Raymond Kelly said

at 11:59 pm on Mar 2, 2009

I found this fact pertaining to the history of letter writing to be very interesting: " The recipient of the letter would pay the postage, much like when one makes a collect call today, which meant the number of letters was relatively small." This was a weird system/way of capitalizing on mail delivery. I would probably become outraged at the idea of paying for someone else to send me a letter, especially if they are sending it without my knowledge. I wonder if people of the 19th Century put very much emphasis on holiday greetings because I can just see how expensive it would become to communicate with loved ones especially before the telephone was invented. People could send you letters out of spite just because you have to pay for it. I guess that is why "the number of letters was relatively small." But I am pretty sure you could just NOT accept the letter and thus not have to pay for it.

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