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  • Atty Dillon and the Ladies’ Letterwriter
  • John Smurthwaite (bio)

those long crossed letters Atty Dillon used to write to the fellow that was something in the four courts that jilted her after out of the ladies letterwriter when I told her to say a few simple words he could twist how he liked not acting with precipat precip itancy with equal candour the greatest earthly happiness answer to a gentlemans proposal affirmatively my goodness theres nothing else[.]

(U 18.740-45)

The phrases quoted by Molly Bloom can be found in various letters in The Letter-Writer for Ladies, which forms the first part of Beeton's Complete Letter-Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, first published in 1873.1 The Beeton of the title is Samuel Orchart Beeton (1831-1877), a prolific compiler and publisher and the husband of Isabella Beeton of cookbook fame. Beeton tells us in his preface that

Complete Letter-Writers are often suspected of being worse than useless, on account of the ridiculous style in which they were at one time written. . . . Their examples, for instance, of familiar letters, instead of being conversational, were formal, circumlocutory and uninteresting . . . and what were called love letters were similar to what Lylie [sic] and other authors of inflated romance might have written in their most extravagant moods.


One can only wonder what these earlier letter-writers were like, if Beeton sees his specimens as lively and interesting in comparison. To be fair, Beeton does not propose that his letters should be copied [End Page 352] verbatim: "[This book] does not pretend to supersede the letter itself, but to put the writer in the right way" (iv).

The italics in the following extracts are mine and are drawn from the "New and Revised Edition" of Beeton's text (circa 1880). In letter no. 66, "From a Lady to a Gentleman (almost a Stranger) who has proposed by Letter," Nora Whitney writes to an unidentified correspondent:

Sir, While sensible of the great honour you wish to confer upon me, I cannot conceal my surprise that you should think me capable of acting with the precipitancy which has characterised your step. . . . I thought it my duty to place your letter in my father's hands, who read it also with astonishment.


Letter no. 70, "Another Letter accepting a Proposal," is a more positive response from Kate Arbour to Robert:

My dear Robert, You ask me very plainly whether I will be your wife, and I answer with equal candour, I will. I have no wish to conceal the fact that you are more to me than any other being on the earth, but I was beginning to fear that the affection was all on my side, and you know that women must keep their secret hidden.


One would like to know more of Kate and Robert's story, for later in her letter she writes: "I shall not cast a reflection on those who separated us. I have thought it hard that they should have done so, but now all that was unkind is forgotten" (50). There seem to be the makings of a novel here.

Lizzie, who is something of a procrastinator, writes to her dearest Percy to name their wedding day (no. 79, "Fixing an Early Day"):

I have it on my lips, and yet it seems hard to write it. Why, I don't know. I am sure it is simply naming the day when my greatest earthly happiness will begin. . . . But you know women have not the decision of men, and I am but a woman. I must now, however, name the day, come what will, and if I say — I have named the very earliest.


The nearest approach to "answer to a gentlemans proposal affirmatively" is no. 84, "Answer to a Missionary's Proposal affirmatively." Mary Burton agrees to accompany her suitor to Africa to "share the trials of a missionary's life there" (61). Mary addresses her missionary as "My Dear Sir" and speaks of "friendship" and "esteem"; love is not mentioned, and Mary ends rather flatly, "You will tell me what to do" (61). No. 85 is an alternative response...


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