Social dimensions of layout in eighteenth-century letters and letter-writing manuals
Anni Sairio and Minna Nevala
University of Helsinki
In this article, we present four case studies which explore the influence of letter-writing manuals in private letters written in eighteenth-century England. We focus on the ways in which layout features and contemporary instructions may be considered to reflect the social relationship between the writer and the recipient, and on the aspects of gender and social status in particular. We are particularly interested in the use of space and the positioning of the different parts of the letter (the salutation, the body of the letter, and the subscription). Our purpose is to look at such features as the correlation between the layouts and formal instructions; the correlation between the use of paper and the social status of the recipient; and the overall influence of a relationship between the writer and the recipient on layout choices in eighteenth-century letters.
The sample of four letters dates from the 1740s to the latter half of the 1780s, and the analysis is based on photographs and transcripts made of the original manuscripts in the Montagu family papers. The writers and the recipients belong to the same social network, in which Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1718–1800), a well-educated literary hostess of the time, appears to have been a central figure. The letters chosen for the analysis consist of one written to Montagu in her youth by her close friend Lady Margaret Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland in c. 1742, a letter Elizabeth Montagu wrote to her husband in 1757, a letter which a genteel Bluestocking woman wrote to a male aristocrat and fellow Bluestocking in c. 1771, and a letter Elizabeth Montagu received from her heir and nephew in c. 1786.
The study shows that letter-writing manuals promoted the recognition of variability in the status of the correspondents. Instructions given for written communication were particularly sensitive to changes within the social hierarchy. The four eighteenth-century letter-writers were undoubtedly fully competent in what Whyman (2009) refers to as epistolary literacy. Perhaps some of the rules were outdated or otherwise ignored, as social groups formed their own conventions. But some of the divergence in the material seems to be conscious. A close relationship between letter-writers clearly overrules certain norms of correspondence in the eighteenth century, which would be a new development from the previous centuries.
The process of letter-writing consists of many stages which may often influence the choice of language use. Composing a letter always begins with recognition of its intended recipient, and it reflects the relationship the writer has with the addressee. From the Middle Ages to the Late Modern period a wealth of socially conditioned features had to be considered in the process of epistolary communication. One of the earliest authors of English letter-writing manuals, Fulwood (1586), recommended that “the wit, the estate, dignity or quality of the recipient, whether publick or private person, rich or poor, friend or foe, familiar or stranger” should be taken into account. In early modern England, the rank, gender, kinship, and relationship of the writer and the recipient had a material impact on every part of the letter (Whyman 2009: 21; see also Gibson 1997, Postles 2005, Beal 1998, Nevala 2004). In late modern England, letter-manuals concentrated more on teaching how to write personal letters instead of the formal correspondence characteristic of medieval epistolary practice. Fulwood (1586) still trusted Lucan’s definition of epistles as “nothing else but an Oration written”, but eighteenth-century manuals advised the reader to avoid the classical model and “these pretended Ornaments, which were formerly so studiously sought after”. For privileged letter-writers, the traditional methods of learning the craft actually changed little from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Classical education was a crucial factor for attaining these skills, and it also provided a foundation for a “popular version” of letter-writing skills (Whyman 2009: 11-12). Age, gender, rank, and kinship continued to influence “the degree of artifice, flattery, and deference” in the eighteenth century, but letter-writing practices were becoming more informal (Whyman 2009: 21-22).
In this article, we present four case studies which explore the influence of letter-writing manuals in private letters written in eighteenth-century England. We focus on the ways in which layout features and contemporary instructions may be considered to reflect the social relationship between the writer and the recipient, and on the aspects of gender and social status in particular. We are especially interested in the use of space and the positioning of the different parts of the letter (the salutation, the body of the letter, and the subscription). How do the layouts in eighteenth-century letters correlate with formal instructions? Does there appear to be correlation between the use of paper and the social status of the recipient? Overall, can we hypothesize on the influence of a relationship between the writer and the recipient in layout choices in eighteenth-century letters?
The sample of four letters dates from the 1740s to the latter half of the 1780s, and the analysis is based on photographs and transcripts made of the original manuscripts in the Montagu family papers (MS Eng 1365) at Houghton Library, Harvard University. All of the writers and the recipients belong to the same social network, albeit in different points in time, and Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (1718-1800) can be identified as a central figure in this network (see her biography in the Oxford DNB and the Elizabeth Montagu and the Bluestocking Circle Project). Montagu, a well-educated literary hostess, made a name for herself as a Shakespeare critic and one of the influential figures in the learned Bluestocking circle (Myers 1990, Pohl and Schellenberg (eds.) 2003). The letters chosen for the analysis consist of one written to Montagu in her youth by her close friend Lady Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland in c. 1742 (Eng 1365 (198)), a letter Elizabeth Montagu wrote to her husband in 1757 (MS Eng 1365 (148)), a letter which a genteel Bluestocking woman wrote to a male aristocrat and fellow Bluestocking in c. 1771 (Eng 1365 (291)), and a letter Elizabeth Montagu received from her heir and nephew in c. 1786 (Eng 1365 (238)). The material thus represents a variety of relationships.
2. Layout features in letter-writing manuals
Letter-writing often reflected social aspirations, since it was one way to measure social respectability (Bryson 1998: 159). The entire style in which a person wrote letters was to correlate to his/her social position. The role of letter-writing manuals and conduct books was central, as they emphasised the letter as a means of taking the addressee into account in every way, both interpersonally and socially. In addition to the conversational style, the writer was advised to pay close attention to the form and function of the letter as a factor contributing to the building of social relationships (Chartier et al. 1997: 75–76).
From “nothing else but an Oration written” to a “Dialogue of the absent”
In the Middle Ages, the art of letter-writing, better-known as ars dictaminis, developed from the classical rhetoric of Cicero, Quintilian and Aristotle (Perelman 1991: 98; Lanham 1992: 116). The growing ecclesiastical and secular bureaucracy called for a more effective means of administrative business writing. Eloquent oral rhetoric was no longer popular, because the emphasis was now on the degree of writing competence which could be quickly acquired. The purpose was to create an art of applied, practical discourse of personal and official relations (Perelman 1991: 116). Ars dictaminis was closely related to grammar, and it was publicly taught using collections of authentic letters and formularies in schools and universities (Robertson 1943: 9; also Bazerman 2000: 19). 
Medieval formulae seem to have been used in letters as late as in the 16th century, but by the 18th century most of them were considered outdated. There was a growing tendency towards the use of simpler and more intimate terms instead of medieval elaborate rhetoric (Houlbrooke 1984: 32; Nevalainen 2001: 207). Going back to the clarity of antiquity seemed ideal and, as McIntosh (1998: 148) notes, as late as in the 18th century more editions and translations of the major classical rhetorics were produced than those originally written in English. Although, for example, Fulwood (1568: 1) had relied on Lucan’s definition of epistles as “nothing else but an Oration written”, two hundred years later The Art of Letter-Writing (1762: 3; henceforth ALW) reminded the reader that one should avoid “these pretended Ornaments, which were formerly so studiously sought after”.
It is not clear how deep an impact the manuals had on the actual production of letters. The intent of the authors and compilers of the manuals to offer models of instruction for various groups of letter-writers did not mean that the members of these groups actually made use of the manuals. Whyman (2009: 28) notes, referring also to Bannet (2005), that it is difficult to understand how widely letter-writing manuals were in active use in the eighteenth century. Few manuscript letters in Whyman’s extensive study resemble the model letters in the manuals. Eighteenth-century gardener Joseph Morton had to repeat directions to his family of how to send his mail: “When you Derect your Letters to me ... write at the Bottom (Single Sheet) as you, see I have Done for Last Letter was Cherged Double postage” (in Whyman 2009: 18). As Morton’s family members seemed to disregard the important practical advice on how to direct his letters, would they have adhered to instructions given in letter-writing manuals?
However, Tanskanen (1996: 150; 2003: 172) points out that it is likely that the readers of the manuals who were already competent in letter-writing consulted them also to “polish their epistolary skills”. The social function of a letter as a means of communication over distance, or “Dialogue of the absent” (Courtin 1703 : 136), concerned all sorts of people: not only learned gentlemen, but also women and children, the aged and unlearned. Whether it was the reader’s intention to either learn something new or revise something already mastered, most letter-writing manuals offered the support needed for epistolary practice.
From “cause” to “consequence”
Letter-writing manuals were advocates not only for correct social etiquette, but also for the proper way to compose letters in a particular order. Ars dictaminis, as well as the ars notaria, the writing of legal and business documents, relied on the exact organisation of things. In the 15th century, both official and private correspondence followed the Chancery model, which originated, as its name suggests, from the King’s Chancery letters (Richardson 1984: 213–214). The model was derived from the French and Latin, as well as Old English, traditions. In the first English letter-writing manual, Fulwood (1568: 2), however, reduced the number of the parts of a letter into a tripartite division: salutation, subscription and superscription. Furthermore, he (1568: 87) gave an example advising that a nobleman should compose his letters in the following manner: the title and name with brief salutation, benevolence of the person, benevolence to his own person. Interestingly, certain parts of a letter seem to remain central still in the eighteenth-century manuals. In general, the structure of a letter should reflect the order of the parts in a letter it is a response to. ALW (1762: 10–11) labels the main rhetorical parts used in a letter as exordium, narration, confirmation and peroration. This follows Fulwood’s (1568: 8) rhetorical classification into cause (“not always necessary”), intent (“necessary”) and consequence (“necessary”). The main parts in a letter are salutation and subscription, and the writer is left with plenty of freedom to formulate the middle part of the letter as the occasion requires. Still, writing in the right order must have been a question of principle and a sign of politeness towards the recipient, since so many writers thought themselves obliged to comment on the lack of proper form or style in their letters by using apologetic formulae.
The writer is often told to adjust the style according to the person and characteristics of the recipient. The addressee’s position, i.e the superiority or inferiority, in respect to the writer, seems to affect not only the form but also the style of the letter. Already Fulwood (1568: 4) recommended that “the wit, the estate, dignity or quality of the recipient, whether publick or private person, rich or poor, friend or foe, familiar or stranger” should be taken into account. When writing to a familiar, the language should not be “rare and diffused phrased”, but the letters themselves ought to be long, as opposed to the brief and “circumspect” letters written to “enemies” (1568: 5–6). Similarly, Courtin (1703 : 139–140) reminds the reader that letters to superiors should be written plainly, humbly and with circumspection, and those to inferiors without arrogance.  Along the same lines, ALW (1762: 5) generalises that “we must rise nobly to superiors, descend to more familiar ways of speaking to intimate friends”. More examples of stylistic dichotomy can be found in other manuals. NAC (1748: 42) warns readers that being extravagant when writing to “the judicious” makes them think the writer hopes for glory. On the other hand, using a very verbose style to “the ignorant” results in not being understood. Furthermore, Polite Epistolary Correspondence (1751: iv, vi; henceforth PEC) recommends that letters to friends should be “loose and irregular … bold and unconcern’d”, while at the same time being from the heart and showing “simple style … no borrow’d ornaments of Rhetoric”.
From “a small piece of Paper” to “a considerable Distance”
In letter-writing manuals, detailed instructions were often given in relation to the social status of the person at the receiving end. For example, the position of the date, place and signature was considered central, particularly in manuals published from the latter half of the seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century. Similarly, the size of the margins and the overall layout of the text were often meant to indicate the social relationship of both correspondents, as was the quality of the paper or the manner in which it was folded and sealed. The instructions could be as detailed as the following one concerning the position of the subscription in Puget de la Serre’s manual Secretary in Fashion (1640):
When we write to persons of quality, we use to leave a great distance between the body of the Letter and the Subscription, the body of the Letter alwaies using to end with My Lord, or Sir, Madam, or Mistress in a line apart, distant a mean space from that which precedes. Otherwise we leave not so much neither in one nor the other.
For one, Courtin (1703 : 119) advices the letter writer to pay attention to the size of the paper. When writing to one’s social superior, it is more respectful to use a large piece of paper instead of a small one, even if the letter was only a note or “some little Compliment of few words”. Similarly, ALW (1762: 17) gives advice on the paper quality by mentioning that a letter to “a Person of Distinction” should be written on a gilt paper and enclosed in a sealed cover.
1. Courtin, Antoine de. The rules of civility; or, the maxims of genteel behaviour, ... p. 119. See the full page on ECCO.
Courtin relates the size of the paper and the overall layout to showing politeness towards the recipient. He advices that “it would not be civil” to send out a letter full of text, with no space for a proper subscription (1703 : 123). Instead, the writer should add another piece of paper just to be respectful towards the person to whom (s)he is writing, by way of leaving enough space for both subscription and signature. Further along, Courtin again reminds the reader that in general “Faults in a Letter make deeper Impression than Faults in Discourse”, obviously including mistakes in layout as one of these faults that cannot be mended immediately and which are, therefore, a possible sign of impoliteness and a cause for misunderstanding.
2. Courtin, Antoine de. The rules of civility; or, the maxims of genteel behaviour, ... p. 123. See page on ECCO.
Courtin also writes about how the amount of space between the greeting and the body of the letter for one, and the space between the body and the subscription for another, may signal the relationship between the writer and the recipient of the letter. For example, if the correspondent is one’s equal or does not stand much higher in social hierarchy, the writer can show his/her respect and “submission” by placing the recipient’s title right after the body of the letter, “in the middle of the Blank”, before the subscription formula Your most humble and obedient Servant (1703 : 121). Both the title and the subscription are to be put at the bottom of the paper. This is particularly important when the recipient is a member of the royalty or the nobility, or “any other super-eminent Dignity” (1703 : 122).
3. Courtin, Antoine de. The rules of civility; or, the maxims of genteel behaviour, ... p. 121. See the full page on ECCO.
4. Courtin, Antoine de. The rules of civility; or, the maxims of genteel behaviour, ... p. 122. See the full page on ECCO.
Even more detailed layout instructions appear in ALW (see also The Complete Letter-Writer 1781: 43-44). The text was advised to start about two inches from the top of the paper. The proper size of the margins was also important, and the writer should leave an inch for the left-side margin. In general, no space should be left between the compliment or service and the body of the letter. When writing to one’s equals, sending greetings in a postscript even to one’s friends might be considered “Levity”, or have “the Appearance of having almost forgotten them” (1762: 17), i.e. showing disrespect and indifference.
5. The art of letter-writing, Divided into Two Parts... p. 17. See the full page on ECCO.
Unlike Courtin, ALW advices the writer not to leave a large space between the body of the letter and the subscription (1762: 18). The main reason for this is that by doing so, the writer leaves open space for anyone to add something to the letter which (s)he would not have written him/herself. By signing the letter, the writer is ultimately responsible for the contents of the letter, and any additional space on paper is like an invitation to misunderstanding and miscommunication.
6. The art of letter-writing, Divided into Two Parts... p. 18. See the full page on ECCO.
The position of the date also seems to have been one of the most central layout features. Already in the seventeenth century, Hill (1687: 100) reserves dating on the left hand side in formal business letters. More detailed layout instructions concerning the relationship between the correspondents start to appear in eighteenth-century manuals. Courtin (1703 : 140) advises readers to list the day of the month, the year and the place of writing at the bottom of the letter, on the left hand of the subscription. Only when writing to a superior should the date be placed at the top of the letter. A New Academy of Complements (1748: 41) goes into more detail and states that the writer should leave “near an inch distance between the superscription, or 1st line of your letter … dating it at the Top, tho’ when you write to your Equals, date it at the Bottom on the Left Hand”. A differing view is presented in ALW (1762: 18). The date is recommended to be written either on the top or the bottom of a letter, like in other manuals. If the letter is intended for a recipient in a superior position, the date should be put at the bottom of the letter, not the top, as advised by earlier models.
3. Layout features in manuscript letters
Let’s have a look at how the instructions are reflected in eighteenth-century letter-writing practices. In this section the four letters from the Houghton Library collections are discussed in chronological order.
A letter from Lady Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, to Elizabeth Robinson (c.1742)
“My dear Fidget,” Lady Margaret Bentinck (1715-1785) begins, “had I loved you less you shoud have heard from Last week but I can’t bear to give you pain [...]” The health of her husband and small daughter feature prominently in this letter from the 27-year-old Lady Margaret to 24-year-old Elizabeth Robinson, nicknamed Fidget for her restless energy (MS Eng 1365 (198), Houghton Library, Harvard University). The correspondence of their youth and young adulthood has been described as “surprisingly fresh and outspoken” (Myers 1990: 30) and “exuberant and witty” (Eger (1999: lviii); the letter is written from a social superior to a social inferior, but the correspondents were also intimate friends and confidants.
There are two pages to this letter. Traces of a seal remain, and the address panel has been torn off. The paper has a yellowish tint; this is common for writing paper made before the nineteenth century and the invention of bleaches (Finlay 1990: 31), and we see this also in the other letters. Except for a minimal top margin for the date, the page is filled from top to bottom and side to side. Example 1 illustrates that the informal salutation “My Dear Fidget” fits seamlessly into the text, and no indentations or paragraphs are used. Lady Margaret makes use of the paper to convey her thoughts instead of signalling respect by leaving space unused. She corrects the text as she writes, crossing out errors, and it is easy to see where she has dipped her quill in ink; her pen does not seem to be high quality. She closes the letter as “yours Tenderly & affectionally”, without her name or initials: signing off with “faithfully and affectionally yours” or “tenderly yours” is very common in her letters to Elizabeth. This is typical in letters to intimate acquaintances, and also an indication of how these formulae had changed into a more positively polite direction particularly in familiar correspondence towards the end of the seventeenth century (Nevala 2004: 145–146). Lady Margaret includes a postscript (“My Lord & ca are your / Humble servants”); these compliments from her family have the appearance of an afterthought that ALW (1762: 17) warns against.
In the first page, one line in the upper margin is used for the date. The author dates the letter by the day and the month, but leaves out the year: the date is abbreviated into ‘Feb 4:th’, and in pencil there is a later annotation ‘1742’. The date and the topic-related annotation ‘Mr Rob. Walpole’ have been added later, perhaps when Elizabeth Montagu’s letters were prepared for publication by her nephew and heir Matthew Montagu.
We know little of Lady Margaret’s education. She had a governess, and she learned French and Italian (Myers 1990: 23; see also her biography in Oxford DNB). Lady Margaret grew up in a culturally rich and stimulating environment. Her father was the Earl of Oxford, whose substantial collection of books and manuscripts now comprises the Harleian Collection in the British Library. Her mother held formal manners in high regard (Myers 1990: 25), so it is extremely unlikely that Lady Margaret was not thoroughly familiar with contemporary letter-writing instructions. Instead, she seems to have happily left formality aside when writing to Fidget. Without comparative material this is, of course, difficult to determine, but perhaps this correspondence provided Lady Margaret a respite from the most formal requirements of written communication. This tightly filled letter with its crossed-out words and slightly blotted ink seems to mark intimate, confidential communication; we do not know whether Elizabeth’s letters share these layout features, but she is considerably (and expectedly) more formal than the Duchess of Portland in her use of address terms (Sairio forthc.). And as the following letter illustrates, Elizabeth’s layout practices when she wrote to her husband some 15 years later are distinctly different from Lady Margaret’s familiar style in their youth.
Example 1. From Lady Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, to Elizabeth Robinson, c. 1742, page 1. MS Eng 1365 (198), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
A letter from Elizabeth Montagu to Edward Montagu, 1757
Elizabeth Montagu wrote this letter to her husband Edward Montagu during a trip she was taking in the south-west of England, sometime in 1757. The couple had been married for approximately fifteen years. The letter is a folded sheet, and text takes up one and a half pages (see examples 2a and 2b). The third page is empty, and the fourth is used for the address panel. There is thus a great deal of unused paper in this letter. The first paragraph is indented, and there is ample space in the top of the letter to separate the salutation, the date, and the place from the body of the text. The salutation (“My Dearest”) is at the top left side, and indented to the right we find the place (“Kings Weston”) and the day of writing (“thursday night”) in two separate lines. The year 1757 is a later annotation − it might in Elizabeth Montagu’s hand, but possibly written with a pencil. The date suggests that the couple was in frequent correspondence at the time: Elizabeth wrote the letter from a trip she was taking and had no doubt sent the previous letter only days before, so ‘thursday night’ would have been adequate information. She notes that she would be in Bath Easton on “Sunday evening” and expects to be at home on “tuesday night”, so the date also corresponds with the temporal references in the body of the letter.
The margins are narrow, but there is plenty of deferential space at the top and the bottom, and the subscription is divided into four sections that take up five lines (“I am / My Dearest / Your most affectte / & Faithfull / E Montagu”, in example 2b). Montagu is not always this formal in her subscriptions; some letters to her husband she closes with her initials crammed in the bottom of the page when she runs out of paper.
Stallybrass (2012) points out that blank space in letters would have been unacceptable if paper was expensive (see also an overview of his lecture at the Huntington Library). Stallybrass’s analysis of manuscript letters from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century shows that the message was most frequently written on one or two pages out of four, which left the majority of a pre-folded letter blank. In this sense Montagu’s letter was very typical of the period. She nevertheless tended to write long letters, and her hope that that her husband would accept a short one, for the reason that she would have to get up early in the morning (“I steal this time to write from what shd be dedicated to sleep”), probably derives from her general letter-writing habits and is merely formulaic politeness. Her ‘ramblings’ were a cause of some disagreement (Myers 1990: 139), which perhaps is reflected in the dutiful letter.
Example 2a. From Elizabeth Montagu to Edward Montagu, c. 1757, page 1. MS Eng 1365 (148), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Example 2b. From Elizabeth Montagu to Edward Montagu, c. 1757, page 2. MS Eng 1365 (148), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
A letter from Elizabeth Vesey to Lord Lyttelton, c. 1772
The third example is a letter from a genteel Bluestocking woman to a nobleman in that same social circle. The letter is written probably in 1772; the writer, Elizabeth Vesey, has not dated it. Elizabeth Vesey (c. 1715-1791), nicknamed ‘Sylph’ for her eccentric and ethereal airs, was one of the most notable Bluestocking hostesses and the possible inventor of the term (Myers 1990: 251), and she arranged popular conversation parties in the ‘blue room’ of the Veseys’ London residence, highest in fashion between 1770 and 1785 (Rizzo 1994: 230; see also Elizabeth Vesey’s biography in the Oxford DNB). Heller (2003: 223) refers to the Bluestockings’ fascination with “the magical indeterminacy of the Sylph” and discusses Vesey’s notoriously illegible handwriting: for her friends, this lapse from the expectations for literary women was turned into “the magic embodiments of her particular genius and spirit”, and they referred to her slovenly hand as “magick characters” and “hieroglyphicks”.  The recipient George, Lord Lyttelton (1709-1773, see Oxford DNB) also belonged to the inner circle of the Bluestockings, formed in the 1750s. The interaction between Vesey and Lyttelton spans over two decades and ranges from the London Blustocking scene and country house visits to publishing collaborations.
Example 3. From Elizabeth Vesey to George, Lord Lyttelton, c. 1772, page 4. MS 1365 (291), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
There are four pages in the letter, and the layout is similar throughout. Our analysis focuses on the last page (Example 3). Elizabeth Vesey has filled the paper entirely: words are occasionally crammed in the side of the letter, leaving the reader to puzzle over their meaning. The use of space probably accounts for Vesey’s frequent use of contractions and superscripts in the right-hand margin. The barely legible and heavily contracted and superscripted signature “my dr Ld yrs E Vesey” is squeezed into a tiny space in the bottom of the fourth page, quite in contrast with letter-writing instructions that advise the writer to leave ample space and avoid abbreviations when writing to a social superior.
Vesey’s handwriting is a right-leaning crawl, and ink blots her letter. She crosses out words as she writes. She does not trouble herself with the formalities of layout. All this appears to be characteristic of her – Vesey’s friends would thank her for her letters and confess they could barely read them (Heller 2003: 223) – and quite against the formal advice on how to write to a social superior. Heller (2003) suggests that Vesey’s role as the free, unencumbered Sylph granted her with certain liberties, and in personal letter-writing she “was not only allowed but indeed encouraged to follow her particular genius” (2003: 225). On the first page we find a direct address to Vesey’s husband, separated from the interrupted text with dashes. This reference reaches out from the paper, to the place and moment of writing, revealing another participant who is otherwise silent and invisible: “– Mr Vesey don’t look over my shoulder I must love my Ld Lyttelton –”. Very informal and creative indeed, and a similar discussion with Mr Vesey in a letter to Elizabeth Montagu is documented in Rizzo (1994: 233). The liberties assigned to the Sylph apply to her handwriting and her creative, energetic literary expression, and perhaps extend to layout as well. On the basis of the resemblance to the Duchess of Portland’s letter, we can hypothesize that the layout of these letters indexes a close relationship and a familiar female style of writing that does not strive to emulate elite (male) letter-writing practices.
A letter from Matthew Montagu to Elizabeth Montagu, c. 1786
“My dearest Aunt”, Matthew Montagu begins, “You can scarce imagine the pleasure I feel in announcing to You the safe continuance of our hopes. I really begin to believe with some degree of confidence, that we shall bring with us into the North an earnest of the most endearing present [...]” (Eng 1365 (238), example 4a). The happy event in the horizon concerns his wife’s pregnancy. Matthew Montagu (née Robinson, 1762-1831) was Elizabeth Montagu’s nephew and adopted heir, brought up from his childhood by the Montagus, who provided him with a good education. At the time of writing he was about 23 years old and had been married to Elizabeth Charlton for approximately a year. The letter consists of four pages, and the analysis is focused on the first and the last pages (examples 4a and 4b).
We find the salutation (“My dearest Aunt”) in the left-hand margin, and the place (“Rottingdean”) and the date (“August. 1.st”) in the right-hand margin, all of them on the same line; judging from the second page that is visible through the paper, Matthew Montagu has left three lines and a generous top margin above them. An empty line separates the initial formulaic elements and the body of the letter, and the first paragraph is indented by a third of the width of the page. The dating resembles Elizabeth Montagu’s style: he marks the place of writing, the month, and the day, but omits the year (‘1786’), which has been annotated in pencil by a later hand.
The left-hand margin is neat, and on the right-hand side the text runs into the side of the paper; unlike Vesey, Matthew Montagu does not seem to contract words that end up in this space. The exceptions are one apostrophised ‘mention’d’ on the fourth page, and ‘affectionate’ in the subscription. The fond, yet formal subscription (“I am, my dearest Aunt / ever your most loving, affe[ctionate] / Matthew Montagu.”, example 4b) is divided into three lines, and punctuated.
Matthew Montagu was brought up to be a gentleman and to assume responsibility of the family businesses and properties. His recent marriage had probably provided him with new independence. In her discussion of epistolary literacy in the lower classes and the ‘middling sort’, Whyman (2009: 9) refers to letter-writing competencies that range from layout, spelling, grammar, and content to originality and literary techniques. Like all the letter-writers discussed in this paper, Matthew Montagu represents in Whyman’s (2009) terms the ‘elite’ writers, those with genteel background and access to required resources. He might have taken epistolary liberties elsewhere, with individuals closer to him in terms of age and gender, but in his letter to his adoptive aunt he demonstrates that he possesses the epistolary skills and manners of a gentleman, and fills the social role he has been raised for.
Example 4a. Matthew Montagu to Elizabeth Montagu, c. 1786, page 1. MS Eng 1365 (238), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Example 4b. Matthew Montagu to Elizabeth Montagu, c. 1786, page 4. MS Eng 1365 (238), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
“The greater the Person, the greater the Blank”
Letter-writers were advised to leave enough paper for a proper salutation and signature at the end, and ALW (1762: 17) instructs leaving about an inch on the left-hand margins. Matthew Montagu is the only writer who leaves a left-hand margin; perhaps this reflects his education and subsequent writing habits, and the degree of formality in his correspondence with his aunt. Elizabeth Montagu and Matthew Montagu leave space in their letters (ample top margins, carefully structured formulaic elements), whereas the Duchess of Portland and Elizabeth Vesey do not. The two family letters thus contain the most formal layouts, and the letters penned by a friend to another friend (either a superior or of lower status) do not adhere to guidelines in the same degree. Vesey in particular breaches formal letter-writing etiquette.
Compared to Elizabeth Montagu’s subscription in the letter to her husband, Vesey’s crammed signature, with its abbreviated honorifics in the very bottom of the page, indexes notable and, in Courtin’s (1703 : 123) view, potentially offending informality. But offence was hardly taken. Elizabeth Vesey tells Lyttelton that her husband would be happy to hear from him, and that a letter from Lyttelton would “make him [Mr Vesey] amends for [
XXX] \coqueting/ with his Wife”. The tone of the letter is convivial, just as in Lady Margaret’s letter to young Fidget Robinson. Intimate friendship is a factor which the manuals understandably do not deal with as much as they emphasize the important status-related, formal aspects of social relationships. Although letters to friends were recommended to be “loose” and “irregular” (PEC 1751), the advice seems to refer to the rhetoric and contents of the letter and perhaps not quite as much to layout. But friendship surely had an influence in layout choices. Lady Margaret had the privilege to overlook formality when corresponding with an intimate friend, and Vesey’s ethereal identity as the Sylph might have “grant[ed] her the permission to elude the constraints of social decorum” (Heller 2003: 222). Whyman (2009: 21) points out that despite the influence of social factors in eighteenth-century letter-writing practices, there was always a “tension between the form’s conventions and the impulse of the writer”, and Vesey seems to give in to the impulse to write letters in a way that gave her the least trouble and enabled her to focus directly on the content.
“dating at the Top”
Letter-writers were sometimes advised to date on the left-hand side (Hill 1687), but if these letters are dated, the date is always on the right-hand side and on the top of the letter. A cursory glance at the Bluestocking Corpus (see Sairio 2009 for details), which consists of letters by the authors and recipients of the letters picked for this paper, indicates that in these social circles, letters were generally dated at the top of the letter. The advice on the place of date varies; Courtin (1703 : 140) advises using the space at the bottom next to the subscription unless the recipient is a social superior. Either these letter-writers date their letters as if they were writing to a superior, or the practice of placing the date at the top was at this point a (polite) convention. As the year is unmarked in every letter, it is likely that this was simply an established practice, and the omission of year perhaps reflects the frequent pace of correspondence as well as its familiar nuances and conventions.
Establishing, maintaining, and negotiating one’s social status and interpersonal role are the essence of any verbal interaction. Power affects social language use, the structure of discourse itself, and the negotiation of situational roles. In late modern England as in the earlier periods, letter-writing was a means to show the other(s) where the interactants were placed in respect to each other as well as to society at large. Learning how to compose letters also meant learning the societal norms and customs, necessary for behaving in a civil and eloquent manner.
Letter-writing manuals promoted the recognition of variability in the status of the correspondents. Instructions given for written communication were particularly sensitive to changes within the social hierarchy. After all, the manuals indicate that a breach in what was considered proper conduct was perceived more serious in writing than in speech, which makes it possible to instantly correct and apologise for any mistakes. Written word was more permanent in nature, and thus more reliable.
What does it mean, then, when the rules are not followed? The four eighteenth-century letter-writers were undoubtedly fully competent in what Whyman (2009) refers to as epistolary literacy. Perhaps some of the rules were outdated or otherwise ignored, as social groups formed their own conventions, which might be the case with the date. But some of the divergence seems to be conscious. The Duchess of Portland and Elizabeth Vesey do not comply with layout instructions, and Vesey in particular would seem to risk impoliteness if not for the Sylph’s apparent social privileges and the long-standing and affectionate relationship between her and the recipient. A close relationship between letter-writers clearly overrules certain norms of correspondence in the eighteenth century, which would be a new development from the previous centuries.
 Austin (1973: 13) points out that rather than through external models, letter-writing conventions were mostly learnt at home as a part of a family tradition.
 Courtin (1703 : 18), adds that expressions of familiarity in correspondence with equals is “laudable”, to superiors, “sauciness … impudence”, but to inferiors, “graceful”.
 Vesey apologized for her handwriting to Elizabeth Montagu: “I think I might set a state decypherer at defiance – but don’t I conjure you expose the uninteresting pot hooks of yr friend for I wou’d not venture to plague any but such a friend who can find some affection tho no entertainment in my wretched blots which I am too careles to mend & which has almost discourag’d me from writing” (MO 6394, , Huntington Library, quoted in Heller 2003: 224).
Elizabeth Robinson Montagu’s biography in the Oxford DNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19014?docPos=1
Elizabeth Montagu and the Bluestocking Circle Project: http://www.elizabethmontagunetwork.co.uk/
Elizabeth Vesey’s biography in the Oxford DNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28257?docPos=1
George, Lord Lyttelton in the Oxford DNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/17306?docPos=1
Lady Margaret’s biography in the Oxford DNB: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40752
MS Eng 1365: http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~hou00380
Stallybrass’s lecture at the Huntington Library: http://huntingtonblogs.org/2011/12/peter-stallybrass-lecture/
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A letter from Lady Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, the Duchess of Portland, to Elizabeth Robinson (Montagu), c. 1742. MS Eng 1365 (198), Montagu family papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
A letter from Elizabeth Montagu to Edward Montagu, c. 1757. MS Eng 1365 (148), Montagu family papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
A letter from Matthew Montagu to Elizabeth Montagu, c. 1786. MS Eng 1365 (238), Montagu family papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
A letter from Elizabeth Vesey to George, Lord Lyttelton, c. 1772. MS 1365 Eng (291), Montagu family papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
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