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Dangerous Letter-Writing by Amelia Edith Huddleston Barr

An Extract From ~ Maids Wives and Bachelors

Young women are proverbially fond of playing with edged tools, and of all such dangerous playthings a habit of promiscuous, careless letter-writing is the worst; for in most cases the danger is not obvious at the time, and the writer may even have forgotten her imprudence when she has to meet the consequences. The romance, the gush, the having nothing particular to do, the almost insane egotism which makes some young women long to exploit their own hearts, caused poor Madaline Smith to write those foolish letters to a man whose every good quality she had to invent, and who afterwards tortured her with these very letters into a crime which made her stand for months within the shadow of the gallows. She had not patience to await until the real lover came, and then when he did come these fatal letters stood between her and her happiness, and her fair name.

The very instinct which leads to constant letter-writing, goes with a constitutional want of caution, and therefore indicates a necessity for intelligent self-restraint. If young women, when writing letters, would only project themselves into the future and imagine a time when they might be confronted with the lines which they have just penned, many an ill-advised missive would go into the fire instead of into the mail bag. Indeed, if letters at all doubtful in spirit or intent were laid aside until “next morning” many a wrong would be left undone, many a friendship would be preserved unbroken, and many an imprudence be postponed and so uncommitted. If indeed a woman could say truthfully, “This letter is my letter, and if mischief comes of it I alone have the penalty to pay,” expansive correspondence might be less dangerous. But no one can thus limit folly or sin, and its consequence may even touch those who were not even aware of the writing of the letter.

The abuse of letter-writing is one of the greatest trials of the epoch. Distance, which used to be a protection, is now done away with. Every one cries out, and insists upon your listening. They write events while they are only happening. People unknown intrude upon your time and take possession of it. Enmities and friendships thousands of miles away scold or caress; one is exacting, another angry, a third lays upon your conscience obligations which he has invented. For a mere nothing—a yes, or a no—idle, gushing people fire off continual notes and insist upon answers. Now this kind of letter-writing exists only because postage is cheap; if such correspondents had to pay twenty-five cents for giving their opinions, they would not give them at all. It is an impertinence also, for though we may like persons well enough to receive from them a visit, or even to return it, it is a very different thing to be called upon to retire ourselves with pen and ink and note paper, and give away time and interest which we are not inclined to give.

Plenty of girls write very clever letters,—letters that are an echo of their own circle, full of a sweet audacity and an innocent swagger of knowledge of the world and of the human heart that is very engaging. And the temptation to write such letters is very great, especially as both the writer and her friends are apt to imagine them evidence of a large amount of genius. Indeed, some who have a specially bright pen, or else a specially large circle of admirers and flatterers, arrive speedily at the conviction that they can just as easily write a book. So without reason and without results, they get themselves heart-burning and heart-ache and disappointment. For there is absolutely no kindred whatever between this graceful, piquant eloquence du billet and the fancy, observation, and experience necessary to successful novel writing.

If a girl really has a vein of true sentiment, she ought not at this day to give it away in letter-writing. There is a safer and more profitable way to use it; she can now take it to market and sell it for pudding, for the magazines and ladies' newspapers. Sentiment and fancy have a commercial value; and instead of sealing them up in a two-cent envelope for an acquaintance,—who is likely very unappreciative, and who perhaps tosses them into the fire with a contemptuous adjective,—she might send them to some long-suffering editor. These men know the depths of the girlish heart in this respect, and they have a patience in searching for the gold among the dross that is not generally believed in. Therefore, if a girl must write, let her send her emotions to the newspapers; an editor is a far more prudent confidant than her very dearest friend.

Really, the day for letter-writing is past. As an art it is dead, as convenience it remains; but it has lost all sentiment. Even Madame de Sévigné could not be charming on a postal card, and for genuine information the general idea is to put it into twenty words and send it by telegraph. So, then, it is a good thing for young women to get over, as soon as possible, the tendency of their years to sentimental letter-writing. They will thus save themselves many a heart-ache in the present and many a fear for the future. For if they do not write letters they cannot feel hurt because they are not answered. They cannot worry because they have said something imprudent. They will not make promises, in the exaltation of composition, which they will either break or hate to keep when they are in their sober senses. They will also preserve their friendships longer, for they will not deprive them altogether of that charm which leaves something to the imagination.

Of course there are yet such things as absolutely necessary letters; and these, in their way, ought to be made as perfect as possible. Fortunately, perfection in this respect is easily attainable, its essentials being evident to all as soon as they are stated. First, a letter which demands or deserves the attention of an answer, ought to have it as promptly as if we were paying a bill. Second, we ought to write distinctly, for bad handwriting represents a very dogged, self-asserting temper,—one, too, which is unfair, because if we put forward our criticisms and angularities in a personal meeting, they can be returned in kind, but to send a letter that is almost unintelligible admits of no reprisal but an answer in some equally provoking scrawl. Even if the writing is only careless, and may be read with a little trouble, we have no right to impose that extra trouble. Third, it is a good thing to write short letters. The cases in which people have written long letters, and not been sorry for having done so, are doubtless very rare. No one will ever be worse for just saying plainly what she has to say and then signing her name to it plainly and in full. For a name half signed is not only a vulgarity, it indicates a character unfinished, uncertain, and hesitating.

There is a kind of correspondence which is a special development of our special civilization, and which it is to be hoped will be carefully avoided by the young woman of the future,—that is, the writing of letters begging autographs. A woman who does this thing has a passion which she ought immediately to arrest and compel to give an account of itself.

If she did so, she would quickly discover that it is a mean passion, masquerading in a character it has no right to, and no sympathy with. An autograph beggar is a natural development, though not a very creditable one. She doubtless began her career of accumulation with collecting birds' eggs in the country, where they could be got for nothing. Butterflies were probably her next ambition. Then perhaps that mysterious craze for postage stamps followed. After such a training, the mania for autographs would come as a matter of course. And the sole and whole motive of the collecting business is nothing at all but the vulgar love of possessing, and especially of possessing what costs nothing.

It is amusing and provoking to notice the air of complaisance with which some of these begging epistles are suffused. The writers seem incapable of conceiving statesmen, artists, and authors who will not be as pleased to give as they are to ask. But in reality, a man or a woman, however distinguished, who feels a request for his or her autograph to be a compliment, is soaked in self-conceit, and the large majority certainly do look upon such requests as simply impertinent begging letters. The request, indeed, carries an affront with it, no matter how civilly it may be worded, as it is not that particular autograph that is wanted, for the beggars generally prefix as an excuse the bare-faced fact that they have already begged hundreds. Certainly no self-respecting woman will care to put herself among the host of these contemptible seekers after a scrap of paper.

Speaking broadly, a woman's character may be in many respects fairly gauged by her habits on the subject of letter-writing; as fairly, indeed, as we may gauge a man's by his methods of dealing with money. If we know how a man gets money, how he spends it, how he lends it, borrows it, or saves it, we have a perfect measurement for his temper and capabilities. And if we know how a woman deals with her letters, how many she gets, how many she sends, how long or how short they are, if they are sprawly and untidy, or neat and cleanly, and how they are signed and sealed, then we can judge her nature very fairly, for she has written herself down in an open book, and all who wish may read her.


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