23 April, 2013

A New Favourite Book

I have found a new gem on my bookshelves. My new discovery might not be a Booker Prize winner, but it's provided me with literally minutes of entertainment. It is the rather gorgeous General and Social Letter Writing by A. G. Elliot. Published by Paperfront in 1956, I'm not even sure how it found its way on to my shelves, but I'm glad it did. Part of its charm for me is that a non-fiction book written in 1950's English reminds me of the way my dad speaks. In fact, I own a letter which my father sent to his parents when he was a young man and it sounds so similar, it's really very charming.

This book not only contains letter-writing tips on style, thickness of paper, correct forms of address and punctuation, but gives sound advice on all sorts of letters from apologies to acceptances, from complaining to government officials to giving references. It also contains examples of many different types of letter. Here are some examples from Mr. Elliot, to get you through your Tuesday afternoon:

Should you need to break off an engagement with John, you could perhaps write to him beginning like this:
"I hardly know how to start this letter, because it is written on a matter about which I never imagined I should have to write. John, dear, will you ever forgive me if I ask you to release me from my engagment to marry you. My heart is broken on your account, because I do know how much you love me." (This letter goes on to explain how Howard has been "motoring me home" on Fridays after work and how "I have always been attracted to him", which seems too much information, but then, I'm not the expert.)

Should John then set fire to your coat in a jealous rage, do not allow the insurance company to fob you off with a measley offer... "Do you consider your offer of £3 against a coat worth £10 is fair treatment? I did not claim the larger sum with any intention of entering into negotiation for its reduction, because the coat had only been worn twice and was obviously still worth its original value, or within a few shillings of it." You tell 'em A. G.

If you and Howard elope to where John can't find you and end up on honeymoon, you may like to write a postcard home with such entertaining details of your ski-ing trip such as, "They make everything very easy for the visitor going up even to the extent of a special "lift" which takes you to the mountain-top and which I was delighted to use."

And when you return to set up home, you mustn't be afraid to ask favours from your new neighbours... "After much hesitation, because of natural British reluctance to ask favours I suppose, I am taking the liberty of writing to inquire if you would be so kind as to let me shoot the rabbits on your farm."

There are many more charming examples of letters in this book (check out the pictures!), from being "thrilled" to receive a gift of a dozen eggs, to what to do if you are a "girl who has met a young man on holiday whom she likes but who, although friendly, has shown no special interest in her. She rightly feels if he could get to know her better he might one day fall in love." I especially love the jaunty little jokes and scattering of exclamation marks with which his letters are punctuated.

Do you love writing letters? I've been writing to my best friend from nursery school for 20 years now, ever since we were cruelly torn apart from each other when her family moved house when we were six years-old. To me, getting personal letters in the post always brightens my day. How about you?


  1. Dear Chloe,

    May I take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your efforts in bringing this delightful-sounding book to my attention. It sounds an absolute hoot!

    Though I enjoy writing and receiving letters, I must admit many years have passed since I wrote much more than a postcard. I blame the availability of such modern contrivances as texts and emails, and a somewhat lethargic nature on my part.

    Still, having considered the potential pitfalls that might ambush the unwary letter-writer (as illustrated by the section on "Boy and Girl friends"), it might be prudent not to rush into such correspondence without a guide such as that of the steadfast Mister Elliot.

    With kind regards,

    P.S. I am somewhat scandalised by the developments involving Howard. The scoundrel! Poor John!

    1. Best. Comment. Ever.

      I might have extrapolated a little far with Howard and John. Though, to be fair, most people in the book did seem to be called John. In one letter, two different people were called John.


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