The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Letter-writing in France
By Mrs. A. Caumont, Author of "The Hanleys," &c.
If there is one social accomplishment which flourishes supreme in the French household, it is that of letter-writing. Some of the best letter-writers in the world have been French-women; it is not necessary, however, to open a volume of Madame de Sevignes or Mademoiselle Eugenie de Guerin's correspondence, to realise the important position this gentle art occupies in the daily life of our Continental neighbours.
"The best day of the week," confided an old French couple to me once, "is the day our children's letters arrive."
"Jeanne is so clever," exclaimed the mother, "she can paint and sing and speak English; and Jean knows mathematics and astronomy, and can tell you every bone in your body." "Bah!" exclaimed the father, "they can both write home, and what signifies the rest? Show their letters, wife, they can bear looking at."
The letters were produced from no remoter distance than the depths of the mother's gown pocket. They were read aloud and passed round for inspection; and--oh, dear!--how neat and orderly they were, on clean paper, tidily folded, with an even margin down each page; some being daintily scented, like veritable love-letters! Neither blot nor crossing marred the distinctness of the penmanship.
"We know all that happens," observed the old gentleman, apologetically, as he cleared his throat and commenced reading aloud one of the latest epistles. It was very interesting, even to those who had seen neither Jean nor Jeanne. All was so simply narrated, and so naturally, just as if the writer were there in the room recounting every detail by word of mouth. Before the last lines were finished we felt that we knew the absent children. The letters had conveyed a much better impression of them than did the couple of photographs suspended above the mantel-piece.
"There was some trouble with Jean when he was little," remarked the father, "instructing him to hold his pen rightly. And as for Jeanne, they teach her a great deal at that school, and I hear she's at the head of her class; but if her letters weren't up to the mark, we would soon fetch her home."
Like many another parent, the good man was proud of his child's intellectual abilities; but he had the sense to foster, first and foremost, that grace of filial respect, the quality which invests the flower of the family with its richest fragrance.
The weekly letter is the parents' due; its four presentable pages contain a candid account of the doings and sayings away in the strange school, and re-assure their hearts as to their child's loyalty and love. In short, Jean and Jeanne both know that it is expected of them; and that, after all, it is but a small return for the amount of solicitude and affection bestowed upon themselves.
In France, the child's first attempts at letter manufacturing have generally some pleasant associations connected with them. Imagine the joy of the tiny lad of six years, who is permitted to have a birthday-party on condition that he pens the invitations with his own little hand. With feverish haste he rushes to the "birthday-table" and selects half a dozen sheets and envelopes from the miniature tinted stationery Mamma has just presented to him. The servant waits in the corridor to despatch the wonderful documents once they are ready; and you may be sure that little Monsieur Eugene, seated within, is giving his concentrated attention to the business in hand. He wishes to lose no time; nor does he intend to disgrace himself before his six bosom friends. So the gay little notes are completed and distributed; and therewith the festivities of the day are duly inaugurated.
The impressions conveyed by "Santa Klaus" to the children of the Fatherland, and by "Father Christmas " to our boys and girls, are faithfully represented to the French youthful mind h the arrival of New Year's Day.
The long-anticipated étrenne, or New Year's Box, comes at last to light. The pent-up curiosity and patient expectation, the secret hopes wishes, find their vent on the morning of the first of January in ecstasies of astonishment and delight.
But the general satisfaction would not be complete unless the father and mother--or grandfather, or godfather, or good aunt and uncle, or, in short, whoever the "kind fairy" may be--were, on the other hand, to receive some acknowledgment, as a proof that in very young hearts there glows sparks of genuine gratitude, Former occasions have shown that a carefully-written, affectionate little letter answered the purpose; and so now, a full week before the time, the governess and the school authorities are taken into consultation; an hour or two of the writing-lesson is devoted to the secret; and the result is a charming juvenile epistle, fraught with good wishes and loving assurances. The writer may, perhaps, never be spared to see the dawn of another New Year's Day; or he may live to grow up, and leave the paternal roof, and forget his childhood's joys and sorrows in the swirl of business, in the battle of life; but that simple New Year's letter remains, treasured in the mother's desk, to be read and re-read, and breathes ever the same atmosphere of good faith and honest tenderness. The New Year's letter from the child to the parent is surely one of the happiest methods by which the former expresses his love and gratitude; and, once it has become an institution, it affords as much pleasure to the one as to the other.
Such, indeed, is the nature of the homely epistle, penned in large, round hand, which lies before me. The paper is time-stained, and the ink is somewhat faded. Had the writer lived on she would now be a middle-aged lady, one of those good women whose guileless lives whisper of the calm and peace of heaven. The little quaint note runs as follows:-
"My dear Papa,
In later years, that was all the good father possessed of his little Léontine. A poorly-executed portrait, taken after her death, rather saddened him than otherwise; but these few childish lines did go a long way towards filling up the gap in the paternal heart, and he would not have parted with them for all the rubies and diamonds in the world.
The introduction of the post-card system threatens to demolish the archives of many a good old family in France, where I once overheard a mother exclaim "These cartes postales--never! If my son dare send me one, I shan't look at it. I shall wait for--the letter. "And such was the dear old lady's horror of these halfpenny intruders, that she neither invested in them herself, nor permitted one, with her sanction, to leave the house.
There are people everywhere who regard the writing of a letter with feelings of repugnance. They grasp at the half- penny post-card as at a sort of life-belt to save them from a sea of botheration; to emancipate them, as it were, from a miserable mess of blots and misspelling. They would rather, indeed, fill out a telegram-form than sit down quietly and concoct an epistolary production as decent as any of those turned out by their own grandfathers fifty years ago.
In some of our schools the art of letter-writing runs the risk of being overlooked; and yet how necessary it is for everyday life! A well-known Irish barrister once sent his daughters to the English head-master of a public school, a man known far and wide for his learning, thorough academical acquirements, and splendid method of imparting information.
"What shall I teach them?" inquired the latter, touched by the confidence reposed in him.
Now the main difficulty in letter-writing, once we come to analyse the matter, consists frequently in the mechanical part, the "putting pen to paper," the forming neat rows of reading--clean, legible, properly spelt, with the t's and l's the right height, the i's carefully clotted, the punctuation correct. As a proof of this, take a procrastinating letter-delinquent and try to stir him up to pay his debts. All your trite axioms, such as "Once begun, half done," "Never put off till tomorrow, &c., are of no avail. He doesn't heed you. He shrugs his shoulders and grumbles, "A post-card will do." But you seize pen and paper and offer to write for him at his dictation. Oh, then his countenance brightens; a host of ideas come to his remembrance; and it takes all your time to keep pace with him.
The only cure for the person who cannot write a neat letter is, to begin and practise it until he can. With each time, it becomes easier; and, an accomplishment, it is worth the trouble. "Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well," is a maxim which applies especially to letter writing.
This fact is impressed on the little French lad and lassie very early. "Take time," they are told, "and take pains!" And there are three things to shun--blots, crooked lines, and bad spelling. To escape the first, use blotting-paper; to avoid the second, dispense with ruled lines as soon as possible, and practise freehand: and to be proof against the third evil--mis-spelling--keep a handy dictionary beside you, to consult for every difficult or doubtful word.
The quality that irresistibly charms the stranger on perusing an average French letter is the indefinable air of ease about it,--an unstudied grace which even proves infectious! The cause of this is, that not only are the French accustomed early to "drive the quill," but they are encouraged to give unreserved expression to their feelings in their correspondence, as well as in their conversation.
We once had occasion to spend a fortnight in a middle-class burgher home in French Switzerland. During that time news arrived of the death of an old grand-aunt of the family in the neighbouring canton. For the next few days the conversation naturally turned upon the deceased, and the part she had played in the various family events in bygone years.
Finally, a large cardboard box was produced, and laid on the table; and "the letters" brought forth--not only those of the good Tante Henriette, but of most of the other relatives, male and female, from the grandpapa down to the youngest child. They were spread out; and, as an intimate friend, permission to read any of them I chose.
It was like giving a child the freewill of a garden of flowers; jasmine and moss-roses, sweetwilliam, pansies, and honey-suckle! Cull a few here, a few there, and put them together, and you have a sweet-smelling nosegay, the pleasant picture of a family's life during a quarter of a century.
The first is from Tante Henriette herself. She was no great scholar, having never even heard of an "exam," but she was a loving heart, an unfailing correspondent. She writes from an Alpine village, whither she had gone to accompany an invalid uncle. The descriptions are mostly of Nature, beautiful sun-rises and evening afterglows, the tinkling of goat-bells, the rumbling of avalanches; with minor details as trivial, but as delightful, as any of Eugénie de Guérin's.
The next is from Paris, from the present head of the family, in the days of his apprenticeship. We have the lad's impressions of the large city, his astonishment at the tall houses, palaces, and hotels along the banks of the Seine; the boyish vanity with which he boasts of the boulevards and the fairy-like wonders of the Champs Elysees. But his first pangs of home-sickness are depicted as well, and would draw a tender smile from the gros monsieur who today has his eldest grandson out in New Orleans.
Three or four holiday letters follow next, from a certain little Valérie and her brother Louis, who were spending the month of July with their cousins in the Jura. These are merely children's letters, but they are charmingly realistic. All that interested the little correspondents is vividly depicted. What they describe is by no means new to the reader; yet now, after a long lapse of years, he sees it all again for the first time, through the wondering eyes of little Louis and Valérie.
I wish that I could send these for perusal to a young neighbour of mine, a certain Master Herbert Reginald Percy Jones, captain of a respectable "eleven," and first of his "form." The only news his mother got from him during the last Easter recess was a post-card containing the lines:-
"Arrived all right. Having a jolly time. Don't forget to send that parcel.
I am afraid that Master Bertic's epistles, for some time to come, will not be worth putting away in a box, for the edification of his friends twenty years hence. As we closed the pretty cardboard box, with its neatly assorted contributions from Tante Henriette down to little Louis, I could not help reflecting what an interesting collection was formed by the whole, and how much more rational than a mere exhibition of the postage stamps or the family crests, which so many people nowadays tear off from their letters, whilst committing the kernel of their correspondence to the waste paper basket.
Of course there are some French children of good families who also experience difficulty in composing a letter. I remember the visit of a young lady, who came to stay with us for a fortnight. When the first mutual greetings were exchanged she exclaimed, "This evening it is too late, but tomorrow I must write to my dear Julie. She is my best and of course, friend. We always say 'thou' to one another; and of course, the faithful girl was at the train to see me off, with such an immense bouquet of flowers! I promised to write and tell her all about the journey the moment I should arrive; but she can't expect me to write until tomorrow anyhow."
Quite late on the following evening we heard our young guest exclaim in tones of contrition, "O my Julie, I have forgotten to write that letter! Well, tomorrow morning it must be set about; and it must be a good long one."
The whole fortnight passed and we heard nothing more of the famous letter to the bosom friend. A few weeks later, however, we were reminded of it again in a very comical manner.
The spare bedroom was being set in order, and prepared for the reception of another visitor. The duster and broom were in full swing; windows were flung open, and drawers cleared out, to be duly re-lined with i fresh papers. Suddenly, in the midst of her operations, the charwoman paused for awhile; then picking her way down the corridor to the library door, tapped three times, and finally intruded a red arm, redolent of soap finger suds, with a little sheaf of note-paper between the finger and thumb.
"Looks like bits of letters;' she said apologetically; "they were in the back of the dressing-table drawer."
I took them from her feeling that I might safely examine their contents. Letter "Number one" began: "My dear Julie . . ." and that was all. On the second rose-tinted, gilt-edged sheet of paper was written very neatly: "My dear Julie, I have now been here a week . . . " The next epistle, which was equally "short and sweet" began with, "My dearest Julie, whatever must you think of me all this time . . ." and ended in a few ruled lines.
I suspect that poor Mademoiselle Julie never received any letter after all; and the more is the pity, as our young visitor was an intelligent, observing girl, whose acute remarks, had they been transferred to paper, must have been entertaining. As it was, she simply risked losing the friendship of her "dear Julie."
There is a French proverb which says, "A timely gift cements friendship." Now the same thing applies to letters in a far greater degree. How many good old friends are neglected and lost for ever, not through any changed sentiments, nor any ill-will, but simply through our omitting to reply to his or her last letter. The birthday epistle and the new year's letter, with their hearty good wishes for the coming year, mark the natural epochs for renewing friendships; and, in France, the manners and customs of the country afford still more frequent occasions for correspondence.
When the young people are confirmed, they receive letters of congratulation as well as suitable presents, which they must acknowledge by visit, or by letter.
When a young couple are betrothed, the fact is announced to their acquaintances by a printed card ; and for the next few days congratulations are showered in upon them through the Post Office.
The same applies to weddings--silver and golden weddings, and to the hundred and one jubilees and fête days which enliven the French calendar.
A good old gentleman, who had enjoyed a lengthened experience of human nature, was once consulted by one of his daughters as to the propriety of writing a certain letter. "My dear child," he replied, in his quaint, homely way, "you can seldom write one letter too many, but you may easily write one too few, and be sorry for it all the days of your life."
The French generally like to write letters, because, as a rule, they cultivate the wit and vivacity which makes letters interesting, and so they know beforehand that these epistles will be appreciated. They are like an old lady, a French pastor's wife I once knew, who said that "the happiest moment of her New Year's Day was the exact time when she knew that her distant little grandchild, away in the south of France, was opening her parcel to him, and reading her written message."
A thousand miles away she could see the child's joy, and hear his infant voice lisping out her loving words!
To elderly people, especially, the arrival of a nice, interesting letter is a priceless comfort. How many an old heart, saddened by losses and bereavements at home, and weary with watching the empty places at the hat earns for the postman's knock to fetch fresh tidings from abroad!
How often has the house physician declared that such and such a letter "coming just then" would work wonders unattainable by him, might cure heart maladies, against which his prescriptions have proved powerless!
The educated French are a thrifty, provident race. They not only "lay by" money "for a rainy day," but they train their little ones to be comforts to them in their declining years. "As we grow older," they say, "we look for more letters. One everyday is not too many from some one of the young folk." And then, what a satisfaction when the letters regularly come, the traditional four pages, neat and legible, with the thread of chatty information taken up where it broke off in the last epistle home! Sometimes they are taken out to be read and pondered over--for a mother's eye can also "read between the lines"; sometimes they are retained at hand for purposes more curious.
"If you please, madame," said a photographer once to an old French lady whom he had just brought into the proper position for his lens, "there is no occasion for madame's being anxious or nervous. Do not smile, try but to look glad or pleased about something, and don't move until I cry 'ready'."
"Oh, wait, monsieur, wait one moment. My son's letter is here in my pocket. Now that I think of it, I will hold it spread out. Now, Monsieur Photographer, I am ready."
We have that likeness before our eyes at this very moment, and does the reader wish to know what it looks like?
Well, it is the picture of a dear little mother thinking of a distant, affectionate son. In the glance of her loving eyes you see that she has not forgotten him; by the letter held outspread in her right hand, we are assured that he had not forgotten her.
Some of the greatest French writers, the men and women whose names shine brightest in literature, have left behind them nothing more interesting than their familiar letters to their friends and children. We have only to quote those of Madame George Sand to her son and daughter, Madame de Séivigné to her daughter, those of Racine to his son, those of Guizot to his family, and a number of others. In all of these the great charm is their naturalness.
"Write as you speak," says the French parent to his child. "Take time; take pains! Avoid bad spelling, unless you intend the reader to be moved to mirth at your expense; and indistinct writing, unless you wish to weary and disgust him! If you have difficulty in knowing how to commence, then begin at once--the sooner the better--for we must always grapple first with what seems most formidable! If you arc at a loss to know how to end up suitably, then practise at endings of various styles. Only practice makes perfect!
"Following these standard rules is not enough, however, for perfection in the art of letter-writing. Our little French lad and maiden learn one thing more. They have a talisman handed down to them in their homes from one generation of gentlefolk to another--and even the poor folk have their share of it. The secret is, "You must try to please."
When Angelique writes to her godmother, she remembers all the old lady's pets--the cockatoo and the canary, the gold-fish and the black poodle; and she inquires kindly after each one. She asks also how the embroidery looks, now that it is mounted, and remembers to send her kind regards to old André, the superannuated gardener. Whilst narrating the odds and ends of news from her own home, the little woman is careful not to mention the violent attack of toothache she has had in the night; and she has the delicacy not to refer to her own pet kitten, whom the black poodle worried the last time he was over.
And why? Because this French child has the tact to know that these arc unpleasant topics. Angelique is but a little creature; yet she knows right well how to pen an amiable letter. It forms part of her good behaviour. Her careful mamma has told her that she must not even commence her letter with an "I"--which appears egotistical, and therefore not quite well-bred"!--and, moreover, that it is as important to write a cheerful, pleasant, kindly letter, as to write a letter at all. Nowadays in France, as well as in England, the young people leave home oftener, and travel further than they used to do in the old stage-coach days. Thanks to modern progress, they go abroad and see more with every year. Above all things, therefore, let there be no stint of home letters. Pens, ink, paper, and postage are even cheaper than they used to be in our grandfathers' time, so there is no practical reason for our domestic, well-bred accomplishment of letter-writing to fade just yet into one of the occult sciences.
Rowland Hill, fifty years ago, became the benefactor of mankind by introducing the system of penny postage stamps. He had, doubtless, before his eyes visions of delight--the homes of the poorest daily brightened by the winged messengers of Mercury. Alas! the good man could not foresee that "familiarity" might really "breed contempt"; and that it requires more than cream laid paper, square envelopes, and a penny postage stamp to produce a letter worthy of the name!
Typed by happi, January 2016
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