Read CHAPTER XXXII - LETTER-WRITING. of Collections and Recollections, free online book, by George William Erskine Russell, on

“Odd men write odd letters.” This rather platitudinous sentence, from an otherwise excellent essay of the late Bishop Thorold’s, is abundantly illustrated alike by my Collections and by my Recollections. I plunge at random into my subject, and immediately encounter the following letter from a Protestant clergyman in the north of Ireland, written in response to a suggestion that he might with advantage study Mr. Gladstone’s magnificent speech on the Second Reading of the Affirmation Bill in 1883:-

“My dear Sir,-I have received your recommendation to read carefully the speech of Mr. Gladstone in favour of admitting the infidel Bradlaugh into Parliament, I did so when it was delivered, and I must say that the strength of argument rests with the opposition. I fully expect in the event of a dissolution the Government will lose between fifty and sixty seats. Any conclusion can be arrived at, according to the premises laid down. Mr. G. avoided the Scriptural lines and followed his own. All parties knew the feeling of the country on the subject, and, notwithstanding the bullying and majority of Gladstone, he was defeated. Before the Irish Church was robbed, I was nominated to the Deanery of Tuam, but Mr. Disraeli resigning, I was defrauded of my just right by Mr. Gladstone, and my wife, Lady -, the only surviving child of an Earl, was sadly disappointed; but there is a just Judge above. The letter of nomination is still in my possession. I am, dear sir, yours faithfully, .”

It is highly characteristic of Mr. Gladstone that, when this letter was shown to him by its recipient as a specimen of epistolary oddity, he read it, not with a smile, but with a portentous frown, and, handing it back, sternly asked, “What does the fellow mean by quoting an engagement entered into by my predecessor as binding on me?”

It is not only clergy “defrauded” of expected dignities that write odd letters. Young curates in search of bénéfices often seek to gratify their innocent ambitions by the most ingenious appeals. Here is a letter received not many years ago by the Prime Minister of the day:-

“I have no doubt but that your time is fully occupied. I will therefore compress as much as possible what I wish to say, and frame my request in a few words. Some time ago my mother wrote to her brother, Lord -, asking him to try and do something for me in the way of obtaining a living. The reply from Lady - was that my uncle could do nothing to help me. I naturally thought that a Premier possessed of such a plenitude of power as yourself would find it a matter of less difficulty to transform a curate into a rector or vicar than to create a peer. My name is in the Chancellor’s List-a proceeding, as far as results, somewhat suggestive, I fear, of the Greek Kalends.... My future father-in-law is a member of the City Liberal Club, in which a large bust of yourself was unveiled last year. I am 31 years of age; a High Churchman; musical, &c.; graduate of . If I had a living I could marry.... I am very anxious to marry, but I am very poor, and a living would help me very much. Being a Southerner, fond of music and of books, I naturally would like to be somewhere near town. I hope you will be able to help me in this respect, and thus afford much happiness to more than one.” There is great force in that appeal to the “large bust.”

Here is a request which Bishop Thorold received from an admirer, who unfortunately omitted to give his address:-

“Rev. and learned Sir,-Coming into your presence through the medium of a letter, I do so in the spirit of respect due to you as a gentleman and a scholar. I unfortunately am a scholar, but a blackguard. I heard you preach a few times, and thought you might pity the position I have brought myself to. I should be grateful to you for an old coat or an old pair of boots.”

And while the seekers after emolument write odd letters, odd letters are also written by their admirers on their behalf. A few years ago one of the principal bénéfices in West London was vacated, and, the presentation lapsing to the Crown, the Prime Minister received the following appeal:-

“Sir,-Doubtless you do not often get a letter from a working man on the subject of clerical appointments, but as I here you have got to find a minister for to fill Mr. Boyd Carpenter’s place, allow me to ask you to just go some Sunday afternoon and here our little curate, Mr. -, at St. Matthew’s Church-he is a good, Earnest little man, and a genuine little Fellow; got no humbug about him, but a sound Churchman, is an Extempor Preacher, and deserves promotion. Nobody knows I am writing to you, and it is not a matter of kiss and go by favour, but simply asking you to take a run over and here him, and then put him a stept higher-he deserves it. I know Mr. Sullivan will give him a good character, and so will Mr. Alcroft, the Patron. Now do go over and here him before you make a choice. We working men will be sorry to loose him, but we think he ought not to be missed promotion, as he is a good fellow.-Your obediently servant.”

Ladies, as might naturally be expected, are even more enthusiastic in advocating the claims of their favourite divines. Writing lately on the Agreeableness of Clergymen, I described some of the Canons of St. Paul’s and Westminster, and casually referred to the handsome presence of Dr. Duckworth. I immediately received the following effusion, which, wishing to oblige the writer, and having no access to the Church Family Newspaper, I now make public:-

“A member of the Rev. Canon Duckworth’s congregation for more than 25 years has been much pained by the scant and curious manner in which he is mentioned by you, and begs to say that his Gospel teaching, his scholarly and yet simple and charitable discourses (and teaching), his courteous and sympathetic and prompt answers to his people’s requests and inquiries, his energetic and constant work in his parish, are beyond praise. Added to all is his clear and sonorous voice in his rendering of the prayer and praise amongst us. A grateful parishioner hopes and asks for some further recognition of his position in the Church of Christ, in the Church Family Newspaper, June 12.” So far the Church. I now turn to the world.

In the second volume of Lord Beaconsfield’s Endymion will be found a description, by a hand which was never excelled at such business, of that grotesque revival of medievalism, the Tournament at Eglinton Castle in 1839. But the writer, conceding something to the requirements of art, ignores the fact that the splendid pageant was spoilt by rain. Two years’ preparation and enormous expense were thrown away. A grand cavalcade, in which Prince Louis Napoleon rode as one of the knights, left Eglinton Castle on the 28th of August at two in the afternoon, with heralds, banners, pursuivants, the knight-marshal, the jester, the King of the Tournament, the Queen of Beauty, and a glowing assemblage of knights and ladies, seneschals, chamberlains, esquires, pages, and men-at-arms, and took their way in procession to the lists, which were overlooked by galleries in which nearly two thousand spectators were accommodated; but all the while the rain came down in bucketfuls, never ceased while the tourney proceeded, and brought the proceedings to a premature and ignominious close. I only mention the occurrence here because the Queen of Beauty, elected to that high honour by unanimous acclamation, was Jane Sheridan, Lady Seymour; and there is all the charm of vivid contrast in turning from the reckless expenditure and fantastic brilliancy of 1839 to the following correspondence, which was published in the newspapers in the early part of 1840.

Anne, Lady Shuckburgh, was the wife of Sir Francis Shuckburgh, a Northamptonshire Baronet, and to her the Queen of Beauty, forsaking the triumphs of chivalry for the duties of domestic economy, addressed the following letter:-

“Lady Seymour presents her compliments to Lady Shuckburgh, and would be obliged to her for the character of Mary Stedman, who states that she lived twelve months, and still is, in Lady Shuckburgh’s establishment. Can Mary Stedman cook plain dishes well? make bread? and is she honest, good-tempered, sober, willing, and cleanly? Lady Seymour would also like to know the reason why she leaves Lady Shuckburgh’s service. Direct, under cover to Lord Seymour, Maiden Bradley.”

To this polite and business-like inquiry, Lady Shuckburgh replied as follows:-

“Lady Shuckburgh presents her compliments to Lady Seymour. Her ladyship’s note, dated October 28, only reached her yesterday, November 3. Lady Shuckburgh was unacquainted with the name of the kitchen-maid until mentioned by Lady Seymour, as it is her custom neither to apply for or to give characters to any of the under servants, this being always done by the housekeeper, Mrs. Couch-and this was well known to the young woman; therefore Lady Shuckburgh is surprised at her referring any lady to her for a character. Lady Shuckburgh having a professed cook, as well as a housekeeper, in her establishment, it is not very likely she herself should know anything of the abilities or merits of the under servants; therefore she is unable to answer Lady Seymour’s note. Lady Shuckburgh cannot imagine Mary Stedman to be capable of cooking for any except the servants’-hall table.

“November 4, Pavilion, Hans Place.”

But Sheridan’s granddaughter was quite the wrong subject for these experiments in fine-ladyism, and she lost no time in replying as follows:-

“Lady Seymour presents her compliments to Lady Shuckburgh, and begs she will order her housekeeper, Mrs. Pouch, to send the girl’s character without delay; otherwise another young woman will be sought for elsewhere, as Lady Seymour’s children cannot remain without their dinners because Lady Shuckburgh, keeping a ’professed cook and a housekeeper,’ thinks a knowledge of the details of her establishment beneath her notice. Lady Seymour understands from Stedman that, in addition to her other talents, she was actually capable of dressing food fit for the little Shuckburghs to partake of when hungry.”

To this note was appended a pen-and-ink vignette by Lady Seymour representing the three “little Shuckburghs,” with large heads and cauliflower wigs, sitting at a round table and voraciously scrambling for mutton chops dressed by Mary Stedman, who was seen looking on with supreme satisfaction, while Lady Shuckburgh appeared in the distance in evident dismay. A crushing rejoinder closed this correspondence:-

“Madam,-Lady Shuckburgh has directed me to acquaint you that she declines answering your note, the vulgarity of which is beneath contempt; and although it may be the characteristic of the Sheridans to be vulgar, coarse, and witty, it is not that of a ‘lady,’ unless she happens to have been born in a garret and bred in a kitchen. Mary Stedman informs me that your ladyship does not keep either a cook or a housekeeper, and that you only require a girl who can cook a mutton chop. If so, I apprehend that Mary Stedman or any other scullion will be found fully equal to cook for or manage the establishment of the Queen of Beauty.-I am, your Ladyship’s, &c.,

“ELIZABETH COUCH (not Pouch).”

“Odd men,” quoth Bishop Thorold, “write odd letters,” and so do odd women. The original of the following epistle to Mr. Gladstone lies before me. It is dated Cannes, March 15, 1893:-

“Far away from my native Land, my bitter indignation as a Welshwoman prompts me to reproach you, you bad, wicked, false, treacherous Old Man! for your iniquitous scheme to rob and overthrow the dearly-beloved Old Church of my Country. You have no conscience, but I pray that God may even yet give you one that will sorely smart and trouble you before you die. You pretend to be religious, you old hypocrite! that you may more successfully pander to the evil passions of the lowest and most ignorant of the Welsh people. But you neither care for nor respect the principles of Religion, or you would not distress the minds of all true Christian people by instigating a mob to Commit the awful sin of Sacrilege. You think you will shine in History, but it will be a notoriety similar to that of Nero. I see some one pays you the unintentional compliment of comparing you to Pontius Pilate, and I am sorry, for Pilate, though a political time-server, was, with all his faults, a very respectable man in comparison with you. And he did not, like you, profess the Christian Religion You are certainly clever. So also is your lord and master the Devil. And I cannot regard it as sinful to hate and despise you, any more than it is sinful to abhor him. So, with full measure of contempt and detestation, accept these compliments from


It is a triumph of female perseverance and ingenuity that the whole of the foregoing is compressed into a single postcard.

Some letters, like the foregoing, are odd from their extraordinary rudeness. Others-not usually, it must be admitted, Englishmen’s letters-are odd from their excess of civility. An Italian priest working in London wrote to a Roman Catholic M.P., asking for an order of admission to the House of Commons, and, on receiving it, acknowledged it as follows:-

To the Hon. Mr. -, M.P.

“Hon. Sir, Son in Jesu Christ, I beg most respectfully you, Hon. Sir, to accept the very deep gratitude for the ticket which you, Hon. Sir, with noble kindness, favoured me by post to-day. May the Blessing of God Almighty come upon you, Hon. Sir, and may He preserve you, Hon. Sir, for ever and ever, Amen! With all due respect, I have the honour to be, Hon. Sir, your most

“humble and obedient servant,

“ .”

Surely the British Constituent might take a lesson from this extremely polite letter-writer when his long-suffering Member has squeezed him into the Strangers’ Gallery.

Some letters, again, are odd from their excess of candour. A gentleman, unknown to me, soliciting pecuniary assistance, informed me that, having “sought relief from trouble in dissipation,” he “committed an act which sent him into Penal Servitude,” and shortly after his release, “wrote a book containing many suggestions for the reform of prison discipline,” A lady, widely known for the benevolent use which she makes of great wealth, received a letter from an absolute stranger, setting forth that he had been so unfortunate as to overdraw his account at his bankers, and adding, “As I know that it will only cost you a scratch of the pen to set this right, I make no apology for asking you to do so.”

Among “odd men” might certainly be reckoned the late Archdeacon Denison, and he displayed his oddness very characteristically when, having quarrelled with the Committee of Council on Education, he refused to have his parish schools inspected, and thus intimated his resolve to the inspector:-

“My dear Bellairs,-I love you very much; but if you ever come here again to inspect, I lock the door of the school, and tell the boys to put you in the pond.”

I am not sure whether the great Duke of Wellington can properly be described as an “odd man,” but beyond question he wrote odd letters. I have already quoted from his reply to Mrs. Norton when she asked leave to dedicate a song to him: “I have made it a rule to have nothing dedicated to me, and have kept it in every instance, though I have been Chancellor of the University of Oxford, and in other situations much exposed to authors.” The Duke replied to every letter that he received, but his replies were not always acceptable to their recipients. When a philanthropist begged him to present some petitions to the House of Lords on behalf of the wretched chimney sweeps, the Duke wrote back: “Mr. Stevens has thought fit to leave some petitions at Apsley House. They will be found with the porter.” The Duke’s correspondence with “Miss J.,” which was published by Mr. Fisher Unwin some ten years ago, and is much less known than it deserves to be, contains some gems of composition. Miss J. consulted the Duke about her duty when a fellow-passenger in the stage-coach swore, and he wrote: “I don’t consider with you that it is necessary to enter into a disputation with every wandering Blasphemer. Much must depend upon the circumstances.” And when the good lady mixed flirtation with piety, and irritability with both, he wrote: “The Duke of Wellington presents His Compliments to Miss J. She is quite mistaken. He has no Lock of Hair of Hers. He never had one." The Letter of Condolence is a branch of the art of letter-writing which requires very delicate handling. This was evidently felt by the Oxford Don who, writing to condole with a father on the death of his undergraduate son, concluded his tribute of sympathy by saying: “At the same time, I feel it my duty to tell you that your son would not in any case have been allowed to return next term, as he had failed to pass Responsions.”

Curtness in letter-writing does not necessarily indicate oddity. It often is the most judicious method of avoiding interminable correspondence. When one of Bishop Thorold’s clergy wrote to beg leave of absence from his duties in order that he might make a long tour in the East, he received for all reply: “Dear-,-Go to Jericho.-Yours, A.W.R.” At a moment when scarlet fever was ravaging Haileybury, and suggestions for treatment were pouring in by every post, the Head Master had a lithographed answer prepared, which ran: “Dear Sir,-I am obliged by your opinions, and retain my own.” An admirable answer was made by another Head Master to a pompous matron, who wrote that, before she sent her boy to his school, she must ask if he was very particular about the social antecedents of his pupils: “Dear Madam, as long as your son behaves himself and his fees are paid, no questions will be asked about his social antecedents.”

Sydney Smith’s reply, when Lord Houghton, then young “Dicky Milnes,” wrote him an angry letter about some supposed unfriendliness, was a model of mature and genial wisdom: “Dear Milnes,-Never lose your good temper, which is one of your best qualities.” When the then Dean of Hereford wrote a solemn letter to Lord John Russell, announcing that he and his colleagues would refuse to elect Dr. Hampden to the See, Lord John replied: “Sir,-I have had the honour to receive your letter of the 22nd inst., in which you intimate to me your intention of violating the law.” Some years ago Lady -, who is well known as an ardent worker in the interests of the Roman Church, wrote to the Duke of -, a sturdy Protestant, that she was greatly interested in a Roman Catholic Charity, and, knowing the Duke’s wide benevolence, had ventured to put down his name for L100. The Duke wrote back: “Dear Lady -,-It is a curious coincidence that, just before I got your letter, I had put down your name for a like sum to the English Mission for converting Irish Catholics; so no money need pass between us.” But perhaps the supreme honours of curt correspondence belong to Mr. Bright. Let one instance suffice. Having been calumniated by a Tory orator at Barrow, Mr. Bright wrote as follows about his traducer: “He may not know that he is ignorant, but he cannot be ignorant that he lies. And after such a speech the meeting thanked him-I presume because they enjoyed what he had given them. I think the speaker was named Smith. He is a discredit to the numerous family of that name.