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The Letter – a Genre for Women

Written by: Marianne Alenius |

Writing a letter – one that the chosen recipient feels inspired to read – is an art form. We do not choose to receive post, it just arrives – and often at an inopportune moment. If the letter-writer’s purpose is not to convey an important item of news, but simply to point out that he/she is still alive and would like to receive a letter or a visit soon, and if the message has to be repeated day after day with a view to achieving this aim, then a not inconsiderable talent for writing is required. In mid-eighteenth-century Europe it was the height of fashion to cultivate this talent. Men and women wrote letters to one another and about one another, about anything, and sent them distances as short as the width of the street.

The good private letter is one that instantly gets going, seems short, changes pace, is all-engrossing, and ends abruptly. The language is personal and allows scope for feelings. A private letter is friendship in writing. Friendship permits intimacy, not only between friends, but also in writing about the others: friends, enemies, the powers that be. The recipient can reply or not reply – it only takes one pen for the correspondence to continue. A key feature of the private letter is superfluity. The more superfluous – meaning, the fewer pieces of information that can become out-of-date or can only be understood by the correspondents – the more lasting and re-readable the letter will be. It is hard to write about nothing. In order to keep the interest of the addressee, the writing has to be accomplished and engaging; and if this is achieved, then therein lies the risk of the letter being read aloud as entertainment. That, however, is precisely the point of the exercise in the eighteenth century. Privacy and control of the audience are thus necessarily relinquished – and the private letter enters the public domain. In reality, this gives the writer the chance – under the guise of writing privately – to plant opinions and attitudes and style in a forum of unknown magnitude; an opportunity that a good letter-writer naturally exploits to the utmost. The private letter can thus be used to spread not only secrets but also personal reputation.

The private letter as semi-public aesthetic-literary genre was not the invention of the eighteenth century. In Europe, this kind of letter was current in Greco-Roman Antiquity; the genre was highly-developed in the Roman period, and the Renaissance considered Cicero and Pliny to be its finest representatives. The naturalness of their smooth sentences written in colloquial language was imitated with mixed results.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance have left behind many prose letter templates and actual manuals, books with titles such as De epistolis conscribendis (On Writing Letters), designed to teach the difficult craft of writing a decent letter. However, as the number of people with practical Latin skills gradually declined, the language lost its facility and readers had to have a dictionary to hand. Cicero and Pliny, writing in their mother tongue with all their admired naturalness and elegance, were therefore the most inappropriate models for their imitators.

Rousseau: Madame de Sévigné, 1666. 310,2, The Royal Collection of Graphic Art, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen © SMK Foto

This is where France’s Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696) enters the picture. She is Europe’s most renowned letter-writer of the modern era. Not only did she write good letters – she only wrote letters. Unlike other famous letter-writers, she thus has no other claim to fame. Approximately 1200 letters from her hand survive; copies of the letters were circulated among friends and interested readers during her lifetime, and since her death they have been published in numerous and increasingly more complete editions over the centuries. The letters were translated into many languages, and they were an important factor in the future development of epistolary theory. Being a well-educated salon lady, at ease speaking and reading Italian, Latin and Spanish, and constantly in the company of people who described themselves as, for example, “guardians of antiquity”, Madame de Sévigné had acquired a large poetic vocabulary in foreign languages. She had time to read – and she did so. She had reason to write – and she did so. The reason was that her daughter married and moved off to the south of France. Although Madame de Sévigné had started her letter-writing career before this event, her correspondence first became known to a wider community, and she first became aware of her talent, in c. 1669. Her letters were copied and read in literary circles throughout France, and by this means her name spread throughout Europe. It was not that Madame de Sévigné was the only letter-writing woman in France – it was just that she was the best. French correspondence flourished all around her, flowing from the pen of ‘Madame this’ and ‘Madame that’, with letters also being sent back and forth across the national borders.

When she had something on her mind, Europe’s most admired letter-writer, Madame de Sévigné (1626-1696), was heedless of her addressee’s mood or inclination to write. In a letter to her cousin, dated 26 July 1668, for example: “If you reply, do not therefore believe that I can ever keep silent, because for me that is an impossibility. I shall always pour forth a stream of words, and rather than writing two letters, as I have promised you, I shall write two thousand.”

By 1700 Madame de Sévigné herself was dead, but her unpublished letters were in the public domain and they were henceforth injected with new life. At the same time, epistolary theorists began to revise their letter-writing manuals. French became the language of private correspondence, and not just in France. Long letters in French were written in other countries, which is a sure indicator that the art was acquired and did not evolve unprompted. Letters written in Latin – scholarly discussion in the common in-house language of academia – survived for a few more decades.

Much of the skilfulness in Madame de Sévigné’s letters was shared with Cicero and Pliny, and there was much that she had learnt from them. In a sense, she cultivated and expanded the genre they represented. Being a woman, a mother, a cultured person with no possibility of pursuing important business on behalf of state and society, the random events of her everyday life were given free rein in the muddled sequence accorded by fate. And she reported them in just the same kind of muddle, and, moreover, in a highlighted form facilitated by the omission of everything that did not cause her an emotional reaction. The private letter thereby became bigger, fuller and even more detailed than its ancient prototypes. The role of these prototypes as actors on the political stage was replaced by her role of observer. She was a guest at the table of power, but she had no vote. Her life took place in a private capacity, and accordingly the political and royal court life – her day-to-day environment – was part of her private life. Her famous chronique scandaleuse was thus a natural part of her everyday conversation with friends or with her daughter, recorded in writing. One letter, for example, opens:

“I am going to tell you a thing the most astonishing, the most surprising, the most marvellous, the most miraculous, the most magnificent, the most confounding, the most unheard of, the most singular, the most extraordinary, the most incredible, the most unforeseen, the greatest, the least, the rarest, the most common, the most public, the most private ’til to-day, the most brilliant, the most enviable; in short, a thing of which there is but one example in past ages, and that not an exact one either; a thing that we cannot believe in Paris; how then will it gain credit in Lyons? a thing which makes everybody cry, ‘Lord have mercy upon us!’ a thing which causes the greatest joy to Madame de Rohan and Madame de Hauterivs; a thing, in fine, which is to happen on Sunday next […].” (15 December 1670)

The event is a society wedding but, before she tells us this, her daughter has to guess what it is and who is getting married. This takes another page. And our curiosity about every detail is not diminished when Madame de Sévigné plays a guessing game in which her daughter guesses incorrectly time after time.

Madame de Sévigné now had a place in epistolary theory, alongside Cicero and Pliny, often even above them. Theorists ascribed her gender great significance, a factor that was to play an important role in the further development of the genre. From then on women all over Europe were encouraged to write private letters. Private letters were sought-after for publication, and the conventions of letter-writing attributed to female nature powers worthy of imitation. The female disposition, it was thought, was less constrained by reflection than the male. It was quicker and more sensitive. It was impulsive – or, in Montaigne’s term, primesautier – one reason being that women spent their lives in the interior of society, where business, politics and study did not influence experience itself. The nature of woman was much discussed. Where both morality and manners were concerned, the female disposition was that of the observer. Women refined and introduced light and shade into whatever they were dealing with, by virtue of their temperament. Analyses such as these can be found in publishers’ comments in the numerous, and steadily mounting, editions of Madame de Sévigné’s letters. But similar sentiments are expressed just as frequently by the male epistolary theorists, the authors of modern letter-writing manuals.

The women in question were, of course, the women of culture. They were salon women in the cities, of the royal court and aristocratic circles in the provinces. It is interesting to note that a number of eighteenth-century male commentators took it for granted that women who wrote letters kept abreast of modern literature and were familiar with the classics in the original language or in translation; at the same time, however, these men were apparently of the opinion that the specifically female aspect they observed was natural and not acquired. This did not tally with their rigorous appeals to their own female correspondents to read and to write; nor with the fact that they found no talent for letter-writing among women with no formal education. The men would seem to have been utterly devoid of understanding as to the laborious and intellectual work required to appear natural, naive, elegant, sensitive and spontaneous. As for the women, their main concern would seem to have been that it worked. To the best of my knowledge, there was no attempt to contradict the men when they ascribed to women these special characteristics. The women took their assigned talent onboard and threw themselves energetically into practising the art of writing natural letters. The men were increasingly impressed. To each man his correspondentess. He was not obliged to reply in any great detail, it was enough that he received a steady supply of letters to take on his travels and read aloud in company.

In northern Europe, epistolary literature written in the national language enjoyed its greatest popularity in the eighteenth century; in Scandinavia, though, it did not become popular until the second half of the century and the beginning of the next. The Scandinavians cannot be said to have acted impulsively on impulses received. It was not until the major part of Europe had reacted, and Germany had interpreted, that the Nordic region got to grips with the genre.

The principal architect of the development in Germany was a theorist, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert. In 1741 he published his treatise Gedanken von einem guten deutschen Briefe (Thoughts on a Good German Letter), and ten years later he followed it with a similar work entitled Briefe, nebst einer praktischen Abhandlung von dem guten Geschmack in Briefen (Letters and a Practical Treatise of Good Taste in Letters). Jakob Baden translated these works into Danish, with the aim of bringing his compatriots up to date.

“One who, among multiple notions, by the aid of a tender and fortunate emotion may select the lightest, the fairest, and the most compelling, and observe a mode of seemliness in combining them, such a one will surely write good letters. From this, we might say wherefore womenfolk often write more natural letters than do men.”

(German poet and letter-writing theorist Chr. F. Gellert)

National language was increasingly put on the agenda in the letter-writing debate. Broadly speaking: when it became apparent that Madame de Sévigné’s ink did not flow in every female pen, interest shifted from increasing the number of those pens to capitalising on the new qualities that had supposedly been discovered in women’s letters.

In mid-eighteenth-century Germany and the Nordic region, the more established form of literature – written by male authors with a view to publication – was undergoing a conscious transition from Latin to the national languages. A new kind of literature was evolving, less pompous and formal, more intimate and realistic; and at the same time new ‘old’ genres were being tried out, such as Anacreontic poetry, héroïdes and Catullus-inspired occasional poetry.

Women’s letter-writing was an agency by means of which the fledgling mother tongue entered into the male writers’ process of mental adjustment. Both parties used letter-writing as an unofficial training ground where – albeit training different disciplines – everyone could, in a reasonably dignified fashion, derive benefit. The women had a chance to become well-known and appear in print – during their lifetime or posthumously – while the men had the opportunity to hone their technique for what they would be writing in other genres. Or, if their only ambition was to receive letters, they were supplied with informed entertainment that put them in the spotlight in polite society. Women’s experience was of value in itself. What was considered to be spontaneously naive could actually, in part, be described as experience in noticing and applying words to phenomena that had not previously enjoyed any prestige in the seeing: nature, the setting of everyday life, emotional friendship. The women were deservedly proclaimed experts in the field. It was, after all, their entire world that was brought forth and described in their own words. Writing about your feelings and thoughts as you went to town in order to buy silk ribbon – anyone who had learnt to spell could do that. Thoughts before setting out, making the choice, the colours, softness, how the ribbon was going to be worn, who the ribbon was going to be worn for, his comments, what actually happened instead, and so on and so forth – and so what? No, it was obvious that women had special expertise in these areas, from which the men could learn. But to think it was naivety and spontaneity that made it possible to convert everyday experience into words – that was naive. And, indeed, it turned out that the better educated and more widely read the letter-writers were, the more they got out of their experience. It is thus not surprising that some of the best letter-writers of the period are to be found among those men who had learnt to write in a female fashion – Baggesen, for example.

Madame de Sévigné turned the epistolary genre into a women’s genre, not in the sense that it was mostly populated by women, but because the women in this one genre had the status of role models, both for men and for women. Starting with Madame de Sévigné, and moving through numerous collections of letters written by women (and men, too), we eventually reach, a good one hundred years later, Charlotta Dorothea Biehl, in whom we find an amazingly undiluted Nordic counterpart to Madame de Sévigné. Madame de Sévigné created a female genre, Miss Biehl executed it ‘to the letter’.

Translated by Gaye Kynoch