The Pleasures of PerfidyTHEODORE DALRYMPLE
It is curious to think that in 1943, while people were being gassed at one end of Europe, other people were fretting about how to address a letter correctly to a Dowager Duchess.
And just as under feudalism the feudal lord was supposed to provide protection to his vassals as a quid pro quo for their labour or the product of their labour, so the state is supposed to protect (and educate, cure, insure and amuse, among other things) its dependants. Other countries, of course, are not very dissimilar in principle from Britain, though their feudal states may in practice be somewhat more efficient, and less morally and intellectually corrupt, than Britain's.
It is hardly surprising that so great a change in the organisation of society should have produced a great change in the manners and general culture of society (though of course it is possible that the causative relationship, if any, runs also in the other direction, in what one might call a dialectical fashion). Just how great that change has been is detectable in small things as in great.
Recently, I happened on a slim volume in a charity thrift shop (in England, even the organisation of these shops is morally and intellectually corrupt, but that is another story) titled How Shall I Word It? – a Letter Writer for Men and Women on Domestic and Business Subjects. This edition was published in August, 1943, at the height of the war, when extermination was under full swing. It is curious to think that, while people were being gassed at one end of Europe, other people were fretting about how to address a letter correctly to a Dowager Duchess. Since then, of course (and not unconnectedly), vulgarity, being democratically achievable by all, has become a virtue, and daintiness a kind of treason to the self.
This little volume was written by Ronald M Pelham. It was not the first edition: that had appeared in 1901, when the author was described as 'One of the Aristocracy.' From this I deduce (perhaps wrongly, and it isn't sufficiently important to confirm) that the author was a member of the family of the Earls of Chichester. The Eighth Earl was killed on active service in 1944 at the age of 22.
The subtitle of the first edition was slightly shorter and more elegant than the second: A Letter Writer for Men and Women on All Subjects. As befits an optimistic era when civilisation appeared to be advancing, the first edition was rather elegantly-produced, with a green cover on which was imprinted, in red and black, the picture of a beautiful young lady sitting at a desk, holding a pen lightly to her lower lip and looking into the distance for inspiration as to what to say. The price was the nominal equivalent of 28 cents.
The 1943 edition, again not surprisingly, was sadly utilitarian in design and production, with a plain yellow cover and inferior paper. I believe there was to be a further edition after the war, in 1949. In all, the book sold many tens of thousands of copies; it was much more popular than many tracts claiming the sympathies of the masses.
Between 1901 and 1943 the content varied little. The opening lines of the first edition were cut in the second:
To know what to say and how to say it are two very important points in the art of writing letters, the two most important, in fact. But there are many others to be observed also, and by the observance or the neglect of them an opinion is often formed of the writer, and of his or her mind, and tastes, and training.
The 1943 edition begins with the second paragraph of the earlier edition:
Everything about a letter should be as neat, simple, and dainty as possible. Use good plain note-paper – white or cream is always in good taste – and black ink.
Then follows advice about the handwriting:
All flourishes and twirls should be rigidly avoided; they are vulgar and pointless.
Somewhat ironically, the words 'flourishes and twirls' are printed in bold in the earlier, but not the later edition; perhaps, though, emphasis in books of instruction by use of bold type is not vulgar and pointless.
What is interesting about this opening is that it is addressed to people who wish to create a good impression on others, a wish that has its good and bad sides, as most human wishes do. On the one hand it can lead to over-refinement, snobbery as to mere etiquette and social anxiety; it can be so overwhelming as to smother other human qualities and desiderata.
On the other hand, it requires effort, discipline and self-control in its fulfilment; it does not suggest that you should just do the easiest thing, take the line of least resistance, on all possible occasions. It is a stimulus to self-respect and is other-regarding; for to make a good impression, you have to put yourself in the position of others.
Be that as it may, it is interesting from the social history point of view that as late as 1943, and perhaps 1949, a popular book, read and probably consulted by thousands, could be published that unselfconsciously, and as a matter of course, uses the concept of social superiority and inferiority, without (I assume) resulting in howls of outraged derision.
If there is a certain honesty to this – a recognition, in softened form, of what the early political scientist, Robert Michels, called 'the iron law of oligarchy' – it must not be imagined that the author of this guide recommends total frankness in letter-writing. On the contrary: he might almost be taken as the very embodiment of la perfide Albion. At all times, even in conveying unpleasant or unwanted replies, he never raises his voice, he always considers feeling so as to word things in the most emollient possible fashion.
The author guides men and women through the tricky shoals of long, short and broken engagements, for example. From the standpoint of 2011, there is something almost quaint – the smell of patchouli, perhaps, or the presence of lace-fringed antimacassars on armchairs – about all this. Men and women perform an elaborate dance around one another (the subject of an awful lot of literature); who nowadays would not smile at instruction on how a gentleman should write a letter 'reproaching his fiancée with being a flirt.'
I feel sure that in your case it simply arose from a love of enjoyment, and the exuberance of our spirits, but if it gives you pleasure to amuse yourself by coquetting with other men at the expense of my feelings, I am deeply disappointed in you.
The book also advises as to how to reply to such a reproach (which it assumes is justified):
Your words have stung me deeply, for, as you say, no self-respecting woman likes to be called a flirt, and I am not one.
Having made my apology, I am desirous of making you withdraw your harsh words.
Much as we may smile at the naivety of all this, there is an underlying sophistication to it. She is in the wrong, but by characterising his justified reproach as harsh, she is giving him the chance to participate in guilt so that a certain equality is restored. It isn't logical, but it is sound, because, as La Rochefoucauld says, we never forgive those whom we have wronged.
It might be said that there is a tepidity, a milk-and-water quality, to human relations that are carried on in so polite a fashion. Writing to her dear Horace 'declaring her change of feelings,' Jessica Weir says:
Week after week I have put off writing this letter to you partly because of the pain I know it will inflict on you, and partly in the hope that time might do away with the necessity for writing it, for it is to tell you that I do not and cannot feel for you that deep love which a woman should feel for the man she intends to marry.
Horace Masterson writes back:
It was honest and brave of you to write to me so straightforwardly, and at the back of my mind I know you have done what is best… I give you back your freedom only at your own desire.
I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the sensibility here is at some distance from that expressed by (for example) most rap music. It is in some respects less honest than, say, the declaration that Jessica Weir is a two-timing bitch typical of her type, but it seems to me more, not less, civilised.
There is also a law of the conservation of dishonesty. If men are not dishonest in one way, they will be dishonest in another. We are faced, overall, not with a choice between lying and truthfulness, but between dishonesty about different things. Here, for example, is a 'proposal from a widower to a widow.'
Since my friendship with you and the great pleasure I have had in it, the loneliness of my life, and the anticipation of an even more lonely future has seemed to me unendurable.
This is not Romeo and Juliet redux, perhaps, but it is sensible. One senses that the widower, Mr Robert Rodd (such is our modern corruption that one immediately thinks of sado-masochism), might not be the most physically attractive person in the world, but maybe Mrs Barbara Marlowe is not either.
The reply, favourable is not a paean to romantic bliss:
That I can do something to brighten your life, and make your home a real home, is a great happiness to me, and it shall not be my fault if I fail.
Every yours sincerely.
The reply, unfavourable is polite yet manages to be firm and clear, without appeal:
Though I value highly your devotion and the compliment you pay me, I must tell you frankly that, though valuing you and our friendship so highly, I do not feel the depth of affection which you desire…
I must say I would not like to be Mr Rodd meeting Mrs Marlowe for the first time after the receipt of that letter of refusal; I blush to think about it.
All in all, How Shall I Word It? reflects a social world that in some ways is more sophisticated than our own, and in some ways more interesting also. The way never to be bored is to know how to make fine distinctions, and the book, unconsciously no doubt, does that. Indeed, it assumes the need to do so:
To persons with whom you are on terms of friendship, the word "My" may be used as "My dear Mrs – "
Theodore Dalrymple. "The Pleasures of Perfidy." The New English Review (April, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.
Copyright © 2011 The New English Review
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