Wise words: epistolary ethics and letter-writing

Wise words: epistolary ethics and letter-writing

Lewis Carroll’s 1890 pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing is less concerned with the conventional rules of letter-writing than the ethics of correspondence as civilised exchanges between connected people. And the pamphlet was indeed published under the name of Lewis Carroll, not that of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Some of his ‘wise words’ are quite specific to him, such as the recommendation of keeping a letter-register, which follows his own practice, with his example of doing so suggesting he wrote over 90,000 letters. However, mostly the ‘wise words’ are more general considerations of how to write in a friendly and civilised way and they also apply to the use of email and social media for communicative acts that parallel letter-writing. They are particularly concerned with practices that will lessen the likelihood of misunderstanding and introduce ways of standing back from the immediacy of writing to consider the effects on the other person.

The opening ‘wise words’ are rather unlikely, for they are a piece of self-advertising. The ‘wise words’ pamphlet was to accompany the launch of a small stamp case for holding different values of postage stamps. It was intended to sit on a desk along with paper and an envelope case. And it acts as a reminder, if reminder is needed, that ‘Lewis Carroll’ was an industry, a valuable publishing phenomenon with various economic side ventures.

The actual ‘wise words’ commence with recommending how to start writing a letter and set out what is an ethical premise. This is that writing letters should be done in a personalised way, one that is very much to the person being corresponded with:

If the letter is to be in answer to another, begin by getting out that other letter and reading it through, in order to refresh your memory, as to what it is you have to answer… A great deal of the bad writing in the world comes simply from writing too quickly.

The point being made is that often people rely on memory, which may involve misapprehension, and so it is best to go back to whatever that the writer/recipient is responding to. This is of course a tip that is useful for all writers of email, for feeling miffed or even angry about an email received is often based on an over-hasty first reading.

Carroll is also concerned with resisting self-indulgence, of not rambling on and being repetitious, but instead writing a letter with what is needful for the other person in mind, rather than becoming preoccupied with one’s own thoughts. His next ‘wise words‘ make this point, concluding with a mild mathematical joke:

Don’t repeat yourself. When once you have said your say, fully and clearly, on a certain point, and have failed to convince your friend, drop that subject: to repeat your arguments, all over again, will simply lead to his doing the same; and so you will go on, like a Circulating Decimal. Did you ever know a Circulating Decimal come to an end?

Carroll’s following rule is concerned with another aspect of not being immersed in one’s own thoughts and ideas. It recommends putting a letter on one side until the next day, and then reading it with fresh eyes, with the helpful advice of imagining that it is addressed to the writer themself. Once more his ‘wise words’ are concerned with preventing undue haste and an infelicitous response:

When you have written a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend, however necessary you may have felt it to so express yourself, put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again, and fancy it addressed to yourself. This will often lead to your writing it all over again, taking out a lot of the vinegar and pepper, and putting in honey instead, and thus making a much more palatable dish of it!

The next ‘wise words‘ continue the theme of preventing misunderstanding and not escalating any differences of views that exist. The assumption is that the aim is for an epistolary relationship, probably also a relationship face-to-face as well, to continue. Therefore Carroll recommends minimising any severity of expression and instead being conciliatory:

If your friend makes a severe remark, either leave it unnoticed, or make your reply distinctly less severe: and if he makes a friendly remark, tending towards “making up” the little difference that has arisen between you, let your reply be distinctly more friendly. If, in picking a quarrel, each party declined to go more than three-eighths of the way, and if, in making friends, each was ready to go five-eighths of the way — why, there would be more reconciliations than quarrels!

The ‘wise words’ then continue in respect of ethical matters and civility, with Carroll continuing as follows:

Don’t try to have the last word! How many a controversy would be nipped in the bud, if each was anxious to let the other have the last word! Never mind how telling a rejoinder you leave unuttered: never mind your friend’s supposing that you are silent from lack of anything to say: let the thing drop, as soon as it is possible without discourtesy: remember “speech is silvern, but silence is golden”!

Carroll’s next ‘wise words‘ are about the style of writing and that how something is intended when written may not always be how it is interpreted by the recipient. His particular example concerns something that might be intended as humour of a ‘poking fun’ kind, but with this not coming across. To prevent any unintended perception of insult, he recommends that:

If it should ever occur to you to write, jestingly, in dispraise of your friend, be sure you exaggerate enough to make the jesting obvious: a word spoken in jest, but taken as earnest, may lead to very serious consequences. I have known it to lead to the breaking-off of a friendship.

The remaining ‘work wise words’ on how to write a letter concern practical matters. If there is an enclosure, then assemble it ready at the point that comment to this effect is written or it will be forgotten. And in the days when it had earlier been common in order to save postage fees for more than one sheet of paper, the next recommendation is not to write a letter in a ‘crossed‘ way, of writing down the page and then turning the paper sideways and writing over the others.

Lewis Carroll‘s final ‘wise words’ are on the theme of how to end a letter. He recommends that indicating an ‘at least’ comparable degree of  sentiment to that expressed by the recipient should be indicated in the letter-writer‘s signature:

If doubtful whether to end with “yours faithfully,” or “yours truly,” or “yours most truly,” &c. (there are at least a dozen varieties, before you reach “yours affectionately”), refer to your correspondent’s last letter, and make your winding-up at least as friendly as his; in fact, even if a shade more friendly, it will do no harm!

The remaining ‘wise words’ deal with the issue of having more to say but not wanting, or not being able because of there being no room on a piece of paper, to continue these ‘in‘ a letter. This is what he describes as ‘a very useful invention‘, and it is the PS, the Postscript:

A Postscript is a very useful invention: but it is not meant… to contain the real gist of the letter: it serves rather to throw into the shade any little matter we do not wish to make a fuss about…
P.S. Don’t distress yourself any more about having omitted that little matter…”

And as Carroll’s PS here indicates, it can also be used in a tactful way to convey, but at the same time to minimise the import of, something that the recipient has previously written or done. It can therefore be seen as part of the general concern with matters of civility and epistolary ethics that governs the Wise Words.

Project Gutenberg has a free downloadable version, which is recommended reading.


Last updated: 4 June 2020