Yes, I admit it. I have tried to write a Victorian birthday letter. (Talk about 'living liberalism'!)
This experiment occurred after I had spent a full day reading birthday greetings exchanged among the Gladstone family. I was reflecting on how they had all begun to look the same when I emerged, bleary-eyed, from the Flintshire Record Office. Since I had a friend with a birthday coming up, I headed up the lane of flower-bestrewn stone cottages to the Hawarden village post office to buy a card. Back at my desk, I mapped out the birthday letter format and then hit a roadblock. It was surprisingly difficult to write an earnest Victorian birthday letter (personalized, of course).
The completed epistle wasn't your usual 21st-century note: ‘Happy Birthday, hope you have a fabulous day and wonderful year’. It was certainly longer. There may also have been another oddity or two, but I sent it anyway. Thankfully, there was no response of ‘what was that weird thing that you sent me?’ Maybe she was just being polite. Come to think of it, I don't think that I received a reply at all...
Because birthday letters will be my focus for several postings, it might be useful to trace some of their generic details early on. As you will see, the formula is most evident in children's letters, which strongly suggests that norms for writing birthday letters were taught along with other etiquettes. Some aspects of their formula became such a part of the cultural norm that they featured as the message on commercial cards of the 1870s and 1880s.
The two birthday letters that I wish to explore today were written by Mary Gladstone when she was ten and eleven years old. Both were sent to her father.
The transcription of the above letter:
Here's the formula:
After (1) an extra special salutation ('dearest'), (2) the writer expresses her wish for ‘many happy returns of your birthday’, followed by (3) other kinds of good wishes (blessings, health, longevity, heavenly rewards), and (4) offers to help (to achieve peace, happiness, comfort). The writer might next discuss (5) gifts or the lack thereof, (6) offer some news, and (7) say ‘God bless you’ (although today's examples do not include the last). Finally, (8), an especially affectionate sign-off, followed by (9) either the first name alone or the full name.
The format itself clearly packs the ‘letter full of good wishes’, a point that Mary articulates as important in a letter that substitutes for a present. However, all is not mere formula here for Mary writes prophetic words just before her signatory lines. She will indeed be her father’s ‘help and comfort’ when he is ‘old’; she becomes his home daughter, his secretary and his hostess. Fulfilling the promise of these words suggests how birthday letter formulae were both an expression and possibly a method, for Victorian children were supposed to practice a lifetime of dutiful devotion to their parents. For Mary and her parents, it was a service of mutual love and benefit to each other which then radiated outwards to local community, the nation and the world. Gladstonian liberalism, after all, fervently focused on a humanism extending beyond national boundaries.
While the above letter substitutes for the lack of a present, the birthday letter format continues even after Mary reaches an age to make gifts:
Touchingly, Mary offers her first solo needlework mat to her father upon her parents' return from Corfu. Because of this absence, the birthday letter includes parish and family news: the progress in rebuilding St Deiniol’s Church after a fire in October 1857 and the date of Uncle Stephen (Glynne)'s visit to his sister Mary Lyttelton's home, Hagley Hall. Even with these additions, the birthday letter follows the format outlined above, with some variation of expression (more exuberance). Because a gift is now offered with the letter, we can see that the birthday letter was itself considered an indelible part of a birthday (it did more than substitute for a present). Here, it retains its own loving message while also clarifying why the mat that Mary offers in abstentia is so meaningful.
The significance of the letter can also be seen because it is the object that has been preserved (not the mat). The back of the letter contains W.E. Gladstone's cataloguing information:
Ultimately, the communication of love and good wishes supersedes any formula in play. This earnestness is what makes it so tricky to write a good birthday letter.
Care to try it yourself?
Weliver, Phyllis. “How to Write a Victorian Birthday Letter.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. 16 October 2014. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/9/27/birthday-letter-formula).
Weliver, P. (2014, Oct 16). How to Write a Victorian Birthday Letter. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2014/9/27/birthday-letter-formula