'My dearest boy, many thousand thanks for your letter, and know that I was deeply touched at your recollecting my birthday without my jogging your little memory' (GG 952).
I laughed today when I found these words written by 37-year-old Mary to her younger brother, Herbert. It’s a sentiment that I've felt in my own life, even though I wouldn’t put it exactly like that. (I don't usually use ‘recollecting’ in conversation or e-mails.)
Victorian birthday letters often express universal feelings but, as we've been exploring, their conventions differ from our own. These practices reveal something about past belief systems.
Several postings ago, I laid out how to write a Victorian birthday letter. Because there's been a lot of interest in that particular post, I thought it might be useful to provide some additional examples.
If you'll remember, the formula is essentially this: 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’. Finally, (8), an especially affectionate sign-off, followed by (9) either the first name alone or the full name.
The best samples come from Mary Gladstone’s childhood and young adult letters, when she was most aware of trying to fit a prescribed formula. ‘I wish I had the knack of writing these sorts of letters well,’ she confessed to her father in 1868. She was 21 years old at the time and still trying to live up to the generic norms, while also remembering her younger brother's send up of the form:
Here's the transcription of the above letter:
Adult Mary remarks upon the formal constraints of the birthday letter and, just like the narrators of many Victorian novels, implies that words cannot express her feelings. Herbert at age of 11 showed no such constraint with his humorous poem. Nonetheless, in their various ways, Mary and Herbert still express the essential birthday wish: the hope for a long life (‘many happy returns’/ ‘If you’ll die, I’ll cry’).
As a 14-year-old, Mary more exactly tried to express her feelings, as can be clearly seen in two birthday letters to her parents, written a week apart. She sticks to formula in them while also building in enough variation so as to write two different letters – no easy task!
The transcriptions for both letters follow:
Mary expresses her dependability in different places in the letters, but otherwise the letters are ordered similarly.
What intrigues me are the presents that Mary offers. Because Mary says to her father that the youngest children can't afford to buy presents, her mother's present may have been homemade. While Mama's present is 'useful', however, Papa's is holy. The children prepare performances for him that are appropriate for Sunday: music, Latin and a secret surprise. Because of music's perceived connections to the divine, frequently this high church family performed keyboard music on Sunday. Helen's ('Lena's) Latin school exercises as sacred performance is less usual, although in keeping with Sunday observances.
Appropriate (and enforced) Sabbath activities at the Gladstones were those that were perceived as providing mental refreshment. Herbert in adult life revealed that such observances were sometimes difficult for a boy longing for outdoor activities. Mary did not share these feelings; she joined her father in finding rest and recreation in thought, prayer and music. The desired result was fitting for this Liberal family; each person would feel renewed and thus better able to help others. Seeing his children celebrate and embody Sunday in this way must have been highly appreciated by Gladstone, a man whose Christianity was foundational for his personal and political life.
Weliver, Phyllis. “Writing a Victorian birthday letter: Instructions and more examples.” Gladstone's Daughter: Living Liberalism. February 19, 2015. Web log post. Date accessed (http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/2/14/how-to-write-a-victorian-birthday-letter-2 ).
Weliver, P. (2015, Feb 19). Writing a Victorian birthday letter: Instructions and more examples. Web log post. Retrieved from http://www.phyllisweliver.com/new-blog-1/2015/2/14/how-to-write-a-victorian-birthday-letter-2