Jane Merrick: Dear Victorian Lady, Wish you were here...

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The Independent Online

There I was, Thursday evening, about to take to Twitter while watching Question Time, when I spotted on the bookshelves a faded red spine I have never noticed before: The Companion Letter Writer. I put down my BlackBerry and picked up the book, and there followed two hours of no tweeting, texts, emails or TV, but a journey through 177 pages of 19th-century advice on how to write a letter. Dated 1866, it includes dozens of model letters for a correspondent to follow, from a daughter's first note to her mother to the correct way to address the King.

As the Royal Mail announces that the price of a first-class stamp will rise to 60p, thereby effectively killing off centuries of letter-writing, if you believe some, it feels right to share some of this advice.

We start with the Juvenile Correspondent (this was a time when Nouns had capital letters). Every occasion is catered for, from the incredibly sad – From a Little Girl to another who has lost her Mamma – to the mind-numbingly prosaic – From a Little Girl to a Friend, asking her to come and assist in dressing the Doll, which ends with the double-edged pay-off: "Your own doll is so well dressed that I should very much like mine to look as well as yours does."

There are example letters that suggest that the undercurrents of family life have not changed in a century and a half – the thank-you letters to grandparents for birthday presents, the pleas from children for their parents to work less.

But then there are others that are so of their time we could not imagine reading them today – one from a young lady at school asking permission from her parents to learn French and Italian, another from a son apologising to his parents for being "unpunctual in his Habits". A young boy writes to his parents from boarding school with all the stiff upper lip he can muster. But between the lines there is dark subtext: "There are a great many boys in our school, and some of them very big ones, but we agree very well together, and have some good games."

For the Lover's Oracle chapter, we start with From a Gentleman to a Lady whom he has seen but once, which has the opening line: "Prompted by an impulse which I cannot control...".

Yes, this is a world that seems to have moved on little from Jane Austen half a century earlier. But before we wish to return to that age, it is also one where everyone knows their place. There is a hint of breaking down social barriers, with From a Tradesman to a Lady, which begins: "I trust you will not count me unworthy of your notice because I am engaged in trade", but concludes with a proposal of marriage.

The sheer variety of examples shows how these young ladies and gentlemen wrote letters in the same way that we today send a text or a 140-word tweet. But it also reveals the boredom that many, especially women, endured. We may be losing the art of letter-writing, but aren't we communicating better, to more people, and filling our lives with more?

Perhaps we should turn to From a Lady to a Negligent Correspondent, who could be writing to us in 2012: "I can no longer refrain from remonstrating with you upon your remissness as a correspondent. Although we are separated by a long distance, you suffer day after day and week after week to pass without transmitting one line."

Perhaps I should send a tweet back to 1866: @Lady: Apols. Mad busy with work/family/allotment. How r u?

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