A wet gloomy afternoon here and to my disappointment the mail hasn’t come yet. Even now when the mail delivery means junk or bills (unless it’s your birthday) I still find its arrival exciting. There is the possibility there might be a real letter, a surprise.

I’ve just virtuously cleaned out my email folders and it struck me that maybe we’re a bit too sentimental about the lost art of letter writing. For a long time letters were not particularly private communications–because they were expensive to send, you wanted to get as much bang out of your buck as possible, and quite often they were written for public consumption, to be passed around among family and friends.

Take this example of a very public letter from Jane Fairfax to her aunt Miss Bates in Emma, kept on hand for sharing with visitors:

Oh! here it is. I was sure it could not be far off; but I had put my huswife upon it, you see, without being aware, and so it was quite hid, but I had it in my hand so very lately that I was almost sure it must be on the table. I was reading it to Mrs. Cole, and since she went away, I was reading it again to my mother, for it is such a pleasure to her-a letter from Jane – that she can never hear it often enough; so I knew it could not be far off, and here it is, only just under my huswife – and since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says; – but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter – only two pages you see-hardly two – and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half.

Yet at the same time in this society another form of letters existed in the form of short notes, delivered by hand and although it’s tempting to think of these as clandestine love letters, it’s more likely that they were the equivalent of email. You’d send your footman out with the letter, and he’d wait for the reply to be written. Quite efficient, other than the natural inclination of a servant–or some servants to goof off as described by Jonathan Swift:

It often happens that Servants sent on Messages, are apt to stay out somewhat longer than the Message requires, perhaps, two, four, six, or eight Hours, or some such Trifle, for the Temptation to be sure was great, and Flesh and Blood cannot always resist: When you return, the Master storms, the Lady scolds; stripping, cudgelling, and turning off, is the Word: But here you ought to be provided with a Set of Excuses, enough to serve on all Occasions: For Instance, your Uncle came fourscore Miles to Town this Morning, on purpose to see you, and goes back by Break of Day To-morrow: A Brother-Servant that borrowed Money of you when he was out of Place, was running away to Ireland: You were taking Leave of an old Fellow-Servant, who was shipping for Barbados: Your Father sent a Cow to you to sell, and you could not find a Chapman till Nine at Night: You were taking Leave of a dear Cousin who is to be hanged next Saturday: You wrenched your Foot against a Stone, and were forced to stay three Hours in a Shop, before you could stir a Step: Some Nastiness was thrown on you out of a Garret Window, and you were ashamed to come Home before you were cleaned, and the Smell went off: You were pressed for the Sea-service, and carried before a Justice of Peace, who kept you three Hours before he examined you, and you got off with much a-do: A Bailiff by mistake seized you for a Debtor, and kept you the whole Evening in a Spunging-house: You were told your Master had gone to a Tavern, and came to some Mischance, and your grief was so great that you inquired for his Honour in a hundred Taverns between Pall-mall and Temple-bar.

Do you still eagerly anticipate the mailman or coming home to a mailbox stuffed full of envelopes? Have you received any interesting mail recently? And do you find it difficult to delete emails?