NB: Travel about Oxford meant I ran out of time to prepare this issue, so instead we have a guest editorial–from none other than Anthony Trollope. Trollope is a moralizer, but a very good one. And here he offers some advice for how to write critical letters, which is valuable for contexts beyond the written word as well. I expect you all to abide by this the next time you send me an email. You’ve now been duly warned.
“But on the head of his betrothed he poured out the vial of his wrath. He had never before scolded her, had never written in an angry tone. Now in very truth he did so. An angry letter, especially if the writer be well loved, is so much fiercer than any angry speech, so much more unendurable! There the words remain, scorching, not to be explained away, not to be atoned for by a kiss, not to be softened down by the word of love that may follow so quickly upon spoken anger.
Heaven defend me from angry letters! They should never be written, unless to schoolboys and men at college; and not often to them if they be any way tender hearted. This at least should be a rule through the letter-writing world: that no angry letter be posted till four-and-twenty hours shall have elapsed since it was written. We all know how absurd is that other rule, that of saying the alphabet when you are angry. Trash! Sit down and write your letter; write it with all the venom in your power; spit out your spleen at the fullest; ’twill do you good; you think you have been injured; say all that you can say with all your poisoned eloquence, and gratify yourself by reading it while your temper is still hot. Then put it in your desk; and, as a matter of course, burn it before breakfast the following morning. Believe me that you will then have a double gratification.
A pleasant letter I hold to be the pleasantest thing that this world has to give. It should be good-humoured; witty it may be, but with a gentle diluted wit. Concocted brilliancy will spoil it altogether. Not long, so that it be tedious in the reading; nor brief, so that the delight suffice not to make itself felt. It should be written specially for the reader, and should apply altogether to him, and not altogether to any other. It should never flatter. Flattery is always odious. But underneath the visible stream of pungent water there may be the slightest under-current of eulogy, so that it be not seen, but only understood. Censure it may contain freely, but censure which in arraigning the conduct implies no doubt as to the intellect. It should be legibly written, so that it may be read with comfort; but no more than that. Caligraphy betokens caution, and if it be not light in hand it is nothing. That it be fairly grammatical and not ill spelt the writer owes to his schoolmaster; but this should come of habit, not of care. Then let its page be soiled by no business; one touch of utility will destroy it all.
If you ask for examples, let it be as unlike Walpole as may be. If you can so write it that Lord Byron might have written it, you will not be very far from high excellence.
But, above all things, see that it be good-humoured.”