Heaving this importunity:
The survival of opening formulas in letters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
4, received February 2004)
this importunity, I send my love to you and Saul, being in good health, and
hoping to hear the same from you; ... (ed.
Win Jenkins, the Welsh lady’s maid in Smollett’s Humphry
Clinker (1771), to a fellow servant. Smollett clearly had some knowledge of
the opening formulas used in the letters of the lower classes in the second half
of the eighteenth century, and also, more importantly, expected his readers to
know them. The letters of Win Jenkins with their constant malapropisms are part
of the comedy of this rumbustious epistolary novel. Win’s mistress, Tabitha
Bramble of Brambleton Hall, on the other hand, does not use any of the standard
opening formulas even though her letters are no more literate than those of her
servant girl. Nor does Smollett repeat this opening joke, at least, not exactly,
although he does hint at other parts of the formulas. If Win Jenkins had been a
real person, it is almost certain that she would have used the same formula more
than once, but Smollett was writing a novel, not aping reality, and a literary
joke cannot be repeated. The point is that these formulas were widely enough
known at the end of the eighteenth century for the joke to be understood. A
question to be asked, therefore, is: to what extent were the formulas still used
and how far up the social or educational ladder did they reach?
paper attempts to answer this question (in part), by looking at a selection of
letters from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. The
letters are not a recognised group, nor were they extracted from any of the
recent corpora of texts. They have been chosen from various classes of writers
– servant and artisan class, literary circles, women writers, seamen and,
notably, one business family. There are also comparisons with letters in model
letter-writers of the eighteenth century, some editions of which were reprinted
well into the nineteenth century. Some letters from eighteenth-century novels
have also been included, as with the opening quotation from Smollett. All have
been chosen for the light they can shed on the use of and attitudes towards the
formulas in different levels and types of society.
which have been examined in several recent papers, are not considered here. The
paper concentrates on the formulas that follow immediately after the salutation.
The bridge between the salutation and the main content that the writer wishes to
convey presents a problem to writers even today, and it is not surprising that
formulaic phrases developed very early to cover this space between the formal
address to the recipient and the start of the letter proper. These phrases are
the epistolary equivalent of openings in conversation when two people meet, such
as “How are you?”, “I haven’t seen you for a long time”, and so on.
They constitute an element of polite acknowledgment of the recipient’s
presence and sometimes a more specific reason for writing at the time. The
politeness element follows on directly from the salutation and varies
considerably in accordance with the respective social standing of writer and
recipient. This is probably more especially true of an earlier period than that
considered here and could be examined further.
were several opening formulas, which were used in different combinations. Their
origins go back very far indeed and Tony Fairman has found evidence of them,
with wording similar to that still in use in the eighteenth century, in Latin
letters written during the Roman occupation of Britain in the third and fourth
However, Davis (1965) has traced the English versions directly to the French
formularies of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Very often a writer would combine several parts, each a formula in its
own right, but so often found together that the combination becomes itself a
formula. It is an expanded form of that used by Win Jenkins:
I have taken (embrace) this opportunity to
write these few lines hoping they find you in good health as it leaves me at
present thanks be to God for it.
lack of concord – they combined with
it – is regular. This combination of formulas had virtually died
out of literate use by the end of the seventeenth century, but was still found
in the letters of ordinary working people a century later. It can be divided for
the purposes of examination into several parts:
an intimation of the intention to
a wish, originally a prayer, for
the recipients’ health.
a statement of the writer’s health
at the time of writing
“thanks be to God for it” - or an equivalent phrase.
2 to 4 constitute what Davis (1965:236)
calls the “health” formula. The wording
is surprisingly rigid, both in order and detail. Even the use of present
participles to link the various parts was strictly observed and, according to
Davis, may have been partly responsible for the proliferation of participial
phrases in early prose writings, such as the Wycliffite Bible.2
statement of “intention to write” has several variations, each recognisable as a formula in itself. In the wording used in Humphry Clinker, which includes the word opportunity, it occurs, although only very occasionally, in model
letter-writers of the time. A rather shortened example of it in an early English
model letter writer is to be found in Angel Day’s sixteenth-century The
English Secretorie: “Good father having the opportunity of this bearer
...” (Day 1586, quoted from Hornbeak 1934:62). In the late seventeenth century,
John Hill’s letter writer, The Young
Secretary’s Guide (1696), has one instance of the formula, although with occasion
instead of opportunity: “I take
this occasion to write to you’ (Hill 1696:88).
George Fisher also has a similar wording in one of his letters in a 1763
edition of The Young Man’s Best
In a letter from a “Son to his Father”, we find
As I have not had a letter from you since
your favour of the 8th of October last, which I answered by the next post, I
take this opportunity of inquiring after your health, and that of my Sister; (Fisher
To which the father’s reply is:
I received your letter of the 6th instant,
and thank you for inquiring after my health, which, I thank God, I perfectly
enjoy at present, as I wish and hope you do yours (Fisher 1763:47).
two letters were still being printed in the 1853 edition of Fisher with the date
adjusted to 1845. Samuel Richardson has one variation on the formula in his Familiar
Letters for Important Occasions (1741).
It is from a “sea officer to his wife”, and also includes part of the
I take the opportunity afforded me by
Captain Copythorne, who is returning to England, to let you know, that I am in
perfect health at present, God be praised (ed. Downs 1928:150).
of actual usage in real letters of the artisan class is amply demonstrated in The Clift Family Correspondence 1792–-1846 (ed. Austin 1991), in which five of the six writers use it –
all, in fact, except the eldest brother (b.1759). In addition, the formula
occurs in a letter of one of the Clifts’ cousins as late as 1819. I have dealt
with this particular family’s use of it at some length elsewhere (Austin
1973). The Clift family owned a copy of Fisher’s Young Man’s Best Companion, although which edition they had is not
known. Another group of fairly regular users of the formula was, as already
indicated, seamen. The formula is found mostly in the letters of the lower
Frequently, one seaman, more literate than the others, would write letters
for several men (a practice that continued in the armed forces in World War II),
and so it is not surprising that many of these letters are very similar in
wording and expression. Robert Clift, the youngest Clift brother, had at least
one letter written for him by a fellow sailor, as his eldest brother disgustedly
his letter was not wrote by himself it was
wrote by a very masterly hand but very illiterate spelling (ed. Austin 1991:55).
letter, dated January 1793, uses
the full opening formula:
Dear Brothers and sisters I now take the
Oppertunity of wrighting these few lines to You hoping the [sic]
will find you all in Good health as I am at present thanks be to God for it
... (ed. Austin 1991:54).
was an Able Seaman, but the “intention to write” formula was not confined to
the lower decks. Examples can be found in the letters of midshipmen and a
variation of it appears in a letter of Captain Hardy in 1801:
This is the first opportunity I have had of
writing to you since we left Yarmouth (ed. Moorhouse 1910:236).
this part of the formula was used not only by working-class writers is borne out
by its appearance in the letters collected by Mason
(1968). These are “the Papers
from their Counting House for the years 1750 to 1795”. Since various members
of the Norton family were employed in the business, some of the letters are
partly family letters, although the majority are to do with the business. The
family came on the maternal side from Virginia, and practically all the letters
are literate. John Norton, the owner of the business, does not use the formula
at all, but in the edition there are some half dozen examples, not all from the
same writers or by members of the family. The latest instance comes in a letter
of one of John Norton’s sons, written in 1818:
I embrace the favourable opportunity of
writing a few lines ... (ed. Mason 1968:505).
perhaps, none of the letters of the women contains any vestige of the formula.
However, in the literary world, it seems to be the women who occasionally make
use of it. Steele’s daughter, Mary, has an instance, which includes part of
the health formula, in 1729/30:
I could not omit this opportunity of
letting you know that I have my health much better (ed. Blanchard 1941:411).
a century later, Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, has an adaptation
of it in a letter of 1819: “As I have the opportunity of sending you a few
lines ...” (ed. Coburn 1954:170). She
may have been aware that the formula was slightly old-fashioned or even comic,
for she writes in a letter of the following year, 1820:
I have been perfectly
uncomfortable for the last week in consequence of your nonperformance of
the promise to write to me “at an early opportunity ...” (ed. Coburn
inverted commas indicate that she at least regarded the phrase as formulaic. A
still later use comes in letters written by Julia Miles, the daughter of an
Excise Officer in Dorchester. She was engaged to (and later married) the poet
William Barnes (1801-1886), whose origins were similar to
those of the Clifts. The son of a smallholder in Dorset, he was almost certainly
familiar with the formulas in his childhood and early teens. By the time he met
Julia, when he was eighteen or nineteen, he was a solicitor’s clerk and had
risen above his humble beginnings both in education and in social aspirations.
None the less, Barnes uses the formula twice in his letters to Julia. When Julia
uses it in a letter of March 1825, he replies by quoting it back
at her. The tone of both letters is light-heartedlymocking, and the exchange is
worth quoting (see also Austin 1990). Julia wrote:
I Embrace this first opportunity of writing
these few lines merely to let you know I am still in existance [sic]
and well and as you know how prone we all are to procrastinate I shall make no further excuse but proceed briefly
with my epistle (ed. Lindgren 1986:49).
reply takes up Julia’s challenge of procrastination:
I take this opportunity of writing a few
words to you, and if I have procrastinated
again, my excuse must be ...(ed.
wording that includes “opportunity” is the most usual form of the
“intention to write” formula but there are variations:
this comes with my kind love to you
I take up my pen to write
received your kind letter (favour)
of (+ date)
to let you
first of these occurs sufficiently often in the Clift letters to be considered a
formula, although it is not used with this exact wording in any of the model
letter-writers examined so far. It occurs once in a letter from a marine of
1805, which begins without preamble: “Comes with my kind love to you” (ed.
Moorhouse 1910:299). All the other formulas can be found at least once in
Richardson’s Familiar Letters.
take up my pen to write” occurs only occasionally, although it is used by a
wide section of the population. It appears in a letter of a businessman
associated with John Norton in 1771 (ed. Mason 1968:177) and is also used from
time to time by Sara Hutchinson in the nineteenth century, although always in a
variant form, as for example in a letter dated 28th January 1826: “I do not
take up my pen in order to extract a
letter from you” (ed. Coburn 1954:315). Similarly, Julia Miles uses what may
have been a play on this formula in April 1825: “For the first time in my life
I take my pen reluctantly to write to you” (ed. Lindgren 1986:55). Barnes also
uses the formula in a letter of August 1826: “I take up the Pen to write to
you, though I have scarcely any thing to say” (ed. Lindgren 1986:75) .
received your kind letter” is much more widespread in literate letters and,
indeed, is used in similar forms by many people today. The formula became
increasingly associated with business letters and it is no surprise, therefore,
to find an overwhelming number of instances in the letters included in the
papers of John Norton’s company, although the word kind
is understandably omitted and the preferred word for letter
let you know” is not always part of the opening formula but sometimes occurs
in the body of a letter to indicate a paragraph or the beginning of a new
subject. This is found especially in writers who use little punctuation, such as
the Clift women. As part of the opening, the formula is used by Richardson in
his letter from a sea officer, quoted earlier, and also in (1747-1748),
in a letter of Joseph Leman, the Harlowes’ illiterate manservant: “this
is to let your Honner knoe ...” (Richardson 1747-1748
[1932, II]:143). Joanna Clift uses it several times in the 1790s without
preamble. In this form, as with other variations of the “intention to write”
formula, it has a long history stretching back to the French formularies of the
fourteenth century. Davis (1965:238) quotes
the letter from Chaucer’s Troilus and
Crysede, which begins: “Liketh yow to witen, swete herte”. (V, ll.1324;
ed. Robinson 1957:473). In the form “please yt you to wete” or “letyng yow
wete”, in various spellings, it is used very often by the Paston family in the
fifteenth century. Returning to the later period, in more literate letters an
example occurs in a letter of Jane Austen in 1798 but, combined as it is with
another conventional phrase, it may have been intended facetiously:
I am so good as to write to you again thus
speedily, to let you know that I have heard from Frank ... (ed. Chapman
Miles adds it to the “opportunity” formula in a letter of March 1825, quoted
above. Not surprisingly, the letters of the writers associated with John
Norton’s business frequently use the expression: “This is to inform you”
or something similar. With an initial opening, both expressions are by no means
infrequent in many types of letter today.
other element in the opening is the “health” formula. All three parts of
this may be considered together. Unlike the “intention to write” part of the
formula, this was, by the late eighteenth
century, mainly confined to the lower classes, and the last phrase: “thanks be
to God”, was little used at all. Apart from its appearance in the letters of
several members of the Clift family, the only instances of “thanks be to
God” that I have found have been in the letters of seamen. One comes in a
letter of a Joseph Samain to his parents, written after the battle of Camperdown
i send this with my love to you hopeing it
will find you all are in good heailth as i are at present thanckes be to god
for it considering the hard engagement we had for three houres and ten minnets.
also occurs rather incoherently in the letter previously quoted from a marine:
with my kind love to you are in good health so thank God I am
(ed. Moorhouse 1910:299).
other two parts of the formula are found slightly more frequently, although
almost always in the letters of lower-class writers. Fielding hints at it in a
letter of Joseph Andrews in his novel of that name, published in 1742: “Hoping
you are well, what News have I to tell you!” (ed. Battestin 1967:46). Joseph
Andrews is not intended to be an illiterate writer, any more than his sister in
Richardson’s Pamela, although both
are of the servant class. There is one instance of the wish for the
recipient’s health in a letter to John Norton from his brother-in-law, written
in September 1764:
Hoping to God this will find you & my
dear Sister & little ones safely arrived in London & there in good
health ... (ed. Mason 1968:11).
inclusion of the participle (hoping)
indicates that this is a genuine variation on the original formula. The only
other instances found so far that date from the early nineteenth century are in
the letters of Julia Miles, who uses the formula in a recognisable form in four
of her letters, although she also refers to matters of health in other terms
elsewhere. The first instance, in a letter written in June 1832, also contains
the phrase “those few lines”, again indicating a genuine survival of the
I really almost begin to think it time to
break silence by writing those few lines... and am happy to say it [your letter] found us all in perfect health
as I hope this will find you (ed. Lindgren 1986:33).
is a late semi-literate use in 1847 in a letter of William Clift’s niece, Mary
I hope you will Excuse the
liberty i have taken in writing these few lines to you hoping this will find
you in good health as it leaves my family at present (ed. Austin 1991:251).
latest literate use of the formula used in its entirety that I have come across
occurs over a hundred years earlier, at the beginning of the eighteenth century,
in one of Steele’s letters, written in 1714:
I hope this will find You in good Health as
I am at this Present Writing thanks be to God for it (ed. Blanchard 1941:227).
wish for the recipient’s health is often expressed today in informal and
family letters, often at the end of a letter, but the formulaic ending that,
like some of the opening phrases, goes back to the medieval French formularies,
has disappeared. Less used than the variations on the “intention to write”
formula, it seems to have dropped out of use almost totally by the beginning of
the nineteenth century. Indeed, the formula seems already to have been an object
of fun as early as 1602 when Nicholas Breton, in A
Poste with a Packet of Madde Letters, uses a version of it in one of his
so-called model letters, a rustic love letter:
After my hearty commendations, trusting in
God that you are in good health, as I was, at the writing hereof, with my
Father, my Mother my brothers and sisters and all my good friends thanks be to
God (Breton 1602:31).
calls this “A Letter to laugh at after the old fashion of loue to a Maide”.
But it is still being used seriously in the 1710 edition of Mather’s Young Man’s Companion. One of his model letters, “from a Scholar
to his Parents thanking them for a good Education”, begins:
After my most humbly [sic] Duty to you, and
my true Love to my Brothers and Sisters, and to my Uncle and Aunt, and Cousins
hoping you are all in good Health, as I and my Master, and the rest of his
Family are at this present Time , (thanks be to God). these are to let you
know ... (Mather, 1710:99).
the 24th edition of the work in 1775, this wording had changed entirely and no
longer included the “health” formula as such. None the less, vestiges of the
opening formula are still present in “A Letter from an Apprentice to his
Friends in the Country”, although the “health” element has become
would not therefore omit this
Opportunity to let you know, that I am very well in Health ... (Mather 1775:68).
as already noted, the reprint of Fisher’s Young
Man’s Companion has indications of the health formula three quarters of a
oldest member of the Clift family, Elizabeth Clift (1757-1818),
uses the full version of the formula in most of her letters although these cease
in 1799. Joanna (1765-1846)
uses it from the start of the correspondence in 1792 and continues to include
parts of it until her last surviving letter in 1846. William (1775-1849)
included the fullest version in his early letters but as he began to climb the
social ladder, he dropped it entirely, in line with the general practice of the
educated and literate of the day. It does not appear after 1796; but later, in
his letters to his daughter, he sometimes referred to the various opening and
closing formulas for her amusement. A letter of July 1845 begins:
As you say you have seldom occasion to
write to me, and therefore it behoves me the more “to avail myself of this
opportunity of writing to you, hoping this will find you in good health as
this leaves me at present, I bless God for it.” This was the universal
beginning of many a Letter I have written in my young days for poor
un-literary friends, and many blessings and thanks have I had in return...
letter was written some seventy-five years after Humphry
Clinker and the formulas are still remembered. That they would have been
known and recognised by many people in the late eighteenth century, albeit as
objects of fun, is sufficiently attested by Smollett’s use of it in the letter
of Win Jenkins with which this paper began.
is no surprise to find that the formulas persisted longest in the letters of the
less educated members of society, as the Clift letters, especially those of the
women, show. Smollett was accurate in assigning such use to a maid-servant. Tony
Fairman has found evidence of the opening formula in his researches into letters
applying for parish relief up to the 1830s. Most of these would be written by,
or at least, written on behalf of, the poorest citizens. One, from a certain
Mary Waite, even includes, quite inappropriately in a formal letter to the
Overseers, virtually the whole of the “health” formula: “Dear Sir/ This
comes with my kind Love to you in hopes/ to find you in good Health as it Leaves
me at present/ but very ill ...”.
two main groups that continue to use the formulas, even into
the nineteenth century, are seamen, mostly of the lower ranks, and women. Even
the more educated women, such as Sara Hutchinson, occasionally resort to these
formulaic phrases, although at times they may be using them half facetiously.
They were probably taught them in the school room when they were young. The two
young men from humble backgrounds who rose in the social scale, William Clift
and William Barnes, not only discarded the formulas early on but could turn them
to their own advantage in later life. Clift obviously thinks that quoting the
formula will amuse his daughter. It is almost certain that she would not have
been taught such wording when she was a girl.
interesting group is the business men, where, surprisingly, it is the men rather
than the women who sometimes use the formulas, particularly the variations on
the “intention to write” formula. The usage here probably lingers longer
than in other types of letter and is part of the pragmatization process
discussed by Raumolin-Brunberg (1996). Other collections of similar business
class letters might be a useful hunting ground for further research into this
use of opening formulas.
distinction needs to be made between the full opening formula and vestiges of
different parts that survive in informal letters even today. The full version
was rarely used beyond the end of the eighteenth century except in the letters
of older writers, such as Elizabeth Clift (b.1757). It survived into the first
half of the nineteenth century with letter writers of the servant-class, such as
Elizabeth and her sister, Joanna, and was also known and used sometimes, in full
or more often in part, by women from literary circles, seamen and, as already
mentioned, business men. Schoolmasters and men of letters did not generally use
the formulas themselves but were clearly aware of them. The speed with which
Elizabeth’s brother, William (b.1775), dropped the formula completely from all
his letters after May 1796 is perhaps a measure of what was then acceptable
socially. By that date, if not before, it must have been considered at best
old-fashioned and at worst a sign of a low level of education.
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R.W. (ed.) (1934). Jane Austen’s Letters
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Personal correspondence with Tony Fairman, to whom I am indebted for his
generous help. He cites two instances from Bowman (1994). One of these is:
‘[li]benter amplexus sum domine salutandi te occasionem [d]ominum meum et
quam saluom [habere] esse et omnis spei [suae] compotem’ (Bowman
1994:122), which he translates as: ‘I have gladly seized this opportunity,
my lord, of greeting you, you who are my lord and the man whom it is my
especial wish to be in good health and master of all your hopes’.
There are several manuscript letters at the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich,
that include this or very similar wording.
Unpublished letter of William Clift. MS in Richard Owen Correspondence Vol.
7: British Museum (Natural
Record Office, Bromfield, P43/L/28/40. Personal information from Tony