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Heaving this importunity:

The survival of opening formulas in letters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries

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Frances Austin (contact)

(HSL/SHL 4, received February 2004)

Dear Molly,

Heaving this importunity, I send my love to you and Saul, being in good health, and hoping to hear the same from you; ... (ed. Knapp 1966:7.

Thus 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?

This 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.

Salutations, 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.

There 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 centuries.[1] 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.

The 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:

  1. an intimation of the intention to write.

  2. a wish, originally a prayer, for the recipients’ health.

  3. a statement of the writer’s health at the time of writing.

  4. “thanks be to God for it” - or an equivalent phrase.  

Numbers 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[2]

The 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).[3] George Fisher also has a similar wording in one of his letters in a 1763 edition of The Young Man’s Best Companion.[4] In a letter from a “Son to his Father”, we find

Honoured Father,

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 1763:47) .  

To which the father’s reply is:

Dear Son,

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).

These 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 “health” formula:

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).

Evidence 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 ranks.[5] 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 noted:

his letter was not wrote by himself it was wrote by a very masterly hand but very illiterate spelling (ed. Austin 1991:55).

Robert’s 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).

Robert 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).

That 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).

Strangely, 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).

Nearly 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 1954:214).

The 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).

Barnes’s 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. Lindgren 1986:51).

The wording that includes “opportunity” is the most usual form of the “intention to write” formula but there are variations:

  1. this comes with my kind love to you

  2. I take up my pen to write

  3. I received your kind letter (favour) of (+ date)

  4. to let you know. 

The 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.

“I 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) .

“I 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 is favour.

“To 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 1934:23).

Julia 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.

The 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 in 1797:

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.[6]

It also occurs rather incoherently in the letter previously quoted from a marine:

Comes with my kind love to you are in good health so thank God I am (ed. Moorhouse 1910:299).

The 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).

The 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 formula:

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).

There is a late semi-literate use in 1847 in a letter of William Clift’s niece, Mary White:

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).

The 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).

The 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).

Breton 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).

In 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 drastically shortened:

I would not therefore omit this Opportunity to let you know, that I am very well in Health ... (Mather 1775:68).  

However, as already noted, the reprint of Fisher’s Young Man’s Companion has indications of the health formula three quarters of a century later.

The 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...[7]

This 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.

It 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 ...”.[8]

The 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.

An 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.

A 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.



Austin, Frances (1973). “Epistolary Conventions in the Clift Family Correspondence”. English Studies 54. 9-22; 129-140. Repr. in Mats Rydén, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Merja Kytö (eds.) (1998), A Reader in Early Modern English. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Austin, Frances (1990). “Text as social indicator: the letters of Julia Miles Barnes”. In: Jacek Fisiak (ed.), Historical Linguistics and Philology, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 29-43.

Austin, Frances (ed.) (1991). The Clift Family Correspondence 1792-1846. Sheffield: CECTAL.

Blanchard, Rae (ed.) (1941). The Correspondence of Richard Steele. London: Oxford University Press.

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Coburn, K. (ed.) (1954). The Letters of Sara Hutchinson from 1800 to 1835. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Davis, Norman (1965). “The Litera Troili”. Review of English Studies, NS XVI (1965). 233-44.

Davis, Norman (1967). “Style and Stereotype in Early English Letters”. Leeds Studies in English, NS I. 7-17.

Day, Angel (1586). The English Secretorie. London.

Fielding, Henry (1742). Joseph Andrews, ed. by Martin C. Battestin (1967), Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fisher George (1763). The Instructor; or, Young Man’s Best Companion [7th ed.; 1st ed. Ca. 1735]. Edinburgh.

Hill, John (1696). The Young Secretary’s Guide [7th ed.; 1st ed. 1687]. London.

Hornbeak, Katherine Gee (1934). The Complete Letter-Writer in English 1568-1800. Smith College Studies in Modern Languages XV, nos. 3-4.

Lindgren, Charlotte (ed.) (1986). Love Poems and Letters of William Barnes and Julia Miles 1820-1827. Dorchester: Dorset Record Society Publication No. 10.

Mason, Frances Norton (ed.) (1968). John Norton & Sons: Merchants of London and Virginia [1st ed. 1937]. Newton Abbot: David and Charles.

Mather, William (1710). The Young Man’s Companion. [8th ed.; 1st ed. 1681, as A Very Useful Manual, or the Young Man’s Companion]. London.

Mather, William (1775). The Young Man’s Companion [24th ed.]. London.

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Richardson, Samuel (1747-1748). Clarissa Harlowe. Everyman’s Library ed., 4 Vols. [1932; repr. 1962]. London: Dent.

Richardson, Samuel (1741). Familiar Letters on Important Occasions, ed. By Brian W. Downs, 1928. London: George Routledge & Sons.

Robinson, F.N. (ed.) (1957). The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer [2nd ed.]. London: Oxford University Press.

Smollett, Tobias (1771). The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, ed. By Lewis M. Knapp, 1966. London: Oxford University Press.



[1] 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’. 

[2] On the use of participles in letters and their effect on English prose generally, see Davis (1967: 7–9).

[3] Editions continued to be published until at least 1764.

[4] Fisher’s manual is based on William Mather’s Young Man’s Companion (1681). It contains much information, besides about a dozen model letters, which vary from edition to edition. The date of the first edition, c.1735, is not known exactly. The manual was immensely popular and continued to be printed in Britain and America until 1862.

[5] There are several manuscript letters at the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich, that include this or very similar wording.

[6] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, MS, AGC 24.

[7] Unpublished letter of William Clift. MS in Richard Owen Correspondence Vol. 7: British Museum (Natural History).

[8] Shropshire Record Office, Bromfield, P43/L/28/40. Personal information from Tony Fairman.