Sunday, January 18, 2015

From the Age of Letter-Writing

A while back now, I got a volume titled Women’s Letters, America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, edited by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler (Dial Press, 2005). Many of the figures in that volumes were well-known or relatives of the well-known. Their letter-writing skills, therefore, might be attributed to education and standing in society. The letter I’d like to reproduce here was written by an ordinary woman; she was the wife of a major serving in Britain’s Army in India. It was originally published in Phantasms of the Living (vol. ii, p. 239), and I came across it in Myers’ Human Personality, hence its subject matter. Now there are many, many such letters, equally well done, in that work and the Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research; hence, in a way, we are looking at the “average” of middle- and upper-class writing in the nineteenth century. Herewith the letter:
In the month of November 1864, being detained in Cairo, on my way out to India, the following curious circumstance occurred to me: -
Owing to an unusual influx of travellers, I, with the young lady under my charge (whom we will call D.) and some other passengers of the outward-bound mail to India, had to take up our abode in a somewhat unfrequented hotel. The room shared by Miss D. and myself was large, lofty, and gloomy; the furniture of the scantiest, consisting of two small beds, placed nearly in the middle of the room and not touching the walls at all, two or three rush-bottomed chairs, a very small washing-stand, and a large old-fashioned sofa of the settee sort, which was placed against one-half of the large folding doors which gave entrance to the room. This settee was far too heavy to be removed, unless by two or three people. The other half of the door was used for entrance, and faced the two beds. Feeling rather desolate and strange, and Miss D. being a nervous person, I locked the door, and, taking out the key, put it under my pillow; but on Miss D. remarking that there might be a duplicate which could open the door from outside, I put a chair against the door, with my travelling bag on it, so arranged that, on any pressure outside, one or both must fall on the bare floor, and make noise enough to rouse me.
We then proceeded to retire to bed, the one I had chosen being near the only window in the room, which opened with two glazed doors, almost to the floor. These doors, on account of the heat, I left open, first assuring myself that no communication from the outside could be obtained. The window led on to a small balcony, which was isolated, and was three stories above the ground.
I suddenly woke from a sound sleep with the impression that somebody had called me, and, sitting up in bed, to my unbounded astonishment, by the clear light of early dawn coming in through the large window before mentioned, I beheld the figure of an old and very valued friend whom I knew to be in England. He appeared as if most eager to speak to me, and I addressed him with, Good gracious! how did you come here ? So clear was the figure, that I noted every detail of his dress, even to three onyx shirt-studs which he always wore. He seemed to come a step nearer to me, when he suddenly pointed across the room, and on my looking round, I saw Miss D. sitting up in her bed, gazing at the figure with every expression of terror. On looking back, my friend seemed to shake his head, and retreated step by step, slowly, till he seemed to sink through that portion of the door where the settee stood. I never knew what happened to me after this; but my next remembrance is of bright sunshine pouring through the window. Gradually the remembrance of what had happened came back to me, and the question arose in my mind, had I been dreaming, or had I seen a visitant from another world? - the bodily presence of my friend being utterly impossible.
Remembering that Miss D. had seemed aware of the figure as well as myself, I determined to allow the test of my dream or vision to be whatever she said to me upon the subject, I intending to say nothing to her unless she spoke to me. As she seemed still asleep, I got out of bed, examined the door carefully, and found the chair and my bag untouched, and the key under my pillow; the settee had not been touched, nor had that portion of the door against which it was placed any appearance of being opened for years.
Presently, on Miss D. waking up, she looked about the room, and, noticing the chair and bag, made some remark as to their not having been much use. I said, What do you mean? and then she said, Why, that man who was in the room this morning must have got in somehow. She then proceeded to describe to me exactly what I myself had seen. Without giving any satisfactory answer as to what I had seen, I made her rather angry by affecting to treat the matter as a fancy on her part, and showed her the key still under my pillow, and the chair and bag untouched. I then asked her, if she was so sure that she had seen somebody in the room, did not she know who it was ? No, said she, I have never seen him before, nor any one like him. I said, Have you ever seen a photograph of him? She said, No. This lady never was told what I saw, and yet described exactly to a third person what we both had seen.
Of course, I was under the impression my friend was dead. Such, however, was not the case; and I met him some four years later, when, without telling him anything of my experience in Cairo, I asked him, in a joking way, could he remember what he was doing on a certain night in November 1864. “Well,” he said, “you require me to have a good memory;” but after a little reflection he replied, “Why, that was the time I was so harassed with trying to decide for or against the appointment which was offered me, and I so much wished you could have been with me to talk the matter over. I sat over the fire quite late, trying to think what you would have advised me to do.” A little cross-questioning and comparing of dates brought out the curious fact that, allowing for the difference of time between England and Cairo, his meditations over the fire and my experience were simultaneous. Having told him the circumstances above narrated, I asked him had he been aware of any peculiar or unusual sensation. He said none, only that he had wanted to see me very much.

E. H. Elgee.

1864 was firmly in the Age of Letter-Writing. Quite often on Masterpiece Theater, we hear characters excusing themselves because “I have to catch up on my correspondence.” No. That is not a simple ruse to get the character off-stage. They did then write lots of letters. And this sample shows how spending time and effort, produces skill that seems effortless. It flows from the fingers to the paper—and via pens regularly dipped into a bottle of live ink at that…


  1. Wow! Super interesting, and well written, to boot!

    1. There is, of course, the content too. When such content is expressed in such articulate form, the writing lends weight to the report.