Tuesday, May 31, 2011

W. Webster Newbold: “English Model Letters”

W. Webster Newbold
Ball State University

Rhetoric, Fiction, and the Appetite for Model Letters in Renaissance England


1> Model letters have always occupied an important place in the dictaminal tradition.  In recent decades, scholars have noted the role of fictive qualities in models, both in Europe as a whole and in English vernacular works.  From a literary perspective, Thomas Beebee and Robert Adams Day have acknowledged letter models as precursors to later fictional forms, and Peter Mack and Lynne Magnusson have considered the importance of models from the rhetorical viewpoint (Mack 135-75; Magnusson 61-88).  My own work has combined these approaches in an investigation of the hybrid nature of the first letter writing manuals to appear in English, The Enimie of Idlenesse translated by William Fulwood (hereafter Enimie) and Angel Day’s The English Secretary (hereafter Secretary).[1] Pursuing a variety of strategies for engaging contemporary readers, these books (most notably Secretary) combined traditional epistolary precepts, examples of essential social and personal conversations, and techniques of dialogue and style to remain popular for a sustained period (Newbold).[2]

2> Recently, I have been investigating the propagation of vernacular dictaminal publications alongside these two seminal texts in order to get a more complete picture of the influence of Enimie and especially Secretary during the period the latter book remained in print.  We know of ten books or manuals that appeared at this time: eight are products of English vernacular culture and two are translations from French (see table 1). All reflect in some way the purpose first articulated in Fulwood and Day—that is, to support the wide variety of unlearned citizens in their desire to use letters to sustain and improve their quality of life. But as we seek better to understand these works and their cultural effects, two questions especially suggest themselves: do the books reflect the traditional rhetorical framework for dictamen set out in Secretary, and if so, how? In what ways do they help us access the interests of Elizabethan and Jacobean readers?  Inquiry along these lines may point us toward a better understanding of how English vernacular writers of print works continued and changed the Latin dictaminal tradition, and how readers found value and utility in works on letter composition.  Some emerging answers suggest that a native genre of “letter book” grew up alongside Secretary and provided readers with varying proportions of models to be imitated and/or enjoyed as literary entertainment. Most of these works continued the traditional Latin types but all dispensed with any overt teaching in favor of a strictly models-only formulary approach.  Readers clearly were attracted to letters with aesthetic potential that in some cases far exceeded their actual utility.  Although some titles continued to be published through the seventeenth century, this English genre was largely dissipated by the influx and popularity of French complemental manuals and letter formularies around 1640.  The discussion that follows will address these main questions in further detail by investigating the purpose, fictive potential, technique, style, typology, and ultimate fate of the letter-writing books that paralleled Secretary during much of its fifty-year print run.  The scope will be limited to works printed through the 1630s, as these appear while Secretary is readily available and the new French influence has not yet been fully established. I have not included complemental manuals such as The academy of complements (1639), since these, although they may offer some model letters, are not primarily letter writing books or model collections. Special-purpose publications in areas such as law and commercial trade are likewise excluded since these did not generally seek to influence or attract a broad audience.


3> Two main groups of letter books, then, emerged on the English scene in the seventeenth century in an attempt to capitalize on the interest in vernacular letter composing stirred up by Enimie and Secretary in the sixteenth.  They offered model correspondence as their principal content, although as we shall see they had purposes that extended beyond simply exemplifying epistolary technique.  The earlier and larger group originated in the vernacular publishing market and appeared before 1630; the latter looked to the new French style of correspondence and manners and was well-established by 1640.[3] 

4> The first group provides the clearest continuity with and extension from the earlier manuals.  It begins with Nicholas Breton’s A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters in 1602, the most enduringly popular response to the market for model letters that was nurtured by Fulwood and Day.  Breton, a prolific member of that group of late Elizabethan professional writers, has been principally known for finally turning model letters into genuine fiction.  His “collection” of letters was offered boldly without any accompanying instruction in composition or the epistolary protocols.  Relying on a conceit that his letters turned up in a lost packet of mail, Breton laid out for his readers an array of various kinds of correspondence, from the mundane to the amatory, from serious consolations to comic railing.  Most letters had answers accompanying them (highlighting the artificiality of the conceit).  This fictional approach to epistolarity was immediately and enduringly popular—16 editions of Poste appeared by 1640, and four more by 1685.

5> A Poste with a Packet indeed represents an original direction in literature.  Nineteenth- and twentieth-century scholars have examined this book and pronounced it an important precursor to the work of later authors, most notably Samuel Richardson, who is credited with developing the English epistolary novel.[4]  While literary scholars may think of Poste in this way, that is, looking at it almost exclusively as a precursor to later and greater things, such a perspective may miss the influence of Breton’s context and the interests of his time in epistolary concerns.  Why did Breton come to think of the fictional possibilities in model letters, and what patterns did he base his own creations on?  An examination of his letters suggests that he elaborated on and extended the potential for fiction that he found most prominently in the examples in Fulwood and Day, without abandoning the rhetorical types that had become so common to readers.[5]

6> The possibility of imaginative involvement in social relationships, practical affairs, and intimate family conversation possessed strong reader appeal, and likewise provided Breton with most of his material. In Enimie, he would have found sons, fathers, mothers, and daughters writing to each other on a variety of matters, often with hightened emotion: a father, for example, is concerned with his son’s apparent misuse of the cloth goods entrusted to him; the son denies any wrongdoing and sends the money to prove it.  A wife writes to her too-long absent and silent husband, who claims his letters were lost.  A sister consoles her brother for the loss of his wife, and he replies with tearful thanks.  Likewise in Secretary, where letter types are the basic organizing feature, Day presents, by way of petition, a son begging his father to be reinstated after the son’s gross misbehavior, and another father bitterly attacks his son to show invective.  Breton likewise fashions many, perhaps a majority, of his letters in similar ways, but grasps the opportunity to increase fictive effect.  For example, Enimie presents a fairly conventional exchange between a sister and her brother who has lost his wife; she emotionally consoles him and bids him thank God for His goodness, and he replies with thanks for her consolation and moral advice.  In Poste, Breton presents a sister-brother exchange, but now both have lost undesirable spouses, and write to show affection to each other and to set up a joint household:

51. A kind sister to her loving brother

My deare Brother,
as you know our loue began almost in our Cradles: so I pray you, let it continue to our graues: I haue had a bad Husband, and you no good Wife. . .we must one day walke after our friends, and therefore in the mean time, let vs make much one of another: write vnto me how you doe in body and mind, and when I shall bee so happy as to enjoy your good company: for being alone, you may be as a Husband and a Brother, to controle my seruants, and comfort my selfe: beleeue me, I long to see you, and in the meane time to heare from you. . . .
Thy very loving Sister, A. N.

52. His answer

Sweet Sister,
I haue receiued your louing Letter, for which I returne you many kinde thanks: my body I thanke God, is in good health, but my minde somewhat out of temper, for I see three things that doe much grieue me, a Foole rich, a Wise man wicked, and an honest man poore. . . .But when I consider againe, that here is no Paradise: the Angells liue in Heauen, and Hell is too neere vnto the earth: I am glad I can fall to prayer, to shunne the traps of the deceitful; and since I cannot goe from the course of Fates, to take my fortune as patiently as I can. . . .patience is the salue of misery, so is loue the joy of nature, in which, as we are neerely linked, so let vs live inseparable: shortly I hope to see you, and till then and euer will loue you. . . .
Your very loving Brother, E. B.  (Breton, Poste 2: H47; emphasis added)

7> Not only is Breton’s moralizing of a more socially critical kind (citing earthly injustice rather than heavenly comforts), there is also a subtle undercurrent of more-than-sibling-like affection on both parts.  Here emerges Breton’s skill as a character writer, and we see how imaginative use might be made of a typical epistolary exchange. 

8> In developing technique, Breton would have noted the earlier manuals’ pairs and sequences of letters that afforded, more than single specimens could, extended development of dialogue, psychological motivation, and emotion.  Enimie presents 157 models in total, 24 of which are answers (in spite of the fact the title page asserts that the book teaches “as well by answere as otherwise”).  Secretary has 93 models in all with 19 as answers.  In the 1637 edition of Poste used by Grosart, 60 out of the 153 letters are answers, and in two cases there are sequences of four.  So while replies make up roughly 15% in Enimie and 20% in Secretary, they comprise nearly 40% in Breton’s book.  Such use of responses is no doubt a sign of Breton’s desire to heighten possibilities for dialogue and the emotional impact that frequently comes with it.  His pairs of letters, especially of the amatory type, skillfully exploit nuances of tone and emotion that go far to create an aesthetic effect.  Breton would have seen a good example of this process at work in chapter 2 of the second part of Secretary, where two friends engage in a deep and emotional disagreement through a series of four letters, and in chapter 4, where a father and son exchange letters in a sequence of bitter invective and canny evasion.  Breton’s own sequence of four letters between lovers demonstrates skill at turning fictive potential into something more fully and subtly realized through counterpoint and innuendo. An excerpt may serve to show this technique in action (see appendix for the full sequence):

1. A Letter betweene the Knight R.M. and the Lady E.R.

Faire Lady,
Sweet should be that spirit, which through the instinct of loue vnderstandeth the silence of truth, whose tongue is the heart, whose words are sighes, in which are hidden the secret fruits of those Trees, that onely grow in the Paradise of reason: Vouchsafe then…to blesse this rude and vnworthy Paper, the which if it haue made you any way offended, in the fire consume it….

2. Her Answer

Wisdome might well appeare in that heart, which could pierce into the conceit of that spirit, that with the figures of loue, deceiues the sense of simplicity: which not suspecting euil, finds seldome other substance.  Oh poore truth, how is thy title made a shadow of deceit?  While in seeking of Paradise, Folly falls into Hel…and pardoned be that Paper that does but his Masters message…. (Breton, Poste 2: H32)

9> The preceding selections also suggest the important role that style plays in the experience Breton is offering his readers.  His notably individualized approach contains multiple elements, but his attention to ornament is perhaps the most pervasive. Highly figured and balanced elements  reflect a style of amatory writing that was long in fashion but by 1602 had been in serious decline.  Conceited, aphoristic, allusive, and in this case Platonic with abstract ideas and qualities, love offered in these terms is far from our modern sensibility yet close enough to Breton’s readers that they would recognize both its highly ornate charm and its anachronism. The mediating of passion through the conventionally elaborate speech would have delighted readers sensitive to figuration and amatory color.  Even passages of a middling or low register on a wide variety of topics are built on a platform of schemes and tropes.  While Breton’s extensive writing experience meant he needed little instruction from others, he would have found a strong emphasis on the figurae in Day’s Secretary.  Day’s concept from the beginning was to link his models with an appended treatise listing and defining hundreds of figures.  He put this intention into effect in his second edition of 1593, with marginal tags indicating which figures were being applied in the models.  Breton is by no means so obviously didactic, but he did provide ornately styled letters for his reader’s enjoyment on various levels.  The following demonstrates his stylistic embellishment of a serious message:

8.  A Letter of comfortable advice to a friend, who sorrowed for the death of his Love

Honest Alexander,
I heare thou art of late fallen into an extreame melancholy, by reason of the sudden departure of Susanna out of this life:  for thy sake I am sorry she hath left her passage on this earth….Thou knowest she is senselesse in the graue, and wilt thou therefore be witlesse in the world? . . .well thou knowest I loue thee, and in my loue let me aduise thee, not to goe from thy selfe with an imagination of what was, to lose that which is: because she is in Heauen, wilt thou be in Hell?  Or if she be halfe an Angell, wilt thou be more than halfe a Deuill?. . . . Leaue thy solitary dwelling and come liue with me, we will devise some good meanes for the remoue of this melancholy. . . .
Thine as his owne, F. D.  (Breton, Poste 2: H7; emphasis added)

10> For humorous effect, Breton often nudges this language toward excess or parody:

27.  A Letter of counsell to a friend

My best approued and worthiest beloued Philo,
I heare by some of late come from Venice, that seeme to be somewhat inward in thy acquaintance, that thou art of late fallen into an amorous humour, especially with a subject of too much vnworthinesse…. O leaue these follies . . . bee not sotted with a humor, nor slaue to thy selfe-will: leaue courting of a Curtezan, and keepe thy breath for a better blast: saue thy purse for a better purpose, and spend thy time in more profit, let not the wise laugh at thee, and the honest lament thee: for my selfe, how I grieue for thee I would I could tell thee . . . .
Thine as mine owne, N. B.  (Breton, Poste 1: H13; emphasis added)

Other stylistic effects are outgrowths of Breton’s singular wit, notably his rendering of lower class color through language and relationships, his frequent mode of social critique, and his pervasively comic tone, which refuses to allow itself to be taken seriously. Even when he condescends, he is never heavy handed or offensive.  In Secretary, he found examples of poorly executed humor involving the ridicule of clownish characters.  He may have decided in these cases to learn from the negative example and devise more humane depictions.[6]

11> Thus far we have seen that Breton appears to have worked along the three main paths set up originally by Fulwood and Day—that is, essential social conversations, dialogue, and style—to move his letter collection into the realm of fiction.  In each of these cases we might also observe that some rhetorical dimension has been exploited to achieve aesthetic effects, whether the writer’s purpose in social conversation, the recipients’ responses in dialogue, or the stylistic outlines of the language itself.  Additional rhetorical influence may be detected in the typology of the letters.  The theory of letter classifications in the sixteenth century was heavily influenced by the adaptation of the Latin tradition by Erasmus in De conscribendis epistolis; types of letters were gathered under the Ciceronian types of orations—demonstrative, deliberative, and judicial—with a fourth class, familiar, added to accommodate the obvious utility of simple communication formats.  Erasmus’ scheme is firmly based on rhetorical purpose—letters are meant to do something, even when that something may seem trivial (such as pass along good wishes). In Secretary, Day painstakingly adheres to the Erasmian approach.  Even when Day must explain that some letters can fall under several headings, he defends the system as offering a useful and accepted way of classifying types according to primary purpose. 

12> It might seem that Breton forgoes all this concern with traditional epistolographic theory with his free-floating and apparently random selection of epistles.  Katherine Hornbeak articulates best this common view of Breton as set apart from the English scene around him and “touched” with “Genius” (33): 

“Not a word does he waste on rhetoric, nor does he group his letters into the rigid categories of the formularies.  What he offers is two books of sparkling letters, infinitely superior to the drab, lackluster models of the usual plodding letter-writer. Since Breton’s letters were obviously not constructed to illustrate Exordium, Narratio, etc., nor to display dozens of varieties of tropes and schemes, they were written with spontaneity and gusto.  Such zest and verve had never animated the English letter-writer before, nor was their like to be seen again.” (33)

13> But in Poste, the letters, even with their zest and verve, often seem similar in intent to many models offered in Secretary; more careful examination of the rhetorical purposes reveal that they, too, conform to many of the types that had been channeled through Secretary from Latin sources.  By assigning an Erasmian type to each letter according to the letter’s principal trait, I arranged comparisons in tabular form between letter categories in Secretary, Poste, and subsequent letter-books to be discussed later.[7] (See tables 2.1 and 2.2)   From these comparisons, it is immediately obvious that Breton has a far different emphasis from Day in regards to amatory letters—as might be expected in a fictional work—but that the other categories are also well represented in Poste, notably in the important Deliberative class (15 out of Erasmus/Day’s 21).  The heaviest emphasis in all letter books is on the Deliberative, in which letters of love and friendship (amatory and conciliatory/reconciliatory) are placed.  Modern readers might be surprised that such types are not found in the Familiar category, but according to the rhetorical perspective, love, friendship, and reconciliation all involve persuasion even though it might be indirect or governed by convention.  In Breton, conciliatory letters promoting, reviving, or maintaining friendship, twenty-six letters and answers in all, are second only to the amatory models in seeking to elicit readers’ favor.  The other classes as well all are represented to some extent, in a distribution similar to Day’s.  Did Breton compose with a copy of The English Secretary open before him?  Probably not.  But he was no doubt thoroughly familiar with the epistolary forms ascendant in his time, and likely chose to work with and through them as he created fictional versions that would appeal to a broad audience also conscious of this tradition.


14> Poste, then, initiates a pattern that reflects aspects of the traditional rhetorical framework as well as readers’ interest in potentially (or even overtly) fictional letters. It also sets the strongly influential pattern of including models only.  In contrast with Enimie and Secretary, theoretical and didactic or self-instructive interest on the part of the reader is no longer presumed in the text itself beyond the preliminary remarks. All subsequent English works in this period—seven in all—purporting to help letter writers improve their craft likewise offer models alone (See table 1).   Moreover, while Secretary is clearly didactic and Poste aesthetic, the purposes and characteristics of succeeding letter writing “manuals” appear more mixed. Applying the same four points of comparison used above—purpose, technique, style, and typology—we may develop a more complete picture of how the earlier books influenced those that came later, and what aspects of public taste and demand were courted by these domestically-produced and in many cases derivative works.  We should also be able better to assess the extent to which rhetorical teachings and habits continued to be factors in books aimed at the broader market.

15> Some general patterns in these manuals can be identified. Rhetorical purpose, defined here as the effect or use the writer offers to his or her audience, can be placed on a sliding scale between the poles of self-instructive utility, as in Secretary, and fictional entertainment, as in Poste.  Most of the books cluster around the middle of the scale, with entertainment generally predominating.  All but two apply the technique of paired letters-with-answers so extensively used in Breton, although none extends the sequence beyond two letters, as is sometimes found in Secretary and Poste.  Five of the seven exhibit ornate language in the style of Secretary and Poste, and three frequently exhibit a comic tone and social-critical mode.  In their typologies, all (except one that uses an alternate classification) implicitly conform to the Erasmian scheme, although fewer of the 21 types normally appear than are found in Poste (15); all other books contain about half of the Erasmian types. (These characteristics are compiled in table 3.)   We turn now to a closer examination of these works, to investigate how the mix of features, inspired almost entirely by their letter-manual precursors, were assembled to meet the perceived demands of the reading public. 

16> Five of the seven English letter-books initially appeared between 1612 and 1618, and three continued to appear beyond this period.  The anonymous octavo The prompters packet was first chronologically, but differs in important ways from the others and will be discussed later. 

A president for young pen-men (1615)

17> Ornate style in the mode of Breton and consistent pairing give A president for young pen-men entertainment value mixed with letter models of personal utility.  This format matches accurately with title page claims, which mention “variety, delight, and pleasure” coupled with “instruction.”  All deliberative types are represented, with the implication that these were most likely to be found useful to readers. Strong sequencing is indicated in that all but four of the 74 letters in the slim quarto have paired replies. Only seven amatory letters with replies are included (about 20%), but they have strong impact at the end where four move toward a crescendo ending with a particularly warm, even erotic, exchange in “A most kind Letter from a Lady to her Seruant of good worth.”  The Lady writes,
My second selfe, whom if I could, I should loue more then my selfe, knowing thy Affection. . .I haue no life but in thy loue: to which I hartily commend the hope of my worlds comfort. . . .

18> He replies,

My more then my selfe, most worthy beloued and honoured Mistris, I am sorry for nothing, but that you should be sorry for any thing. . .the heat is well ouer which hath troubled my mind, that though I haue no disease, yet am I so much diseased, that finding my heart written ouer with the Letter Y, and feeling small comfort in the Vowell O, haue onely wished for my health, to bee with the blessed Sillable U. . . . (H1v-H2r)

The entertainment value is evident, especially with the unusual instance of a woman’s originating an amatory exchange.  Overall, there are ten letters from women in the book.  A president was moderately popular, appearing in three editions between 1615 and 1638.

Hobsons horse-load of letters  (1613, 1617)

19> Gervase Markham’s foray into the realm of letter-books appears at about the same time, coming into its final form in the second edition of 1617.  The title seems playfully to refer to Markham’s record as a hack writer on animal husbandry and horses.  Hobsons is an interesting book.  Its emphasis from the first edition was on amatory letters as well as “chartels” or cartels, written challenges of honor. Although it is unlikely such letter types would have been of personal utility to many readers, they would surely provide entertainment value, as in this example of an extreme and ill-considered insult that true gentlemen should avoid:

the basenesse of thy villanous nature, hauing prouoked thee to doe me iniurie, I entend to scourge with my sword, which shall diuide a wicked life from a more wicked bodie. . .I will thrust those lyes thou hast deliuered downe thy throat, and thorow thy heart into thy guts. . . . (1617, D1v)

20> In the expanded edition, nearly all of the remaining deliberative types are added, suggesting that someone recognized an effective means to appeal to a broader readership through extended personal utility.  But entertainment impact is also increased by unusual jocular letters and poems (for example, there is an comic allegorical letter of the forces of Christmas doing battle with the armies of Want and Frugality).  Significantly, friendship letters that may be classed as “conciliatory” become increasingly noticeable, a pattern we will see more and more in other publications.  The plain and energetic style lacks many typical ornate features but garners interest from wit and situations developed in sequences of letter and answer, such as apprentices writing to each other about their masters, a lawyer writing to give advice to his opponent, and a man seeking comfort after his wife left him for another man.  Here, a gentlewoman writes to tell her lover she is pregnant and to seek his commitment:

If euer I could wish my selfe vnborne, or my being taken from me, I call truth and my sometimes modestie to witnesse, it is now: not that I haue found you, but that I am forced thus to seeke you….I loue you, who in the strictest lawes of desire are most worthy to be loued. . .if I haue (as I too well know I haue) contrary to the nature and custome of Uirgins, ouershot my selfe in my violent passions; pardon her that had rather dye then make it knowne. . .yet fearing all will not serue, you would, I hope, rather incline to pitty, then to disdaine. . . .
Neuer lesse her owne, A. F.

21> Fortunately, the gentleman is in love and more than willing to rescue the woman’s fortunes:

How happy may I accompt my selfe, worthiest and fairest, that hauing bound my life in the search and pursuit of a Jewel, haue it now offered and giuen in to my hands. . . I accept it as willingly as you freely bestow it, and will account it no lesse deare and precious, then if much time and long labour had been the purchase of it. . . .
More then my selfe, W.S.  (1617, N2v-N3r)[8]

Also of interest is the relatively more active role projected onto women as writers; instead of being mere passive recipients of male amatory desire, they originate 15 letters on various topics, including one woman-to-woman exchange.  Hobsons horse-load possibly offers the most variety of any in the group under discussion.  Markham seems to be aiming at meeting the demands of various audiences’ hopes and expectations with a mixture of different forms.  But, for reasons that are not clear, this strategy did not produce any subsequent reprintings.

Conceyted letters, newly layde open (1618)

22> This anonymous work has been confidently attributed to Breton in the ESTC catalog, and close similarities to Poste in the form, style, and tone of the letters, along with the recording of Breton’s name in the Stationers’ Register, support this position.  Previously, Gervase Markham had been thought to be the author since the epistle “To the iuditious Reader” is signed “I.M” (Jervis Markham) and a manuscript note on a preliminary leaf of the Huntington Library copy (the primary copy for the microfilm) would seem to identify this “I.M.” as author.  If Markham indeed “presented” the letters that Breton wrote, we can only speculate what the relationship between the two was.  In any case, the letters themselves are so much like those in Poste that we may forego further consideration, except to note that their overall quality lacks the wit and acuity of their precursors.  Yet Breton’s skill, even when not at its height, enabled this book to be moderately successful: it appeared twice more, in 1632 and 1638.

A speedie post (1625)

23> Published under the name of an unknown author “I. W.”, A speedie post is notable in two ways: its close emulation of Breton’s style, and its long-term success.   It also uses a format similar to Breton’s headings, subscriptions, and initials.  The subjects are similar as well: “A Letter of Loue to a worthy beloued,” “A Letter for Newes,” “A scoffing Letter to one, that thought too well of her selfe,” “A fantasticall Letter to a friend, to try both his wit, and his patience,” “A merry Letter to a Kinsman,” “Of malignancy in the world,” etc.  Speedie follows both Poste and Conceyted letters in offering up the socio-critical “no-news” letter as well as the longer, more serious suasory type such as “To a Friend wishing him to marry.”  “Two quicke hasty Letters” reflect this near approach to Breton’s style:

I heare you are not well, I pray you by this bearer write me word how you doe, if you doe well, I shall doe the better, for such is my affection, as cannot but bee a partner in your passion: So till I heare from you, which I much desire, though but in a word or two, I rest,
Yours while I am mine owne, D. T.

Good Cousin,
I thanke God, I am well, if you be well all is well, farewell.
Yours or not mine owne, B. T.  (E2v)

24> The writer is competent and follows stylistic expectations for ornate language, especially alliteration, repeated clause-ending words, and balancing structures.  This overall pattern holds consistently through the first two-thirds of the book, but then drops off abruptly. Beginning with quire G, the letters get shorter, the answers cease, and the selections become more like fragments, with more generic “complemental” purposes.  One section is even entitled “Shreds of complements”:

I giue you infinite thankes for entreating mee for that which I should beseech you: you would fauour me, without obliging me; nay make yourself my debtor. . . .
Remember that in a gentle heart with a few good words, many ill deeds are reconciled.
I pray comfort me with your commandements, for being present in seruice, I shall not seeme to be farre off in person.  (H2r)

25> Such blandishments are a far cry from the wit, humor, and social satire of Breton, and even of the first part of Speedie.  In order to find enough material, the writer may have descended into his commonplace notebook, or a complement manual—or, these last pages were added by someone else.  But in spite of the difference between the last section and the main part of the book, and the derivative nature of the style and content, Speedie was second only to Poste in popularity: it appeared eleven more times by 1684.  Such success may have been due in part to its slender format and a relatively low price, but it is more likely that Speedie was a good enough emulator of a form of combined style, technique, and content that readers enjoyed and sought out.  It also seems that Speedie looked forward to an emerging type of letter model made popular in the latter 1630s through the influx of French epistolographic trends: the short, complemental, formulaic letter.  These will be discussed in the next section. 

Cupid’s messenger (1629)

26> The anonymous Cupids messenger which appears in 1629 has been thought to be a translation from the French.[9]  It enjoyed more exposure than Hobsons or President, recording five editions by 1646.  Its mixed rhetorical purpose, style, and typology fall into a usual pattern for books of this period (Table 3): it glances toward both personal utility and entertainment, it presents ornate language, and it covers 11 of the 21 traditional categories, with three-quarters of the deliberative genre’s types appearing. At least two-thirds of letters have replies, and 31 out of 69 (about 45%) are amatory (although perhaps fewer than the title would imply).  Women as writers are assigned 16 models overall.  About two-thirds are conventional amatory responses to male initiated sequences, but women also write as spouses, as mothers, and one amatory sequence originates with a woman.  

27> An aspect that makes this book noteworthy is the brazen way that it makes use (without attribution) of previously published models.  Six letters are plagiarized from Secretary.  Four of its five amatory models and one from a husband to a wife are copied verbatim; another, “A Fathers Letter against the Sonne,” is shortened considerably; and a husband’s madatory letter (giving instructions) to his wife is also copied verbatim.[10]  Hornbeak notes that two models are lifted from The prompters packet and two more from A president for young pen-men (40, 42).[11]  There is also at least one reproduction from Hobsons Horse-load: the very example quoted above from a pregnant woman to her lover appears almost word-for-word on C3r-C4r.  One suspects there may be more borrowings from other sources not yet identified.  If Cupids is a translation, these plagiarized models would have to have been added, but it seems more likely, because of the way it shares characteristics (and letters) with other works in this group, that the book is an English product.  It appeared in five editions in all by 1646, which in itself suggests that the formula it follows had gained broad acceptance among readers. 

The prompters packet of private and familiar letters (1612)
The secretaries studie (1616)

28> Two other works, quite different from each other, lean toward personal utility and indirect self-instruction, with less stylistic or fictive emphasis. Prompters, with 63 models in all, presents nearly as many types as Breton’s Post, and all deliberative kinds.   Almost all the models stand alone, but the final letter in the book does have an interesting reply, the answer of a married woman to a lewd letter by a Falstaff-like (and perhaps Falstaff-inspired) suitor:

if I carried as little respect to my husbands good, as it appears you haue care of your owne safety, I might quickly take a course would prooue as preiudiciall to you, as the lewdnesse of your presumption deserues.  You very much mistake me if you take me to be any of those, vnto whom it seems you make a common practise of such addresses. . . . (K5v)

29> This indignant reposte is Prompters only real attempt to exploit the fictive nature of models—yet even a collection oriented toward utility seemed obligated to include at least one amatory exchange.   Most models in this collection reach a far more homely register:

the friendship which hath been betwixt vs from our youth, commands mee to write the present, for to aduertise you how your sonne R. doth euery day more and more applie himselfe to the course you desire of his studies. . . . (E7v)

30> Thomas Gainsford was a soldier and hack writer whose more substantial book The secretaries studie is unique among this group of works in explicitly using an alternative letter classification, probably Continental in origin, that differed markedly from the common Latin precursor.[12]  The author and/or publisher clearly hoped this feature might be attractive to readers as they listed the categories and brief glosses on the title page (for comparative purposes, I have indicated the quantity for each type):

31> Although six of the nine are carried over from the standard scheme, gone are the Ciceronian-Erasmian genera of rhetoric, especially the always-awkward demonstrative type (descriptive or praising/blaming), which was rarely suited to the ways letters were used in practice. This alternate arrangement does, however, emphasize the types of models from the deliberative genre that are prominent in the other books—love letters, letters revolving around friendship (the Moral-Civil category), and letters of request; the first two are consistently the most popular in letter books generally.  In fact, if Studies’s models are recast according to the traditional categories, they fall into a pattern consistent to that seen in Poste and its other followers (see Table 2.2): about half of the types are present, with the deliberative predominating.
32> In spite of its utilitarian bent, The secretaries studie is not without drama, and for this relies on situational development in individual letters, not reply sequences.  Models usually involve concrete situations, with marginal notes pinpointing the “theme” of each.  Here, a “Politike” letter is based on a concrete situation that has implicit conflict:

[marginal note:] military policy to restraine insolent mutinies.
Noble Sir,
Whereas at your last conference you told me coming from Germany into Antwerpe, you saw no watch set, and a kinde of fearfull stilnesse amongst the souldiers, wherein I could not resolue you so suddenly. . . I haue now thought good to adde to your experience some intelligences of my owne. . .You must then vnderstand, that the Garrisons haue newly mutined, and from insolent attempts drawne a fearfull execution on some principall offenders: the Gouernour of the towne and citadel, did put in practise an ancient vsance and policie of martiall discipline, to command a cessation from orderly watch, and souldier-like seruices. . .And this was the cause of the stilnesse in Antwerpe. . . . (G1v).

33> Gainsford, however, does not draw exclusively on his military background.  Women have an expanded though modest role as writers (9 out of 93 or 10%).  They compose as real actors in family and society, not merely to make stock amatory replies.  Several models depict non-amatory friendships between the sexes, and others offer advice on “morall” and “oeconomicall” issues such as the obligations of friendship, the deportment of a gentleman farmer, and “the danger of disagreement between man and wife” (E2r).

34> In spite of the practicality of both Prompters and Studie, and the skill and interest of many of Gainsford’s models, neither book had much success with readers.  Prompters appeared in one more edition in 1633, but Studie was never reprinted. Possible factors might have included a reduced fictive emphasis, notable through the lack of the common letter-and-reply sequence.  Readers found this technique used extensively elsewhere, generating inherent interest in the contrast or tension between “characters.”  Its absence in these works may have been missed.

35> In this first group of works growing up alongside The English Secretary, we have seen how self-teaching and entertainment are intermixed, with the latter clearly more prominent.  Most, including Poste, President, Conceyted, Speedie, and Cupids, employ similar ornate style elements as an expected aesthetic mode, and adhere implicitly to the Latin letter types set out in The English Secretary. Also, to increase imaginative potential, most works rely on letter sequences, on comic and amatory situations, and sometimes on social-critical attitudes.  If the number of reprintings can be used as a general indicator of popularity with readers, books with a heavier entertainment quotient were clearly favored. Many amatory models and sequences pander frankly to erotic interest, and extra material has been added in several cases to specifically elevate this attraction, as seen in Hobsons, Prompters, and President. Each work sets up its own balance of these elements of teaching and entertainment, no doubt according to the experience and skill of the writer interacting with the desires of the publisher.  Some plagiarizing is certain, with its exact extent unknown.  The role of women as fictional model writers expands modestly but noticeably in this period.  These works all seem to have an “English” quality growing out of a desire to please readers with imagined, concrete situations they could project themselves into, and with a vocabulary close to their experience.  The books encourage readers’ fascination with the means of rising in social status as they offer a glimpse into the alluring lifestyles of their social betters. 

36> Evidence would suggest, then, that vernacular readers increasingly accepted model letters as a fictional genre which still retained ties to a well-established epistolographic tradition.  Writers and publishers seeking to attract these readers relied on rhetorical patterns and practices from ongoing successful works such as Secretary and Poste.  This continuity had the effect of keeping aspects of Erasmian letter writing theory in play into the 1620s and 30s. There is a very different cast, however, to the next wave of books to offer model communication.


37> Instead of supporting the development of an English sense of epistolarity founded on rhetorical traditions and multi-purpose models, the reading public again came under the influence of French modes of writing and manners.  The epistolary dimension of the literary movement known as Préciosité garnered interest in England and inspired imitations and translations in the 1630s and following decades.  Préciosité combined interest in polite conversation or “complement,” and books presenting its written forms frequently relied on metaphors of “academies,” “secretaries,” and “mirrors” in their titles. This general influence began as soon as French works crossed the Channel in the late 1620s, initiated by the personal letters of Guez de Balzac and the models of Jean Puget de la Serre.[13]   A full accounting of these works cannot be attempted here, but to note several departures from the English pattern of the previous group, I would like briefly to touch on two translations of this kind published in England and fully devoted to letter models.  These works show the kind of appetite English readers would have for the new foreign influence.[14]

The secretary of ladies (1638)

38> John [Jerome?] Hainhofer translated this work that is usually attributed to Jacques du Bosc, originally published as Nouveau recueil de lettres des dames de ce temps, avec leurs réponses (Paris, 1635).[15]  Du Bosc was a popular writer and feminist of the period, and as we might expect, this contribution to model letter collections reflects his perspective. The secretary of ladies offers broadest appeal to women’s interests of any letter model collection of this period.  It includes 54 letters written by women, most of them between two particular friends, and many in letter-answer sequence. Most of the models are exchanged by two gentlewomen, one in Paris and the other in the country against her will.  All epistolary moods are represented: polite flattery, self denigration, warm friendship, jealousy, admission of fault, seeking of forgiveness, etc.  In their first exchange, the unnamed women console themselves with their friendship in spite of being parted.  The Parisienne writes first:

[heading] She prays her to returne to Paris, and bring her in dislike with the Country.

provided you have a just opinion of your owne merit, you cannot faile in that you ought to have of our griefe: Remember your selfe onely of the pleasure your presence brings us, to comprehend what your absence takes from us. . . Consider next, if there be any among us, that doe not make vows for your returne, since it must restore alacrity to all your acquaintance. . . . (A7r-A7v)

39> The country friend responds:

[heading] She answers that besides the losse of their conversation, she is vext with that of the Country: and that she will never make vow of solitude while she can hope the honour of their company.

I must begin my letter where you end yours, to assure you that I have too great an opinion of your good will to thinke it can diminish in my absence. . .The advantage lies on your side in being at Paris, where the greatest discontent may finde diversion, and the sickest soule expect some remedy: I on the contrary, am in a wilde Country, where all familiarity is a punishment.  I am deprived of yours, and tired with theirs who are impertinent, and importune. . . . (A9r-A10r)

This work clearly extends the role of fictional women writers beyond anything seen thus far.  These correspondents are lively and engaged in a variety of interactions  While it is clearly not an English product, it has some traits that we have seen were attractive to English readers.  Most models come in pairs of letter followed by answer, which, though they have distinct subject matter, revolve around such recurring themes as friendship, constancy in love, the city versus the country, learning versus ignorance, and estrangement and reconciliation.  The fiction of dialogic tension is well-maintained as the well-born characters interact through these various epistolary conversations.  The style in the English translation, however, is prosaic and relatively bland, which may have been a factor in the work’s failure to appear again.

The secretary in fashion (1640)

40> La Serre’s Le secrétaire à la mode, translated in 1640 by John Massinger as The secretary in fashion, marks the full presence of a new French correspondence model in English and the demise of the salable presence of Secretary and model collections derived from it. Massinger seems to be actively pursuing these ends, judging from his biting (but not terribly coherent) remarks against Secretary, Poste, and Balzac’s letters in his preface “The Translator to the Reader”:

I here present thee with a Cornucopia of knowledge and Expression.  If thou dost not receive it with an acknowledgement proportioned to the Worth of such a Gift, mayst thou . . . bee condemned to the Reading of the English Secretary, as long as thou livest. . . But I see thee already blear-eyed with reading Monsieur Balzaac, and the Packet of Letters.  (a2r)

41> Massinger goes on to ridicule these works thoroughly as he offers his “Vindication of the Times from Error” in reclaiming the “Idolatrous from adoring that Malicious Idoll the English Secretary, that Image which Nebuchadnezzar the King had set up, the Post with a Packet of Letters, and that most abhominable Baal, Balzaac” (a2v).  Such a near-hysterical attack suggests the extent to which Day and Breton had dominated the popular market for model letters, and the sense that time had come for a change.

42> La Serre’s letters indeed represent a change from the English letter books in the first group. The secretary in fashion seems more interested in fashionable phraseology than in exploiting fictive potential. Epistolary situations are highly generalized, and personal names are never used:

I defie you to accuse me of neglect in the performance of my Duty, the passion which I have to your Service being so violent, that it nourisheth in mee a continuall Care of seeking Opportunities to make it knowne.  To the furtherance of which, this Letter offerd it selfe most happily, having charge to assure you from my part, that of all the servants which your Merits have acquired you, I am
Sir, the most humble and most faithfull  (A1v)

the newes of your Promotion into that Charg, which you wish’d for so long, have added such Contentment and Satisfaction to my thoughts, that I am able to expresse but one part of the Ioy which raignes in me. . . .
Sir, Your most humble Servant  (E2v)

Since it is your pleasure to adde dayly to the obligations of those who are most intirely yours; I am resolved to let you take your course, and busy my thoughts onely in seeking occasions to revenge my selfe.  And if my misfortune in this Pursuit continually render my cares unprofitable, yet for your satisfaction I shall always have a good Will, and Passion to doe you Service, which I heartily offer you up being
Sir, Your most humble servant  (C1r)

43> There is little sense here of any concrete details of lived lives as in Day, Breton, and others.  The reader is offered sentiments employed in stock situations and in language that is florid rather than ornate.  Answers become generic and only loosely tied to originals, and originals and answers are bundled separately unlike all other books. In most cases, any answer will fit any original; thus a generic type of “answer” is modeled rather than a particular exchange used as an example of actual communication.  This depersonalized discourse is even acknowledged by Massinger as an advantage: “What Rhetorick is more pleasing than this, where servants and Admirers are acquired in every page?” (a3v)  These “servants and Admirers” are abstract and unrealized, mere placeholders.  The types of letters, too, are reduced almost to two purposes, as Massinger writes: “To doe you service, and to revenge my selfe” (a3v) (“revenge” here means to make requital or show thanks, a usage not noted in OED.)  Overall, models in this book have changed their orientation and narrowed their scope; the possibility for fictive involvement is reduced; and the fashion of ornate, figured language as a literary-rhetorical marker has faded in favor of manners and wit.

44> Massinger’s translation of La Serre appeared five more times by the mid 1680s.  Modern readers may justly wonder why this complemental style of model letter gained so much favor over the previously-popular types spawned by Secretary and Poste, and even reflected in The secretary of ladies. This curious turn is a subject of inquiry beyond the scope of the current discussion.[16]  But it can be said that in about 1640, with a few exceptions, the older, more native letter-book faded from the scene.  Readers’ interest up to this point had focused on Latin-based dictamen, familiar social contexts, fictive potential, and vividly imagined characters.  Now, it assumed a new direction, toward the foreign and exotic, the life of privilege, and a fixation on polite behavior and attitudes.


45> We have seen in this discussion that a varied group of printed dictaminal works paralleled the seventeenth-century lifespan of The English Secretary.  Consumers’ appetites tended toward a variety of subject matter that modeled how readers might take more control over their rhetorical lives, while at the same time enjoying the crossing of the aesthetic boundary into imaginative territory.  Taste moved away from directed self-instruction, as all the works under consideration reverted to a models-only formulary mode.  Through this process, the older framework of Latin epistolography, as channeled through Erasmus and Day, continued to exert influence, albeit subtle and habitual, over concepts of letter genre and type.  The number of separately identified types were reduced over time and focused on the deliberative genre, and the purposes of letters increasingly were oriented toward complement and conciliation—that is, projecting, affirming, and maintaining friendship as a primary personal and social bond.  Other rhetorical purposes remaining strong include explicit persuasion and dissuasion, requesting favors or money, and of course, seeking (or rejecting) the love of another. In catering to amatory interests, authors and publishers frequently followed poetic genres and even added material from specific romances or poems, thus continuing the very old pattern of offering a variety of entertaining materials sure to please readers of all kinds.  Women as writers were always stereotyped components of the model amatory exchange, but in several instances women assumed broader writing purposes and women’s voices began to play a more authentic role.  Taken as a whole, these works occupied a definite niche in the popular culture of the day, both reflecting demand and creating a market for epistolary fiction such as would eventually emerge in longer and more complex forms in the following century.

46> It appears, then, that the appetite for model letters among the English book reading public encouraged the growth of a largely native genre in the years spanned by the main preceptive manuals Enimie and Secretary.  Although by 1640 this genre had been seriously challenged by foreign incursions, individual works continued to be printed for many years.  These publications overall demonstrated ingenuity, skill, and at times, innovation as they vied for the attention (and the sixpenny-bits) of readers who imagined themselves as effective writers, or, perhaps, who enjoyed being entertained by possibility.


Table 1
Dictaminal Works in Chronological Order
of First Appearance in English, 1568 - 1640

Table 2.1

Distribution of Letter Types
in English Dictaminal Works, 1586-1638


Table 2.2

Distribution of Letter Types
in English Dictaminal Works, 1586-1638 (continued)


Table 3

Model Letters 1586-1638:
Comparative Purposes, Techniques, Styles, and Typologies


Primary Sources

Data for early English editions taken from English Short Title Catalogue (http://estc.bl.uk).  All items published in London unless otherwise indicated.  Medium of publication for all items is print.

The academy of complements. Wherein ladyes, gentlewomen, schollers, and strangers may accommodate their courtly practice with most curious ceremonies, complementall, amorours, high expressions, and formes of speaking, or writing. Printed by [T. Badger] the assigne of T. P[urfoot] for Humphrey Mosley. 1639.
The academy of pleasure. Furnished with all kinds of complementall letters, discourses, and dialoguesmwith variety of new songs, sonets, and witty inventions. Printed for John Stafford. 1656.
Balzac, Jean-Louis Guez de. The letters of Mounsieur De Balzac. Translated into English, according to the last edition. Trans. William Tirwhyt. Printed by Nicholas Okes, for Richard Clotterbuck. 1634.
Bosc, Jacques du. The secretary of ladies. Or, A new collection of letters and answers, composed by moderne ladies and gentlewomen, collected by mounsieur du bosque. Trans. I. H. (John Hainhofer). Printed by Tho. Cotes for William Hope. 1638.
Breton, Nicholas. Conceyted letters, nevvly layde open: or A most excellent bundle of new wit, wherin is knit vp together all the perfections or arte of episteling, by which the most ignorant may with much modestie talke and argue with the best learned. A worke varying from the nature of former presidents. Printed by B. Alsop for Samuel Rand. 1618.
_____. A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters. The Works in Verse and Prose of Nicholas Breton. 1879. Ed. Alexander Grosart. Vol. 2. New York: AMS, 1966.
The card of courtship: or The language of love; fitted to the humours of all degrees, sexes, and conditions. Made up of all sorts of curious and ingenious dialogues, pithy and pleasant discourses, eloquent and winning letters, delicious songs and sonnets, fine fancies, harmonious odes, sweet rhapsodies. printed by J.C. for Humphrey Mosley. 1653.
Cotgrave, John. Wits interpreter: the English Parnassus. Or, A sure guide to those admirable accomplishments that compleat our English gentry, in the most acceptable qualifications of discourse or writing. In which briefly the whole mystery of those pleasing witchcrafts of eloquence and love, are made easie in the following subjects. printed for N. Brooke. 1655.
Cupids cabinet unlock’t, or, The new accademy [sic] of complements. Odes, epigrams, songs, and sonnets, poesies, presentations, congratulations, ejaculations, rhapsodies, &c. With other various fancies. Created partly for the delight, but chiefly for the use of all ladies, gentlemen, and strangers, who affect to speak elegantly, or write queintly. By W. Shakespeare. N. p. 1650?
Cupids messenger: or, A trusty friend stored with sundry sorts of serious, wittie, pleasant, amorous, and delightfull letters. Printed by M[iles] F[lesher] for Francis Groue (Grove). 1629.
Day, Angel. The English secretorie. Wherein is contayned, a perfect method, for the inditing of all manner of epistles and familiar letters, together with their diversities, enlarged by examples under their severall tytles. in which is layd forth a path-waye, so apt, plaine and easie, to any learners capacity, as the like whereof hath not at any time heretofore beene deliuered. nowe first deuized, and newly published. Printed by Robert Walde-graue (Waldegrave) for Richard Iones (Jones). 1586.
 _____. The English secretorie: or, plaine and direct method, for the enditing of all manner of epistles or letters, as well familliar as others: destinguished by their diuersities vnder their seuerall titles, the like whereof hath neuer hitherto beene published. Studiouslie, no corrected, refined & amended, in far more apt & better sort then before: according to the authors true meaning, deliuered in his former edition: togeather (also) with the second part then left out, and long since promised to be performed. Also, a declaration of all such tropes, figures or schemes, as either vsually, or for ornament sake, are in this method required. Finally, the partes and office of a secretorie, in like maner, amplie discoursed, all which to the best and easiest direction that may be, for young learners and practizers. Printed by Richard Iones (Jones). 1592/93.
_____. The English secretary; or, Methods of writing epistles and letters; with, A declaration of such tropes, figures, and schemes, as either usually or for ornament sake are therein required. (1599). Ed. Robert O. Evans. Gainesville, FL: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1967.
Drayton, Michael. Englands heroicall epistles. Printed by I. R[oberts] for N. L[ing]. 1597.
Elder, W. Pearls of eloquence, or, The school of complements: Wherein ladies, gentlewomen, and schollars, may accommodate their courtly practice with gentile ceremonies, complemental, amorous, and high expressions of speaking, or writing of letters. Printed for T. Lock, and are to be sold by Henry Eversden. 1656.
The enimie of idlenesse: teaching the maner and stile how to endite, compose and write all sorts of epistles and letters: as well by answer, as otherwise. Deuided into foure bokes, no lesse plesaunt than profitable. Set Forth in English by William Fulwood Marchant. Trans. William Fulwood. Printed by Henry Bynneman for Leonard Maylard. 1568.
Erasmus, Desidirius. De conscribendis epistolis. Trans. Charles Fantazzi. Collected Works of Erasmus. Ed. J. K.  Sowards. Vol. 25-26. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.
Gainsford, Thomas. The secretary in fashion: or, A compendious and refined way of expression in all manner of letters. Composed in French by P. Sr de la Serre, historiographer of France. Printed by T[homas] C[reede] for Roger Iackson (Jackson).  1616.
La Serre, Jean-Puget de. The Secretary in Fashion: Or, a Compendious and Refined Way of Expression in All Manner of Letters. Trans. John Massinger. Printed by J[ohn] B[eale] and S[tephen] B[ulkley] for Godfrey Emerson. 1640.
Markham, Gervase. Hobsons horse-load of letters: or, a President for epistles. The first part. being a most exact method for men, of what quality soeuer, how to indight, according to the forme of these times, whether it be for serious negotiations, priuate businesses, Amorous accompliment, wanton merriment, or the defence of honour and reputation. A worke different from all former publications, and not vnworthy the eyes of the most noblest spirits. Printed by G[eorge] P[urslow] for Richard Hawkins. 1617.
The Marrow of complements. Or, A most methodicall and accurate forme of instructions for all variety of love-letters, amorous discourses, and complementall entertainements. Fitted for the use of all sorts of persons from the noblemans palace to the artizans shop. With many delightfull songs, sonnetts, odes, dialogues, &c. Printed for Humphrey Moseley. 1654.
Phillips, Edward. The mysteries of love & eloquence, or, the arts of wooing and complementing; as they are manag’d in the Spring Garden, Hide Park, the New Exchange, and other eminent places. Printed for N. Brooks. 1658.
The prompters packet of private and familiar letters. Printed by Melchisedech Bradwood for Sa(muel) Macham. 1612.
R., M. A president for young pen-men. Or The letter-writer. Containing letters of sundry sortes, with their seuerall answeres. Full of variety, delight, and pleasure, and most necessary for the instruction of those that can write, but haue not the guift of enditing. Printed by G. Eld for Robert Wilson. 1615.
S., W. Cupids schoole: wherein, yongmen and maids may learne diuers sorts of new, witty, and amorous complements. By E. Purslow for Francis Groue dwelling on Snow-hill, and are to be sold by Stephen Pemell. 1632.
W., I. A speedie poste, with certaine new letters. Or, the first fruits of new conceits, neuer yet disclosed. Now published for the helpe of such as desirous to learne to write letters. By M. Flesher] for William Sheares. 1625.

Secondary Sources

Beebee, Thomas O. . Epistolary Fiction in Europe, 1500-1850.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Bush, Douglas. English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600-1660. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.
Chartier, Roger, Alain Boureau, and Cecile Dauphin. Correspondence: Models of Letter-Writing from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997.
Day, Robert Adams. Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction before Richardson. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1966.
Flachmann, Michael. "The First English Epistolary Novel: The Image of Idleness (1555). Text, Introduction, and Notes." Studies in Philology 87.1 (1990): 1-74.
Green, Lawrence D. "Bibliographic Research in English Dictamen, 1500-1700."  Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present: Historical and Bibliographical Studies. Eds. Carol PosterLinda C. Mitchell. Charleston: U of South Carolina P, 2007. 102-26.
Green, Lawrence D., and James J. Murphy. Renaissance Rhetoric Short-Title Catalogue 1460-1700. 2nd ed. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006.
Harter, Betsey Weller. "Nicholas Breton’s Prose: A Study of Subgenres and Techniques Contributing to the Development of the Eighteenth Century English Novel." Diss. U of Rochester, 1966.
Henderson, Judith Rice. "Angel Day."  Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500-1660. First Series. Ed. Edward A. Malone. Vol. 236. Detroit: Gale, 2001. 99-107.
Hornbeak, Katherine Gee. The Complete Letter Writer in English, 1568-1800. Smith College Studies in Modern Languages. Vol. 15, 3-4. Northampton, MA: Smith College, 1934.
Howlett, Timothy Reed. "A Critical Edition of Part I of Nicholas Breton’s a Poste with a Madde Packet of Letters." Diss. Northern Illinois U, 1972.
Mack, Peter. Elizabethan Rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002.
Magnusson, Lynne. Shakespeare and Social Dialogue: Dramatic Language and Elizabethan Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.
Newbold, W. Webster. "Traditional, Practical, Entertaining: Two Early English Letter Writing Manuals." Rhetorica 26.3 (2008): 267-300.
Robertson, Jean. The Art of Letter Writing: An Essay on the Handbooks Published in England During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1942. Folcroft, 1973.


From: A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters, opening sequence of Part 2

1.  A Letter betweene the Knight R. M. and the Lady E. R.

Faire Lady,
sweet should be that spirit, which through the instinct of loue vnderstandeth the silence of truth, whose tongue is the heart, whose words are sighes, in which are hidden the secret fruits of those Trees, that onely grow in the Paradise of reason: Vouchsafe then, faire eye, more bright than the Sunne beams, with one splendent glance of your gracious fauour, to blesse this rude and vnworthy Paper, the which if it haue made you any way offended, in the fire consume it: but if through the power of the Fates, or the effect of your kindnesse, it may doe you the least pleasure, let him be metamorphosed to worse than nothing, that would be any thing , but that Letter, during your reading, or euer any other thing, than at your pleasure in your seruice, for that vnder heauen, hauing no cause for comfort, but in my concealed hope of your grace, let all worlds sweet be as bitternesse to my thoughte, that shall seeke sweetnesse in other sense: so looking for no felicity but in the nest of the Phoenix, which is in the admiration of honor, in the humility of loue I rest
Yours devoted to be commanded, R. M.

2.  Her Answer

Wisdome might well appeare in that heart, which could pierce into the conceit of that spirit, that with the figures of loue, deceiues the sense of simplicity: which not suspecting euil, finds seldome other substance.  Oh poore truth, how is thy title made a shadow of deceit?  While in seeking of Paradise, Folly falls into Hel: yet not to wrong any creature, happy may he liue that makes Faith his felicity, and pardoned be that Paper that does but his Masters message: let then sighes be buried in the death of forgetfulnesse, while silence vnderstandeth that vertue speaketh: and in the fire of that flame, whose heat is more felt than seene, be that Letter burned that offends me with pleasure: so assuring my selfe that if from the nest of the Phoenix you passe without a feather, either the figure will be a Cypher, or the fancy affection: so leauing your best thoughts to a blessed issue, I rest affectionately
Your in what I may, E. R.

3.  His reply

Vnworthy should that heart bee of the least of loues happinesse, that can haue power to giue place to the poyson of Deceit: and more than miserable were the life, that to hel makes such a passage.  Oh blessed Creature, doe not thinke the world to bee the Caue of the accursed.  Nor doe a wrong to loue, in the suspition of truth: simple Faith hath no feare, and true loue cannot faine: but if silence be the only answer of the expectation of comfort, hope in obscurenesse must seeke the happiness of desire: but let your fauour be the Feather in the nest of my honours Phoenix: which till I may kindly receiue, I shall in the Sun-beames of your beauty consume to the ashes of discomfort: in which, commending the Summe of my life, to the true and honourable seruice of loue, I rest,
Yours what mine own, R. M.

4.  The Answer

Vngratious is that spirit, that through suspition of Deceit, doth injury to loue: and blessed is that fancy, that liues onely by faith: sweete is the warre, where kindnesse ends the quarrell, and little the hurt, where hope is a most present and ready help: in briefe, they are blind trauellers, that in seeking to find Heauen, goe to Hel: and if loue be himselfe, he hath life in assurance: let it then suffice you, to find the due of Desert, where desire exceeds not limits of Reason: so, in the nature of that honour, that giues Vertue her best grace, commending the comfort of your care to the condition of your conceit, I rest, as I haue occasion to equall honour in true affection,
Yours as I finde cause, E. R.  (Grosart 2: H32-33)


[1] Hand-press books with modern editions or facsimiles are referred to by those titles, in full or short form.  Otherwise, the titles of original editions are reproduced as they appear in the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC).  Quotations are taken from the edition indicated with silent emendation of long S’s, VV for W, and abbreviated forms of word endings.

[2] Enimie’s editions appeared in 1568, 1571, 1578, 1582, 1586, 1593, 1598, 1607, 1612, 1621.  Secretary appeared in 1586, 1592[1593], 1595, 1599, 1607, 1614, 1621, 1626, 1635 (ESTC). For the alternate dating of the expanded second edition, see Henderson, 99.

[3] For many of the following bibliographical details, I am indebted to Lawrence Green’s very useful chapter “Bibliographic Research in English Dictamen, 1500-1700” as well as Green and Murphy’s Bibliography of Renaissance Rhetoric.

[4] The first to reclaim Breton’s legacy was the Rev. Alexander Grosart, who edited Breton’s complete works in 1879.  Katherine Hornbeak’s impressive and still useful monograph reintroduced to scholars Day, Breton, and other early epistolary writers in the 1930s, and Jean Robertson followed in the 1940s.  In the 1960s, the dissertation research of Betsey Weller Harter focused on Breton as literary precursor to the novel, and Robert Adams Day and Douglas Bush also considered Poste’s seminal status in their broader surveys.  For his dissertation in 1972, T.R. Howlett produced a critical edition of part one of Poste.

[5] Breton of course did not invent letter fiction in English.  As a part of Latin education, schoolboys had been routinely required to invent letter compositions that would be translated in and out of the vernacular.  In 1555 a book entitled The Image of Idleness was presented in a narrative consisting of three wooing letters (see Flachmann); this book achieved some popularity (four editions by 1581) and can justly lay claim to being the first epistolary novel in English.  A more usual kind of letter fiction would have been such descendants of the romance as found in Michael Drayton’s Englands heroicall epistles (1597), imagined verse love letters between famous historical characters such as Henry II and Fair Rosamund.  But Breton was unusual in effectively and extensively building fictional scenarios on common experience through model letters.

[6] For example, one of Day’s attempts at humor is “An Example consolatorie, pleasantly written to one, who had buried his olde wife”:

The posting newes hitherwarde of the late decease of my good old mistris your wife, hath made me in the verie going away of mine ague fit, to strain my selfe to greet you by these letters. In the inditing whereof, I manie time praied in my thoughts, that I were as readily deliuered of this my tertian fever, as your selfe are in mine opinion deliuered by such means of a hateful and verie foule encombrance.  I doubt not sir, but you doe nowe take the matter heauilie, being thereby dispossessed as you are of such an intolerable delight, as wherewith you were continually cloid by the nightlie embracements of so vnweldie a carcase…. (Day, 1599 R3r)

[7] Assigning types involves some degree of subjectivity, since the categories may overlap between form and content, and individual models often have multiple purposes.  For example, amatory letters were classified according to their content as related to seeking or avoiding love or attacking an unfaithful lover, etc.  I have retained them in that category because this chief trait makes them “amatory” even though the writer may reprehend his paramour, espostulate against certain behaviors, request favors, and so on. In all cases, I have attempted to classify according to the main trait as defined by the purpose enacted by the model and most likely to be understood by the reader.

[8] With the suggestive signature “W.S.”, Markham may be obliquely referring to Shakespeare’s life and career in this and other potential echoes: a bumbling rustic constable writes to his deputy to apprehend a thieving servant in the vein of Much Ado About Nothing’s Dogberry (1617, O1r-O1v); a pair of “chartels” emulates Edgar’s challenge of Edmund in King Lear when the challenger is unknown and the challengee accepts in spite of not being required to (1617, C3r-C3v) ; and yet another is comic in the style of Andrew Aguecheek’s challenge of Cesario in Twelfth Night, and signed “A.C.” (1617, D2r-D2v).  These possible glances at the life and work of a well-known playwright (who had just died) would be consistent with Markham’s method of gleaning interesting and potentially attractive content for the popular audience.  They also suggest that either Markham was an “inward” of Shakespeare’s, or that Shakespeare’s family history was common knowledge.

[9] Green mentions that it is sometimes attributed to the diplomat and stylist Antoine de Courtin, but his authorship would be unlikely as he was born in 1622 (114).

[10] The four amatory letters in Cupids B1r-B3r come from Secretary (1599) U1r-U2v, with only initials and order of the letters changed; “A Father’s letter against the son” (D2r) is from DD3v-EE1r; “A Letter from a husband to his wife” and the answer (G2r-G2v) are from II2r-II2v.

[11] Cupids’ “A Letter of thankfulness for kindnesses shewed to his Sonne” (F1r) is nearly identical to The prompters packet “Thankfull acknowledement of kindnesse vnto ones Sonne” (F6v), and Cupids’ “A Letter of counsel from a discreet mother to her daughter newly married” with the answer (C4r-C4v) are taken almost verbatim (a few words and the signatory initials are different) from A president C1r-C1v.

[12] Gainsford’s scheme also shows up in the Academy of complements in 1639, a work certainly stimulated by French trends.  Academy is not included in the current study because it is not strictly speaking a book of model letters, but rather a guide to polite conversation (and even seduction) with some model letters included.  It was quite popular, however, and manifested both the French concern with social negotiation and the English delight in amorous entertainment.

[13] Hornbeak traces in detail the extraordinary reach of French complemental literature, especially La Serre’s Le secrétaire de la cour (Paris, 1623) and Le secrétaire à la mode (Paris, 1625), which continued to be mined by English epistolary writers until the mid-nineteenth century (51-76).

[14] In the 1630s and following decades, such complemental books as Cupids schoole (1632), The mirrour of complements (1634), The academy of complements (1639, see note above),  Cupids cabinet unlock’t (1650?), The card of courtship (1653), The marrow of complements (1654), Cotgrave’s Wits interpreter (1655), The academy of pleasure (1656), Elder’s Pearls of eloquence (1656), and Phillips’s The mysteries of love & eloquence (1658) took their place alongside and somewhat overshadowed the native English tradition of The English Secretary, Poste with a Packet, Cupids messenger, and A speedie post.  The large majority of complemental works relied heavily for models on La Serre’s Secrétaires.  See Hornbeak’s chronological listing (129-45) and Green’s bibliography (118-26).

[15] The traditional attribution to du Bosc has been questioned in ESTC, but the Bibliotèque Nationale de France still lists him as author; Green and Murphy say the antecedent of Hainhofer’s translation (RR 1471) is unknown. While Hainhofer’s personal name is often listed as John, it is given as “Ierome” in the preliminary materials in the book.

[16] Regarding the ultimate mystery of this phenomenon, Roger Chartier concludes that “The way in which [readers] understood these texts, the uses to which they put the books of Puget de La Serre [...] and the pleasures they derived from their reading remain largely inaccessible to our historical curiousity” (100).

W. Webster Newbold is Associate Professor of English at Ball State University, where he teaches rhetoric and composition, specializing in rhetorical history and digital literacies.  He received his PhD from The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham (UK), and has published on English Renaissance rhetoric and epistolography.  His current project is a critical edition of The English SecretaryHe may be reached at wnewbold@bsu.edu or via http://wwnewbold.org/.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern
Literature & Culture,
ISSN: 1946-1992,
Volume Four (2011): Texts & Contexts

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