Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Young Margaret, circa 1870. It's a studio photo, but I can't find the original. I had to take this off my website and enlarge. But you can see she was a pretty girl. And smart, too. She was described by her family as 'the one who knows things.'

It was the afternoon of June 10th. As Flo sat the porch, with a crocheted blanket thrown over her knees as it was cool and overcast, she felt calmer than she had in months.

Cousin Henry's very smart strategies for studying had paid off! She had gotten 72 on an algebra test, the final one before exams, and 78 on her Latin test, on verbs.

Most of all his kind letter had given her courage and courage is what she needed above all.

Finding time to study was not a problem: she had had plenty of that. Except from one day, when Margaret had had 'her day at home' Flora had not been called upon to help with any housework.

As for her her biggest worry,failing at composition, she had once again followed Cousin Henry's instructions and talked to the teacher. She had made no excuses to him, although she so wanted to play the 'alone at home' card, but Henry had said to take responsibility, so she did.

Yes, the interview with Mr.Newell,had gone very well, except for that last little bit at the very end. "Your family is away, Mr. Rothney tells me," said the tall thin 40ish Scot. (There were no secrets in this town.) "Do you write them letters? Writing letters is excellent practice for perfecting grammar."

Mr. Newell shot over to his bookcase, scanned one shelf momentarily, then liberated a small yellow book, and bounced it open, in his left hand, to a page that had been marked with a piece of paper: He began reading: "When you write a letter, give it your greatest care, that it may be as perfect in all its arts as you can make it. Let the subject be sense, expressed in the most plain, intelligible and elegant manner to which you are capable." Yes, good advice. Newell nodded as she spoke. "This is about letter writing, but it applies to all forms of writing. And then he had continued, as if forgetting Flora and reading the passage, himself, for the very first time.

"Guard carefully that your wit be not sharp, so as to give pain to any person; and before you write a sentence, examine it, even the words of which it is composed, that there be nothing inelegant or vulgar in them. Remember your letter is the picture of your mind, and those whose minds are a compound of folly, nonsense, and impertinence, are to blame to exhibit them to the contempt of the world, or the pity of their friends.

"Yes, all good. This was written fifty years ago, but some things never change. Take it home, and read the rest of this chapter."

At home Flora merely scanned the rest:

Style: The style should be determined, in some measure, by the nature of the subject, but in a still greater degree by the relative positions of the writer and the person addressed. On important subjects, the composition is expected to be forcible and impressive; on lighter subjects, easy and vivacious; in condolence, tender and sympathetic; in congratulation, lively and joyous.

Arrangement of Ideas: The purport of any letter should be well-considered before its commencement, not only with a view to the attainment of a thorough clearness of expression, which is of primary importance, but likewise that the principal points to be discussed may be prominently brought forward, while those of a trivial nature are slightly mentioned.

Ornamentation: As a rule, all striving at effect or attempt at ornamentation should be avoided; and as the chief charm of letters is originality, writers should not avail themselves either of hackneyed expressions or ideas borrowed from others.

Long Sentences: Unpracticed persons will at first find it desirable to make their sentences as short as possible, that they may have them completely under control..blah blah.Correctness of grammar: important, blah blah..Spelling...blah..blah...blah.

But Flora already knew about letters, about how you started by making apologies for not writing earlier; how you wrote about the local 'news' (in case the reader was homesick) being careful not to name names if the news was particularly interesting; or you wrote to say 'you were fine' and all was well, to ease the reader's burden of worry; or you wrote to show that you cared and were thinking of that person to take away the pain of lonesomeness.

True, some people wrote to vent their frustrations, like Aunt Sara in Sarnia and Mrs. Coy, in Boston, but that was wrong. Margaret always felt blue after reading these people's letters, even though she loved them dearly.

Margaret did not write letters to complain, even to Father, even about Herb. But she often wrote things in her letters that would better be kept secret. Many times Flora had overheard Norman tell Margaret: " Take care with what you write, Maggie. You never know in whose hands a letter may end up."

Of course, if you had something very important to say to someone far away, you might send a telegram or use the phone, if they had access to one, but that was costlier.

Most of the Nicholson Family letters ended up at home in the secretary and eventually, when the pile became messy, the letters were bundled with a cord and placed in the trunk in Marion's room.

A few letters never made it to the trunk, they were burned -in the stove -after reading.

Herb's letter, of two weeks before, had not been burned, although it had burned a hole into Flora's curiosity. Was Herb caught in a raid on de Bullion Street? she wondered. (Or rather that mischievous voice inside her wondered.) Even worse, was he in love or wanting to marry a girl from de Bullion and save her from a life of misery? There was that voice again. Well, if he did marry such a girl, Flora would not look down on her.

Flora eventually couldn't help herself and she took Herb's letter from the secretary and read it. (No one had said not to.) It contained nothing at all along those lines. Nothing at all alarming, or even interesting. Just the usual.

Dear Mother,

I'm sorry I did not write you last week . I had actually meant to and had pulled the chair up to the table, only to find that I did not have a pen. Then things got very hectic at work, you see, Stevens is away and we are doing our inventory.

And then some discussion of the weather, and some remarks about local politics and then a promise to write more often, with a Post Script about some business.

Now, Mother, I wish you would ring Clayton Hill up and tell him that I will see him as soon as I go home about that matter he wrote me. Now that may be a sort of a secret, so if he does not tell you, do not ask him about it.

Love to you and Flora,

Your son Herb.

No, a typical letter from Herb, And, still,for some reason, Mother had been in a black mood all week because of it.

Letters, if Mr. Newell only knew what trouble they could cause in a family, he wouldn't be advising her to write more of them.