THE CONTENTS OF A WORKING-WOMAN’S LETTER-BOX

The fact of having committed a book into printer’s ink lays one open
to curious correspondence. I am sure there are autograph hunters who
seek the appearance of each new writer, in order to mark her down, as
eagerly as ever angler watched for a trout rising to his fly. Some ask
directly and are unashamed; others wrap up their request by desiring
some piece of information. Happily it has not yet become a recognised
custom for a writer to be asked by people entirely unknown to her to
give them her books, but I have experienced even such modest requests.
One circumstance was perhaps a little unusual.

From far-away Mussoorie, in the North-West Provinces of India, came
a letter one day. It was dated “January,” after the season at the
hill station was over, by some exile compelled to stay on through
the dreariness of a deserted health resort, to live through the
monotonously dull days and watch the successive falls of snow on the
mountains. My correspondent had been reading about myself and my books
in a popular monthly which had reached her, and became emboldened to
ask “if the writer would lend her a copy of _A Girl’s Ride in Iceland_,
which she would carefully return.” As she covered the thin pages of her
foreign note-paper her boldness grew, for next she “confessed” that she
would like to possess the book; and she wound up with a suggestion that
if my name “was written on the fly-leaf, signifying that the book was a
gift to her by the author, it would add to its value.”

I believe in this instance I did weakly send the book, autographed
fly-leaf and all. One feels sympathetic towards a lonely woman
compatriot left stranded on an Indian hill-top, thinking perchance of
a friendly Christmas-time at home, with one’s own people, shops and
shows to amuse and cheer one.

“A bibliophilic favour” was on another occasion requested. This time my
correspondent was nearer home:

“Ever since boyhood I have been an ardent lover of books; but,
alas! owing to a paucity of pence (to say nothing of pounds), I am
only able to buy when I can, not when I would. So I am sorry to
have to confess that none of your volumes grace, as yet, my humble
shelves. But I am not wholly without examples of your pen. Some of
your articles, those on “Dr. Nansen at Home” and “Henrik Ibsen” and
“Björnstjerne Björnson,” I have had carefully excerpted from back
numbers of _Temple Bar_ and neatly backed for preservation. Well,
I should very much like to adorn each of them by the insertion
of a line or two in your handwriting—will you graciously make
it possible for me to do so? The veriest trifle—or trifles—that
you might care to send me would, you may be sure, be gratefully
accepted and prized.”

I am afraid those magazine excerpts, though neatly “backed” for
preservation, are still unadorned.

What, one wonders, will become of pickers-up of bibliophilic trifles
in these days when everything committed to paper is typewritten? The
relics of dead authors of the twentieth century, when those of the
twenty-first come to collect them, will not be the manuscripts written
in ink in a neat (or otherwise) handwriting, such as the British Museum
purchases for hundreds of pounds and stores among its treasures to-day;
but lacerated engrimed sheets of typescript which can make but small
appeal to anyone’s emotions.

At other times various correspondents have asked of me:

If I would figure with my children in a series of articles entitled
“Model Mothers,” which Mr. Harmsworth’s (Lord Northcliffe’s) enterprise
was bringing out.

Would I get somebody concert engagements?

Did I approve of divorce?

Had I any theory in the bringing up of babies?

Would I permit my visiting-card to be reproduced in the illustration of
an article on “The Etiquette of Card-leaving”?

Had I two or three good specimens of opals from Querétaro for a
correspondent who had _twice_ read my Mexican book?

While another enterprising gleaner sought my help in gathering his
sheaf as follows:

“I am endeavouring to collect the opinions of prominent ladies
and gentlemen as to what is the ideal age for marriage. If you
would be so good as to write a few lines, giving your opinion
on this matter, from the lady’s point of view, and enclose them
in the accompanying stamped addressed envelope at your earliest
convenience, I assure you that I should esteem it a great favour.
Sincerely hoping that you may see your way to accede to my
request,” etc.

Another enquired if I thought widows should remarry.

Lastly, among begging letters that visit the working-woman’s desk
like so many buzzing flies, one covering many pages may be taken as a
specimen. A youth, a French polisher by trade, wrote that he had given
up his situation: taken to writing: failed and become a tramp. After
many hardships, having only one penny left, he bought a postage-stamp
and hoped to find a _Who’s Who_ in his inn. He was unsuccessful, but
discovered a _Literary Year-Book_, which he opened by chance, and his
eyes fell on my name; therefore he sent me a most lengthy appeal for
help, adding a promise of repayment as he had a prospect of work.

Truly strange epistles drift into the working-woman’s letter-box, and
each steals a little time from her busy day.

Once an unknown person, chancing to read an article of mine on Lourdes,
sent me sixteen closely written pages in French, betraying a profound
anxiety on the writer’s part to convert me to Roman Catholicism.

Then come letters of a different kind requesting loans. They may be
from the Royal Geographical Society, or the Earl’s Court Exhibition, or
a lace collection, or perhaps some clergyman in the East End, but the
letters come and the letters have to be answered.

The writers generally require the loan of curios from Iceland, Finland,
Norway, Mexico, Morocco, Sicily; or any country, in fact, with which
one’s name is associated. Lists have to be made, the objects looked
out, packed, sent, placed, fetched, unpacked. Sometimes things get
damaged, or lost, and then no one seems responsible.

People write asking for patronage; the loan of one’s name as a
patroness to soup kitchens, charity concerts, balls, clubs, hospital
bazaars, or collections by a friend for some charity. I was once asked
by an unknown man to be godmother to his child. Soaps have asked for
my patronage, and a motor-car was suggested as a free gift (it was the
early days of motoring) if I would drive it through the streets of
London.

Letters from women and men aspiring to literature—and verily half the
world seems to think literary gifts are as common as pens and inkpots;
letters from the natives of all the countries about which I have ever
written, asking for help, or “for money to buy a ticket home because
they are stranded in London and destitute”; or a fond father wishing
to start his son in mining writes to ask my experience of mines in
Mexico; while perhaps a mother thinks my experience would solve a
question whether her daughter, who is a hospital nurse, would find a
good opening in Canada; and, again, a girl starting a dairy enquires
for hints on the Danish procedure.

Letters modestly ask me if through my medical connection I can get
“a poor friend” seen by a doctor gratis; or if I can give someone an
introduction for the stage, or hear somebody else sing or recite, and
see what he or she had better do with their talent.

Oh dear! Oh dear! Letters never end, they are like the taxes in their
persistency. Is there anything under the sun people will not bother a
busy woman to obtain? The following letter was as much underlined as
one of Queen Victoria’s epistles:

“I know your books so well, and have heard so much of _all_ your
_great_ kindness to people. I am a worker in one of … and am
resting a time, and am anxious to get some help towards getting
a _Bath chair_ for a poor crippled child. It is _such a sad, sad
case_, and if she had a chair she could get to church and Sunday
School. I have also been a missionary in poor needy India. Please
send a _little_ help towards the Chair, and also if you can
_towards_ the support of our Hospital for poor _Purdah women_ in
India, where I hope to be able to return _some day_. I am Dean
…’s niece.

“Yours very truly,
“O. P.”

One effusion addressed to me begins:

“It is very many years since we met, but I am hoping you have not
quite forgotten me. I have been a widow for nearly two years,
and am now anxious to get some employment, as I am _absolutely
penniless_.”

In the same strain the letter runs on for several pages. For a long
time the signature was a puzzle, and then gradually rose before me the
vision of a man with whom I used to dance twenty years before as a
girl; he was then a rich bachelor in Park Lane. A few years after this
he married, and I only saw his wife two or three times. Surely on such
a slight acquaintance the letter could not come from her. But it did.

What is to become of the endless stream of charming but incapable
women, whose husbands, fathers, or brothers leave them in this
deplorable condition?

Among the newspaper articles for which my pen has travelled
over reams of paper—articles responsible for much of my strange
correspondence—were some on hand-loom weaving.

Far away in the wilds of Sutherlandshire, chance once drew my steps to
visit a little croft where homespuns were woven by the family, while
the hens laid their eggs in the corner, or cackled in the rafters.
Years went by and better days came to that household.




Appreciation is always pleasant, and such kindly words as those in the
following simple letter are good to read. The excellent English used by
the writer is a testimony to education in the Highlands of Scotland.

“DEAR MADAM,

“I feel very much my inability to write as I feel in regard to
the very able and very earnest appeal you have made through the
columns of the _Queen_—on behalf of the British workman, but more
especially for your kind way of writing about our little Cottage
home.

“Dear Lady, your visit had gladdened our hearts but your paper more
so, and I feel quite at a loss to thank you for your kindness. We
have an ‘heirloom’ in the family already (the one you saw), but if
this paper won’t be an ‘heirloom’ it will be a relic, in the family
of all about the loom.

“My mother said while you were here you would soon come to
understand about it, but I can’t help complimenting you on the
retentiveness of your memory. I don’t think you have forgotten
anything I said, but certainly you haven’t forgot about the hen
laying her egg. “What a joke?” nor my kitten either.

“Teazled ought to have been spelt Teazed. Teazling is part of the
operation fine tweeds undergo in the finishing process after being
woven.

“Teazed is an opening out of the wool.

“That is the only error and probably a printer’s one, so that your
facts are perfectly correct, the prices of your wool are not my
quotations.

“Sutherlandshire wools always get a higher price in the wool
markets than any other work. Wools under 9d. per lb. are of no
great value.

“I have been very successful in this Exhibition, sold out, some
orders, three prizes, for our own goods; woven the goods of seven
others (crofters), who have also obtained prizes. In the green
wincy 1st prize, the Black second; the travelling-rugs 1st prize,
the shepherd’s plaid commended.

“Again thanking you for your kindness

“I am,

“Dear Madam,

“Your humble and obedient Servant,

“A. P.”

If the weaver’s letter was pleasant, the following reversed the shield.
I have not often received abusive letters; but here is an example at
random:

“PUTNEY.

“MADAM,

“I have read your article on ‘Beauty’ in _The Daily Mail_ of
to-day’s date, regarding your idea of tall, slight figures (which
_you_ describe as being leggy, lanky, etc.). I consider you a fool
and an idiot and certainly _low-bred_. You are evidently coarse and
fat yourself, therefore you do not understand refined breed. Kindly
insert this in your next article on ‘Beauty.’

“A JUDGE OF REFINEMENT.”

Possibly my correspondent would claim that her judicial merits in the
matter of refinement extended to language.

A total stranger sent me the following—among epistolary
curiosities—dated from a well-known ladies’ club:

“DEAR MRS. TWEEDIE,

“I am doing a most unusual thing and I fear you will at once
say—impertinent! but please don’t. You travel so tremendously,
each of your works I seem to like better than the other. I suppose
you always have a maid with you? or a companion? If only you would
take me with you (I would pay my own expenses) on one of your
fascinating journeys. I am just consumed with a desire to travel in
unfrequented country and would do anything if only I could go with
you sometime. Please do not consider me a most rude and forward
girl.”

Being struck with this letter, I sent for the girl. She came; tall,
dark, handsome, and a lady. It appeared that she was not happy at
home, but had means of her own. She had been abroad with friends, who
invariably stayed in large hotels, all alike and all uninteresting,
whilst she wanted to see something of the real life of the foreign
lands she visited.

“But what do you want to do with me?” I asked.

“Travel with you. I would go as your secretary, as your maid, as
anything if you would only take me. I would pay all my own expenses and
promise to be useful.”

“Maids sew on buttons and lace up boots,” I replied, laughing.

“I’ll do all that and more, if you will only take me. I have your
books, and I know I should love you, and I do so want to travel, to
really travel as you do.”

She was delightfully enthusiastic; but, alas! I could not take her; the
responsibility of a headstrong girl was too great. It might have turned
out an ideal arrangement, but, again, it might have been a hideous
failure, and when travelling to write books one has no time to tackle
needless worries.

To end this list of letter-samples that more often tease than gratify
the recipient are constant demands for subscriptions; appeals for gifts
of books to poor clubs; letters from comparative strangers asking if
they may bring a particular friend or a foreigner to call, as they wish
to have a talk with me, or see over my house. In fact, no one who does
not peep into a busy woman’s letter-box can have any idea of the amount
of correspondence on all conceivable subjects it contains.

No doubt other workers have likewise helped—or are helping—the young or
shiftless beginners who have not yet found foothold on the lowest rung
of the ladder, round which so great a crowd is struggling. But do all,
one wonders, learn, as has been my experience, how quickly eaten bread
is sometimes forgotten by the eater: how often so-called gratitude is
only the hope of fresh favours to come?

Does it ever strike people that it hurts?

A girl of my acquaintance was once very, very poor. She wrote asking
my advice; saw me, and finally started in a small way as a manicurist.
No move was made without claiming my advice at all times and seasons.
She called and sat for hours asking this and that. She brought
agreements to be looked over, earnings to discuss, address-books for
suggestions; Heaven knows what she did not bring. At my persuasion she
saved shillings and put them into the Post Office Savings Bank. Then it
became pounds, and I arranged with a bank to open a little account for
her, and later asked my stockbroker to invest her first saved hundred
pounds in something _very_ safe.

That first hundred saved, in a year or two became a thousand, and
quickly doubled itself. She deserved it all, for she worked hard and
saved diligently, but—well! the protectress was wanted less and less,
the protestations of affection and admiration slowly ceased, and when
my help could no longer be of use they came to an end.

Gratitude. Where is it? The people one helps most generously often turn
away the moment they are firmly established.

Take another case. I started a certain girl in journalism. (I’ve
started so many.) She worried me day and night for help and advice.
I corrected MSS., suggested subjects, rewrote whole articles, and
all because of feeling really sorry for her plight. She is now a
flourishing journalist. We often meet, but she rarely takes the trouble
to call because she need no longer get anything out of me.

Yes! after correcting four whole books, and that means hours and hours
of dreary work, only in one case, to my surprise and delight—for
such a small return gives one real pleasure—did I find a pretty
acknowledgment, in a preface, of my part of the work.

People will come again and again, and a hundred times again, no matter
how inconvenient the hour; they will drop in at meal-time, and knowing
how poor they are, one feels forced to ask them to stop. But these very
folk, once on their feet, sometimes forget the friendly outstretched
hand of help by which they climbed.

It hurts.

On the other hand, some people are almost too grateful. A boy who was
alone in lodgings and spent his Sundays with us in Harley Street in the
long ago, went to China, where he has done splendidly; and every year
since I have had a home of my own—since 1887, in fact—he has sent me a
chest of tea, “because he never could forget the kindness of the past.”
And he sends a similar recognition to my mother for the same reason.
Such tokens of remembrance keep alive the friendships of those bygone
days.

A woman who was with me for some years as secretary and left through
ill-health never forgets to send me a kindly note on my birthday, a
little thoughtfulness I greatly appreciate. One loves to be remembered.
A penny bunch of violets often gives a hundredfold its weight in
pleasure.

Yes, remembrance is always pleasant. Dear old Sir John Erichsen left me
£300 in his will to buy a memento. I was too poor for mementoes when
it came, so I invested it, and the £12 a year became of real tangible
help. Or again, an old cousin in Scotland whom I only saw twice, left
me, when she died, my paternal grandmother’s engagement-ring, and her
delightful old tea-service of soft buff and white china ornamented with
the daintiest landscape medallions.

Thank God, I have never been pursued in life by little ills, but three
or four times big collapses have overtaken me. Typhoid, rheumatic
fever, and blood-poisoning are no slight matters: but they are almost
worth the suffering and pain for the pleasure of receiving such
kindnesses from friends, letters of sympathy, flowers, fruit, wine,
jellies, all have been left at my door, and I blessed the kind donors
then as I bless them in remembrance now. Doubtless the severity of the
illnesses that overtook me was due to intense overwork coupled with
anxiety—overstrain invariably spells breakdown.

A horrible distrust overcame me at one time.

I used to go to bed worn out and weary, at last sleep would come.
Then I would wake up with a start, feeling some awful calamity had
overtaken me, that I had written something libellous or said something
scandalous, and the Court of Law was waiting to receive me. No one
would intentionally write a libel any more than they would cut a
friend. I would see paragraphs chasing paragraphs across the page, just
as the typed letters had turned red under my gaze when my eyes gave
out a few years before. I used to get horribly anxious over my proof.
Things I had rattled off when well were laborious now, and the anxiety
they entailed was wellnigh unendurable.

It was merely a matter of health—a tonic and a rest put matters right.

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