“The Life & Age of Woman – Stages of Woman’s Life from the Cradle to the Grave”, a ca. 1849 U.S. print illustrating 11 chronological stages of virtuous womanhood (with the 30’s evidently considered to be the peak years), each accompanied by a descriptive verse couplet. At left is a flourishing green tree, at right a symbolic weeping willow.

An approximate transcription of the verse couplets in the image (some of the words are quite hard to read):

1) Infant in cradle:

“A wailing infant, first she plays,
Unconscious of her future days.”

2) Young girl with doll:

“Her girlish pastimes reveal for show
The cares which woman’s life must know.”

3) Late teen girl in grownup clothes:

“Her ripened beauty all confess
And wonder at her loveliness.”

4) Bride in white dress and veil:

“A husband’s arms, in hope and pride,
“Enclasp her now, a lovely bride.”

5) Young mother holding baby:

“A mother’s anxious love and care
With toilful(?) heart is hers to share.”

6) Dressed to go outdoors (i.e. now that she no longer has babies or toddlers in the house, she can now take an interest in matters outside the home — though in a strictly private and individual charitable capacity, of course):

“Now to the poor her hands dispense
the blessings of benevolence.”

7) Middle-aged woman (first declining step):

“Absorbed in household duties now,
The weight of toil(?) contracts her brow.”

8) In black bonnet and holding handkerchief (suggesting the latter stages of mourning, perhaps her husband has died):

“She now resigns all earthbound care
And lifts her soul to heaven in prayer.”

9) Old, wearing spectacles:

“At eighty years, her well-stored mind
“Imparts its blessings to her kind”

10) Bent over, using cane:

“The hoary head, us all should bless,
Who abound in ways of righteousness.”

11) Sitting in chair, knitting(?):

“The body sinks and wastes away,
The spirit cannot know dismay.”(?)

Vignette under arch: Funeral scene.

There are smaller vignettes under each of the nine steps of the arch.

Edited from image http://memory.loc.gov/master/pnp/cph/3g00000/3g03000/3g03600/3g03651u.tif at the Library of Congress website.


To my dear Ms Blanch

Thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement.  Indeed, thank you for your attendance at our humble workshop.

I must confess, over the past few months in the Dead Letter Office, Miss Wagner and I have often been plagued by self-doubt.  We fretted that our presentation might appear ‘school-marmish’ or conceited, or even simply irrelevant.  While our research is naturally of deep interest to ourselves, we feared that our passions might only be of passing interest to others.

So, you can imagine the joy that we felt when our modest presentation met with your enthusiastic reception.  We are so thrilled that we could take your creative mind and obvious talent with words away from the gruelling task of washing the lacy tablecloths of others. 

Thank you so much for sharing your letters with us.  We will proudly present them in our upcoming edition of our letter-writing manual.

We remain, as always, your humble and faithful servants.

Sincerely Yours

Ethel May Beeton

Dear Ms Beaton and Ms Wagner,

Firstly, I must ask for your forgiveness, as I have not been educated in the art of ‘good and proper’ letter writing given my humble beginnings into this world. I do hope my innocent attempt does not insult you. You have inspired me on this very day when I attended your workshop at the Ivanhoe library. Your grace and wit was a delight to hear. My long-suffering ears are punished with the bawdiness of the drinking houses since childhood and letter writing was far from conversation. Your knowledge of etiquette, your grace of sharing has left me with a longing to practice this art form. I wish to thank you also for the eloquent setting and music. Those beautiful lace table pieces (which I have dreamed of owning instead of washing and ironing them for others) somehow added to the beauty of our meeting. I do hope my humble letter meets with your approval. May your days be filled with future adventures at the DLO.

Sincerely Yours

Ms Rosemary Blanch

When writing this letter, Miss Beeton turned to a classic manual on courtly love, eloquence and compliments.  She included a poem that was originally composed to an imprisoned Lady.  She intended it to cheer Sir Walter’s chilly heart, but now fears that it might be interpreted as emasculating. This, of course was not what she intended.  Learned readers, we leave it for you to judge.

To the right worshipful Sir Walter Really, our much esteemed colleague and friend,

I must confess that Miss Wagner and I were taken aback by your latest correspondence.  You painted such a pitiful picture of your circumstances, that I was momentarily at a loss for how to respond.

In my confusion, I turned to the writings of Edward Phillips, author of The Beau’s Academy, or the Modern and Genteel way of Wooing and Complementing after the most Courtly Manner, in which is drawn to Life the Deportment of most Accomplished Lovers, the Mode of their Courtly Entertainments, the charm of their Persuasive Language, in their Addresses, or more Secret Dispatches (1699).  Poor Edward does tend to waffle on a bit, but he helpfully includes the following verse, addressed to an imprisoned Lady, which seemed to be most suitable to your current predicament:

Look out bright eyes and clear the air

even in shadows you are fair

Caged beauty is like fire

that breaks out clear still and higher

Though the body be confin’d

and though Love a prisoner bound

Yet the beauty of your mind

neither check nor chain hath found

Look out nobly then and dare

Even the fetters that you wear.

Miss Wagner and I hope that these sentiments warm your prison cell and steady your exhausted hand.

Please do not despair, for whatever happens, Miss Wagner and I will remain your most faithful correspondants.

We would be happy to receive word from you, whether to reminisce on your past achievements, or to lighten the pain of your imprisonment.

We remain, as always,

Your faithful and devoted servants in correspondence

Ethel May Beeton

Miss Beeton and Miss Wagner were most surprised to receive such a dramatic letter from Sir Walter Really.  They had previously assumed that Sir Walter was leading a life of luxury in some inner-suburban mansion.  They had no idea that he was in such dire circumstances.  This letter further illustrates the supreme comfort that can be found by communicating with others through carefully crafted correspondence.

Dear Miss Ethel May Beeton and Miss Dolores Wagner

First I must thank you both for reacquainting me with the simple art of hand-written correspondence.  The pleasure it has afforded me in recent days has been, at once, effortless and sublime.

A lonely candle dispels a chilly night, and my hands are unsteady from exhaustion.  It is nearing the eighth month, 1618, and the night air has already turned to chill.  Another month and the roads will be nothing but frost and I fear I will not survive a full winter in this place…if I am afforded that opportunity.

But, silly me, I race ahead too fast and you must be nauseous with confusion.  For I think it is the case that I did not convey to you the gravity of my current predicament in previous correspondence.

Suffice it to say that my situation is not good.  Simply put, had I not caused outrage to arise in the Honourable Spanish Ambassador at the culmination of my last voyage, I would, right this minute, be beside a fire place cradling an exotic cognac and coveting the company of my darling wife.  Yes!  That is where I would be and not in this prison cell.

Shall I like a hermit dwell

On a rock or in a cell

Tarry not on the darkness of my disposition.  I have not decided to write to you of my woes.  I write to recount my glory days.  To rejoice and to savour fond memories rekindled at the end of this quill.  To distract myself from the inevitability of my future and to give me something meaningful to do while I enjoy the world’s finest tobacco – smuggled in, my dears, from my private stash by guards easily bribed.

I shall write again before my time is up.

Sincerely Yours

Sir Walter Really

Letters of advice

Advice is dreaded, even when it is apparently desired. It is usually offensive to self-love in the hope of finding approbation. You must, therefore, be very economical of advice. A father owes it to his son, a mother to her daughter, a tutor to his pupil, a friend to his friend [or HER friend, in this case]. In these cases, do not be sparing of counsel, even when it is ill received, for you are merely discharging a debt. But in any other circumstances, see that you are entreated more than once before your assume the character of a counselor, and when you are compelled to be one, act with the utmost caution. As advice almost invariably contains a tacit reproof of actual faults, or dangerous inclinations, the sternness of reason should be disguised under inviting exteriors; and prudence demands an air of timidity in offering advice to a superior. It will be proper to introduce, frequently, some form of speech like the following: ‘’It would appear to me;’’ ‘’I may be deceived;’’ ‘’Were you not perhaps mistaken?’’ ‘’If I may presume to express my sentiments’’ ‘’How is it possible that you did not perceive it, since you usually see so clearly, and judge so correctly’’? The bitterness of counsel will be scarcely perceptible, if the person who gives advice is modest, and bestows suitable praise on the person who receives it.

From The Letter Writer’s Own Book: or, The Art of Polite Correspondence (1843) – published by John B. Perry.

My dear Miss Beeton,

I was sorry to see you distressed by your accountant’s suggestion that owning a property and earning a hefty salary are the most important things in life.

In my experience, apparent ‘commonsense’ can in fact be tyranny, that stifling oppression of the status quo.

In those sometimes interminable hours sorting mail together in the DLO, I’ve come to know you intimately. What’s right for your accountant is NOT right for Ethel May. How is it that you did not perceive this immediately, since you usually see so clearly, and judge so correctly?

A good life is about having something to love, something to do (that you enjoy) and something to look forward to. These principles are from a somewhat dubious self-help book, but they resonated with me.

You are lucky in that you have someone to love – dear old Ebenezer is just such a rock. I suspect, and think you will concur, that the real source of your discontent is that it is time for you to move on from the DLO.

Admittedly, we’ve had some good times here. Remember those wonderful, personal letters we used to pore over – love, compassion, envy, even hatred – the full gamut of human emotions right there, on the page? It was so enervating. These days, we only deal in cold, hard correspondence; bills, advertisements, requests for donations. Ultimately unsatisfying, and moreover, there’s often little to do. For women who were bought up by the rule that idle hands lead to idle work, it’s incredibly frustrating.

I think we must both find a job where our considerable talents and invaluable experience are both appreciated and amply rewarded.  Now we’ve turned our minds to it, let’s apply our efforts without delay. It is a challenge we are more than capable of meeting.

Here’s to us, Miss Beeton.

And I remain, as always, your affection friend, & c –

Miss Dolores Wagner