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Conventional Correspondence

and History Series
Edited by
Arianne Baggerman
University of Amsterdam
Rudolf Dekker
Center for the Study of Egodocuments and History, Amsterdam
Michael Mascuch
University of California, Berkeley

Advisory Board
James Amelang
Universidad Autónoma Madrid
Peter Burke
Emmanuel College Cambridge
Philippe Lejeune
Emeritus, Université de Paris-Nord
Claudia Ulbrich
Freie Universität Berlin


The titles published in this series are listed at

Epistolary Culture of the Dutch Elite, 1770–1850

Willemijn Ruberg

Translated by
Maria Sherwood-Smith

Cover illustration: De brief (The Letter). Painting by Albert Neuhuys, 1868. Museum voor
Communicatie, ‘s-Gravenhage.

Willemijn Ruberg, Conventionele correspondentie. Briefcultuur van de Nederlandse elite,

1770-1850 (Nijmegen: VanTilt, 2005).

This translation was made possible by a translation grant from NWO (The Netherlands
Organisation for Scientific Research).

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ruberg, Willemijn, 1975-

[Conventionele correspondentie. English]
Conventional correspondence : epistolary culture of the Dutch elite, 1770-1850 / by
Willemijn Ruberg ; translated by Maria Sherwood-Smith.
p. cm. -- (Egodocuments and history series, ISSN 1873-653X ; v. 4)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-90-04-20973-2 (hardback : alk. paper) 1. Elite (Social sciences)--Netherlands--
History--18th century. 2. Elite (Social sciences)--Netherlands--History--19th century.
3. Netherlands--Social life and customs--18th century. 4. Netherlands--Social life and
customs--19th century. 5. Letter-writing, Dutch--History--18th century. 6. Letter-writing,
Dutch--History--19th century. I. Title. II. Series.

HN520.Z9E4813 2011

ISSN 1873-653X
ISBN 978 90 04 20973 2

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List of Figures����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓�����������������������vii

Introduction����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓��������������������������� 1

I.╇ Epistolary Theory����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓��������� 17

Etiquette books and letter-writing manuals as a source��������������� 18
Epistolary theory����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓����������22
Epistolary theory in practice����������������������������������尓�������������������������� 32
Famous letter-writers as models����������������������������������尓�������������������� 43

II.╇ Everyday correspondence����������������������������������尓������������������������������� 55

Writing materials and a place to write����������������������������������尓���������� 56
Post����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓�������������������������������� 62
Languages����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓��������������������� 67
Salutation, signature and postscript����������������������������������尓�������������� 77
‘Le stile c’est l’homme’ – style����������������������������������尓������������������������� 84
Themes and taboos����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓������ 91
Receiving a letter����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓��������107

III.╇ Children’s letters����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓���������113

Learning to write letters����������������������������������尓��������������������������������115
Confidentiality, naturalness and individuality�����������������������������125
Character building����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓�����140

â•›IV.╇ Adolescents’ letters����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓����158

From schoolboy to student����������������������������������尓���������������������������160
Adolescents’ letters and gender����������������������������������尓��������������������178
vi contents

╛╛╛V.╇ Ceremonial correspondence����������������������������������尓�������������������������213

Means of communication and customs����������������������������������尓������214
The content of ceremonial letters����������������������������������尓����������������225
The function of ceremonial correspondence�������������������������������239
Cult of sincerity����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓����������243


List of Figures

1.╇ Madame de Sévigné����������������������������������尓������������������������������������尓�������44

2.╇Cross-written letter from Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul
3.╇ Kornelis writing a letter to his friend����������������������������������尓������������114
4.╇ Silhouette portraits of Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht������������������124
5.╇ Pen and ink drawing by Alexander Ver Huell��������������������������������148
6.╇ Portrait of Otto Hora Siccama����������������������������������尓������������������������196
7.╇ Daguerreotype of Petronella Anna Catharina van Capellen��������197

Correspondence was an important means of communication in the

eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Letters were the means by which
families and friends kept one another up to date about their health and
well-being, and announced births, marriages and deaths. But corre-
spondence was more than simply a means of communication. Like
other aspects of the social life of the elite in this period, such as table
manners or paying calls, letter-writing was subject to elaborate rules.
An etiquette of letter-writing grew up, prescribing what sort of letters
one should write in what situation. Both the content and form of the
letter could reveal something about the sender’s social class, literacy
level and education. Letters were of enormous importance for social
intercourse. In the present book, I shall explore how correspondence
actually functioned in practice within the circles of the Dutch elite in
the period from 1770 to 1850, and especially what norms attached to
the exchange of letters within families and between friends and
acquaintances. How could letters be used as a medium to demonstrate,
teach, or learn correct behaviour?
In taking this approach, the present study dovetails with new devel-
opments in research into egodocuments such as autobiographies,
diaries and letters. With the rise of cultural history and the history
of ideas, egodocuments have increasingly been used as sources for
�historical research. They are used particularly to throw more light on
the daily lives of ‘ordinary people’ in the past. In this, the main focus
has tended to be on the contents of the egodocuments. Over the past
few years, however, the emphasis has shifted to the text as object, the
writing process that gave rise to these documents, and the function of
this writing. This approach is sometimes referred to as ‘writing as

╇For a general introduction to research into egodocuments, see R. Dekker,
‘Introduction’, in: Idem ed., Egodocuments and history. Autobiographical writing in its
social context since the Middle Ages (Hilversum 2002) 7–20, and J. Blaak, Geletterde
levens. Dagelijks lezen en schrijven in de vroegmoderne tijd in Nederland 1624–1770
(Hilversum 2004) 36–40. Specific studies about letter-writing as a social practice
include D. Barton and N. Hall, ‘Introduction’, in: D. Barton and N. Hall eds, Letter
writing as a social practice (Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2000) 1–14; R. Chartier ed., La
correspondance. Les usages de la lettre au XIXe siècle (Saint-Amand-Montrond 1991);
2 introduction

The historian of culture Peter Burke has been most vociferous in

calling for a social history of language. He does not consider the use of
language self-evident; rather, he raises questions about the situations in
which an individual or group may employ a given type of language.
When do people remain silent, when do they speak, and when do they
write? When is French or Latin the language of choice? Burke’s hypoth-
esis is that language usage not only reflects the society or culture in
which it occurs, but also helps to form this culture.2
Correspondence from the period from 1770 to 1850 furnishes mate-
rial for a fascinating and highly relevant case study into the questions
which Burke poses. In what situations did people write letters to one
another, and when did they prefer to speak face to face? Did children
learn letter-writing at school, or from members of their family? What
characterized a good letter, and when did a letter not live up to the
standards etiquette demanded? These sorts of questions make it possi-
ble to problematize letter-writing and to approach correspondence as a
historical source with all sorts of quirks and snags that need decipher-
ing. At the same time, the answers to these questions can throw more
light on the norms and values fostered by the elite.

Socialization, performativity and historical anthropology

The aim of the present study is to show how correspondence �functioned

as an instrument of socialization: how letters were used to teach indi-
viduals to adapt to the culture around them. With this, I do not mean
only that the sender wrote the recipient a letter providing instructions
about how he or she should behave. The process is a much more subtle
one. The sender too can internalize norms by writing a letter. This can
be seen most clearly in the case of children: as Angelika Linke has
shown, in writing a letter, children learn both the skill of writing and

M.C. Grassi, L’art de la lettre au temps de La nouvelle Héloïse et du romantisme (Génève

1994); R. Earle ed., Epistolary selves. Letters and letter-writers, 1600–1945 (Aldershot
1999); R. Baasner ed., Briefkultur im 19. Jahrhundert (Tübingen 1999). Dutch historical
research into writing as practice is scant, but such as there is was carried out in the
wake of research into the culture of reading. See, for example: H. Brouwer, Lezen en
schrijven in de provincie. De boeken van Zwolse boekverkopers 1777–1849 (Leiden 1995)
and Blaak, Geletterde levens.
╇ P. Burke, The art of conversation (Ithaca, New York 1993) 1–33. See also K. Basso,
‘The ethnography of writing’, in: R. Bauman and J. Sherzer eds, Explorations in the
ethnography of speaking (New York 1974) 425–432, esp. 426–428.

the cultural guidelines contained in the text.3 The form and the content
of the letter go hand in hand. Sometimes the relationship between the
sender and the recipient is paramount, but in other situations it seems
as if the writer of the letter is talking only to himself, as though writing
a diary.
In historiography, the term ‘socialization’ refers to a dynamic pro-
cess  in which norms are transmitted, but are also either accepted
or rejected.4 Historical studies about the family (either nuclear or
extended) or about gender in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries
often treat idealized images, such as those found in advice literature,
for example, as the opposite of actual practice.5 Some authors view
letters as a source which can provide information directly about actual
practice, or even ‘disclose’ it.6 In my opinion, this distinction between
theory and practice is too absolute. Theory is shaped in practice;
equally, idealized images, some deriving from books of etiquette, may
play a dominant role in actual practice. It is better to acknowledge the
interaction between theory and practice, and to pay more attention to
the area in between the two. It is precisely here that the concept of
socialization is a fruitful one. Little is known as yet about how people
actually acquired and internalized idealized images, how a girl learned

╇A. Linke, Sprachkultur und Bürgertum. Zur Mentalitätsgeschichte des 19. JahrÂ�
hunderts (Stuttgart 1996) 297.
╇ The concept of ‘socialization’ has been criticized in the social sciences as being too
static and taking too little account of dynamics and change. For after all, the individual
is not a passive recipient, but takes an active role in shaping his or her life. A second
criticism levelled is that in the perspective of socialization the individual is seen too
much as a pre-existing, well-defined subject, whereas in fact each individual is shaped
by interaction with his or her surroundings. For an overview of, and response to, these
criticisms, see V. Duindam, ‘The concept of “socialization”. Criticisms and alternatives’,
in: M. de Ras and M. Lunenberg eds, Girls, girlhood and girls’ studies in transition
(Amsterdam 1993) 25–37; M. de Graaf and S. Grotenhuis, ‘Socialization, a useful cat-
egory for women’s studies?’, in: De Ras, Girls, 38–53, esp. 43. Socialization could also be
defined as the construction of an identity, at either the individual, gender, or group
level. However, since the term ‘identity’ has been used so often that it has lost its mean-
ing, I prefer the term ‘socialization’. See R. Brubaker and F. Cooper, ‘Beyond “identity”â•›’,
Theory and Society 29 (2000) 1–47; W. Frijhoff, ‘Identiteit en identiteitsbesef. De histo-
ricus en de spanning tussen verbeelding, benoeming en herkenning’, BMGN 107
(1992) 614–634, esp. 625; W. Zeegers, Andere tijden, andere mensen. De sociale repre-
sentatie van identiteit (Amsterdam 1988) 57, 82, 83, 103.
╇ M. van Essen and J. Dane, ‘â•›“De heeren trokken derwards. De vrouwen bleeven te
huis”. Genderverhoudingen en rolpatronen in drie dagboeken van vrouwen, 1790–
1865’, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 80 (2002) 647–668, esp. 648–649.
╇ B. Roberts, Through the keyhole. Dutch child-rearing practices in the 17th and 18th
century. Three urban elite families (Hilversum 1998) 11.
4 introduction

how to behave as an adult woman, for example.7 Was it by reading

advice literature, through schooling, parental teaching, play, dress, or
in other ways? I believe that correspondence was an important medium
for socialization. And this holds true not only of children acquiring
norms in the first place, but also for adults maintaining these standards
in later life. The family was an important agent in this socialization
process, often playing a more significant role than schools, the Church,
the State or advice literature.8
In addition to the concept of ‘socialization’, I regard the term ‘per-
formativity’ as a useful one. The linguist J.L. Austin describes perform-
ative utterances as language that simultaneously constitutes an act, that
creates a reality by evoking it. Examples of such speech acts include the
statements ‘I now pronounce you man and wife’, or ‘I express my warm-
est thanks’.9 The notion of performativity is currently frequently used in
gender studies in the footsteps of Judith Butler, who emphasizes that
gender identity only takes on a given form through repeated stylized
actions of the body. Where many people see behaviour as the expres-
sion of a male or female identity, Butler reverses the order. In her view,
there is no such thing as initial gender identity; this identity is simply
created from behaviour that is indicative of maleness, femaleness, het-
erosexuality or homosexuality. From Butler’s perspective, gender iden-
tity is not what you are, but what you do.10 In characterizing the letter
as performative, I wish to stress that social relationships which have
not yet been formed beyond the realms of correspondence (or not fully,
in any case), are formed, acknowledged or confirmed through letters.11
One such example is friendship that develops through correspondence,
whereas the sender and recipient maintain less, or more superficial,
contact outside their exchange of letters.

╇ R.B. Shoemaker, Gender in English society 1650–1850 (London/New York 1998)
╇ See also L. Gall and A. Schulz, ‘Einleitung’, in: Idem eds, Wissenskommunikation
im 19. Jahrhundert (Stuttgart 2003) 7–13.
╇ J.L. Austin, ‘Performatieven en constatieven’, in: F.H. van Eemeren and W.K.B.
Koning eds, Studies over taalhandelingen (Meppel/Amsterdam 1981) 29–40, here 29.
╇ J. Butler, Gender trouble. Feminism and the subversion of identity (New York/
London 1999) xv.
╇R. Habermas, Frauen und Männer des Bürgertums. Eine Familiengeschichte
(1750–1850) (Göttingen 2000), 277–278 does not use the word ‘performative’, but does
speak of the enactment of relationships in diaries and letters, which should thus not be
seen as the expression of authentic feelings, but more as a stage on which new forms of
social interaction are acted out and tested.

Butler’s definition of the term performativity leaves little space for

the individual. In her view, there are only a limited number of gender
roles available to the individual. Moreover, she holds strongly that sub-
jectivity is only formed in the course of acts. Butler denies the existence
of a subject that exists from the beginning. This absence of an acting
subject is problematic in Butler’s theories, since at the same time she
does posit that there is space for resistance, for moulding and redefin-
ing gender roles and gender notions. In the absence of an acting subject
it is not clear who should carry out this resistance. In my view, there-
fore, the term ‘performativity’ is enlightening, in that it creates space
for individual action and for the way in which identities are formed. It,
too, however, is problematic when it comes to the subject behind the
acts. This is where historical anthropology offers a helpful perspective.
Historical anthropology accords a central value to the individual’s
ability to act, known as ‘appropriation’. Willem Frijhoff defines appro-
priation as ‘the process by which something is invested with meaning,
whereby groups or individuals take the signifiers given, imposed or
prescribed by others and fill them with their own meaning, in this way
making them acceptable, liveable, bearable or decent for themselves’.12
This is a helpful term when studying correspondence. To a certain
extent, for example, correspondents are free to choose what exactly
they do with the rules of etiquette or from advice literature. They can
also use letters to give form to social relationships with others.
In addition to the concept of appropriation, historical anthropology
provides yet more footholds for studying the culture of correspond-
ence. Although there are those who hold that this field is merely another
name for the history of culture, several terms are increasingly coming
to be classified under the umbrella of insights from historical anthro-
pology.13 A second helpful term from this approach is that of ‘thick
description’. Applied to my own research, this term means that I do not
take the act of writing as a given, but rather investigate precisely how
the correspondence functioned in practice. Last but not least, applying
the approaches of historical anthropology (among others) to studying
the elite of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is an interesting

╇ W. Frijhoff, ‘Toeëigening: van bezitsdrang naar betekenisgeving’, Trajecta 6 (1997)
99–118, here 108.
╇ R. van Dülmen, Historische Anthropologie (2nd edn; Cologne/Weimar/Vienna
2001); W. Frijhoff, ‘Inleiding: Historische antropologie’, in: P. te Boekhorst et al. eds,
Cultuur en maatschappij in Nederland 1500–1850. Een historisch-antropologisch per-
spectief (Nijmegen 1996) 11–38.
6 introduction

venture, because until now this discipline has focused much more on
the lower classes in the early modern period.14
Nevertheless, it is not only the level of the individual that is signifi-
cant for the analysis. It is equally important to examine the elite as a
social class, and to bear in mind the hierarchies within this elite.
A further function of correspondence was to maintain family links and
to reflect the state of family relations. Like Burke, Pierre Bourdieu,
for example, has highlighted language’s symbolic and distinguishing
function. Bourdieu posits that language is not only a means of com-
munication, but also a way of expressing power relationships. The
social positions of the speaker and recipient cannot be ignored here. In
speaking, the speaker simultaneously expresses his or her social posi-
tion. Since the ruling class is fully aware of its power, in Bourdieu’s
view, and since its position is unassailable, it can permit itself to use
language in a sloppy way, or even to use language that is really associ-
ated with lower classes. The elite is so clearly in a position of power that
poor use of language will never make it appear part of a lower class. The
elite can get away with laziness and sloppiness in use of language with-
out damaging its position, which makes this a means of distinction, as
the middle and lower classes precisely do obey linguistic conventions.15
As I see it, Bourdieu’s insights on the subject of spoken language are
also applicable to the written language of the elite.

Public, private, individual

The concept of socialization shows that not only the individual, but
also the surrounding society is of importance where letter-writing is
concerned. This has not always been self-evident in research into ego-
documents, which has sometimes tended to focus only on the writing
individual, or at best society as seen from his point of view.
The writing of autobiographies, diaries and letters has often been
interpreted as a sign of the emergence of the individual,16 which is

╇ Habermas’s book Frauen und Männer is a good example of how fruitful a histori-
cal and anthropological approach can be in studying the elite.
╇ P. Bourdieu, ‘De economie van het linguïstisch ruilverkeer’, in: Idem, Opstellen
over smaak, habitus en het veldbegrip, D. Pels ed. (Amsterdam 1989) 92–119.
╇ R. van Dülmen, Die Entdeckung des Individuums 1500–1800 (Frankfurt am Main
1997) 105–109; F. Brändle et al., ‘Texte zwischen Erfahrung und Diskurs. Probleme der
SelbÂ�stzeugnÂ�isforschung’, in: K. von Greyerz et al. eds, Von der dargestellten Person
zum erinnerten Ich. Europäische Selbstzeugnisse als historische Quellen (1500–1850)
(Cologne/Weimar/Vienna 2001) 3–31.

situated either in the Renaissance, the eighteenth, or the nineteenth
century. Individualization is seen as part of the development of the
concept of the ‘private sphere’. This development, too, has variously
been localized in the early modern period or in the nineteenth century.
And it is not only when to date the emergence of the concept of the
private sphere that is the matter of debate; the very definition of the
terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ is far from unanimous.17 The debate is fur-
ther complicated by a discussion about the role of gender in the sup-
posed division between the public and the private sphere. This refers to
the physical separation between the male world of work and the domes-
tic sphere, the province of women, as well as to the increasing differ-
ences between men and women in people’s perceptions.18
Opinions also differ concerning the precise role of letters in this pro-
cess. Jürgen Habermas describes the letter of the eighteenth century as
the expression of a new subjectivity: correspondents used writing in a
quest for the inner self, but always addressed their letters to others,
meaning that in fact it was always a matter of intersubjectivity.
Habermas likens the letter to the institution of the salon: both are
extensions of private individuals, who enter into contact with others
through oral and written communication, thus creating the new public
sphere whose preliminary contours Habermas purports to discern in
the eighteenth century.19 Other historians, too, situate the letter (both
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in the public or semi-pub-
lic sphere, because many letters were read aloud in relatively large cir-
cles and were sometimes composed by several people at once.20
Peter Gay, on the other hand, accords letters a central position on the
private sphere of the nineteenth century: letters were pre-eminently
suited to the self scrutiny so vital for the bourgeoisie, and bore witness

╇J. Weintraub, ‘The theory and politics of the public/private distinction’, in:
J. Weintraub and K. Kumar eds, Public and private in thought and practice (Chicago
1997) 1–42; D. Goodman, ‘Public sphere and private life: toward a synthesis of current
historiographical approaches to the old regime’, History and Theory 31 (1992) 1–20.
╇Shoemaker, Gender in English society, passim. Habermas, Frauen und Männer,
145, 257. T. de Nijs, In veilige haven. Het familieleven van de Rotterdamse gegoede bur-
gerij 1815–1890 (Nijmegen 2001) 17, 189–193.
╇J. Habermas, The structural transformation of the public sphere (10th edn;
Cambridge 1999) 48–51.
╇ A.C. Trepp, Sanfte Männlichkeit und selbständige Weiblichkeit (Göttingen 1996)
34–35. Habermas, Frauen und Männer, 276 ; C. Dauphin, P. Lebrun-Pezerat and
D. Poublan, Ces bonnes lettres. Une correspondance familiale au XIXe siècle (Paris
1995)  162; C. Chotard-Lioret, La socialité familiale en province: une correspondance
privée entre 1870 et 1920. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Université Paris V 1983, 2 vols,
21–22, 62.
8 introduction

to a deep desire for privacy and secrecy.21 Several chapters in the pre-
sent book contain indications of the increasing importance of the indi-
vidual and the private sphere. Nevertheless, I believe it is impossible to
do justice to these private aspects of letter-writing without also exam-
ining the public, or semi-public aspects. It is precisely this tension
between the public and the private functions of letters, then, that will
be at the centre of the analysis. In correspondence to mark specific
occasions, such as New Year’s letters, letters of congratulations, or let-
ters of condolence, for example, correspondents were torn between a
desire for individual expression and sincerity, on the one hand, and the
obligation to live up to the convention surrounding the sending of
standard letters, on the other.


When it comes to analyzing eighteenth and nineteenth-century letter-

writing in the light of the concepts of socialization and performativity,
the most significant source is formed by correspondences preserved in
family archives. One is dealing necessarily with the elite, since it is only
from this class that large collections of letters have come down to us.
And, since literacy had a much firmer hold in the higher than the lower
classes, they also simply wrote more letters. Though I did draw on
several printed editions of letters as supplementary material for the
chapters on letters by children and adolescents,22 the major part of my
source material consists of letters in manuscript. I studied over 2300
letters in total, preserved in the archives of the Hubrecht family
(Leiden), the Van Lanschot family (‘s-Hertogenbosch), the De Constant
Rebecque family (The Hague), the Hora Siccama family (The Hague)23
and the Van Schinne family (The Hague). The appendices contain
family trees showing the relationships within these families. In consid-
ering the relevant variables for studying correspondence, religious

╇ P. Gay, The naked heart. The bourgeois experience. Victoria to Freud. vol. 4 (London
1995) 310–329. See also M. Perrot, ‘Le secret de la correspondance au XIXe siècle’, in :
M. Bossis ed., L’épistolarité à travers les siècles (Stuttgart 1990) 184–188.
╇ C. Elderink ed., Een Twentsch fabriqueur van de achttiende eeuw. Uit brieven en
familiepapieren samengesteld in 1923 (Hengelo 1977); J.A.A. Bervoets ed., De briefwis-
seling van de student Alexander Ver Huell 1840–1849 (Westervoort 1997).
╇ The Hora Siccama family originally came from Utrecht, but the figure at the cen-
tre of the archive, Otto Hora Siccama, went to live in The Hague as a young man and
stayed there for the rest of his life.

denomination and social class seemed to be particularly significant.

This was the reason to juxtapose three Protestant families from the
upper �echelons of the bourgeoisie (the Hubrechts, Hora Siccamas and
Van Schinnes) with a Catholic bourgeois family (the Van Lanschots)
and a protestant family of the nobility (the De Constant Rebecques).
Inci�dentally, several members of the Hora Siccama and Van Schinne
families were admitted to the nobility in the nineteenth century.24
The male members of the four upper middle-class families exercised
professions that were typical of their class. Thus Pieter Hubrecht (1805–
1874), for example, was an attorney at law, the owner of a lime kiln, and
the local mayor, in addition to being a member of several boards. His
two oldest sons, Paul (1829–1902) and Ambrosius (1831–1853) sÂ� tudied
Law. The Catholic family of the Van Lanschots, from ‘s-Hertogenbosch,
set up a trade in colonial wares in 1737. This family business gradually
metamorphosed into a large bank.25 Many of the male members of the
Utrecht branch of the Hora Siccama family also studied Law, including
the father and brothers of Otto Hora Siccama (1805–1879), who
bequeathed us a great deal of archive material. Otto himself, however,
did not go to university; instead he started work as a clerk in The Hague
in the government ministry of which his uncle, Anton Falck (1777–
1843), was Minister. The Van Schinnes, finally, were a family of mer-
chants and trustees; it is above all the women of the family we will hear
from in the course of this study.26
As for the nobility, the De Constant Rebecques of The Hague
included both men of law and men of arms. Baron Charles de Constant
Rebecque (1805–1870) was a lawyer, a Clerk of State, Secretary of the
Council of State, and gentleman-in-waiting to King William I, King
William II and King William III of the Netherlands. His son, Victor
(1838–1860), was sent to the Military Academy. Victor’s younger
brother Jan Willem (1841–1893), a lawyer like his father, held several
positions in local and provincial politics and was active at the court of
King William III of the Netherlands.

╇ Isaac van Schinne (1759–1831) was elevated to the nobility in 1816, and Otto
Hora Siccama (1805–1879) in 1876.
╇ Ch. Jeurgens and H. Meulenaars, Inventaris van het archief van de familie Van
Lanschot 1294–1900 (1982) (‘s-Hertogenbosch 1994); F. Govers, Het geslacht en de
firma F. van Lanschot 1737–1901 (Tilburg 1972).
╇ See A. Dik, ‘Inleiding’, in: A. Dik ed., Het dagboek van Magdalena van Schinne
(1786–1795) (Hilversum 1990) 7–21.
10 introduction

In 1869, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque married one of the

daughters of Otto Hora Siccama. Otto himself had married a member
of the nobility, namely Petronella van Capellen (1814–1848), in 1841.
Intermarriage of this kind, and the elevation to the nobility of two
members of the Hora Siccama and Van Schinne families, led to a blur-
ring of the distinctions between the higher ranks of the bourgeoisie
and the nobility in these families. For this reason, in this book I shall
generally speak of the ‘elite’, as an umbrella term, rather than distin-
guishing between the upper bourgeoisie and the nobility. Research into
the elite in the Netherlands has also shown that, as far as their social
and financial position and lifestyle was concerned, the distinctions
between the nobility, governing classes, and upper middle classes were
rather small.27 Nevertheless, we should not lose sight of the question of
whether these families did indeed feel they belonged to a certain class.
Historical research in recent years has stressed that the mental and/or
cultural concept of ‘sense of class’ is perhaps more revealing of belong-
ing to a certain class than socio-economic criteria such as paying taxes.
Historians expect that this sense of class can be distilled from egodocu-
ments.28 The role played by correspondence in this sense of class will
also be discussed indirectly in this study. For the time being, I shall
confine myself to a few sporadic occasions in the correspondence of
the five families on which a sense of class is alluded to explicitly. On a
visit in 1822, for example, Henri van Lanschot (1797–1887) found
himself in the company mainly of members of the nobility. Henri wrote
in a letter to his sister that he did not like to be too familiar in his
doings with them until he knew them properly.29 This was normal
enough, since Henri belonged to the bourgeoisie. A warning issued by
Baron De Constant Rebecque to his son Victor, then at the Military
Academy, also fits in with such thinking along class lines: the son was
urged to steer clear of officer’s wives of the bourgeoisie, who, ‘though
they may indeed be very worthy, do not always possess the refined tone

╇J.L. Price, ‘The Dutch nobility in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’,
in: H.M. Scott ed. The European nobilities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Vol. I (London/New York 1995) 82–113; Y. Kuiper, Adel in Friesland 1780–1880
(Groningen 1993) 409–411; M. Prak, Gezeten burgers. De elite in een Hollandse stad,
Leiden 1700–1780 (Amsterdam 1985) 10.
╇ B. de Vries, ‘Een weldadig verschil? Standsbesef en het onbehagen van de bur-
gerij’, De Negentiende Eeuw 22 (1998) 25–35.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. nr. 228, Henri van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot, 26 Nov.

demanded by good company’.30 What is more striking, however, is that

it was not only the baron who made slighting remarks about the bour-
geoisie, but also members of the bourgeois Van Lanschot and Hora
Siccama families.31 The term ‘bourgeois’ was often associated with the
petty bourgeoisie, or with small-mindedness. Historians have labelled
concepts such as ‘order’, ‘self-discipline’, ‘domesticity’ and ‘punctuality’
as typically bourgeois values.32 The question of whether the socializing
function of letter-writing also led to the acquisition of ‘bourgeois’ val-
ues is another aspect I address in the current study.
The archives of the five families in question are a problematic source
from several points of view. One disadvantage, for example, is the une-
ven distribution among the generations of the correspondences that
have come down to us within a given family. Some of the correspond-
ents burned their letters. And each family had specific preferences as to
what sort of papers were preserved. The Hubrecht family archive, for
example, preserves more ceremonial letters than the other archives.
Letters from the eighteenth century are in the minority in nearly all the
archives. Often family archives grew up around a famous man. This
need not mean that all the letters by women were thrown away, but
does imply that they were less central in the formation of the archive.
All in all, the database I compiled on the basis of the five family archives
numbers almost twice as many letters by men as by women. Family
archives are also often set up with the aim of passing on a certain image
to posterity. This means one should always bear in mind the reason
why a particular letter may have been preserved.33
The letters passed down in family archives are not necessarily repre-
sentative of the total number of letters originally sent. The letters pre-
served are just a tiny proportion. Equally, the five families selected
cannot simply be taken as representative of the elite as a whole. They
were chosen specifically to reflect, to some extent, the range of class
differences possible within the elite (nobility and upper echelons of

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. nr. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 21 Nov. 1856.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. nr. 231, Pauline van Lanschot-van der Kun to Theodora van
Lanschot, 20 Oct. 1836. See also 2.5.
╇ De Nijs, In veilige haven, 14–19; H. te Velde, ‘Herenstijl en burgerzin. Nederlandse
burgerlijke cultuur in de negentiende eeuw’, in: R. Aerts and H. te Velde eds, De stijl van
de burger. Over Nederlandse burgerlijke cultuur vanaf de middeleeuwen (Kampen 1998)
╇ De Nijs, In veilige haven, 301–322; A. Baggerman, ‘Autobiography and family
memory in the nineteenth century’, in: Dekker, Egodocuments and history, 161–173.
12 introduction

the bourgeoisie), as well as religious diversity. Four of the five families

lived in the more urbanized western part of the Netherlands, though
the inclusion of the Van Lanschot family from Brabant ensures a
slightly broader geographical distribution. This study is more than a
collection of isolated case studies. The families studied maintained a
broad network of correspondence and were thus in contact with a great
many people, some of whom were to be found in quite remote parts of
the country. In the current study, I have sought out similarities between
the bodies of correspondence in the various family archives in order to
identify common patterns. Furthermore, I create a more complete pic-
ture of the phenomenon of correspondence by comparing this archive
material with other sources.
Sixty-nine published collections of letters and etiquette books were
studied alongside the five family archives. Various bibliographies were
consulted to track down as many such books as possible. The first chap-
ter includes a detailed discussion of the problematic aspects of advice
literature as a source and how it relates to actual practice. Contemporary
commentaries on the practices of correspondence constitute a second
additional source; these can mainly be found in journals, reflections on
literature, and, sporadically, in novels of the period. My systematic
study of this type of source was limited to two journals devoted to cul-
ture in general: the Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen [Dutch Essays in
Letters] and De recensent, ook der recensenten [The Reviewer, also of
Reviewers]. For these two periodicals, which also include a few reviews
of collections of letters, I studied all the issues published within the
period selected for my research. These two journals were chosen
because they occupied a particularly prestigious position in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The authoritative
Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen (1760–1876) focused predominantly
on the Netherlands and aimed to be educational and opinion-forming.
The other journal selected, De recensent, ook der recensenten (1806–
1857), was slightly more oriented towards current affairs. It tolerated
counter criticisms and noted developments abroad.34
It is precisely this juxtaposition of diverse sources – letters in manu-
script, published collections of letters, and journals – that distinguishes
the current study of epistolary practice. The scant research undertaken
abroad into letter-writing as social practice is mainly based only on

╇ G.J. Johannes, De barometer van de smaak. Tijdschriften in Nederland 1770–1830
(The Hague 1995) 117–139.

advice literature, or on a single family archive. Moreover, correspond-

ence from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has never been
studied extensively from this perspective in the Netherlands. Specialized
studies have been made of letter-writing manuals and letters of
betrothal, for example, but generally letters are scrutinized primarily
for the information they provide about daily life. This book focuses on
the actual process of writing and the function of correspondence itself.

Period chosen

The period chosen for the study is 1770–1850. The following consid-
erations underlie this choice. The publication of the treatise Briefe,
nebst einer Praktischen Abhandlung von dem guten Geschmacke in
Briefen (Letters, complemented by a practical treatment of good taste
in letters) by the German author Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–
1769) in 1751 marked a turning point in the development of epistolary
theory. In this work, Gellert advocated abandoning the gallant style
and the stilted, bureaucratic style known as Kanzleistil, in favour of a
‘more natural’ style of letter writing. The contents of Gellert’s treatise
will be discussed in detail in Chapter 1. What is important here, how-
ever, is that in 1766 the Dutch commentator Rijklof Michaël van Goens
expressed a desire for a Dutch translation of Gellert’s letter-writing
manual, and that this was duly published in 1776. Although it took a
few decades for the concept of ‘naturalness’ to actually take hold in
epistolary style, and the understanding of the term varied somewhat
depending on actual practice, nevertheless new ideas about letter-
writing seem to emerge under the influence of this concept from about
1770 onwards.
Furthermore, in other respects, too, the last few decades of the eight-
eenth century and the first few of the nineteenth century were a time of
great social change. Reinhart Koselleck coined the phrase ‘Sattelzeit’ to
refer to the years between 1770 and 1850, due to the significant social
and political concepts that emerged at this time.35 But Joost Kloek and
Wijnand Mijnhardt have also characterized the period around 1800 as
an era of lively debate, in which the parties in the discourse strove to

╇R. Koselleck, ‘Einleitung’, in: O. Brunner, W. Conze and R. Koselleck eds,
Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in
Deutschland. Dl. 1 (Stuttgart 1972) xiii–xxvii, here xv–xix.
14 introduction

change the Netherlands and above all to define the content of the term
‘citizen’.36 We shall see that changes in ideas about bringing up children,
for example, also had an influence on letters by and to children.
More specifically, the first half of the nineteenth century has been
described as a period of moderation, the triumph of bourgeois ideas
such as domesticity and order. Romanticism is held to have passed the
Netherlands by, certainly in comparison with other European coun-
tries. Although the historical and literary research of recent years has
added some question-marks and nuances to this characterization of
Dutch culture, it has not succeeded in setting it aside completely.37 This
increases the relevance of investigating whether traces either of this
ideology of moderation or of Romanticism can be found in epistolary
theory and practice.
The major socio-economic changes of the second half of the nine-
teenth century gave this period a completely different character.38
Social conventions gradually became stricter, probably in reaction to
increased social mobility. This also affected ideas and customs associ-
ated with sending letters. In addition, infrastructural changes, such as
the advent of the railways, influenced the postal system. The system
was completely reorganized in about 1850, the end of the period cov-
ered by my research. In 1852, in the wake of the new Post Office Act of
1850, postage stamps were issued for the first time. Before that time,
the custom was for the recipient of the letter to pay for postage; now the
new possibility opened up of the sender paying in advance using
stamps. 1852 also saw the introduction of the National Telegraph
Service. Although the precise influence of these new communications
options is difficult to ascertain, they certainly constituted a caesura
with former practice. The possibility of informing family members
very quickly by telegram on the birth of a child, for example, was a very
different procedure to having them notified or sending printed or
handwritten letters as a birth announcement. This turning point in

╇ J. Kloek and W. Mijnhardt, 1800. Blauwdrukken voor een samenleving (The Hague
2001) 22, 583.
╇T. Streng, ‘Romantiek als spookbeeld. Het “juste milieu” in de schilderkunst in
Nederland tussen 1815 en 1848’, Feit & Fictie 3 (1997/1998) 30–45; J. van Zanten,
Schielijk, Winzucht, Zwaarhoofd en Bedaard. Politieke discussie en oppositievorming
1813–1840 (Amsterdam 2004) 10–16; M. Mathijsen, Nederlandse literatuur in de
romantiek 1820–1880 (Nijmegen 2004) 12–15, 89–99.
╇ J.L. van Zanden and A. van Riel, Nederland 1780–1914. Staat, instituties en econo-
mische ontwikkeling (Amsterdam 2000) 317, 412–414.

communications in the mid-nineteenth century makes 1850 an appro-

priate ending date for the current research.

The structure of this book

The first chapter of this book treats epistolary theory. It discusses the
contents of Gellert’s epistolary theory and his concept of ‘naturalness’,
and looks also at the ideas propagated by the authors of letter-writing
manuals and etiquette manuals. A further element in the discussion is
the status of advice literature and how it relates to actual practice.
This theme is picked up again in chapter two, which focuses on
everyday correspondence. Here I investigate what advice from �etiquette
books and letter-writing manuals tallies with actual practice. The mate-
rial prerequisites for correspondence, such as space and writing mate-
rials, are also described. A further important aspect of everyday
letter-writing is the language used: Dutch, French or Latin. Did the
choice of language depend on the situation, the period of writing, or
the correspondents’ gender? The content and style of everyday corre-
spondence, finally, are also addressed.
In chapter three, the socialization aspect of letter-writing comes to
the fore: this chapter examines how children learned to write letters.
Children often received comments from members of the family on
their letter-writing. Parents wanted their children to be open and hon-
est towards them in their letters; but they also wanted them to write
properly, both in terms of handwriting and contents, as befitted chil-
dren of the elite.
Chapter four centres on the letters of adolescents. Boys of the elite
wrote to one another in Latin, used colloquial language, and developed
romantic friendships in their letters. This meant that adolescents’ let-
ters were fundamentally different from all other letters. And precisely
in adolescence, ‘proper’ male or female behaviour was rehearsed
through letters. Engagement and marriage formed the transition from
adolescence to adulthood. Analysis of two bodies of correspondence
between fiancés leads me to conclude that these exchanges served to
establish the roles for the couple’s future married life together. This
means that correspondence between adolescents and fiancés reveals
the performative nature of letter-writing.
The final chapter of the book examines letters for specific occasions,
such as New Year letters, birthday greetings, and letters of condolence.
16 introduction

These kinds of letters are the most firmly bound by conventions. They
served to perpetuate bonds of friendship, but also to affirm important
elite values and religious norms. From this point of view, they again
highlight the aspect of socialization. On the other hand, this ceremo-
nial correspondence could also be used to make subtle distinctions in
intimacy within the elite and to express class differences.
Let me comment, finally, on what I do not address in this book. This
is emphatically a historical study of letter-writing, and not a literary or
literary-historical one. For this reason, I have not discussed epistolary
novels, or famous letter-writers, unless the latter are adduced as exam-
ples in letter-writing manuals or by correspondents themselves.
Furthermore, the focus is primarily on correspondence between family
and friends or acquaintances, and not on business letters, letters to the
authorities, or letters between scholars. Incidentally, letters between
scholars in the early modern period have already been the subject of
extensive research.39
Finally, a note on the translation. The majority of the letters quoted
in this study were written in the Dutch language. For the sake of read-
ability, these quotations have been translated into English throughout.
In the few cases where the letters were written in a language other than
Dutch, the letter is quoted in the original language and the translation
is given in parentheses or in a footnote.
Titles and forms of address were also a problematic aspect of the
translation. Dutch society and British society evolved differently,
resulting in very different social structures. Whereas the elite in Britain
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was largely made up of the
higher ranks of the aristocracy and the landed gentry, in the Netherlands,
as stated above there was effectively little distinction between the nobil-
ity and the large and powerful urban patrician class of the upper bour-
geoisie. This means that the forms of address used in the Dutch letters
often do not have any equivalent in the English system of titles. For this
reason it was decided to provide a literal translation of the term rather
than to use an English term that might suggest an equivalence that did
not exist.

╇ S. Stegeman, Patronage en dienstverlening. Het netwerk van Theodorus Janssonius
van Almeloveen (1657–1712) (Nijmegen 1996). See also T. van Houdt et al. eds, Self-
presentation and social identification. The rhetoric and pragmatics of letter writing in
early modern times (Louvain 2002).
Chapter One

Epistolary Theory


Before we move on to the actual practice of letter-writing in the chap-

ters to come, the present chapter takes a closer look at epistolary the-
ory. What constitutes an ideal letter? What stylistic ideals underlie this
conception? What famous letter-writers were extolled as models? There
are various sources one can turn to in search of an answer to these
questions. In the first place, there are etiquette books and letter-writing
manuals, often collectively referred to as ‘advice literature’. Secondly,
one finds opinions about what constitutes an ideal letter in various
other kinds of publications: reviews of letter-writing manuals and pub-
lished collections of correspondence in literary journals; books about
rhetoric and style; and sometimes even contemporary novels. First, we
will examine the different types of advice literature. The precise func-
tion these books fulfilled and how they relate to letter-writing in prac-
tice is still a matter of debate. Epistolary theory as evidenced in the
letter-writing manuals will be the next area of exploration. The focus
here will be on the influence of rhetoric and the ideal style, which is
described as ‘the natural style’. But what was meant by ‘natural’ in this
context? We will analyse the various connotations of the term ‘natural’
in this period.
The section about epistolary theory is followed by a discussion of
how the authors of letter-writing manuals interpreted this theory in
concrete terms. Aspects addressed here include the characterization of
women as letter-writers par excellence, the discussion of the letter as a
private matter, how writing was taught, the different types of letters,
and the outward appearance of letters. The final subsection of the chap-
ter describes illustrious letter-writers in the Netherlands and abroad,
and pinpoints precisely what the literary critics appreciated about the
letters they reviewed.
The focus of the present chapter is on general ideas about corre-
spondence. More specialized advice from the etiquette and letter-�
writing manuals, concerning letters by children, or letters of condolence,
for example, will be discussed in the relevant chapters below.
18 chapter one

Etiquette books and letter-writing manuals as a source

The relationship between theory and practice

The eighteenth, and particularly the nineteenth century, saw the publi-
cation of a great deal of advice literature. This general heading covers a
wide variety of different sorts of books: treatises on how to bring up
children, etiquette books, books of instructions for married life, and
letter-writing manuals. Etiquette books and letter-writing manuals
were nothing new. Treatises on the art of letter-writing had existed
since Antiquity, and books about good manners, with rules for social
engagement, also had a centuries-old tradition. From the Renaissance,
books about proper behaviour were written for the nobility at court.
These books of manners addressed both proper conduct in society and
the formation of character. At the end of the eighteenth century, this
genre subdivided into etiquette books and the like, which focused
only on good manners, and other advice books which were primar-
ily  concerned with moral aspects. As the nineteenth century pro-
gressed, there was a substantial rise in the number of etiquette books
and letter-writing manuals published, and the etiquette book increas-
ingly became a female genre: books written by female authors for
female readers.1
Letter-writing manuals are entirely devoted to the subject of corre-
spondence. Etiquette books, which discuss such matters as table man-
ners, correct dress, and social behaviour in general, also frequently
include advice about letter-writing. This advice sometimes features as a
separate chapter at the back of the book, with headings such as ‘writ-
ing’, ‘reading’ and ‘secrets’, or at the end of the section about paying
calls. Since correspondence, like conversation, was a significant ele-
ment of social interaction, it received a good deal of attention in advice
literature. There was considerably less advice to be found about keep-
ing a diary. Only pedagogical advice books, generally with a Christian
slant, expounded on the reasons for young people to keep a diary, often
as part of a chapter on self-appraisal.

╇ M. Curtin, ‘A question of manners: status and gender in etiquette and courtesy’,
The journal of modern history 57 (1985) 395–423, here 395–396. See also P. Spierenburg,
Elites and etiquette. Mentality and social structure in the early modern Northern
Netherlands (Rotterdam 1981); B. Dongelmans, ‘Comme il faut. Etiquetteboeken in de
negentiende eeuw’, De Negentiende Eeuw 23 (1999) 89–123, here 104.
epistolary theory19

Historiography in the Netherlands has paid little attention to the

status of advice literature as a source.2 Scholars assume that etiquette
books provide prescriptive rules, but the origin and observance of
these rules remain rather obscure. And who actually read these books?
To start with the latter question: the great diversity and sheer num-
bers of advice books available, as well as the numerous reprints, cer-
tainly show that there was a great demand for these sorts of books.
Often the authors of advice literature indicated in the title, subtitle and
foreword of their book for whom it was intended: young members of
the bourgeoisie, for example. The books of the Maatschappij tot Nut
van ‘t Algemeen (Society for Public Welfare) were specifically addressed
to the lower middle class. But it is very possible that this class also
sometimes read advice literature that was originally intended for their
social superiors. In this way, they could learn the manners of the higher
echelons of society, and might be able to advance themselves.3 Or per-
haps the lower classes read etiquette books simply to satisfy their curi-
osity about the life of the elite.4
The family archives consulted for this research provide only one
instance of proof of the possession of a letter-writing manual.
Ambrosius Hubrecht’s catalogue of the books in his possession in
1850–1851 includes R. van der Pijl’s Oorspronkelijke Engelsche koop-
mansbrieven, ten dienste der jonge lieden, die zich aan den handel
wijden: ook ingericht tot een vertaalboek op de scholen [Original English
merchants’ letters, for the benefit of young people devoting themselves
to trade; also designed as a translation book for schools] (Haarlem
1818). This work was intended to teach people to write business letters
in English.5 In this case, then, the letter-writing manual had a practical
Reading advice literature as a way of learning good manners and
attaining a higher position in society is one possible function of eti-
quette books. Another function is that of a ‘social catechism’, as Linke

╇ Dongelmans, ‘Comme il faut’ and M. van Tilburg, Hoe hoorde het? Seksualiteit en
partnerkeuze in de Nederlandse adviesliteratuur 1780–1890 (Amsterdam 1998) do not
address this aspect.
╇ Curtin, ‘A question of manners’, 395–423.
╇R. Chartier, ‘Des “secrétaires” pour le peuple? Les modèles épistolaires de l’Ancien
Régime entre littérature de cour et livre de colportage’, in: Chartier, La correspondance,
159-20, here 195.
╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 1, catalogue of the books in the possession of Ambrosius
20 chapter one

describes it: social conventions are set down in etiquette books in order
to preserve them. This ensures that the identity of a social group is not
lost. Advice literature can thus have both an idealizing and a consoli-
dating function. According to Linke, certain norms may be discussed
in these books if they are unclear or in the process of changing, if par-
ticular groups have demonstrated a lack of awareness of them, or if it is
difficult to live up to them.6
This means that the relationship between advice literature and prac-
tice is not clear cut.7 Advice literature can be more than merely a practi-
cal aid to teach people the right habits. Sometimes the authors of
etiquette books repeatedly advocate certain behaviour, but this is never
adopted by society, so the advice falls on deaf ears. In other cases, an
advice book may actually provide a solution to a thorny issue of eti-
quette, in the face of norms that are contradictory or in a state of flux.
Or the etiquette book may be behind the times, belatedly sanctioning
habits that have been common practice for years. The following chapter
will look in more detail at the relationship between the counsels on
writing given in advice literature, on the one hand, and, on the other,
actual epistolary practice as revealed by the exchanges of letters pre-
served in the various family archives consulted.

The function of letter-writing manuals

Many of the authors of letter-writing manuals use the foreword or
introduction to set forth their views on the function of such books.
Letter-writing manuals should help people to master the art of corre-
sponding because it is an important skill for daily life and also a require-
ment of good manners: ‘After all, is not a good letter a recommendation
in society, the hallmark of true refinement’?8 It would be a disgrace to
have to engage the services of a scribe, thus having to reveal any pos-
sible secrets to a third party.9 Professional scribes of this kind were used
primarily by the illiterate lower classes in the early modern period.10

╇Linke, Sprachkultur und Bürgertum, 35–38.


╇A. Bryson, From courtesy to civility: changing codes of conduct in early modern

England (New York 1998) 7, 279.

╇P.J. Andriessen, Handleiding tot het leeren stellen van brieven en het maken van
opstellen over opgegevene onderwerpen (3rd edn; Amsterdam 1854) iii. See also J.V.D.L.,
De wellevendheid en de gebruiken der wereld (The Hague 1841) 134.
╇H. Jacobi, Gemeyne zend-brieven ([1597]; Antwerp 1774) 2.
╇ C. Métayer, ‘La résonance sociale et culturelle du métier d’ écrivain public à Paris
sous l’ Ancien Régime’, Histoire sociale-Social History 24 (1991) 149–167.
epistolary theory21

In  the nineteenth century, with increasing literacy levels, this figure
seems to have become superfluous for most people. Nevertheless,
L.F. Geerling feels it necessary in his letter-writing manual to encour-
age his readers to write their own letters and not to employ people from
the lower classes to do so. He does not here assume that people cannot
write letters, but he does warn his readers that it is insulting to ‘use very
lowly people as letter-writers’. The sender should simply write the letter
himself. This is a mark of respect for the recipient.11
One reason frequently given by the authors of letter-writing manuals
is the low level of writing skills.12 Writing instruction for the lower
classes, especially, is often claimed to be inadequate. Children left
school at an early age, and their parents did not stimulate them to read
and write after that. Moreover, children in rural areas only attended
school for part of the year.13 Another criticism was that children only
learned to write mechanically: their writing skills were allegedly lim-
ited to writing with a neat hand and copying out texts.14 D.H. Engelberts,
the author of a late-nineteenth-century etiquette book, believed that
schools for children of the higher classes also paid too little attention to
teaching letter-writing, because the teachers assumed that children
who could write well would automatically be able to compose a good
letter; Engelberts emphatically did not agree.15
Letter-writing manuals for children were sometimes designed to
serve also as readers. One such example was De brieflezer [The letter-
reader] (1859), which contained letters in various hands so that
children could learn to decipher different types of handwriting.16
A letter-writing manual for adults might comprise not just epistolary
theory, but also a consecutive series of letters to illustrate that theory, so
that the reader could follow the whole correspondence. Such books

╇L.F. Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller (Arnhem 1838) xxiii.
╇Anonymous, De volmaakte secretaris/ Le parfait secretaire (Amsterdam 1707)
╇ W. Plokker, Oeffeningen in het stellen van brieven, voor leerlingen op de lagere scho-
len (The Hague 1836).
╇Anonymous, Voorschriften tot het opstellen en schrijven van brieven en andere
schriftelijke opstellen (Leiden, Deventer and Groningen 1806) 3. W.H. Suringar,
Onderzoek naar de oorzaken van het vervloeijen van aangeleerde kundigheden bij jonge
lieden, na het verlaten der scholen, met aanwijzing van gepaste middelen, ter voorkoming
daarvan (Amsterdam 1822) 25.
╇ D.H. Engelberts, De goede toon ([1881] 4th edn; Amsterdam 1890) 323.
╇ J.M.H. Bosman, De brieflezer. Leesboek voor de beide hoogste klassen eener lagere
school (Nijmegen 1859).
22 chapter one

could also function as an epistolary novel, as in the case of the love let-
ters in the Post-comptoir van Cupido en Mercurius [The Post Office of
Cupid and Mercury] (1787).17
One last motivation for publishing a letter-writing manual,
finally,  was dissatisfaction with the existing literature on the subject.
Koolenkamp, for example, based the book of instructions he produced
in 1764 on the centuries-old book by H. Jacobi, but omitted the pre-
scripts that no longer suited ‘the style of our own day’.18

Epistolary theory

Most letter-writing manuals consist of a theoretical section, containing
recommendations about content and style, and a section presenting
model letters as examples. In the theoretical section, the writer gives a
definition of what a letter is, addresses the function of exchanging let-
ters, and gives further instructions on how to write. Epistolary theory
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was still largely based on
concepts from classical rhetoric, as formulated by Cicero, for instance,
which had been in vogue again since the Renaissance. In this approach
the letter was described as a ‘conversation between absent parties’ or a
‘mirror of the soul’, whereas in the Middle Ages the letter tended to be
compared more with a speech delivered before an audience.19
Particularly the definition of the letter as a conversation is common
in eighteenth and nineteenth century letter-writing manuals, such as
the Nieuwe handleiding tot de manier van brieven schryven [New guide
to the manner to write letters] of 1770: ‘It is a writing that we send to a

╇ J. de Jongh, Post-comptoir van Cupido en Mercurius ([1751] 6th edn; Amsterdam
1787). According to W. van den Berg, ‘Briefreflectie in briefinstructie’, Documentatieblad
werkgroep achttiende eeuw (1978) 1–22, here 3–4, series of letters in Dutch letter-
writing manuals are rather sporadic.
╇ W.K. Koolenkamp, Send-brieven, dienstig voor de Jeugd (Utrecht 1764) foreword.
Extensive research into the differences between the various editions of letter-writing
manuals was beyond the scope of the present study. Further research might trace the
development of the epistolary theory put forward in letter-writing manuals.
╇R. Nörtemann, ‘Brieftheoretische Konzepte im 18. Jahrhundert und ihre Genese’,
in: A. Ebrecht, R. Nörtemann and H. Schwarze eds, Brieftheorie des 18. Jahrhunderts.
Texte, Kommentare, Essays (Stuttgart 1990) 211–224, here 212–213. W.G. Müller,
‘Brief ’, in: G. Ueding ed., Historisches Wörterbuch der Rhetorik. Vol. 1 (Tübingen 1992)
60–76, here 61–63. Van den Berg, ‘Briefreflectie’, 6.
epistolary theory23

person who is absent, to let him know that which we would say to him
if we could speak to him’.20 The authors seem to use the description of a
letter as simply a written conversation to reassure their readers.
However, they often hasten to add that there is an important difference
between a letter and a conversation face to face: ‘A letter is not really a
conversation […] because a spoken word swiftly passes and is easily
forgotten – a written word offends or irritates for ever’.21 That which is
written is preserved for ever and can always be used against the writer,
so reflection and caution are called for in writing letters.22
Traces of the influence of classical rhetoric can also be seen in the
way letters are structured. Well into the eighteenth century, letter-writ-
ing manuals still described the parts of the letter in terms drawn from
rhetoric: exordium, causa, narratio and conclusio, in that order.23 As the
nineteenth century progressed, these terms were simplified and
replaced by others such as ‘salutation, introduction, content, conclu-
sion, and signature’.24
In rhetoric, a distinction is drawn between the elevated, the middle,
and the humble style. A private letter to a friend, for example, calls
for the humble style. These rules concur in part with the rules govern-
ing style in eighteenth and nineteenth century letter-writing manuals.
Geerling, for instance, in his work De Nederlandsche briefsteller [The
Dutch letter-composer], published in 1838, distinguishes between
an ordinary style for letters to friends, an elevated style for letters of
consolation and condolence, and a humble style for letters to children
and servants.25 The letter-writing manuals use different terms to char-
acterize the various styles, but almost all draw a distinction between
business letters (short and clear), courtesy letters (elevated style), and
letters to friends and family. There are virtually no stylistic rules for the
latter sort of letters, in the view of the authors of letter and etiquette

╇Anonymous, Nieuwe handleiding tot de manier van brieven schryven (Amsterdam
1770) 15–16.
╇Anonymous, Nieuw brievenboek voor iedereen (Tiel 1862) 3.
╇Anonymous, Handboekje der wellevendheid, voor school en huis (5th edn;
‘s-Hertogenbosch and Zwolle 1887) II, 61–67.
╇See, for example, H. Jacobi, Gemene zend-brieven ([1597]; Venlo 1795) 2. This is a
simplification of the traditional division of the oration into salutatio, captatio benevo-
lentiae, narratio, petitio and conclusio.
╇See, for example, G.C. Claudius, Volledig brievenboek (Tiel 1855) table of
╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, II.
24 chapter one

In addition to this distinction on the basis of the type of letter

involved, the style was chosen in accordance with the nature of the
recipient. This rule too can be traced back to the concept of ‘aptum/
decorum’ (aptness) in classical rhetoric. Thus one must be polite in
writing to one’s superiors. Moreover a letter to such a recipient should
not be too long, and should not dwell on trivial matters; the recipient
has no time to read extensive missives.
On the one hand, then, the influence of classical rhetoric can still be
seen in letter-writing manuals in the period from 1770 to 1850; on the
other hand, the rhetorical terms were increasingly being simplified,
and were often infused with a new meaning. In the Netherlands, the
importance of rhetoric for both teaching and scholarship diminished
sharply from about 1840. Partly due to the influence of Romanticism,
the personal and individual aspects of language came to the fore. The
idea was that a ‘true’ artist threw convention to the wind, and was
‘spontaneous’, ‘natural’ and ‘direct’.26

Gellert and the notion of naturalness

As the nineteenth century progressed, the idea was emphasized more
and more frequently that letters to friends and family were not subject
to rules, that these letters were ‘composed in the pure and natural lan-
guage of the heart’.27 The natural style became the ideal. The natural
style too was already known in classical rhetoric, but it was given a new
lease of life in the mid-eighteenth century by the German author
Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–1769). Gellert was renowned, not
only in Germany but also in the Netherlands, for his novels, poetry,
fables, plays and letters. His work had an enlightened goal: to provide
the bourgeoisie with moral guidelines for behaviour and for the expres-
sion of feelings. In 1751 Gellert published his treatise Briefe, nebst einer
praktischen Abhandlung von dem guten Geschmack in Briefen [Letters,
together with a practical essay on good taste in letters].28 In this work,
Gellert advocated the abolition of both the jesting gallant style and the
chancellery style (Kanzleistil), a stilted, bombastic and ceremonial style

╇N. Laan, Het belang van smaak. Twee eeuwen academische literatuurgeschiedenis
(Amsterdam 1997) 25, 107.
╇Plokker, Oeffeningen, v.
╇ Gellert had published a brief treatise on the subject in 1742. His treatises of 1742
and 1751 are published together in the facsimile edition C.F. Gellert, Die epistologra-
phischen Schriften (Stuttgart 1971).
epistolary theory25

favoured in lawyers’ circles in Germany. Gellert believed that these

styles should be replaced by an informal and natural style, appropriate
for letters between friends. Moreover, Gellert aimed to stimulate the
use of the German mother tongue as the language for letter-writing,
rather than French. Thus although the ideal of the natural style was not
entirely new, Gellert moved it into a new context and gave it a new
emphasis. And Gellert found a large following for his ideas.29
The concept of ‘naturalness’ can only be understood in full depth
when studied within the context of Gellert’s oeuvre as a whole, which is
what Rafael Arto-Haumacher has so convincingly done. In all Gellert’s
books, fables, and moral and religious reflections – which were enjoyed
by many Dutch readers, including members of the Hubrecht and Hora
Siccama families – his aim was to educate enlightened individuals who
would attest true moral Bildung. Once people had internalized moral
codes of behaviour, and that was Gellert’s endeavour, it would no longer
be necessary to formulate explicit rules for correspondence; the letter-
writer could simply rely on his general knowledge and would thus
‘spontaneously’ and ‘naturally’ be capable of composing good letters.
For Gellert, therefore, ‘natural’ was synonymous with ‘morally right, in
keeping with the morality of the bourgeoisie’.30
Well into the eighteenth century, the term ‘natural’ meant ‘fitting’ for
the subject and purpose of the discourse, so in this way the connection
with the rhetorical stylistic virtue of ‘aptum/decorum’ was retained. As
the century progressed, however, the ‘natural style’ was increasingly
linked with oral conversation, and detached from the sphere of rheto-
ric.31 ‘Naturalness’ was now associated not only with ‘fittingness’, but
also with the idea of ‘artlessness’. In seventeenth-century rhetoric, ‘nat-
uralness’ did occasionally mean ‘artlessness’,32 but in the eighteenth
century this connotation seems to have gained the upper hand.
Nevertheless, naturalness did not imply a total absence of rules. It is
not to be equated with originality or spontaneity. This is a well-crafted

╇Nörtemann, ‘Brieftheorie’, 212–213. According to R. Arto-Haumacher, Gellerts
Briefpraxis und Brieflehre. Der Anfang einer neuen Briefkultur (Wiesbaden 1995)
15–20, 45, 55–56, Gellert did not entirely distance himself from classical rhetoric; his
objections were directed more towards humanist ideals. See also R. Vellusig, Schriftliche
Gespräche. Briefkultur im 18. Jahrhundert (Wenen 2000) 83.
╇Arto-Haumacher, Gellerts Briefpraxis, 139–141.
╇Vellusig, Schriftliche Gespräche, 118.
╇ J. Jansen, Decorum. Observaties over de literaire gepastheid in de renaissancistische
poëtica (Hilversum 2001) 229, 244–248.
26 chapter one

naturalness, and, in a similar vein, a letter must not be the same as a

conversation, but must rather present the impression of a conversation,
‘imitating speech’.33 One letter-writing manual comments on its instruc-
tions for a natural style as follows:
The style is worthy of being called natural if it concurs with the oral deliv-
ery befitting the case in question, and if it does not descend into fruitless
verbosity. He who wishes to write informally must not offend against the
rules of syntax, and must choose his words in such a way that they repre-
sent with ease the images he wishes to convey: let him refrain from poetic
images and turns of phrase.34
The natural style is here associated with informality and conversation,
and contrasted with the poetic style. Yet this does not mean freedom
from rules, since the natural style must also be ‘fitting’ and grammati-
cally correct.

The natural style in the Netherlands

Gellert’s treatise on letter-writing was published in Dutch translation
in 1775. It was printed again in 1780.35 As early as 1766, the commenta-
tor and critic Van Goens expressed the desire for a Dutch translation of
Gellert’s letter-writing manual.36 According to Noordhoek, Gellert
was popular in the Netherlands due to both the high moral value of
the  contents of his letters, and his innovative epistolary theory. He
believed that Gellert’s criticism of German conventions in the area of
correspondence was equally applicable to the upper classes in the
Netherlands, who also employed a bombastic, grandiloquent style in
letter-writing and also often wrote in French.37
What is certain is that from the final quarter of the eighteenth cen-
tury, and throughout the entire nineteenth century, each and every

╇Arto-Haumacher, Gellerts Briefpraxis, 199–202. See also Vellusig, Schriftliche
Gespräche, 26, 95.
╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, 7.
╇ 1775 saw the publication of Gellert’s ‘Verhandeling over den goeden smaak in
brieven’ in: C.F. Gellert, C.F. Gellert’s mengelschriften (Amsterdam 1775) 243–330. The
treatise was first published separately in Dutch translation in 1776, together with
model letters: C.F. Gellert, C.F. Gellert’s brieven, benevens eene verhandeling over den
goeden smaak in het schrijven van brieven (Utrecht 1776).
╇R.M. van Goens, ‘Bedenkingen van den Philosophe sans fard over den staet der
Letteren in Nederland, en ontwerp ener noodzakelyke vermeerdering van zyne
Nederduitsche Boeken-kas’, Nieuwe Bijdragen tot opbouw der vaderlandsche letterkunde
II (1766) 453–506, here 484.
╇ W.J. Noordhoek, Gellert und Holland (Amsterdam 1928) 78–92.
epistolary theory27

letter-writing manual propagated the natural style. This must have

been in emulation of Gellert’s ideas. Gellert’s letters were also published
as a model in Dutch letter-writing manuals.38 And yet the ideal of natu-
ralness cannot be attributed entirely to Gellert. There must have been a
broader espousal of ‘naturalness’ in society as a whole. Even at the
beginning of the eighteenth century, for example, the lack of ‘natural-
ness’ among Dutch preachers was lamented. This did not mean a lack
of ‘refinement’. In the case of preachers, speaking ‘naturally’ meant pre-
cisely adopting a tone that both befitted the subject under discussion
and was ‘dignified’. The same held for painters and actors.39 Here we see
various meanings of the term ‘naturalness’ coming together.40 Firstly,
‘naturalness’ could stand for ‘civilized’, ‘dignified’, or, in short, an ‘enno-
bled’ nature. Secondly, ‘naturalness’ referred to classical rhetoric’s con-
cept of ‘aptness’: the style or tone must fit the theme, the speaker and
the audience.
Both these interpretations are found in epistolary theory from 1750
onwards, for instance in the lecture notes of Matthijs Siegenbeek
(1774–1854), who in 1797 was appointed to a chair at the University of
Leiden as the first professor of ‘vernacular rhetoric’ (vaderlandsche
welsprekendheid). Siegenbeek lectured from 1797 to 1840. He believed
it was very important that letters should be ‘entirely the work of nature,
and [composed] as though by a light and carefree hand’:
The highest merit of letters lies in this, that the intimate tone of refined
conversation be imitated in them completely, and that they be governed
by natural grace, uncontrived wit, and sparkling vivacity.
Although the phrase ‘a light and carefree hand’ might seem to imply a
lack of constraints, it is clear that by ‘natural’ Siegenbeek means ‘refined’.
This naturalness does indeed have its limits, as Siegenbeek points out:
‘For anybody must reasonably see that the style of letters will have to
differ to some extent according to the differing nature of their content,
rising or falling according to whether the content is more or less grave

╇ G.N. Landré, Verzameling van brieven, om, met behulp der Nederduitsche taal, de
jeugd, door het vertalen van geschikte en uitgezochte voorbeelden, tot de kennis van den
Franschen briefstijl op te leiden ([1812] 3rd edn; Amsterdam 1839) x.
╇H. Roodenburg, ‘Predikanten op de kansel. Een verkenning van hun “eloquentia
corporis”â•›’, in: M. Bruggeman et al. ed., Mensen van de Nieuwe Tijd. Een liber amicorum
voor A. Th. van Deursen (Amsterdam 1996) 324–338, here 333–334. See also Idem, The
eloquence of the body. Perspectives on gesture in the Dutch republic (Zwolle 2004).
╇See also A.O. Lovejoy, ‘â•›“Nature” as aesthetic norm’, in; Idem, Essays in the history
of ideas ([1948] vijfde druk; Baltimore/Londen 1970) 69–77.
28 chapter one

and important’.41 Here we see echoes of the rhetorical concept of ‘aptum’

or ‘decorum’. Thus for Siegenbeek ‘naturalness’ means ‘artlessness’,
‘refinement’ and ‘aptness’ (befitting the content of the letter).
This ‘aptness’ may encompass a potentially individualist element.
For after all, a style which fits the letter-writer or speaker is a style
which is not oriented towards particular rules of poetics, but rather
emanates from the individual artist. J.M. Schrant, Siegenbeek’s succes-
sor as professor of rhetoric in Leiden, wrote in 1845 about speakers’
delivery – in this addressing above all trainee preachers and lawyers –
that moderation and naturalness must be paramount. By ‘natural’
Schrant here means ‘refined’ or ‘dignified’, but also ‘as befits the nature
of the speaker’. Oscar Westers speaks of a ‘process of transition from
an “ennobled” to an “individualist” (modern) concept of naturalness’.42
A similar shift in the meaning of the term ‘natural’ is traced by the
sociologist Richard Sennett: in the eighteenth century the term referred
to that which all human beings had in common, whereas in the nine-
teenth century ‘natural’ came to mean precisely ‘fitting for a unique
Gellert, but also his fellow German author Lessing, viewed individu-
ality, along with naturalness and clarity, as characteristic of the new
style of letter-writing. Letter-writers were to develop their own style.44
The call for naturalness and clarity, together with the plea for the use of
the writer’s mother tongue, can be found in Dutch letter and etiquette
books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The authors of advice
literature unanimously endorse the view that a letter should above all
be clear and composed in a natural style. The stylistic requirement of
individuality, however, is virtually ignored by the Dutch authors of
letter-writing manuals. The word ‘individuality’ occurs rarely in this
period. The few letter-writing manuals that do provide instruction on
this matter speak of a ‘singularity of expression’45 or define the letter

╇ UBL, Ltk 136, M. Siegenbeek, Lessen over de Nederduitsche welsprekendheid
(Leiden n.d.) 250–251. See also E. Sjoer, Lessen over welsprekendheid. Een typering van
de retorica’s van de eerste hoogleraren in de vaderlandsche welsprekendheid in de
Noordelijke Nederlanden (1797–1853) (Amsterdam 1996) 114–116, 169–180.
╇ O. Westers, Welsprekende burgers. Rederijkers in de negentiende eeuw (Nijmegen
2003) 218.
╇R. Sennett, The fall of public man (New York 1992) 96.
╇Vellusig, Schriftliche Gespräche, 118.
╇S. van der Aa, Lessen over de wellevendheid ([1836] 2nd edn; Leeuwarden 1855)
epistolary theory29

along the lines of the following definition by G.C. Claudius: ‘The nature
of the letter thus consists […] of the individual aspect that is singular to
it, and by virtue of which it is a faithful image both of the human char-
acter and of the normal congress between human beings’.46 However,
these quotations are the exception, and date from the middle of the
nineteenth century. Before that time, it seems to have been less impor-
tant whether the sender made his own mark on a letter.
Although the plea for a natural letter-writing style is ubiquitous
from the end of the eighteenth century, the various meanings of the
word ‘natural’ – ‘artless’, ‘apt or fitting’, ‘refined’ and ‘individual’ – are
used indiscriminately. This will be demonstrated in more detail in
Chapter 3, which focuses on children’s letters. The various layers of
meaning make it difficult to discern exactly when the ideal of natural-
ness changed. There are several indications, however, that suggest that
contemporaries perceived a change in style. The reviewer of an edition
of the correspondence of the poet Willem Bilderdijk (1756–1831) pub-
lished in 1836 characterizes Bilderdijk’s letters from 1779–1780 as ‘full
of flattering compliments, after the fashion of that time’. The reviewer
contrasts these older letters, revealing ‘a certain old-fashioned stiffness
and artificiality’, with other letters of Bilderdijk’s which are governed
more by ‘a natural tone and loose informality’. He also criticized
Bilderdijk’s copious ‘use of loan words’ (from French) ‘when this was
still more the fashion, and the pure Low German style was not yet so
frequently employed’.47 On this evidence, then, a stiff, flattering style,
together with French, was fashionable in about 1780, whereas at the
beginning of the nineteenth century a natural style became the norm,
and the use of French words declined.
Barthold Lulofs, professor of Dutch language and literature, gram-
mar and rhetoric, stylistics and public speaking at the University of
Groningen, also discerned a new kind of style in the first half of the
nineteenth century. In the foreword to an edition of his letters pub-
lished in 1828, Lulofs commented that they were written in a ‘swift, free
style, which one might do well to employ rather more in this country of
ours’.48 A third example of the perception of a new sort of style can be
found in a review from the Algemeene vaderlandsche letter-oefeningen

╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, 1.


╇Anonymous, VL (1837) I, 254–260, here 255, 259.

╇ B.H. Lulofs, Reistogtje met de stoomboot naar Hamburg, in den zomer van 1826.
Vol. 2 (Groningen 1827) vi.
30 chapter one

[General Dutch Essays in Letters]. In 1811, a reviewer censured

a handbook for teachers and the bourgeoisie entitled Brieven,
betrekking  hebbende op de meeste en belangrijkste gevallen, die in het
dagel�ijksch leven voorkomen kunnen [Letters relating to the most com-
mon and important cases that may occur in daily life], published in
Utrecht  1810, on the grounds that it was lacking in ‘artlessness and
In the above quotations, the contemporary natural style is contrasted
with a mannered, artificial style, which is felt to be old-fashioned. It
seems as though from about 1810 onwards the natural style in the sense
of ‘artless’ had found broad-based support as the ideal style, but that, to
judge from the criticisms, this style was not actually used in practice by
all authors. Certainly the interpretation of the term ‘natural’ as ‘indi-
vidual’ had not yet become generally accepted and was only propagated
in the Netherlands from about the mid-nineteenth century.
The discussion about a new natural epistolary style seems to be in
line with the development of poetics in the period from 1770–1830. As
Gert Jan Johannes sees it, in the Netherlands in about 1780 the ‘tradi-
tional, normative poetics’ came to be replaced by a ‘poetics of balance’,
which strove to achieve a proper balance between rules and genius,
nature and art, and ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ mental faculties.50
As stated above, incidentally, the Netherlands does not seem to have
taken up the German call for individuality in epistolary style, or cer-
tainly not immediately. The same holds for the German understanding
of the term ‘natural’ as ‘bourgeois’: in Germany the plea for a natural
style was frequently interpreted as a protest on the part of the bour-
geoisie against the dominant, artificial style of the nobility. Employing
a natural style was seen as according a central role to the individual,
and was read as a protest against the class society.51 To my knowledge,
this equation between ‘artificial’ and ‘noble’, on the one hand, and ‘nat-
ural’ and ‘bourgeois’, on the other, is encountered only sporadically in
the Netherlands. The playwright P.J. Peterson, for instance, has one of
the characters in the comedy Het fatsoen [Decency] (1853) equate nat-
uralness with Dutch bourgeois ideals, simplicity and inner refinement.

╇Anonymous, AVL (1811) I, 263–264.
╇ G.J. Johannes, De lof der aalbessen. Over (Noord-)Nederlandse literatuurtheorie,
literatuur en de consequenties van kleinschaligheid 1770–1830 (‘s-Gravenhage 1997) 25.
╇Arto-Haumacher, Gellerts Briefpraxis, 143–146. R.M.G. Nickisch, Brief (Stuttgart
1991) 48. Vellusig, Schriftliche Gespräche, 153. Linke, Sprachkultur, 4.
epistolary theory31

This is contrasted with artificiality, ostentatious good manners, and

foreign (above all French) influences.52 It is not the natural style in let-
ter-writing that is at issue here, however, but the concept of naturalness
in general.
The writer Mark Prager Lindo also uses the term ‘natural’ with
explicitly class-related connotations, if somewhat different ones. In the
mid-nineteenth century, he mocks the child-rearing practices of the
elite. Young ladies, who would later have to ‘glitter in high society’, were
drilled so strictly by governesses and dancing masters that ‘by their
twelfth year they no longer retained any of that so-called “naturalness”
that should remain a distinguishing characteristic of the children of the
lesser bourgeoisie and such people’.53 The artificiality of high society is
here contrasted with the naturalness of the petty bourgeoisie. Whereas
in Germany the nobility and the bourgeoisie are contrasted with one
another, in the Netherlands (in this quotation, at least) the contrast is
between the elite and the petty bourgeoisie. However, the fact that the
term ‘naturalness’ is otherwise not often associated with class or rank
does seem to point to a general, bourgeois advocacy of naturalness.
Kloek and Mijnhardt have highlighted the egalitarian bourgeois cul-
ture in the Netherlands in about 1800, which placed a central emphasis
on moral and cultural education. In principle, anyone could become a
fully valued member of society.54 The ideal of naturalness also seems to
be attainable for everyone. In practice, however, matters were more
complicated, as will be demonstrated further in Chapter 3.
In my view, it is important above all to study what connotations the
term ‘naturalness’ took on in what situations. In this way, the question
of whether naturalness is ‘genuine’ or ‘affected’ becomes less central.
This question has indeed been the subject of discussion among German
literary historians. According to Annette Anton, naturalness was
merely a new convention, entirely devoid of authenticity. Naturalness
was pure fiction. The more authentic a letter seems, the better the writer
had mastered the trick of naturalness.55 Robert Vellusig, on the other
hand, believes that Anton’s view is based on a false understanding of

╇P.J. Peterson, Het fatsoen. Blijspel in vier bedrijven (The Hague 1853) 147–148.
╇ M. Prager Lindo, Brieven en uitboezemingen van de ouden heer Smits ([1854] 2nd
edn; Arnhem 1854) 162.
╇ Kloek en Mijnhardt, 1800, 585.
╇A.C. Anton, Authentizität als Fiktion. Briefkultur im 18. und 19. Jahrhundert
(Stuttgart 1995) 134.
32 chapter one

naturalness. According to Vellusig, ‘naturalness’ means ‘self-control,

ease’. Naturalness does not refer to an authentic ‘I’, one who does not
adopt any kind of pose or deliberately present himself or herself to the
external world, but rather to a person behaving in company exactly as
he would if he were alone: as a person unobserved, a full-blown social
being. It means that the person in question does not show that he or
she has to make an effort to behave socially in company; he must give
evidence of a character which is civilized at all times.56 As I see it, natu-
ralness is a convention, certainly, but a flexible one: the concept of nat-
uralness can be given various meanings. For me the issue is not whether
naturalness in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was authentic or
affected, but how this concept was interpreted by whom.

Epistolary theory in practice

Women as letter-writers par excellence

The German author Gellert propagated a natural style for letter-writ-
ing, and he believed that it was above all women who were proficient in
it. Gellert saw women as letter-writers par excellence: in his view,
women were more sensitive and lively than men, and more susceptible
to external impressions. He believed that this found expression in their
letters: they were more often led by their heart than their head in writ-
ing, meaning that they were not bound by rules (regarding genre etc.),
and produced freer epistles.57 This view was widespread. Geerling, for
instance, writes in his De Nederlandsche briefsteller [The Dutch letter-
composer] (1838) as follows: ‘generally speaking, it is women who
write the pleasantest letters, because most of them set down their
thoughts naturally, unaffectedly, without preconceived rules’.58
These sorts of views are in line with the general image of the nature
and character of women as expressed in gender difference theory. This
semi-scientific typification of the sexes, developed in the late eight-
eenth century by Kant and Rousseau among others, found quite a fol-
lowing in the Netherlands from 1800, and was popularized in the
nineteenth century. According to this pattern, women were naturally

╇Vellusig, Schriftliche Gespräche, 92, 156.
╇Arto-Haumacher, Gellerts Briefpraxis, 81.
╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, v. J.H. Martinet, Huisboek voor
Vaderlandsche huisgezinnen (Amsterdam 1793) 388–389.
epistolary theory33

passive and sensitive, finding their true calling in domestic life; men
were more suited to activity, rationality, and public life.59 The idea that
women could write natural letters without a great deal of effort or
reflection – letters intended, moreover, for members of their families –
fitted nicely with this view. Men, on the other hand, were thought to
consider much more carefully before writing something down, and the
result was thought to attest to their analytical minds.
It was not only the authors of letter-writing manuals who proclaimed
the aptitude of women for correspondence; we also find this idea in
epistolary novels. One such instance is De historie van den Heer Willem
Leevend [The history of Willem Leevend, Esquire] (1784–1785) by two
female authors, Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken, in which one of the char-
acters announces that ‘The talent for letter-writing seems to be the
monopoly of the ladies’.60 One reviewer of the advice book Brieven
eener Moeder aan Dochters uit den Beschaafden Stand, bij hare intrede
in de wereld [Letters of a mother to daughters of polite society on their
entry into the world] lamented: ‘The tone of the letters is indeed moth-
erly, but the style is not a woman’s style: it lacks that individual, inimi-
table, lively, piquant element that so clearly characterizes woman. Cold
reasoning prevails, calculation, one could almost say, rather than senti-
ment restrained and guided by reason’.61
And even Willem Brill’s academic Stijlleer [Style Guide], published
in 1866, views the letter as the ‘woman’s platform’:
Women, it is truly said, excel in the art of letter-writing. Indeed, the letter
is, as it were, the ‘woman’s platform’: by means of the letter she not only
maintains the bond of love between distant relations, but is also capable
of exercising an undisputed influence on significant interests. And yet,
should one consider the letters of a woman who is not in any other
respects a writer a literary work? Yes indeed, for if the letters are excel-
lent, they have been preceded by a lengthy and serious course of study:
not study of literature, but study of the art of living. Only a woman who
has learned to move among people with grace and who, to become expe-
rienced in everything, has learned to deny herself – in a word, a woman
who has known love – is capable of excelling at letter-writing. Love is the
Muse of female epistolography, because she shapes the language and the

╇T. Streng, Geschapen om te scheppen? Opvattingen over vrouwen en schrijverschap
in Nederland, 1815–1860 (Amsterdam 1997) 10–14.
╇E. Bekker and A. Deken, Historie van den heer Willem Leevend. Vol. 7 (‘s-Graven-
hage 1784–1786) 146.
╇Anonymous, DR I (1850) 205–208, here 205.
34 chapter one

style; she creates a harmonious mood and opens up the source itself,
from which the right expressions flow; and above all, she teaches the art
of framing things decorously, and gives [the writer] the strength to with-
hold that which she must be able to bear alone.62
In Brill’s opinion, women excel at letter-writing because they maintain
family relations through letter-writing. The source of their inspiration
is love of others, which allows them to be self-effacing.
Although the association of women with letters was predominantly
positive, more negative connections were also made. According to an
account in the journal De tijd, manuscripts written by women con-
tained ‘inevitable errors in style and spelling’.63 Women are also alleged
to write more sloppily: ‘Ladies are inclined in their letters to be exces-
sively high-flown, and generally pay all too little attention to the laws of
punctuation’.64 Women were seen as more likely to add postscripts to
their letters, which was a further sign of sloppiness. A postscript in a
woman’s hand might also attest to her insatiable need to talk.65 The phy-
sician C. Pruijs van der Hoeven summarizes the ideas about the sexes
and letter-writing neatly in his Levens-Studiën [My Life: A Study]:
Women are better than men at writing letters. Our letters often have
something stiff and uncomfortable about them, and lack that easy grace
that one would gladly exchange for a few errors of spelling or language.
That floating back and forth of mental images conflicts with our stately
pace of argumentation.66

Egocentrism and the private sphere

So the ideal style for letter-writing was the natural style, and women
were held to command it to perfection. Brill believed that one of the
reasons for women’s aptitude for writing letters lay in their capacity for
self-effacement. Not everybody agreed with this view. Two authors of

╇ W.G. Brill, Stijlleer (Rhetorica, Letterk. Encyclopedie en Kritiek) (Leiden 1866) 96.
This opinion is shared by J. ten Brink, De roman in brieven 1740–1840 (Amsterdam
1889) 124.
╇ F.G., ‘De zijden koord, of de kindermoordenares’, De tijd 20 (1854) 128.
╇ J. Ch. Dolz, Lessen over de gezellige welvoegelijkheid voor jonge lieden (rev. 3rd edn
Zutphen 1820) 21. See also P. Chesterfield, Lord Chesterfield’s advice to his son on men
and manners ([1774]; Chiswick 1826) 47: ‘inaccuracies in orthography, or in style, are
never pardoned but in ladies; nor is it hardly pardonable in them’.
╇E.C. van der Mandele, Het Wetboek van Mevrouw Etiquette in 24 artikelen
(Arnhem 1893) 92. J. van Rijnkerke-Olthuis, De vrouw in haar huis en daarbuiten
(Schiedam 1889) 260.
╇ C. Pruijs van der Hoeven, Levens-Studiën (Utrecht/Amsterdam 1857) 3.
epistolary theory35

late nineteenth century etiquette books believed that women tended

precisely more towards egocentrism. Engelberts, first of all, writes as
In letters, the person writing moves into the foreground, the subject writ-
ten about into the background. A capable writer has difficulty in over-
coming this; and that is the reason why women find letter-writing
infinitely easier than men.67
In his etiquette book, Engelberts not only emphasizes that women are
better at writing about themselves than men, who are more fitted to
narrating a story for a broader public; he also, in passing, characterizes
women as incapable of writing for the public at large. Louise Stratenus,
too, saw egocentrism as a typically female trait, which she censured:
‘young women have a tendency to lament about all the misfortunes of
the world […]. I need scarcely point out, however, what self-love and
egotism this reveals. […] forgetting ourselves, that is what it always
comes down to, in correspondence as otherwise.68
It was not only at the end of the nineteenth century that egocentrism
in correspondence was seen as problematic. From the first half of the
nineteenth century, the authors of letter-writing manuals instructed
that one should not write too much about oneself in letters to others;
Plokker, for instance, wrote in 1836: ‘as much as possible, one should
avoid speaking of oneself, since this would betray too great a self-love’.69
A letter may thus never begin with the word ‘I’, as ‘this borders on ego-
tism, i.e. self-interest and giving precedence to oneself and one’s own
ego’.70 The earliest reference I have encountered to this focus on the self
is found in De keizerlijke secretaris, published in 1811, which advises
that letter-writers should entirely forget themselves in congratulatory
letters.71 This prohibition of egocentrism in advice literature may per-
haps have been a response to letter-writing practice. It is possible that
people began to write more about themselves in the nineteenth cen-
tury, as Gay maintains.72 Another possibility is that under the influence

╇Engelberts, De goede toon, 21.


╇L. Stratenus, Brieven (Gouda 1885) 26–27.

╇Plokker, Oeffeningen, v.
╇S.L. Brug, Nieuw brievenboek voor leerlingen van 8 tot 13 jaar (Harlingen 1862) 23.
See also Andriessen, Handleiding, 16–18. Van der Aa, Lessen over de wellevendheid,
╇Anonymous, De keizerlijke secretaris (Amsterdam 1811) 133.
╇Gay, The naked heart, 329.
36 chapter one

of Romanticism the ego became a cultural theme, which then also

found its way into letter-writing manuals.
One way or another, the degree to which the sender is central to
a letter was problematic in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Another matter discussed was to what extent a letter was actually pri-
vate. The principle of the privacy of correspondence was enshrined
in  Dutch law in 1804, and included in the constitution in 1848; but
this  legislation was directed mainly towards curious postal officials.
Most letter and etiquette books worked on the premise of one sender
and one recipient: ‘Equally, two persons must not write in one and
the  same letter, except in the case of very great intimacy with the
one  who will receive the letter’.73 Just as it was inadvisable to hire a
third  party to write a letter, it was not proper to afford others, such
as servants, the opportunity to familiarize themselves with a letter’s
Never leave your letters lying around, and always deprive them of the
opportunity to read them, even if they are only of the very slightest con-
sequence. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, you must tell them
that even if their letters were lying there openly, you would not wish to
inspect them surreptitiously, because letters must always be sacred; but
that the best thing would be for them to lock theirs away too. Never leave
your torn up letters in the privy.74
In the lavatory, the ‘privy’, apparently even old letters, which had
already been read and were left there to be used as lavatory paper, were
in danger of being read. Good manners also required that one should
suppress one’s curiosity, according to several etiquette books, including
the following:
One must not appropriate other people’s letters, or, if they do by chance
fall into our hands, give them to others to read. One may only read other
people’s letters if the owner of the letter permits it, or expressly requires
it; and in such letters one may only read that which one is permitted to
Letters were thus defined as private documents, although the bounda-
ries were not always very clear. Anna Barbara van Meerten-Schilperoort,

╇J.V.D.L., De wellevendheid en gebruiken der wereld (The Hague 1841) 143.
╇Martinet, Huisboek, 449–450.
╇B. Galura, Onderrigtingsboek der christelijke wellevendheid ([1821] 3rd edn;
Leiden 1840) 237–238.
epistolary theory37

for instance, who was both a writer and the head of a boarding school,
advised her readers never to read their husbands’ letters without per-
mission.76 A dialogue in the Historie van Willem Leevend [History of
Willem Leevend] the epistolary novel by Wolff and Deken published in
1784–1786, in turn discusses the question of whether a husband may
read his wife’s letters. One character, Mr Ryzig, asserts that his wife’s
letters are forbidden territory for him. His wife’s feelings on the matter
are ambivalent: on the one hand she thinks that a man must surely be
completely uninterested in the ‘chattering sessions held among half a
dozen female pens’; on the other hand she believes these ‘precious tri-
fles’ to be so dear to women that a man should not be allowed to read
them just for curiosity’s sake.77 By contrast, in his novel Schetsen uit de
Pastorij te Mastland [Sketches from a parsonage in Mastland], origi-
nally published in 1843, Cornelis van Koetsveld has a clergyman say
that his wife has his tacit consent to read his letters from Uncle Jan,
since he and his uncle do not exchange secrets. These letters ‘are part of
the community of property formed by our marriage’.78 The fact that the
question of whether the partners in a marriage might read one anoth-
er’s letters was raised – and that the answer was by no means unani-
mous – shows that the private nature of letters was an issue for
discussion. Furthermore, from about 1810–1830, discussion arose
about the degree to which a letter could be about the sender himself or
herself. Both discussions point to the increased importance of the pri-
vate sphere and the position of the individual, and also highlight that
these matters were not unproblematic.

Teaching writing
But just how, in concrete terms, should a correspondent learn to write
letters? Letter-writing manuals for children, especially, addressed
the matter of how one should learn to write. A few authors of letter-
writing manuals who belonged to the Maatschappij tot Nut van
‘t Algemeen were of the opinion that children should first copy texts
such as accounts and instructions before they could learn to write

╇A.B. van Meerten-Schilperoort, Encijclopédie of handboek van vrouwelijke bedri-
jven en raadgever in alle vakken van den vrouwelijken werkkring (Amsterdam 1835)
╇ Bekker en Deken, Historie van den heer Willem Leevend, 148.
╇C.E. van Koetsveld, Schetsen uit de Pastorij te Mastland ([1843] 6th edn;
Schoonhoven 1863) 256.
38 chapter one

letters independently.79 Other authors distinguished various stages in

learning to write letters, with the teacher or the letter-writing manual
giving less and less help to the pupils as time went on. Anna Barbara
van Meerten-Schilperoort, who was herself in charge of a boarding
school for girls, read letters aloud to children of eight or nine, who
could already write to a certain extent; as the next step, she read out the
answering letter, and the scholars then had to write it themselves. After
this, the pupils read out their letters, and Van Meerten-Schilperoort
commented on them. With slightly older children, more or less the
same pattern was followed, but the model answer was read out less
often or not at all. Only once the pupils had composed their own
answering letters did the teacher read the model answer to them, after
which the children were given another chance to modify their own let-
ters. The best letter in the class had to be copied out in draft by all the
pupils; then, when they went home they had to write out a fair copy on
proper writing paper, with an address, place, and date; it had to be cor-
rectly folded, and sealed using a wafer or wax. The highest class were
only given a subject about which to write a letter. They were no longer
presented with a model letter to answer.80
Where children were involved, learning to write letters often went
hand in hand with learning other skills. Some teachers instructed their
pupils to correspond with one another about the content of books they
had read.81 In this way they not only learned to write, but also to under-
stand and digest literature thoroughly.
The letter-writing manuals also provided adults with advice about
the best method for learning to compose letters. The correspondent
should consider well in advance what he actually wanted to write, so
that he would ultimately compose a structured letter:
One should therefore, in an orderly manner, write down the main points
that will be addressed in a letter, then think carefully about each point,
and again, in the same way, write out each idea in itself. Once one has
finished with this, one should read over what one has written with strict
precision; changing the place of one idea or another, or perhaps choosing
a different word, can sometimes add much in the way of greater clarity.

╇Anonymous, Voorschriften tot het opstellen en schrijven van brieven en andere
schriftelijke opstellen, in: Stukken het schoolwezen betreffende. Vol. 8 (Leiden/Deventer/
Groningen 1806) 1. Suringar, Onderzoek, 79.
╇A.B. van Meerten-Schilperoort, Oefeningen voor min- en meergevorderden, in den
briefstijl, en in het maken van schriftelijke opstellen (Dordrecht 1830) vi.
╇Suringar, Onderzoek, 93–94.
epistolary theory39

One would have to be already fairly proficient at the art of letter writing
to be able to compose a letter just like that, without making a draft (or
copy) of it beforehand.82
For the same reason, all the letter-writing manuals advised against the
postscript: this would betray the fact that the sender had not thought
carefully enough about the structure of the letter before sitting down at
his desk.
Incidentally, when the sender took his place at his desk, he was also
to bear his posture in mind:
The position of the body in writing must be natural and unforced. The
head should not hang forward too much; the knees should not be crossed
over one another; the back must not be too bent, and the stomach and
chest should not be pressed against the table. The desk should not be too
high, and should not stand at too great a distance from the writer. The
eyes must be constantly focused on the paper, and the shadow must
always fall on the right, so that no shadow is cast on the paper by the
hand or pen.83
Yet again it is evident that ‘natural’ posture does not come naturally.
A good writing style could be developed, further, by reading good
literature (though one had to be careful not to adopt ‘high-flown
expressions’ from novels84), by practising writing a great deal, and by
beginning a correspondence with a friend.85 With a few exceptions, the
authors of letter-writing manuals aimed to teach people to write inde-
pendently. The intention was not for them to copy out the model letters
unthinkingly: ‘In a country which has a good school system, one should
have no need of a book of formulas, like Claudius’s, to copy out, thus to
strut with borrowed plumes. Each person should be able to express his
own thoughts in writing’.86

Sorts of letters
In addition to a discussion of the reason for the publication of the let-
ter-writing manual in question and a section on epistolary theory in
general, including a definition of what a letter is, most letter-writing

╇Anonymous, Nieuw brievenboek, 1.


╇Ibidem, 9.
╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, 248–249.
╇Martinet, Huisboek, 313.
╇Brug, Nieuw brievenboek. See also Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, iv and
E.W. Geuring, Theorie der liefde (Rotterdam 1869) vii.
40 chapter one

manuals included advice about writing various sorts of letters. The

Handleiding tot de kunst van het brievenschryven [Guide to the art of
letter-writing], probably written in about 1750, distinguished six main
categories of letters: intimate letters (subdivided into letters of friend-
ship and expressions of affection), letters of ceremony (subdivided into
ceremonial letters, letters of congratulation, thanks, apology, condo-
lence, and lament), love letters (gallant letters), courtesy letters, busi-
ness letters (letters of notice, commercial letters, letters of consultation),
and letters of entreaty (letters of petition and requests).87 Although
there were many different typologies, they were often based on the
same fundamental classification: the division into commercial letters,
friendship letters, and courtesy letters. Other classifications used the
terms ‘tradesmen’s letters’, ‘familiar letters’ and ‘polite letters’. The latter
type was understood to include letters of condolence, congratulations,
apology, invitation or notification. The term ‘familiar letters’ generally
referred to letters to family members and close friends.
There was a certain gradual change in the classification of letters. The
‘boertbrief ’, or jocular letter, a letter containing jokes exchanged among
friends, was only mentioned as a genre in the eighteenth century; after
that it disappeared from the letter-writing manuals.88 In addition to
New Year’s greetings and birthday good wishes, letter-writing manuals
in the second half of the eighteenth century alluded to the custom of
composing Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and fair-day letters; this was no
longer customary in the nineteenth century.89
Visiting cards, on the other hand, only made their way into letter and
etiquette books in the course of the nineteenth century, although their
use in society had been common practice for a long time.90 Sometimes
the names of the different genres or subgenres changed. From 1855 one
encounters the term ‘family letters’ in addition to ‘letters of friendship’.
However, as the nineteenth century progressed, letter-writing manuals

╇Anonymous, Handleiding tot de kunst van brievenschryven ([1734–1791] 3rd edn;
Amsterdam n.d.) 29–30.
╇Anonymous, De volmaakte secretaris, 72.
╇Jacobi, Gemene zend-brieven en B. Hakvoord, Gemeene zend-brieven (Amsterdam
1755). See also M. Oostra, ‘Een swijgende welsprekentheid. Schoonschriften en wens-
brieven 1750–1850’ in: J. Bruintjes and R. Lipschits-de Leeuwe eds, ‘Een swijgende
welsprekentheid’. Schoonschriften en wensbrieven – 1750–1850 (Heerenveen 2002)
7–17, here 7–8.
╇J.V.D.L., De wellevendheid, 83–84.
epistolary theory41

seem increasingly to have focused more on children’s letters and busi-

ness letters.91
Completely new terms were coined in response to social and techno-
logical developments: letters of application, the telegraph (1845; the
National Telegraph Service was set up in 1852, and the word telegram
was used in the Netherlands from 1860), the postcard (1870), and the
telephone 1881). Late nineteenth-century etiquette books were nega-
tive in their comments about the postcard, which was alleged to
encourage laziness and to detract from true correspondence:
Telegram style, which is taking an ever stronger hold, even on letter-writ-
ing, and which teaches lazy human nature to say everything in a few
words, has created the correspondence card and, in the place of writing
paper, the short correspondence notelet in an envelope; but that is not
the end of it: laziness has gone still further, and has invented postcards
with an ‘illustration’, in which the space available has shrunk to a ridicu-
lous minimum. Reason enough to mark these things as much beloved
means of correspondence.92
In Carel Vosmaer’s novel Inwijding [Initiation] (1888), a father com-
plains about his children’s postcards: ‘Your postcards – that wretched
invention that, together with the telegraph, is bringing long, sociable
letters into disuse’.93 The author Louise Stratenus, too, looked back nos-
talgically in this period to an era in which people still excelled at the art
of correspondence.94

The ‘external features of the letter’

Virtually every letter-writing manual drew a distinction between the
‘internal features of the letter’ (content and style) and the ‘external fea-
tures of the letter’, which included writing materials and handwriting,
the folding, sealing, addressing, and stamping of a letter, the use of
envelopes, and forms of address.95

╇ Chartier observes more attention in nineteenth-century letter-writing manuals
for business letters, letters to the authorities, and letters to mark specific occasions,
Chartier, ‘Des “secrétaires” pour le peuple?’, 200. In my view, in the eighteenth century,
too, a great deal of attention is paid to letters for specific occasions.
╇N. Bruck-Auffenberg, De vrouw ‘Comme il faut’ (Leiden 1897) 188. See also J. van
Woude, Vormen. Handboek voor dames (Amsterdam 1898) 201.
╇ C. Vosmaer, Inwijding (‘s Gravenhage 1888) 140.
╇Stratenus, Brieven, 1, 25.
╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, Table of Contents.
42 chapter one

As regards these ‘external features’, the authors admonished their

readers, both male and female, to be careful above all to write neatly
and legibly and not to make any ink blots on the letter. They should use
good quality, black ink, well-cut quills, and fine white paper for writ-
ing. At the end of the nineteenth century, Mrs Van Rijnkerke-Olthuis
warned in her etiquette book against cross-writing letters (covering a
leaf of paper with writing both horizontally and vertically): ‘One should
also avoid all that ugly crossing and scrawling all over every scrap of
paper that had been left white; both paper and postage are so low in
price these days that one does not have to be so economical with the
In choosing the format of the paper, the social status or position of
the recipient was a major consideration: the more important the recipi-
ent, the bigger the paper. Very important individuals and authorities
could expect letters in folio. Quarto would suffice for more everyday
letters, but in the second half of the nineteenth century octavo became
increasingly fashionable, as the authors of letter and etiquette books
inform us. They were not enthusiastic, incidentally, about the use of
coloured paper. Gilt-edged paper was permitted in love letters or letters
of congratulation, although Geerling views this as a ladies’ habit: ‘in
men it looks rather excessive’.97
Not only the format of the paper, but also the spacing between the
salutation and the main text of the letter, and between this text and the
signature, might reveal something about the relations between the
sender and the recipient. The more generous the spacing, the more
important the man or woman to whom the letter was addressed. The
recipient’s social status was of course also expressed in the title by
which he or she was addressed. Nearly all letter-writing manuals
included extensive tables showing the correct forms of address.
Although the authors of a few letter-writing manuals believed the use
of titles was greatly exaggerated, they nevertheless agreed that this was
a mandatory part of letter-writing instruction.98
In addition to advice about spacing and titles, many letter-writing
manuals contained a section on how the letter should be dried
and sealed. Using sand to dry the letter was a very bad idea, since the
recipient would get a cloud of sand in his or her face on opening it;

╇ Van Rijnkerke-Olthuis, De vrouw, 261.
╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, xx.
╇Anonymous, Gids door het leven (Amsterdam 1856) 269. A.C. Akveld, Groot
brievenboek (2nd edn; Leiden 1873) 7.
epistolary theory43

furthermore, it damaged the paper. Once the paper and writing materi-
als had been chosen and the letter had been written and dried, it must
be sealed and dispatched. A few books advised that if one was writing
to a person of rank, one should not seal the letter with a wafer, but rather
with red wax. In a few cases the reader was instructed about the instru-
ment to use for sealing the letter: not a head, but a cachet, coat of arms
or cipher.99 Before the use of envelopes became more widespread from
about 1855, advice books also commented on the reasons to choose a
particular type of cover. We see the same pattern when it comes to
stamping; after the Post Office Act of 1851, which signalled the advent
of the postage stamp, little advice was needed on this subject any more.
The reason why the letter-writing manuals paid so much attention
to the outward appearance of the letter was the opinion that the exte-
rior of the letter afforded penetrating insight into the interior of the
writer. A sloppy letter would reflect badly on the sender’s character.
This is also apparent from a passage from the novel Onze Buurt [Our
Neighbourhood] by Dorothea Bohn-Beets (1861). A servant has to
post two letters: one by his own mistress and one by the mistress of a
neighbouring servant girl.
The servant placed the two letters side by side. The one by his mistress
was white, properly folded, neatly sealed with wax; the address was writ-
ten in a dainty hand. Mrs Rueel’s maxim was that everything that issued
from a lady’s hand must testify to immaculate taste and purity. The letter
from the other side of the street was bright purple in colour, and was
sloppily stuck down with a wafer. The envelope was far too big, and since
the servant had grasped it rather tightly in his hand, it became crumpled;
as did its contents, which had initially slipped back and forth within it.
The bearer was not aware that it was the character of the two writers he
was posting into the steel letter box.100

Famous letter-writers as models

The Netherlands
If the tips from the letter-writing manuals were not sufficient, the
reader could always consult the published works of famous corre-
spondents. The authors of advice literature sporadically held up the

╇A cypher is a motif of intertwined letters, especially the initials of a name, a
╇ D.F. Bohn-Beets, Onze buurt (Haarlem 1861) 33.
44 chapter one

example of Cicero, Cardinal d’Ossat, Comte Bussy Rabutin, Dominique

Bouhours, François Fénélon or Madame de Maintenon. But it is
above  all the name of the French noblewoman Madame de Sévigné

Fig. 1╇ Madame de Sévigné (pastel; R. Nanteuil; from Émile Faguet,

l’Histoire de la littérature française [22nd edition; Paris 1916]).]
epistolary theory45

(1626–1694) that stands out. Madame de Sévigné was famous for her
letters to her daughter, published posthumously from 1725. Critics and
reviewers especially praised her ‘natural’ style.
Madame de Sévigné and other literary correspondents were dis-
cussed in much more detail in contemporary literary works than in the
advice literature. For this reason, the final section of this chapter
focuses on reviews, style manuals, and literary histories, to answer the
question of what, in the second half of the eighteenth and the nine-
teenth century, was perceived to constitute a good letter.
The commentator and critic Van Goens, mentioned above, lamented
in 1766 that so few original letters were published in the Netherlands.
Dutch people, if requested, would only be able to name examples of
famous letter-writers from abroad. Van Goens himself could think
only of P.C. Hooft: ‘Hooft is certainly by no means the worst, and one
may well cite him as an example of a good letter-writing style’.
Nevertheless, Van Goens was not taken with the style of Hooft’s letters.
It was too stiff and terse, and moreover reeked too much of ‘intellect’
and ‘invention’.101
This ambivalence was echoed by later critics. Hooft was indeed
characterized as one of the first to have composed stylish letters in
Dutch, but his style was considered too artificial.102 In his Stijlleer [Style
Manual], Brill accused Hooft of lacking sincerity and simplicity:
The writer’s modesty is too exaggerated to be sincere, and to matters
which should be imparted with simplicity he devotes such an excess of
contrivance that he deserves to be reckoned among those whom he him-
self somewhere accuses of ‘preferring duskiness in language to Dutchness,
so as to appear in a more intellectual light’.103
These criticisms show that the ideal letter would have a natural style,
which was what the authors of letter-writing manuals also advocated.
Hooft did not live up to this ideal; Brill listed Madame de Sévigné,
Juliana van Nassau, and Maria van Reigersbergh as examples of out-
standing letter-writers.104

╇ [Van Goens], ‘Bedenkingen van den Philosophe sans fard’, 480–481. See also Van
den Berg, ‘Briefreflectie’, 1–2.
╇Siegenbeek, Lessen, 253. P.J.B.C. van der Aa, ‘Redevoering over het belangrijke
der briefverzamelingen van gewigtige personen’, AVL (1810) II, 357–366, here 361.
╇Brill, Stijlleer, 95.
╇Ibidem, 96.
46 chapter one

The letters of Maria van Reigersbergh, the wife of Hugo Grotius,

were the subject of various comments in the second half of the nine-
teenth century. An extract from a few of her letters was published in an
issue of the journal Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen in 1824. The editor
and owner of the letters considered them ‘helpful in obtaining a closer
acquaintance with this shrewd and honest woman; furthermore, they
are of some importance in themselves, or for the history of her hus-
band’. According to him, the letters revealed – in addition to many
other good qualities – ‘skills and talents which, to the extent that she
possessed them, are seldom found in a woman, and which, inciden-
tally, are more sought after in a man’.105
Maria’s letters were first published in a separate volume in 1857.
Opinions about this correspondence were divided. Her letters were
praised for giving an accurate picture of the times in which she lived,
and for being ‘spirited and witty’.106 The authors of the introduction to
a later edition professed to being attracted by the content of the letters
and their witty comments, as well as by the fact that Maria van
Reigersbergh, in their view, did not go in search of dainty words or pay
a great deal of attention to her language and style.107
A more critical note about these letters was expressed by Robert
Fruin, Professor in Dutch history at the University of Leiden. He
did praise Maria van Reigersbergh for writing as she spoke; and cer-
tainly when compared with the ‘contrived and artificial writing’
of  Tesselschade Roemer Visscher, Maria’s natural style stood out
The letters of Madame de Groot […] are more intimate talk than consid-
ered writing; they are just as natural as the letters of Madame de Sevigné,
but infinitely less witty, because the Dutch mayor’s daughter, and the cir-
cles in which she moved, were infinitely less witty than the French aristo-
crat and her relations. And yet Maria is not lacking in ingenuity and
acuity; she was known as incisive, and she shows herself thus in her let-
ters, too.108

╇A.S., VL (1824) II 19–27, 176–185, 482–488 and 519–527, here 19, 522.
╇ M. van Reigersbergh, Brieven van Maria van Reigersbergh, H. Vollenhoven and
G.D.J. Schotel eds (Middelburg 1857) xlvi.
╇ M. van Reigersbergh, Brieven van en aan Maria van Reigersberch, H.C. Rogge ed.
(Leiden 1902) 1–3.
╇R. Fruin, ‘Hugo de Groot en Maria van Reigersbergh [review of Maria van
Reigersbergh, H. Vollenhoven and G.D.J. Schotel eds (Middelburg 1857)], De Gids 22
(1848) II, 289–324; 417–473, here 291–296; 464, 467.
epistolary theory47

Yet Fruin also had criticism in store. Although he praised Maria’s let-
ters for their naturalness of style and their feeling, they did not always
reveal the requisite female submissiveness. There were letters, for
example, in which she contradicted her husband about the future of
their son. Fruin was thus not content only to judge the letters’ style; he
also scrutinized the character and behaviour of the woman writing
them. But this criterion, too, deserves comment. For, Fruin explained,
one should not pay too much attention to Maria van Reigersbergh’s
character. This might detract from Hugo Grotius, ‘that great man […]
into whose glory, as is fitting, her weaker light is subsumed’.109
In his essay, Fruin brings forward two criteria for judging corre-
spondence which found broad acceptance. First, again, that a natural
writing style is praiseworthy; second, that letters should reveal the
character of the correspondent.
These two criteria were stated explicitly by a critic reviewing an edi-
tion of the letters by the poet Bilderdijk published in 1837. Several of
Bilderdijk’s letters from 1781–1803 were ‘dominated by a preponder-
ance of natural tone and informal sincerity of friendship. Thanks to
this unhampered expression of thinking and feeling, they seem thus to
be quite suitable for getting to know Bilderdijk in some respects as a
person’. Yet certainly not all of Bilderdijk’s letters were exemplary, in the
opinion of this reviewer; some were marred by old-fashioned stiffness
and artificiality, and this impeded access to Bilderdijk’s personality.
A further criticism was that the poet’s own personality, his hypochon-
dria, was too much at the centre of the correspondence.110 Critics often
complained about Bilderdijk’s ‘pathological self-obsession’ in his let-
ters.111 This criticism tallies with the letter-writing manuals’ warnings
about egocentrism.
Not a single Dutch letter-writer received the critics’ unqualified
praise. The duo Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken were also included by
some in the list of famous examples to emulate;112 others, however,
characterized their letters as ‘not as natural as the intimate letter style
demands; at times too pedantic and mannered, at other times

╇Ibidem, 8.

╇Anonymous, VL (1837) I, 254–260, here 258.

╇Brill, Stijlleer, 96.
╇Ten Brink, De roman in brieven 1740–1840, 124.
╇ W.J.A. Jonckbloet, Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche letterkunde. Vol. 5 (4th edn;
Groningen 1891) 260. Lulofs characterizes the letters in their epistolary novels as
48 chapter one

According to the literary critics, then, a letter had to have a natural

and simple style, as well as a certain amount of wit and vivacity; it
should not, however, be too polished. Reviews of editions of letters
by famous figures in literary journals such as the Vaderlandsche
Letteroefeningen and De recensent, ook der recensenten reveal that these
letters were judged on the criteria of genuineness, good style, interest-
ing content, and the extent to which they provided information about
the character (and especially the moral character) of the author and the
times in which he or she lived. Correspondences were thought to con-
stitute interesting reading material as ‘an excellent manner to gain
insight into human nature and character’.114

The fact that various authors lamented that the Netherlands had pro-
duced too few good letter-writers, or at any rate too few editions of
letters in Dutch, is fully in line with the picture that Johannes gave of
Dutch literary criticism in the period from 1770–1830. At that time,
Dutch art theory was seen as a valuable weapon in the fight against the
Netherlands’ perceived cultural decline relative to the rest of the world,
a means to give Dutch culture the boost it needed. From 1800, the
weaknesses that critics noted in Dutch art and literature were reinter-
preted as national virtues. The ‘noble simplicity’ of Dutch culture and
literature was emphasized, for instance.115 Simplicity, together with
naturalness, was one of the criteria for good letters; however, in discus-
sions of Dutch editions of letters it was not viewed as a pre-eminently
Dutch virtue. The letters of Hooft, for example, were considered not
simple enough. Where letters were concerned, literary critics seem to
have been unable to cast off the image of decline. Their search for true
models continued to take them abroad. In addition to the prime exam-
ple of Madame de Sévigné’s letters, the letters of Roman authors such as
Cicero continued to be extolled well into the nineteenth century.116
Another famous name which has not been mentioned thus far is that of
the English noblewoman Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

follows: ‘They radiate merriment and good sense, and the character of each of the let-
ter-writers […] is aptly reflected in them.’ B.H. Lulofs ed., Lessen over de redekunst en
fraaije letteren. Vol. 3 ([1788] 3rd edn; Groningen 1837) 102.
╇ Van der Aa, ‘Redevoering’, 362.
╇Johannes, Lof der aalbessen, 80.
╇Lulofs, Lessen over de redekunst, 60–61. R.C. Bakhuizen van den Brink, Studiën
en schetsen over Vaderlandsche geschiedenis. Vol. 3 (The Hague 1876) 417.
epistolary theory49

Strangely enough, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689–1762) was

not proffered as a model in letter-writing manuals, but she was very
much a presence in literary criticism. When her travel letters were pub-
lished in the Netherlands in 1777, a reviewer in the Hedendaagsche
Vaderlandsche Letter-oefeningen reminded readers that an earlier
Dutch-language edition of letters of hers, published in 1763, had been
‘received with universal eagerness’. Her letters were praised for their
‘wit and perceptiveness’.117 A reviewer of the letters published in 1763
One should not be surprised that the letters written by a woman to
intimate friends in the course of her travels are rather superficial. And
yet the style is so fluent, the remarks so apt, the descriptions so hand-
some, that we believe we will give great pleasure to the readers of
our literary exercises by sharing with them the greater part of the various
It was not only reviewers who presented Montagu’s travel letters in a
good light. They were also much lauded in epistolary novels and trea-
tises about rhetoric.119 In England, Montagu’s letters were viewed as a
model of ladies’ letters: they were thought to embody naturalness, sim-
plicity and elegance, in contrast to men’s letters, which were seen as stiff
and artificial. Women were held to have raised conversation to a fine
art, with the result that they could leap from one topic to another with
great ease. This vivacity was prized in epistolary style. The association
of women with conversation, and thus with liveliness and sensibility,
had positive connotations. The written word was considered to consti-
tute a barrier to the expression of feelings. At the same time, being
associated with naturalness also meant that women must avoid giving
an impression of learnedness, as otherwise the letter-writer might be
characterized as an intellectual. The term ‘vivacity’ conjured up the old
stereotype of superficial women’s chitchat. The reviewer quoted above
literally uses the word ‘superficiality’ to characterize Montagu’s letters.
For these reasons, the genre of the letter was taken less seriously as a

╇Anonymous, HVL 1 (Amsterdam 1772) I, 490–492, here 490–491. See also
C. Lowenthal, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the eighteenth-century familiar letter
(Athens 1994). The information on the reception of Montagu’s letters is drawn from
the database ‘Women writers before 1900’:
╇Anonymous, VL 4 (Amsterdam 1764) I, 124–137, here 124–125.
╇ Bekker and Deken, Historie van Willem Leevend, 146. ‘Mesdames de Maintenon
and Sévigné, and also [madame] Ninon, are excellent examples of true genius. Mylady
Montagu is no lesser in her own sphere’. Lulofs, Lessen over de redekunst, 63–64.
50 chapter one

literary genre. The letter was associated with conversation and the pri-
vate sphere, and not with literary works of art.120
The reception of women’s letters in literary criticism is comparable
with the judgement of women’s novels. In the nineteenth century,
women novelists too were often not viewed as artists, as the study by
Toos Streng has shown. In the eyes of contemporary critics, women
authors had a great deal of insight into the emotions, a keen eye for
describing details, but a lack of analytical powers. The emotions or the
household were considered suitable themes for women. Novels by
women were thought to reflect more virtue and piety than works by
men. Women novelists’ style was said to be weaker than that of their
male counterparts.121 Thus although women novelists were not explic-
itly attributed with a natural style, when their literary works are
appraised, the underlying associations with femininity are the same as
with women letter-writers.
It was, of course, not only critics who read literary letters. Catharina
van Schinne read Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters in 1775, and
Maria Hubrecht-van Lelyveld read them in 1797.122 Moreover,
Montagu’s letters were prescribed reading at the Grammar School
attended by one of the Hubrecht boys in the 1840s. Cicero’s letters were
also on the curriculum.123 Johannes Kneppelhout, who later became a
writer, had to read Madame de Sévigné’s correspondence at Noortheij,
the boarding school he attended in Voorschoten.124
Finally, we can compare the results of this research into the crite-
ria  for good letters in literature with a study by Keith Stewart, who
examined eighteenth-century English letters, reviews of letters, and
the  general discussion about rhetoric to arrive at a definition of the
letter in this period. Stewart’s conclusion is that letters had to have

╇ C.E. Percy, ‘â•›“Easy women”: defining and confining the “feminine” style in eight-
eenth-century print culture’, Language sciences 22 (2000) 315–338.
╇Streng, Geschapen om te scheppen?, 29–31.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 28, letter from Catharina van Schinne to Sara van Schinne-
van Ruster, 8 Feb. 1775. GAL, FAH, letter from Maria Hubrecht-van Lelyveld to Ida
Cecelia van Lelyveld, 15 July 1797. She mentions that she is reading ‘Miladi Montigné’.
This could be either Lady Montagu or Madame de Maintenon, but the English title
‘Miladi’ suggests to me that she means Montagu’s letters.
╇ GAL, library no. 50281/1, List of assignments for the course from 1836 to the
summer vacation of 1837, from 22 August to 8 July.
╇ UBL, Ltk 1656, letter from J. Kneppelhout to L.R. Beynen, 15 Aug. 1833. See also
P. Smith, ‘Kneppelhout en de Franse klassieken’, De Negentiende Eeuw 26 (2002) 218–
235, here 227.
epistolary theory51

content – they had to be about more than just business or an invita-
tion.  The person of the letter-writer was a very appropriate topic.
Furthermore, to be interesting a letter required imagination, moulded
by the personality of the sender. It must also be capable of creating in
the reader a sense of proximity, as though he himself had been present
at the events described. For this it was essential that the writer com-
municated his feelings honestly, and, moreover, tailored them to the
character of the recipient. This was possible within the framework of a
relationship of friendship. All these elements were intended to satisfy
the reader’s curiosity. According to the eighteenth-century sources
Stewart consulted, letters served to instruct and entertain. As far as the
style was concerned, there were three requirements: naturalness, vari-
ety, and vivacity.125
Comparison with views expressed in similar Dutch sources from the
final quarter of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century
reveals many similarities, but also several differences. The stylistic cri-
teria are the same, as is the requirement that the letter should reveal the
character of the writer. The importance attached to substance, on the
other hand, and the idea of moulding the letter to fit the personality of
the recipient are seldom encountered in nineteenth-century Dutch dis-
cussions of letter-writing. This might suggest the tentative conclusion
that in the epistolary theory of the eighteenth century, the letter was a
matter of both sender and recipient, whereas for nineteenth-century
critics correspondence mainly revolved around the writer himself or
herself. Howard Anderson and Irvin Ehrenpreis do indeed view the
correspondents of the nineteenth century as more egocentric that their
eighteenth-century predecessors.126 The censure of egocentrism in
nineteenth-century letter-writing manuals, as discussed above, points
in the same direction.


This chapter began with a discussion of the problems of using advice

literature in general, and letter-writing manuals in particular, as a

╇ K. Stewart, ‘Towards defining an aesthetic for the familiar letter in eighteenth-
century England’, Prose Studies 5 (1982) 179–192, here 186, 189.
╇H. Anderson and I. Ehrenpreis, ‘The familiar letter in the eighteenth century:
some generalizations’, in: H. Anderson et al. eds, The familiar letter in the eighteenth
century (Lawrence 1966) 269–282, here 278–280.
52 chapter one

source. The relationship between theory and practice in these books

is not straightforward.
Some recommendations were a head-on attack on common prac-
tice, and will never have been adopted in full by readers – such as the
advice not to add a postscript, since this would indicate that the sender
had not thought the structure of his letter through in advance. The
same holds true of the censure of untidy handwriting and blotting the
page. These are examples of advice which tries to address a lack of
norms in society, but which has little effect. In this respect, the function
of such advice is probably more to propagate an ideal situation.
Advice books also sometimes anticipated on new social demands in
response to changing norms. Such advice was prompted by the increas-
ing diversity in types of paper, for instance, or changes in postal ser-
vices, and the introduction of new media such as the telegraph,
postcards, or the telephone.
Nevertheless, in many cases the relationship between norms and
practice remains ambivalent. And what about the stereotypical images
of women that surface in recommendations about correspondence?
On the one hand, prejudices certainly played a role here: the idea that
women were more natural than men, for instance, better at conversa-
tion, but less good at spelling. On the other hand, there may well have
been a grain of truth in it. For after all, since women wrote letters more
frequently than men, it is scarcely surprising that they were viewed as
letter-writers par excellence. And perhaps they were indeed poorer at
spelling than men, simply because they had received a different educa-
tion that concentrated more on needlework and conversation than on
The precise connection between norm and practice is also difficult
to pin down when it comes to one of the preliminary conclusions of
this chapter, namely that from the beginning of the nineteenth century
letter-writing manuals forbade their readers to write too much about
themselves. This seems to reflect the increased importance of the indi-
vidual in society, perhaps under the influence of Romanticism.
Letter-writing manuals from the eighteenth century were still influ-
enced in part by classical rhetoric, but this influence decreased as the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed. Such manuals, but
also style manuals and epistolary novels, unanimously propagated the
ideals of clarity, reflection, and above all a natural style. The concept of
naturalness owed its popularity mainly to the German author Gellert,
who also found a large following in the Netherlands. ‘Naturalness’
epistolary theory53

could mean both ‘dignified’, ‘artless’, ‘individual’ and ‘apt’. Although

there seems to have been a gradual shift from a ‘refined’ concept of
naturalness to an individualist concept, the various meanings still con-
tinued to intertwine. From about 1810, the ideal of the natural style
seems to have found more widespread support, and came to be con-
trasted especially with an old-fashioned, artificial, wooden style. The
ideal of an individual writing style, as prescribed by famous German
authors, was not adopted in Dutch letter-writing manuals.
In addition to advice about the perfect writing style, letter-writing
manuals also gave tips on the practical aspects of composing a letter.
The fundamental principle in this was that the external appearance of
the letter reflected the inner nature of the sender.
Sometimes letter-writing manuals cited famous correspondents as a
model. The most popular were Cicero and Madame de Sévigné, the
pre-eminent examples of the natural style in letter-writing. Literary
criticism provides us with yet more information about the reception of
famous letter-writers. Few Dutch correspondents stood the test of criti-
cism: Hooft wrote too artificially, as did Bilderdijk, who added egocen-
tricity to his sins. Foreign authors fared rather better: Madame de
Sévigné was well received, as was Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose
travel letters were popular in the Netherlands both at the end of the
eighteenth and in the nineteenth century. These women, above all,
were held to epitomize a natural writing style.
Literary critics praised letters for their natural style, the extent to
which they revealed the character of the author, and their witty con-
tent. The latter criterion is virtually never encountered in the letter-
writing manuals. For both the authors of letter-writing manuals and
contemporary critics, the most important aspect was the self-image
that the writer of the letter presented to others. The former put the
emphasis on the sender making a ‘proper’ impression, as is clear from
detailed tips about the outward appearance of the letter, which was
supposed to mirror the inner qualities of the sender. The self-image in
question, however, was one that could be manipulated, not the authen-
tic ‘ego’ that the literary critics aimed to distil out of the published edi-
tions of letters. Moreover, the authors of letter-writing manuals viewed
this ‘ego’ as problematic, since the danger of egocentrism was ever-
present. The authors of these manuals and other rhetorical treatises
also emphasized that the self-image presented should not only reflect
the writer’s personality, but also live up to ideals concerning gender
and social class. The authors of letter-writing manuals thus paid more
54 chapter one

attention to social circumstances, and viewed the letter more as a social

instrument than did the literary critics, who were mainly concerned to
access the character of the letter writer.
The following chapter will investigate to what extent the epistolary
theory examined in this chapter was actually applied in practice.
Chapter Two

Everyday correspondence

Dearest mama, you ask me for an old-fashioned letter – by which

I presume you mean a long one.1


‘Nobody gives less thought than he to the form and style of a letter’, a
certain Mr Falck lamented of an acquaintance in 1802.2 In 1825, Sophia
Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-van Rhemen sighed: ‘ma
lettre ne sera pas selon toutes les regles’ (my letter will not live up to all
the rules).3 These quotations suggest that there was a general sense that
there were rules a letter should obey.
But what were these rules? Were they the same as the ones propa-
gated by the authors of letter-writing manuals, or did everyday episto-
lary practice have its own set of rules? And how were letters actually
exchanged in everyday life? What were the material aspects and the
contents of correspondence? The present chapter sets out to answer
these questions. First of all, I shall discuss the material prerequisites for
letter-writing: writing materials (such as pens, paper and ink), time,
and space. After that, we will look at the postal system, especially in
terms of how it influenced letter-writing practice. We then turn to the
question of the language in which a letter was written: Dutch, French
or Latin. What determined the choice of language? And how important
were the salutation and concluding formula of the letter? After discuss-
ing the opening and concluding formulas, we will move on to look at
the style of the letter. Did the correspondents of the Hubrecht, Van
Lanschot, Van Schinne, De Constant Rebecque and Hora Siccama fam-
ilies model their own style on famous letter-writers? What did ‘style’

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 21 May
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 41, O.W. Falck to Amelie Falck, 11 September 1802.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-van
Rhemen to Juliana d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 16 September 1825.
56 chapter two

mean in everyday correspondence? I then discuss the subjects treated

in letters, and what subjects, on the contrary, were taboo. Finally, we
will look at aspects of what people did with letters they had received:
reading letters aloud and keeping them.
These questions follow naturally from the previous chapter, which
discussed the letter-writing manuals’ proscriptions concerning the
internal and external features of the letter. The current chapter traces
the similarities and differences between epistolary theory and episto-
lary practice. A second theme examined in this chapter is the perform-
ative function of letters, particularly how letters contribute to the
process of identity formation. This emerges most sharply in the discus-
sion of how the emotions and religion are handled in the correspond-
ences studied.

Writing materials and a place to write

In the days before central heating, electricity, ballpoints and cheap

paper, writing a letter was not always an easy matter. In the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, a correspondent needed time, space, light,
paper, ink and quills. Writing skills in general, and specifically some
understanding of the external features and content of a good letter,
were also important prerequisites. Two letters which Maria Oomen
wrote to her mother in 1825, when she was at boarding school, show us
what writing materials she felt she needed. In addition to ‘blue and grey
paper’, ‘white paper’, and ‘a stopper for the inkwell’, she asked her
mother to send her the following items:
First and foremost, I wish to have a writing desk with a penknife, because
this too I have to borrow. Most writing desks here are painted, there are
also some made of mahogany, but all of them have in common that they
are one sort bigger than the one I have at home, but do send it, s.v.plait,
but I hope it will shut. I hope also to find a glass inkpot and a sand pot
in it; I wish also that you would send my ruler and a pair of compasses
with it.4
Maria’s writing materials thus included a writing desk containing an
inkpot and a sand pot (the sand was scattered over the letter to dry the
ink), paper in three different colours, a penknife, a ruler, and a pair of

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz,
10 and 13 August 1825.
everyday correspondence57

compasses. In this, Maria ran counter to the instructions in the manu-

als, which advised against coloured paper and sand.
The writing implement was a goose quill, which first had to be cut
with a penknife in preparation for writing. Goose quills were cheap,
but often made bad pens. From 1837, steel pens (dip pens) are men-
tioned in letters. Although the first pens of this type were already being
produced from the start of the nineteenth century, they were then still
too expensive for most, certainly compared with goose quills. Steel
pens probably only became affordable in about 1840. In a letter written
in 1831, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck mentioned that she had seen
advertisements in the papers for ‘Perry pens’, made by the British com-
pany Perry & Co.. She felt they were too expensive.5 Steel pens came
in several varieties, so that letter-writers could choose one to suit
their taste; this had naturally never been possible with goose quills.6
So Baroness De Constant Rebecque mentioned in a letter in 1856 that
she had tried out a golden pen with a diamond nib, but found it did not
write nicely.7 At the end of the nineteenth century, the goose quill as a
pen would disappear completely with the advent of the fountain pen.
Steel pens called for wove paper (paper without a watermark). Steel
pens did not write well on other paper, as various letter-writers com-
plained around 1840. Jan Hora Siccama, for instance, wrote to his
brother Otto: ‘if I tell you I have steel pens, wove paper, and Stephens
ink for my equipment, it can’t be a matter of my tools’.8 Paper in general
was expensive. It was only from 1870 onwards that paper prices in the
Netherlands started to fall.9 Sometimes only half a sheet of paper was
used for a letter because otherwise the packet of letters would be too
heavy, and thus too expensive, or because there was not enough paper.
Mrs Van Schinne expressed fears, however, that writing on half a sheet
of paper might be found impolite.10 Pauline van der Kun thought that a

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 68, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
17 December 1831.
╇ N. Hall, ‘The materiality of letter writing. A nineteenth century perspective’, in:
Barton and Hall, Letter writing as a social practice, 83–108, here 93, 96.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120B, Juliana de Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van
Giessenburg to Victor de Constant Rebecque, 21 April 1856.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 74, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 5 January 1840.
╇O. de Wit, ‘Papier’, in: H. Lintsen et al. eds, Geschiedenis van de techniek in
Nederland. vol. 2. Waterstaat en infrastructuur. Papier, druk en communicatie (Zutphen
1993) 199–221, here 220–221.
╇ NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
30 December 1773.
58 chapter two

half sheet would pass muster for a letter to her sister-in-law, but if she
wanted to write to her mother-in-law she waited until she had a whole
sheet at her disposal.11 It was not really appropriate, then, to use half a
sheet of paper to write to people who deserved a great deal of respect.
It is often assumed that people cross-wrote their letters because
paper was so expensive. In my selection of letters, however, cross-
writing is relatively rare. Moreover, nearly all the cross-written letters
date from after 1845. This tallies with Hammer-Stroeve’s research into
the elite of the Dutch town of Enschede: virtually all family letters in
the last decades of the nineteenth century were cross-written.12 Yet this
cannot be the result of higher paper costs, since the cost of paper actu-
ally fell from 1870 onwards. Perhaps the reduction in the price of paper
was not marked enough. It is also possible that thrift was seen as par-
ticularly important in this period. The fact that it was only at the end of
the nineteenth century that etiquette books took a stance against cross-
writing suggests that this was a new habit, or that it only came to be
viewed as problematic at this time.13 In this case the etiquette books
seem to be responding to developments in letter-writing practice.
From about 1840, letter-writers not only used white paper or black-
edged paper (for mourning), but also sometimes light blue. Women
and children, especially, even used paper in other colours, with a gilt
edge, or with a floral or other decoration. Separate envelopes only
became widespread in about the mid-nineteenth century. Before that
time, the sender had to fold his or her letter up in a complicated man-
ner and close it with a seal.
In addition to pens, paper, and ink, writing required time and space.
Some letter-writers had fixed times for dealing with their correspond-
ence. Boys and girls at boarding schools often wrote letters early in
the morning or late at night, or on Sundays. But many letter-writers did
not keep to fixed times, or else this is difficult to reconstruct. It is also
not easy to trace where exactly the men and women of the eighteenth
and nineteenth century went to write letters. One or two of them
allude  to writing in a bedroom or study, or at the kitchen table. Art
historical studies about interiors show that in the nineteenth century

╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 231, Pauline van Lanschot-van der Kun to Theodora van
Lanschot, 9 March 1833.
╇T. Hammer-Stroeve, Familiezoet. Vrouwen in een ondernemerselite, Enschede
1800–1940 (Zutphen 2001) 119.
╇ Van Rijnkerke-Olthuis, De vrouw, 261.
everyday correspondence59

Fig. 2╇ Cross-written letter from Ambrosius Hubrecht to

Paul Hubrecht, 16 September 1847 (Leiden Municipal Archives).

the secretaire, a writing desk with space to store papers, letters and
pens, often with a slanting (fold-out) writing surface and an inkpot,
generally stood in the bedroom.14 Sometimes the secretaire was placed
in a spare bedroom, study or library (for men), or in a semi-public area
such as a drawing room. An inventory of household effects drawn up
in 1852 for the house on the Rapenburg in Leiden inhabited by the
Hubrecht sisters shows that there was also a secretaire in the main
drawing room, the most representative room in the house, where the
members of the household received visitors, made music, talked or

╇ J.M. van Voorst tot Voorst, Tussen Biedermeier en Berlage. Meubel en interieur in
Nederland 1835–1895 (Amsterdam 1992) 2 vols, 131, 601, 654, 711–712.
╇ Th.H. Lunsingh Scheurleer et al. eds, Het Rapenburg. Geschiedenis van een Leidse
gracht (Leiden 1986) vol. V, 149, 169, 210–211. See also G. Mette, ‘Der private Raum als
öffentlicher Ort. Geselligkeit im bürgerlichen Haus’, in: D. Hein and A. Schulz eds,
Bürgerkultur im 19. Jahrhundert. Bildung, Kunst und Lebenswelt (München 1996) 155–
169, here 163.
60 chapter two

There were special secretaires for ladies. These writing desks were
smaller, lighter, and more elegant than men’s. Sometimes ladies’ secre-
taires included mirrors, so that they could also serve as a dressing table.
In this context, Siebel draws attention to the symbolic and representa-
tive function of a lady’s secretaire in the drawing room: since it would
have been impossible to really work to any great extent at a little desk
of this kind, this piece of furniture did not conjure up any associations
with labour. Rather, in analogy with the social position of women in
the highest circles of society, it had a mainly decorative function.16
In addition, more simple writing tables or writing desks were avail-
able, at which one could either sit or stand and write. These pieces of
furniture also often had a space, known as a cassette, in which one
could keep letters or papers. Letters could also be kept in pocket port-
folios or writing cases. The ladies’ magazine Penélopé, for example,
printed patterns for making a writing case.17
While the correspondents seldom give any information about where
exactly they are writing, they do often allude to lacking the peace and
quiet to think properly about the style and contents of their letters.
Many women lament that they are constantly disturbed by their chil-
dren or household duties, forcing them to interrupt their writing.
Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken, for instance, sighed: ‘it was my intention
to write to you already at the beginning of the week, but I have been
hindered until today by preserving beans, rosehips and that sort of
thing’.18 And Marie Hubrecht-Pruys van der Hoeven begged: ‘please
forgive this letter being written in fits and starts, but there can be little
chance of well ordered letters with the little fellow, at least for the time
being. Maybe I’ll learn it again one day’.19 A friend of Julie d’Ablaing van
Giessenburg’s tried to write with her child on her lap. She had been
interrupted six times already, so she begged forgiveness for her letter
being short, badly written, and trivial.20 So women often took care of
their correspondence in the presence of others.

╇E. Siebel, Der großbürgerliche Salon 1850–1918. Geselligkeit und Wohnkultur
(Berlijn 1999) 177.
╇ A.B. van Meerten-Schilperoort ed., Penélopé III (Amsterdam 1825) 124–125.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 409, Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken to Abrahamine Hubrecht-
Steenlack, 11 September 1840.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, Maria Hubrecht-Pruys van der Hoeven to Pieter
Hubrecht, 29 May 1853.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 18 December 1828.
everyday correspondence61

In addition to a lack of time, and interruptions from children, com-

mon excuses for not writing, or writing tardily or badly, include poor
quality pens, cold fingers, frozen or mediocre ink, blots, and inade-
quate paper. Letter-writers also complain about having too little light.
Right up to the second half of the nineteenth century, people wrote by
candlelight. Oil and camphine lamps came on the market in about
1820. But these lamps had several disadvantages: the fuel supply was
poor and the flame not very bright; the wick charred quickly; and the
lamps gave off greasy fumes. It was not until about 1850–1860 that the
petroleum lamp provided a better alternative.21
However, even once the writer had dotted the ‘i’s, crossed the ‘t’s, and
signed the letter, there were still things that could go wrong. The letter
then had to be sealed with a wafer or warm wax. Correspondents
warned one another not to write anything on the spot where the wafer
would be, as otherwise sentences would be lost when the letter was
opened. This led some correspondents to use an envelope.
Using a tool known as a cachet, a seal (also referred to as a cachet)
was stamped into the warm wax. The seal might show a family crest, for
instance, or a monogram. Pietje van Capellen’s seal featured the letter P
with a crown. As with ladies’ writing desks, there were special seals for
women. Abrahamine Steenlack, for example, asked her fiancé to have a
diamond-shaped lady’s seal made for her by a metal smith. The seal
should preferably be made of iron or steel, and Abrahamine sent a pat-
tern.22 Thus writing materials could express a gender identity. There
were also aesthetic aspects to the seal. Sophia Schimmelpenninck van
der Oye van de Poll-van Rhemen expressed the hope that her friend
Julie would have noticed on opening the letter that she had sealed it by
pressing her pretty gold signet ring into the wax.23 A seal could thus be
an expression of an individual’s own taste, class, or gender. In addition
to using special paper or pens, an elegant desk, or other writing materi-
als, the letter-writer could use his or her seal to create a particular
image for the recipient. This was stimulated by the growing range of
writing attributes as the nineteenth century progressed.24

╇ M. Stokroos, Verwarmen en verlichten in de negentiende eeuw (Zutphen 2001)
63, 69.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 5 August
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Juliana d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 22 July 1826.
╇ Hall, ‘The materiality’, 87.
62 chapter two

Writing desks and other writing materials belonging to fondly

remembered relatives were often passed down within the family. Paul
Hubrecht received his grandfather’s seal after the latter’s death.25 When
Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg was invited by her aunt to come and
stay for some time, she was allowed to bring one of her mother’s favour-
ite pieces of furniture with her. She chose her mother’s secretaire.26
When Jan van Heukelom’s mother died, his father gave him her writing
box.27 Since correspondence was a daily activity, and the writing mate-
rials inherited were thus used every day, this was a way of keeping alive
the memory of the deceased.


Once all the material conditions for composing a letter had been met,
and the letter had been written and sealed, of course it also had to be
delivered. In the early modern period postal services were not centrally
organized, but were in the hands of municipal authorities, corporations
or private companies. The first step towards centralization was when
the postal services in the provinces of Holland and West Friesland were
transferred to the regional authorities in 1747. In 1799, all the postal
services in the Batavian Republic were nationalized. Although in 1794
fines were introduced for sending letters outside the official postal ser-
vice, it did still happen. It was common practice to send letters with
stage-coaches, steam boats, ferries, and canal barges. This was often a
cheaper alternative. In order to counteract these practices further, in
1807 the government proceeded to introduce a state monopoly on the
transport of letters. The same law ensured uniformity in the regulations
and charges for postage, and created more post offices. The postage
costs for a letter were calculated according to its weight and the dis-
tance it was to cover.
Nevertheless, the postal system was far from perfect. Despite the
state monopoly, there was an increase in the sending of letters via
the forbidden alternative channels. The authorities turned a blind eye.

╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht jr. to Ambrosius Hubrecht, n.d.
╇ NA, FADCR, Agnes Dedel-Corver Hooft to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, inv.
no. 69P, 23 November 1826.
╇GAL, FASVH, inv. no. 148, Jan van Heukelom sr. to Jan van Heukelom jr.,
15 February 1856.
everyday correspondence63

A further problem was the complicated and expensive system of

charges. Letters were only delivered free of charge in towns or villages
with their own post office. In the other villages, there was a basic deliv-
ery charge of 2.5 cents, and this amount increased according to dis-
tance. Yet another problem was how to protect letters. This was the
reason for the introduction in 1804 of legislation to safeguard the pri-
vacy of correspondence. When the constitution was revised in 1848,
the new constitution enshrined the concept that this privacy was
A new Act governing postal services was seen as the way to solve the
problems of the illegal carriage of letters and the complicated and
excessive postal charges. Far-reaching reforms in the postal system in
England perhaps served as an example to the Netherlands. In England
the Uniform Penny Post was introduced in 1840: the uniformization of
postage throughout the country, which put an end to the former charge
structure in the postal system. A letter in the lowest weight category
now cost the English public just one penny, regardless of distance. Mail
traffic increased enormously as a result of this measure. In the long
term, the Penny Post was even lucrative for the State. The Netherlands
dragged its heels slightly in the wake of these English reforms. For quite
some time, postal services continued to be viewed as a fiscal institu-
tion  rather than a service to the public. In this way, postage charges
benefited the government’s coffers, but at the expense of the general
This would change, as in the Netherlands too a new Post Office Act
was passed in 1850. A certain amount of debate preceded the passing
of the Act. The total uniformization of the charges, as had occurred in
England, was considered too daring a move due to fears that it would
mean a severe reduction in government income. Postage was reduced,
but the charge continued to depend on both weight and distance. The
Post Office Act also paved the way for the introduction of postage
stamps. New Year’s Day 1852 saw the first ever publication of Dutch
postage stamps, in three denominations: blue (5 cents), red (10 cents)
and orange (15 cents). This went some way to simplify the sending of
correspondence, and in this way the stamping of letters gradually
became the rule rather than the exception. Although most people were
convinced that the post would be delivered much more quickly after
the introduction of postage stamps, there was still some hesitancy at
the prospect of this innovation. The old system, whereby the recipient
of the post paid, attested to a clear sense of social status: the recipient
64 chapter two

was considered capable of paying the amount in question. Applying a

postage stamp to a letter might offend the recipient, since it might
imply that the sender believed that the recipient did not have the means
to pay. For this reason, the government initially decided not to make
the use of postage stamps compulsory. It was not until 1870 that the
option of sending letters without prepaid postage, at the expense of the
recipient, was definitively abolished. In that year, postage stamps
became the norm.28
When the Post Office Act of 1850 was introduced, it was decided
that the state monopoly would be retained, despite the fact that a great
many letters were still sent using other channels than the national mail.
The argument was that this was the only way of ensuring the security,
speed, order and regularity of postal traffic. In addition, yet more post
offices were created. This especially benefited postal traffic in rural
areas. ‘Delivery fees’, charges for delivering a letter, were limited to very
remote hamlets or houses. The last delivery fees for some rural areas
were not abolished until 1865. All these measures together led to a
great increase in the number of letters sent by mail.29 Uniform postage
would be introduced eventually, but not until 1870. That year also saw
the advent of the postcard.30
Another means of communication also made its debut in the second
half of the nineteenth century: the telegram. The National Telegraph
Service was set up in 1852. The archives of the Hubrecht family, for
instance, include eight telegrams, dating from between 1853 and 1868.
They were used to confirm the arrival of a house guest, announce births
or deaths, or convey business information.
Before the introduction of telegrams, the members of the families
studied used the mail, a barge, a hired messenger, a servant of their
own, or an acquaintance to ensure that their correspondence arrived at
its intended destination. The published correspondence between the

╇G. Hogesteeger, Van lopende bode tot telematica. Geschiedenis van de ptt in
Nederland (Groningen 1989) 47–48.
╇In 1849, the number of (postage-paid) letters exchanged, both domestic and
international, amounted to 6,078,360; in 1874 this number had risen to 44,396,330,
and in 1886 it was higher still: 65,605,677. One stimulus for this increase was of course
the expansion of the railway network, which was used by the postal services from 1844.
In addition, population increases, improved literacy levels, and economic stimuli all
contributed to the rise in the number of letters sent. Hogesteeger, Van lopende bode, 51.
╇ W. Ringnalda, Hoofdtrekken van de geschiedenis van het Nederlandsch postwezen,
inzonderheid sedert de eerste wettelijke regeling van den Postdienst (‘s-Gravenhage 1895)
and H.J. Lettink, De ontwikkelings-geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Posterijen (Breda
everyday correspondence65

music teacher and violinist Jean Malherbe and his wife Christina van
Steensel, from the end of the eighteenth century, reveals that for mem-
bers of the lower bourgeoisie such as they, postage costs were almost
prohibitive. The recipient of a letter had to pay seven stuivers – when a
piece of bread in an eating-house cost one stuiver, and a loaf of black
bread cost four stuivers and two duit.31 The families of the upper bour-
geoisie and nobility that are the subject of the present study did not
have such acute money problems; nevertheless, they too complained
about the high costs of sending, and especially of receiving, letters.
Senders did not wish to saddle the recipients of their letters with the
expense of a high postal charge that would have to be paid on receipt.
For this reason people sometimes chose not to write, or to write in
brief, giving the excuse that there was nothing particular to report.
On the other hand, the fact that the recipient had to pay for the letter
might urge the sender to make something of it, as Otto Hora Siccama
explained to his mother:
My writings to you, dear mama, have often been so poor in the last while
that I was almost ashamed that you would have to pay the postage, whilst
your letters to me, on the contrary (unless they are written in haste) are
always well written, both as regards style and handwriting.32
Otto Hora Siccama begged his brothers: ‘Write to me abundantly; but
not often, because every letter costs me the enormous sum of 20 cents,
or 1/5 guilder, or 4 stuivers, or 32 duit’.33 Otto received a letter from his
brother Jan, saying: ‘Louis wrote a letter to congratulate you, but it was
so corny that I have decided not to send it, to avoid pointless expense
and pointless yawning’.34 Pre-paying the postage could sometimes be
taken as an insult, as is apparent from a letter from a friend of Pieter
Hubrecht’s, who apologized for stamping it: ‘Since I am enclosing a let-
ter which relates entirely to me and whose contents are of very little
worth, please do not take it amiss just this once that you receive it

╇ J. Malherbe and C. van Steensel, ‘Het is of ik met mijn lieve sprak.’ De briefwisseling
tussen Jean Malherbe en Christina van Steensel, 1782–1800, A. Dik and D. Helmers eds
(Hilversum 1994) letters 45, 99 and 102.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
7 October 1839.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan and Louis Hora Siccama,
22 October 1821.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 4 January 1822.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 451, W. Storm to Pieter Hubrecht, 7 August 1843.
66 chapter two

A letter could thus be stamped by the sender, or the bill could be set-
tled at the post office, but generally the person to whom it was addressed
had to pay on receipt. These too were epistolary conventions that had to
be learnt. Thus Victor de Constant Rebecque asked his mother: ‘What
is this papier timbré [stamped paper] you mention?’36 A few years ear-
lier, his father had had to explain something similar to him: ‘Did you
have to pay for the last letter from Mama and Duco too? If it says
“affranchi” or “franco” on the address, you do not need to pay’.37 The
recipient of a letter could refuse to pay the postage, incidentally. Then
the sender was left to foot the bill. One correspondent in the archives of
the Van Lanschot family tried to mask the provenance of a letter to a
woman who had been refusing to receive (and thus to pay for) his let-
ters: he had a friend write the address so that the recipient would not
recognize the handwriting and would pay the postage unawares.38
Generally the post was quite quick. Letters were usually delivered
the day after sending, partly because there were several posting times
per day (known as ‘post hours’) and several deliveries to the house.
Especially in periods of sickness or imminent death, the post was anx-
iously awaited, as in the case of the Steenlack family in Zutphen waiting
for post from the Hubrechts of Leiden:
The post is awaited impatiently in the morning, and Sanders is sent to
fetch the letters. Of course it is the month in which we are the last to
receive our letters … and to have to wait until eleven o’clock; that would
be just too awful. We then all gather around Mama, and yesterday it was
around me … to hear the tidings. – Now Sanders must come any minute,
and O how I wish that the report may be favourable. The ordeal you are
suffering is a hard one. […] There is the letter now, and thank God the
news is somewhat more reassuring after all.39
In tense times the post seems to have flown back and forth. In 1848 two
of Pieter and Abrahamine Hubrecht’s daughters had the measles. The
rest of the family were constantly waiting for news. As grandmother
Steenlack wrote:

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69D, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Juliana de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, n.d. [1857].
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 22 January 1853.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 43, Du Plessis de Montfoort to Franciscus van Lanschot sr.,
3 May 1824.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 416, Jaqueline Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine
Hubrecht-Steenlack, 6 April 1838.
everyday correspondence67

Yesterday morning, it being Betsij’s birthday, we received the large box

early on, and thus also the first news of the so very worrying state of the
dear children; a few hours later we were somewhat reassured by the letter
that Betsij received […] after the receipt of your last letters just now […]
God grant that today’s post may bring us better tidings, do write to me
every day even if it is just two words, o how absolutely ghastly the dis-
tance is in such circumstances, […] just now I receive your letter, my dear
Piet, indeed not reassuring! O how I lament and share in all your


The preceding sections have looked at the material prerequisites for

letter-writing: the availability of time, space, writing materials, light
and postal facilities. The following sections will examine the choice of
language, the forms of address used, and the style employed in letters.
The choice of a given language (Dutch, French or Latin) in correspond-
ence depends on more than merely practical considerations. The use of
a particular language may serve as a signal. If, for instance, a letter-
writer chooses to correspond in French, this may simply mean that this
is the language he is most proficient in, but it could also signify that he
is part of the elite. It is possible that correspondents in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries used French because of the underlying impli-
cations (belonging to the elite), whereas they perhaps had a better com-
mand of Dutch. Burke, especially, has pointed out the symbolic
significance of a particular language and the special status of the writ-
ten word.41 He also emphasizes the importance of studying bilingual-
ism: sociolinguistic research has shown that people employ conscious
and unconscious strategies in switching between languages in a con-
versation. The participants in a conversation and its subject influence
the language usage of the speakers. By extension, Burke suggests that it
would be fruitful to study bilingualism in the past. In a study of corre-
spondence, this leads to the question of what language letter-writers
used in what situations. When were letters written in French, and when
in Dutch?

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 427, Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken to Pieter Hubrecht and
Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack, 31 March 1838.
╇Burke, The art of conversation, 15–20.
68 chapter two

Studying French as the language of correspondence provides excellent
opportunities to put Burke’s ideas to the test. Moreover, Frijhoff has
pointed out the difference between the use of French in practice and
the symbolic connotations of French culture, of which the language
was part. Especially in the second half of the eighteenth century, the
influence of French culture was abhorred in the Netherlands. This
influence was held responsible for economic decline and moral degen-
eration. At the same time, however, French continued to be used by
many: as an international means of communication – in academic cir-
cles, for instance – or as professional jargon, as in the army. From the
mid eighteenth century, in Frijhoff ’s view, French came to be used less
and less as the language of written communication, and Dutch to some
extent took its place. French was no longer a second everyday language
for the elite; rather it became a functional language for situations or
media in which writing was paramount, such as letters, books, and aca-
demic discourse. Social distinctions were no longer the prime consid-
eration for using French, so that use of this language was determined
by situations in which it was practical or customary.42
The ‘Gallicization theory’, the idea that the Netherlands was entirely
under the influence of the French language and culture, has also been
relativized in modern scholarship. The French used by the Dutch elite
in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was not actually all
that good.43 Incidentally, around 1800 Dutch too often left a lot to be
desired, since it had not yet been standardized and was not properly
taught, whereas that was indeed the case for French. Kloek and
Mijnhard therefore point out that the choice of French as the language
for writing could be due to a correspondent’s lack of written language
skills in his or her mother tongue.44
The question is, then, whether Dutch letter-writers in the period
from 1770–1850 used French from practical considerations, because
they were more proficient in it than in Dutch, or whether the symbolic
significance of French, as the language of the elite and a means of social

╇ W. Frijhoff, ‘â•›“Bastertspraek en dartele manieren”. De Franse taal in Nederlandse
mond’, Jaarboek van de maatschappij der Nederlandse letterkunde te Leiden 1989–1990
(Leiden 1991) 13–25, here 19–21.
╇ W. Frijhoff, ‘Verfransing? Franse taal en Nederlandse cultuur tot in de revoluti-
etijd’, BMGN 104 (1989) 592–609, here 599.
╇ Kloek and Mijnhard, 1800, 432–433.
everyday correspondence69

distinction, also played a role. First of all, I did not discern any differ-
ence in language choice between different types of letters. It is not the
case, for instance, that letters to mark specific occasions, such as letters
of condolence or expressing congratulations, were more often written
in French. Of the total number of letters from family archives consulted
for this study (over 2300), 77% were written in Dutch and 17% in
French (see Appendix 1, Table 1). Moreover, the use of French declined
in favour of Dutch as time went on. Whereas in the period from 1750
to 1780, 32% of the letters were written in French (as opposed to 63%
in Dutch), in the period from 1780–1810, the percentage of French
dropped to 19% (as opposed to 72% in Dutch). It is possible that this
decline was due to the French occupation of the Netherlands in the
early years of the nineteenth century. Perhaps this contributed to an
aversion to the French language, though I found no explicit references
to this. In the letters written after 1810, the use of French remains more
or less stable: for the letters from 1810–1840 it stands at 18%, and for
1840–1870 it is 15% of the total (Appendix 1, Tables 2 and 3). This
means that the French occupation very probably did cause a slight
change in the language of letter-writing: from that time the use of
French declined, but it did not disappear until late in the nineteenth
Of course it is also possible that the use of French differed in each
family. One might expect French to play a more significant role for
families of the nobility in The Hague than for families of the upper
middle classes in other cities: after all, in the court capital French was
of great importance as the language of the court, diplomacy, and high
society. If we compare the collections of letters in the family archives
(Table 4), it is striking that the percentage of letters written in French is
much lower in the archive of the Hubrecht family from Leiden than in
the other archives (3% as opposed to 26% of the Van Lanschots’ letters,
57% of the Hora Siccamas’, 61% of the De Constant Rebecques’, and
88% of the Van Schinnes’).45 Probably this was because the Hubrechts
were not so much part of high society as the De Constant Rebecques,
Van Schinnes and Hora Siccamas, the families from The Hague. The
Van Lanschots, in ‘s Hertogenbosch, perhaps used French more often
than the Hubrechts because of their geographical situation. On the

╇ The majority of letters from the Van Schinne archive consulted for this study date
from the eighteenth century.
70 chapter two

other hand, it is notable that though the aristocratic De Constant

Rebecque family wrote a relatively high number of letters in French,
they did also correspond in Dutch. Even the nobility in The Hague
were not entirely francophone.
In addition to the question of whether the use of French declined in
the nineteenth century and whether certain families wrote more letters
in French than the others, it is relevant to investigate whether French,
as the language of social intercourse, was a ‘women’s language’
(Table 5). The number of letters by men in my database (59%) is almost
twice the number of letters by women (33%). This means either that
women wrote fewer letters than men, or that women’s correspondence
was less often preserved in the family archives. Looking at the distribu-
tion according to language and sex (Table 6), we see that French is the
language of a higher percentage (23%) of letters written by women than
of those written by men (16%). Women also more often wrote letters
containing both French and Dutch (5.5% as opposed to 1.9%).
Nevertheless, the differences are not all that large. One cannot con-
clude on the basis of this data that French was a women’s language. This
conclusion does indeed emerge, however, if we break down the relation
between language and sex to specify sender and recipient (Table 7).
This shows that women writing to one another are much more likely to
use French than are men writing to other men (41% and 5% respec-
tively), and that men also often use French when writing to women
(51% of the letters from men to women are composed in French).
In this respect it is possible to posit that French was sometimes the
language of preference for women, especially when writing to other
women or when receiving letters from men.
Of course in analysing these numbers one must always bear in mind
that the corpus of letters studied constitutes a mere fraction of the total
actually exchanged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More�
over, ‘preservation policy’ in the family archives may also have played a
role. This might mean, for instance, that women’s letters were thrown
away more often than men’s letters. There is a danger that the motives
of individual correspondents for choosing a given language may get
snowed under in all these statistics. It is perhaps far more revealing to
approach the question of language choice from a more qualitative per-
spective. Here we will look at the relationship between the sender and
the recipient, the age and sex of each, and their personal situation and
state of mind.
everyday correspondence71

The question of whether the families actually spoke French at home

is difficult to answer. When the Hubrechts wished to appoint a (Dutch)
governess for their six-year-old daughter Hermine in 1849, the intro-
ductory interview was to be in French: ‘I advised her [Bramine, WR] to
carry out the interview in French, as then the habit of always speaking
French, that Bramine so insists on, will come much more easily than if
one starts off in Dutch’.46 It is not clear whether this means that the
whole family spoke French on a daily basis or whether they only did so
with the governess. In many well-to-do families French was spoken in
the presence of the governess, who was often from a French-speaking
The Van Lanschots probably did not speak French at home, to judge
from a letter about Henri van Lanschot’s progress sent by the head of
his boarding school when Henri was between eight and thirteen years
old. ‘Je signale avec plaisir les progrès que notre cher Henri a faits pour
le français; il commence à le parler avec aisance’ (I am pleased to note
the progress our dear Henri has made in French; he is starting to speak
it with ease).48 Apparently Henri had not learnt to speak fluent French
at home. But what about French as a language for letter-writing?
In a letter to his mother in 1823, the eighteen-year-old Otto Hora
Siccama confessed that he would have liked to have written in Italian,
but was not proficient enough. For this reason he had decided to write
in French, to improve his command of that language, at least. As Otto
saw it, he was better at French than German or English. And he wrote
in Dutch so often that he was bored of it. Italian and Latin did not come
easily to him in correspondence. Incidentally, these and other letters
show that Otto’s mother could indeed speak Italian.49 She was also pro-
ficient at English and German, as she had been tutored in these lan-
guages at home when she was younger. She felt, however, that she had
neglected these languages too much to be able to help Otto with them.
In her answer to Otto’s letter she encouraged her son to learn Italian.

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 407, Jaqueline Guye-Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 16 January
╇ G. Huisman, Tussen salon en souterrain. Gouvernantes in Nederland 1800–1940
(Amsterdam 2000) 86–88.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 142, J.B. van Derker, probably to Augustinus van Lanschot,
28 October n.y. [between 1850 and 1855].
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, letter from Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-
Falck, 23 May 1823.
72 chapter two

She also decided to answer his letter in French, since she felt that Otto
was now indeed quite good at speaking French, but could do with some
more practice when it came to writing. Moreover, Otto already corre-
sponded with his father and brothers in Dutch (and sometimes in
Latin), so his mother thought it would be a good idea for her to
exchange letters with her son in French.50
Eight years later, in 1831, Otto’s mother again commented on her
command of languages in a letter to her son, who had now mastered
French much better after staying with French-speaking relatives. This
time she wrote in Dutch:
For since I prefer not to use it [i.e. French] instead of my own language –
although to my shame I must admit that I know it better – I shall just
keep to my habits and write to you in good old Dutch, even if not without
flaws. The more so since your correspondence with Tante Zezette means
you always have opportunity enough to practise French, which moreover
you now command well enough in any case.51
Thus, by her own account, Otto’s mother had a better command of
French (for writing letters, in any case) than of Dutch. This meant that
she was also able to correct the French in her son’s letters. She advised
him not to alternate between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ indiscriminately, for
It is striking that Amelie Hora Siccama was ashamed of the fact that
she was more proficient at French than Dutch. This shows that ‘good
old Dutch’ was held in high regard in 1831, probably under the influ-
ence of the Belgian revolution, the language conflict in Belgium
between Flemish and French, and nationalism in the Netherlands.
Restoring the glorious fatherland of old, excluding the Belgian
francophones, had become the new ideal. But even from the beginning
of the nineteenth century, linguists had stressed the importance of
Dutch. On the one hand they viewed the mother tongue as a reflection
of the national character; on the other hand they upheld the use of
Dutch as a sign of patriotism. Cultivating the mother tongue was seen
as a contribution to raising the level of refinement and stimulating

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, 13 June
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, 23 May
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, 27 May
everyday correspondence73

national consciousness.53 The authors of nineteenth-century letter-

writing manuals also advocated the use of the mother tongue, whereas
a manual from the mid eighteenth century considered French just as
important as Dutch as a language of correspondence, and was not
opposed to the insertion of individual words in foreign languages.54
Otto Hora Siccama was a child of his times, then, when in writing to his
brother Jan in 1833, in a letter that began with a word in French, he
commented: ‘for sincere lovers of the fatherland such as ourselves (for
this is beyond doubt, and I immediately beg your forgiveness for the
French word at the start, for which I could not find the right meaning
quickly enough)…’55
We find the same nationalistic preference for Dutch, disparaging
French, in a poem by one of Pieter Hubrecht’s children, probably dat-
ing from 1840–1845:
[…] But father, know that I am no French boy,
Because I now recite this verse in French
No, father dear, these words I must employ
To tell you this, and then away must fly.
I love you, best and dearest of all fathers!
In Dutch it sounds at least three times as fair;
I pray for you and mother, both together,
That God reward your love and all your care!56 [italics mine, WR]
Thus although French was sometimes rejected in the 1830s and 1840s,
it continued to be used for letter-writing well into the nineteenth cen-
tury. Even in 1868 we find an eighteen-year-old girl apologizing for
writing in Dutch: ‘I’m not at all in the habit of writing in Dutch, but
since I find it a good deal more companionable and am counting on
your lenience, I have taken our harsh mother tongue as my inter-
preter’.57 So although the sender felt that Dutch was ‘more companion-
able’, she equally characterized her mother tongue as ‘harsh’.
French was sometimes given preference in letters because it was
‘prettier’. Otto Hora Siccama asked his fiancée Pietje van Capellen to

╇ J. Noordegraaf, ‘Vaderland en moedertaal. Een constante in het taalkundig den-
ken’, in: N.C.F. van Sas ed., Vaderland. Een geschiedenis van de vijftiende eeuw tot 1940
(Amsterdam 1999) 343–363, here 359.
╇Anonymous, Handleiding tot de kunst van brievenschryven, I-II, 1, 6.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 7 March 1833.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 407: various poems in draft written for Pieter Hubrecht by his
children, n.d..
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 327, Emilie van der Kun to Jeanette Fuchs, 19 February
74 chapter two

write to him in English some time. This was no trouble to Pietje, who
had grown up in England, so she obliged. Nevertheless, she professed
to prefer French for writing letters, since it was so good for making
‘pretty speeches’, and so well suited to dissembling and story-telling.
As she wrote (in English):
Why do you ask me to write to you in english? is it because I write French
so badly and you hope that English will be more easy to me if you fancy
this I assure you you are quite mistaken I am so completely out of the
habit of writing English that I really don’t know how I shall manage to fill
this sheet of paper, however I will try and if I leave but half filled you may
consider this as a punishment for having prevented me from writing to
you in French which certainly of all others is the language of letter writ-
ing it is so faverable [sic] to making pretty speeches and to saying what
one does not mean but in English there is no saying anything but the
downright truth and as I am rather inclined to story telling I find this
very unpleasant.58
For the eleven-year-old Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque, too, French
had positive connotations. He asked his brother Victor to write to him
in French because he found Dutch less pleasant. In Dutch they were
always grousing at one another, whereas they spoke French when play-
ing together.59
A considerable number of the letters in the family archives, inciden-
tally, consist of a mishmash of French and Dutch. It is very striking that
the correspondents never apologize for switching from one language to
another. Sociolinguists and historical sociolinguists, particularly
Burke, have described how people use different languages in different
situations. In their descriptions, these situations seem very clear
and sharply delineated. Sociolinguists even speak of ‘strategies’. Thus,
for instance, Portuguese Jews in seventeenth-century Amsterdam
spoke Portuguese and Spanish amongst themselves, Dutch to outsid-
ers, and Hebrew in the synagogue. French farmers in the nineteenth
century, who normally spoke patois, used French when discussing
national politics or for special occasions such as asking a girl to
dance.60 The use of languages by Dutch correspondents in the period
from 1770–1850, however, does not show clear patterns of this kind.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 27 September
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120C, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Victor de
Constant Rebecque, 12 November 1852.
╇Burke, The art of conversation, 16–18.
everyday correspondence75

Switching from French to Dutch and vice versa is prompted above

all by emotions, practical descriptions (of illness or fashion), but often
by nothing specific at all. Sometimes the correspondents resort to
French or Dutch for difficult words, proverbs, or in the postscript,
opening, or closing sentence. Some correspondents write to each other
in French and Dutch by turns, often without any apparent reason.
Perhaps studying the use of several languages in different situations
makes more sense if one is examining spoken language, or if a com-
parison is drawn between speaking and writing. At any rate it seems as
though in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries French and
Dutch were still interchangeable as letter-writing languages. French
was sometimes seen as a pretty language for letters, or Dutch was pre-
ferred from nationalist considerations, but in practice the two lan-
guages were used indiscriminately.

In addition to the many letters in French, the family archives contain
forty-three letters in total that were written fully or partially in Latin.
All of these letters were written by men. Some of them will be discussed
in Chapters 3 and 4. The boys in the Hubrecht and Hora Siccama fami-
lies wrote to each other in Latin when they were schoolboys or stu-
dents, mainly to practise Latin, which remained the language of the
Dutch universities – for reading, writing and speaking – until the late
nineteenth century. It was not until 1876 that the Higher Education Act
abolished the use of Latin at universities.
Students found the active use of Latin in their academic education –
in the exercise of disputation, for instance – a very difficult part of their
studies.61 For this reason, boys began to practise their Latin as much as
possible early on, and correspondence was one way of doing this.
Moreover, Latin had a symbolic value for them: Latin was part of stu-
dent life, and this gave it a certain cachet, especially for boys who were
still at grammar school, also known as ‘Latin school’. And Latin also
had elite connotations: only boys of the upper classes learned this lan-
guage, thus excluding not only girls and women of the elite, but also
boys of the middle and lower classes.

╇ J. Roelevink, ‘Het babel van de geleerden. Latijn in het Nederlandse universitaire
onderwijs van de achttiende en de negentiende eeuw’, Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der
Nederlandsche Letterkunde te Leiden 1989–1990 (1991) 33–43, here 37.
76 chapter two

Nevertheless, it was not only schoolboys and students who used

Latin in their correspondence. The twenty-five letters written to
Hendrik Oomen by his older brother Antonius and his university
friends are an example of adults corresponding in Latin. Hendrik stud-
ied Law in Duisburg from 1799–1800, and then continued his studies
in Leiden. In 1801 he became a lawyer in Amsterdam. Some of the let-
ters in Latin were indeed written when Hendrik was a student, but he
continued occasionally to correspond with his brother and friends in
Latin. Antonius wrote to his brother in Latin in 1809 and 1812, when
his university days were long behind him. He was probably particularly
proficient at Latin because of his position as a priest and the president
of the episcopal seminary of Ypelaar. In this case, then, Latin was not
only associated with academia and student life, but also had religious
connotations. And yet the Oomen brothers did not write about
antiquity or religion in their correspondence. Their letters were about
everyday things. In his correspondence with Hendrik, Antonius,
mainly writing on behalf of their parents, took the stance of the con-
cerned older brother: he asked about Hendrik’s progress when he was
still a student, and later enquired how he was settling in in Amsterdam.
Antonius also passed on the news from home. His choice of Latin was
also not motivated by a desire to discuss matters in secret. On one
occasion Antonius commented that he always tried to pass on the con-
tent of Hendrik’s letters to their parents as best he could, but it might be
handier if Hendrik would just write in Dutch: ‘nunc autem Tibi faventes
omni tuo amore et affectu dignissimi sunt. Unde, etsi optime hac latina
nostra communicemus, sequenti vice e novo tuo hospitio flandrice
scribes, ut epistolam tuam eis praelegere possim’.62 In this case the use
of Latin by adult men seems not to have been motivated by academic
or prestige-related considerations, and equally not by a desire for
secrecy (excluding women or the non-initiated). Perhaps they were
simply keen to keep up their Latin, or it had become a habit. It is also
possible that by writing in Latin they were keeping alive the memories
of their student days.
For a long time, historians believed that Latin suddenly faded from
view in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century because it was

╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1312, Antonius Oomen to Hendrik Oomen, 17 March
1800. ‘But our parents fully deserve all your love and affection. So this is why even if we
communicate best in this Latin, the next time you should write in Dutch from your
new abode, so that I can read your letter aloud to them’.
everyday correspondence77

no longer in tune with the modern world. Burke, on the other hand,
has demonstrated that Latin was still written and spoken in the nine-
teenth century, precisely because it was well suited to practical use, as
an international language for students, for instance, or for diplomats
and travellers.63 The results of my research corroborate this view. Right
up until the late 1840s (where my research ends), boys and men of the
elite still used Latin in their correspondence.

Salutation, signature and postscript

Salutation, terms of address, concluding formula

Once the writer had decided on the language to use, he or she had to
know the right way to address the person to whom the letter was
directed. The salutation, the form of address used, and the way of con-
cluding the letter could express social hierarchies.64 The same is true of
the use of ‘vous’ or ‘tu’ in French, or their Dutch equivalents.65 Letter-
writing manuals often provided long lists of the proper forms of
address, and also prescribed leaving a large open space at the begin-
ning of the letter as a mark of respect for one’s social superiors. In his-
torical and sociolinguistic research, the use of extensive, deferential
forms of address and signatures, as well as addressing the recipient in
the ‘vous’ form, have sometimes been interpreted as a sign of formality
and a lack of intimacy. Lawrence Stone, for example, views the disap-
pearance of formal terms of address such as ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ between
married couples, and the increasing use of forenames and pet names,
as evidence of a changing attitude towards marriage among the upper
classes at the end of the sixteenth century.66 Marie-Claire Grassi notes
an increase in intimacy in letters written in France between 1770 and
1820: correspondents more often addressed one another as ‘tu’, and the
formulas with which they signed off became shorter and less formal.67

╇Burke, The art of conversation, 63–64.


╇ See also A. van Leuvensteijn, ‘Van “Wel edel gestrenge heer!” tot “Hooggeachte

veelgeliefde vriendinne”. Aanspreekvormen in de briefwisseling, 1765–1804, van Betje

Wolff en Aagje Deken’, De Achttiende Eeuw 34 (2002) 65–74 and F. Austin, ‘Epistolary
conventions in the Clift family correspondence’, English Studies 54 (1973) 9–22 and
╇Burke, The art of conversation, 23.
╇ L. Stone, The family, sex and marriage in England, 1500–1800 (London 1977)
╇Grassi, L’art de la lettre, 158–159, 178.
78 chapter two

In the Dutch bodies of correspondence studied, one can also observe

a decrease in the length and deference of the terms of address and the
concluding formulas. The use of the term of address ‘uedele’ (Honoured
Sir) becomes less frequent as the nineteenth century progresses, more
often being replaced by ‘u’ or ‘gij’. ‘Tu’, or its Dutch equivalent ‘gij’, is
generally only used between brothers, but I found examples even in
letters from the late eighteenth century, including letters from a mother
to her daughter. Nevertheless, it remains questionable whether this
change has anything to do with intimacy. In the eighteenth century,
deferential formulas were simply the norm. Moreover, formal and
informal terms were often used hand in hand, as this concluding for-
mula from 1779 shows:
I remain (with my heartfelt compliments and those of my daughter to
you and your son, and a kiss to my dear little Mietje from her godmama,
and to the stately Cietie) with the greatest respect, O honoured Sir and
Madam, dearest brother and sister, your servant and loving sister Maria
van Lelyveld, widow Wilhelmina Van den Broek.68
In the nineteenth century, too, familiarity was often combined with
deference in concluding a letter, as in this example from Jan Hora
Siccama to his father in 1822: ‘Adieu dear papa! Know that I remain
your loving son and humble servant Jan Hora’.69
What is more important than the degree of intimacy expressed in
the salutation and concluding formula is the way in which correspond-
ents approached these aspects of their letters. How did they learn these
terms? What did they intend them to express? To start with the first of
these questions: I did not find any explicit mention in the letters stud-
ied in manuscript of the use of letter-writing manuals in connection
with terms of address. In addition to direct mention of manuals, there
is another way to ascertain whether correspondents actually consulted
such works for this purpose. Jan Hora Siccama wrote to his brother
Otto, for instance: ‘Please inform me of Mr van Ewijck’s exact title and
what expressions one should use to open and conclude a letter to him’.70
Jan here solicited his brother’s help by letter, which would take several
days at least, to find out a title which could be found in many manuals.
This means that the Hora Siccamas’ library very probably did not

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1174, Maria van Lelyveld-van den Broek to Pieter van Lelyveld
and Cecilia van Lelyveld-Marcus, 8 January 1779.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 38, Jan Hora Siccama to Harco Hora Siccama, 1 August 1822.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 24 Jan n.y..
everyday correspondence79

include a letter-writing manual or etiquette book. This is also clear

from the following quotation from a letter that Otto in turn addressed
to another brother, Louis: ‘I’m at my wits’ end with a letter to Ottiline,
too. Should I address her as ‘dear aunt’, or what? And where does she
live in Amsterdam? I don’t know her address, and still less her title: is
she ‘Dowager’ or just ‘Widow’?71
It seems probable, then that the Hora Siccama brothers did not con-
sult advice literature to find out terms of address. The above quotation
shows that finding the right title was sometimes difficult, and could be
a delicate matter. This also applied, incidentally, in daily conversation.
Otto Hora Siccama wrote to his mother: ‘I was at Buma’s house again,
and he said I should not continue to address his wife so stiffly as
“Cousin”, but should call her Aagje’.72 His mother answered with a
warning: ‘Be wary of becoming too intimate with them, and no matter
what Buma tells you, never get onto the footing of calling her Aagje;
c’est du plus mauvais ton [it is in the worst possible taste]; always stick
to Cousin; si cela a le ton bourgeois [if that is rather bourgeois in tone],
it is ten times less offensive than excessive familiarity’.73 Otto’s mother
liked Buma’s wife, but thought she was not comme il faut, so that she
was not a good example. It is striking that Mrs Hora Siccama censured
behaviour as ‘bourgeois’, when she herself in fact belonged to the upper
echelons of the bourgeoisie. When all was said and done, distant polite-
ness was apparently more fitting than familiarity.
Otto struggled with the same dilemma in a letter to his mother. He
had looked in vain for new writing paper, after realizing that he had
alternated between ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ indiscriminately at the beginning of
his letter. He apologized for this, and decided to use ‘vous’ consistently
for the remaining paragraphs of his letter. ‘Tu’ perhaps sounded nicer,
but ‘vous’ was more respectful.74
Polite terms of address and the ‘vous’ form could be used to convey
respect, but could also serve as a vent for anger or contempt. This
was  the case with a letter written in 1829 by Baron D’Alblaing van
Giessenburg to his daughter Julie, in which he expressed his anger at

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 22 July 1834.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 
� 12
February 1823.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora-Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, n.d.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
13 March 1828.
80 chapter two

the fact that Julie wished to marry but had not asked her father’s per-
mission. His letter was devoid of any salutation or concluding sen-
tence.75 When, two-and-a-half years later, he sent an official letter to
General De Constant Rebecque, the father of Julie’s intended, giving his
consent to the marriage between their children and addressing their
financial situation, he left copious amounts of space between the salu-
tation and the beginning of the letter proper, and used an extensive
concluding formula: (‘agreez je vous prie les assurances d’estime et de
considerations distinguées Mon General! De votre tres humble servi-
teur et ami (signe) d’Ablaing de Giessenburg.’ [Accept, I pray you, dear
General, the assurances of esteem and distinguished consideration of
your most humble servant and friend (signed) d’Ablaing de
Giessenburg].) In the remainder of the letter, he addressed the general
as ‘Votre Excellence’.76
Sometimes such deferential forms of address and concluding formu-
las were a figure of fun. When congratulating Jan Willem de Constant
Rebecque on the occasion of his sixteenth birthday, his older brother
Victor plays with these conventions: ‘I have the honour to be and to
remain, most deeply indebted in honour and respect, most honoured
Sir, your obedient servant, … oh how vulgar! Je t’embrasse, adieu’.77
The same mocking tone is found in a humorous response from
Salomon Dedel to an invitation from his fourteen-year-old niece Julie
d’Ablaing van Giessenburg. The letter left large spaces, and began half-
way down the page. In every sentence Julie was addressed with the
excessively formal ‘UW: Hoog: Wel: Geb: ’ (which approximately trans-
lates as ‘most highly born madam’). The concluding sentence ran:
I have the honour of calling myself, your royal highness, your most noble
subject and subservient hatstand, S: Dedel. PS: I hope that you, most
honoured madam, will not hold against me the errors that you, most
honoured madam, will observe in this letter, or the formalities that I have
neglected in sending this epistle. I am alas not accustomed to writing to
highnesses, princesses, or people of high rank.78

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69A, Joan d’Ablaing van Giessenburg to Julie d’Ablaing van
Giessenburg, 18 December 1829.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69A, Joan d’Ablaing van Giessenburg to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 25 August 1832.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 121E, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Jan Willem de
Constant Rebecque, 8 April 1857.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69Q, Salomon Dedel to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg,
30 June 1821.
everyday correspondence81

This letter clearly poked fun at the deferential forms of address and
concluding formulas that befitted a letter to a person of higher rank.
Unlike this mock-humble letter, the one which Julie received two
years later from her cousin Margaretha, who was annoyed with Julie for
not returning a scarf she had lent her, was devoid of all conventions:
I am hellishly angry with you. – What is the meaning of this? I lend you
a pink scarf and you promise to give it back to me the same evening, and
I have yet to see it again. I have been to four soirées – I wanted to go in
pink – and yes, my scarf was gone. […] Do not be alarmed – but I have
been very dangerously ill; so ill even that Mama thought I was already
dead. […] Well, Gerrit is waiting; and my hand is shaking terribly from
weakness, so I shall end here. Farewell, foolish girl. M.C. Dedel.79
This letter lacks all form of address, compliments and a proper con-
cluding formula. Moreover the writer went into excessive detail in
describing her illness (even mentioning bloodletting with leeches),
whereas convention forbade writing about such matters. (This will be
discussed further later in the present chapter). Margaretha’s anger led
her to cast all social niceties to the winds. These adolescents were thus
already fully able to play about with epistolary conventions such as
forms of address and concluding formulas.
These parts of the letter could also be used to express gender identity.
Boys of about fourteen to sixteen opened their letters to each other
with ‘manly’ forms of address such as ‘Amice’ (My friend). They signed
off with ‘Vale’ (Farewell), or ‘TT’ (Totus Tuus, All yours). The regards
passed on in a letter were also different for women than for men: Otto
Hora Siccama, for instance, bade the recipients of his letters to kiss his
sisters for him, whereas his brothers and father received a ‘manly
The postscript, finally, is viewed by a few letter-writing manuals as a
typical female feature, because of women’s irrepressible garrulousness.
In the corpus of letters studied, 22% of the letters by men include a
postscript, as compared to 26% of the letters by women. Women are
thus slightly in the majority, but the difference is negligible. Though
admittedly Angelique Hora Siccama asserted (according to her brother)

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69R, Margaretha Dedel to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg,
1 June 1826.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 16 February
1825 and inv. no. 39, Otto Hora Siccama to Harco Hora Siccama, 4 April 1822.
82 chapter two

that women saved the most important thing they want to say for the
postscript: ‘Angelique prétend que les femmes ne mettent qu’au P.S. ce
qu’elles tiennent le plus à dire’ (Angelique claims that women save what
they most want to say for the postscript).81 This was apparently a tru-
ism, as the Panathenaeum voor studenten (Panathenaeum for students)
contains the same jibe about the letters of ‘scholarly’ women: ‘The post-
script generally contains all one needs to know of the whole letter’.82

Forms of address in and after the Batavian period

The political situation might also be of influence on the opening and
concluding formulas used in letters. Thus in the Batavian period the
patriot Nicolaas van Staphorst concluded his letters with the sentence
‘Give our sincere greetings to sister and your children. Hail Fraternity,
Liberty and Equality’.83 In their correspondence in 1799 to 1800, Pieter
van Lelyveld’s friends addressed him as ‘Worthy friend and fellow citi-
zen!’.84 Yet it was not the case that titles such as ‘Wel-Edel Gestrenge
Heer’ (Most noble learned sir), or prescribed titles denoting rank were
forbidden in this period.85 Fabius speaks of the restoration of extensive
use of titles after the Batavian period, which seems to indicate a return
to the pre-revolutionary class society. The formal ‘Ued’ is alleged to
replace the informal ‘gij’ as a sign of renewed formality and distinc-
tion.86 John Bowring, an Englishman who travelled in the Netherlands
in about 1829, was struck by the fact that the Dutch continued to use
the old, deferential styles of address in addressing their letters, whereas
they did not use these titles in conversation.87 My source material does
not corroborate such observations. Firstly, by no means everyone
seems to have adopted new, more egalitarian, forms of address in the
Batavian period. Secondly, one notes a gradual tendency to simplify

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 4 August 1841.
╇ Anonymous, ‘Geleerde vrouwen’, Panatheneaum voor studenten door studenten
2 (1843) 83–90, here 87.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1198, Nicolaas van Staphorst to Pieter van Lelyveld,
13 February 1795.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1180, letters to Pieter van Lelyveld from various friends.
╇ M. Everard and M. Aerts, ‘De burgeres: geschiedenis van een politiek begrip’, in:
J. Kloek and K. Tilmans eds, Burger (Amsterdam 2002) 173–190, here 190.
╇ A.N.J. Fabius, ‘T Herstelde Nederland. Zijn opleven en bloei na 1813 (Amsterdam
1913) 41–42. See also Van Zanten, Schielijk, 45–46.
╇ J. Bowring, Brieven enz. van John Bowring, geschreven op eene reize door Holland,
Friesland en Groningen (Leeuwarden 1830) 270–271.
everyday correspondence83

forms of address from 1800 onwards in any case, and this trend seems
to have gathered momentum from about 1850.

Letters to one’s betters

The above section mentions the fact that the forms of address, saluta-
tion, and concluding formula in letters could serve to express social
hierarchies, albeit in this case mainly hierarchies within the same class.
But did the differences between the elite and the lower classes also find
expression in these parts of the letter?
The letter-writing manuals prescribed that when writing to one’s
social superiors one should leave large spaces and ensure correct style.
The family archives consulted contain thirteen letters written to recipi-
ents whose rank was higher than that of the sender. These include
letters from the gardener, various servants, a protégée, and a shoe-
maker. Several, but by no means all, of these correspondents did indeed
leave a large space between the salutation and the beginning of the let-
ter as a mark of deference. Almost all of these letters, however, are char-
acterized by the use of a deferential style. The gardener, in congratulating
Pieter Hubrecht on his birthday, addressed him as ‘most worthy and
highly respected lord of the manor’ [hooggeachte landheer]. This was
certainly respectful, though according to the manuals it should
have been ‘most noble sir’ [WelEdel Geboren Heer]. He did conclude
And now, o worthy gentleman, the Lord strengthen you and keep you on
the path of your further life, to the health and comfort of your wife
and  children and relations, and also for the old mistress and all your
subjects – that is the wish of your head gardener and his wife, with which
I sincerely greet you and am your obedient servant Herm: Roest.88
The father of a servant thanked Abrahamine Hubrecht on behalf of his
wife for looking after their daughter when she was ill, opening his letter
with the salutation: ‘WelEdele Mevrouw!’. According to the manuals,
this was the manner to address ‘distinguished members of the middle
classes’. The sender should perhaps have chosen ‘WelEdel Geboren
Vrouwe’, a term reserved for members of the nobility or the patrician
class. He concluded his letter ‘Having taken the liberty to commend
ourselves further humbly to your favour, I have the honour to be,

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 407, Herm. v. Roest to Pieter Hubrecht, 19 January 1857.
84 chapter two

WelEd Mevrouw!, your obedient servant, L. Wilmes’.89 Again, according

to the manuals, this would have been more fitting for a letter addressed
to a member of the middle classes. In any case, the writer was clearly
aware of a social divide, as he apologized for taking the liberty of
writing: ‘we also hope that you will not feel humiliated by our writing’.
A similar sort of apology is found in a letter of request from the shoe-
maker Joannes Motké to Augustinus van Lanschot in 1831. Motké con-
cluded his letter: ‘please do not take the extensiveness of my letter
amiss’.90 Marion Klenk, who has carried out a sociolinguistic analysis
of letters by German members of the working classes in the nine-
teenth  century (addressed to higher authorities), concludes that the
greater  the  social distance between the sender and the recipient, the
longer the sentences. Klenk characterizes this style as ‘subservient’.91
Spacing, forms of address, and style are thus all used to express class

‘Le stile c’est l’homme’ – style

Models for style

Let us return to the elite, and their letter-writing style. After deciding
on the language, the salutation, and the form of the address to use, the
letter-writer had to determine his or her style. Writing style was a major
subject for letter-writing manuals and for reviews in literary journals,
with famous letter-writers being held up as examples to follow. Did the
correspondents in the five families discussed here also draw inspiration
from such models?
The most famous letter-writer of them all, Madame de Sévigné, is
indeed named a few times in the correspondences. Sophia Schim�
melpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-van Rhemen, for instance, wrote
self-deprecatingly to her friend Julie that she did not perhaps possess
Madame de Sévigné’s command of style, but that her letter came from

╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 450, L. Wilmes to Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack,
30 October 1831.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 120, Joannes Motké to Augustinus van Lanschot,
3 November 1832.
╇M. Klenk, Sprache im Kontext sozialer Lebenswelt. Eine Untersuchung zur
Arbeiterschriftsprache im 19. Jahrhundert (Tübingen 1997) 121, 127. See also R. WilleÂ�
myns and W. Vandenbussche, ‘Historische sociolinguïstiek: het “Brugge-project”â•›’, Taal
en tongval 52 (2000) 258–276.
everyday correspondence85

the heart of a dear friend.92 Correspondents in the Van Schinne family

archive, too, sometimes held up Madame de Sévigné as an ideal of good
style.93 Nevertheless, such mentions seem more or less proverbial,
rather than an indication that the French author’s letters were actually
used as a model.94 In the previous chapter I mentioned that members of
the families studied read the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
and Madame de Sévigné. It is difficult to prove, however, that this read-
ing influenced the actual letters preserved in the family archives.95
The influence of Cicero can indeed be demonstrated, as will be
argued in Chapters 3 and 4 below. Jan Hora Siccama, for example,
wrote to his brother Otto: ‘so in writing to you I also wish to start in
Ciceronian terms, and say thus: if you are in the doldrums, that is
awful, and we are too’.96 In a letter of recommendation, Jan also copied
the letters of Cicero to Brutus (II: 1), in which Cicero summarized the
positive character traits of the person he was recommending. In this
way, Cicero’s letter of recommendation constituted a direct model for
Jan’s letter.97

Style in practice
In general, the correspondents of the elite seem seldom to have turned
to famous letter-writers as models. The letter-writing manuals agreed
that there were no rules for letters among friends and family. And yet
there are so many reprimands and compliments about letter-writing
style to be found in the archives – including, or perhaps precisely, in
letters between family and friends – that it is clear that great impor-
tance was attached to the style of the letter, even in familiar circles. Paul
Hubrecht and Otto Hora Siccama both, in 1848 and 1839 respectively,
quoted Georges Buffon’s statement that ‘le stile c’est l’homme’ (Style
maketh man). What, in practice, was the ideal style for a letter?

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 16 September 1825.
╇ NA, FAVS, inv. no. 174, Louise to Magdalena van Schinne, 2 September 1802 and
inv. no. 157, Anthony Jan van Schinne to Magdalena van Schinne, 20 January 1835.
╇ The Lennox sisters in England did consciously model their letter-writing style on
Madame de Sévigné, see S. Tillyard, Aristocrats (London 1995) 94–96.
╇ Dik has pointed to the possible influence of letters by Madame de Maintenon and
Madame de Genlis on Magdalena van Schinne’s epistolary diary. Dik, ‘Inleiding’, 20.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 14 August 1826.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 25 February 1825.
86 chapter two

In the manuals, the letter was traditionally described as ‘a conversa-

tion between absent friends’ or a ‘mirror of the soul’. Both these char-
acterizations of the letter, as a conversation and as a reflection of the
inner being, are found in the correspondence of the five families stud-
ied. Sophia Schimmelpenninck told her friend Julie that the style of her
letters reflected her state of mind: ‘vous savez que quand je vous écris je
ne sors point du [sic] ma nature mais j’écris ce que je pense et naturel-
lement mes lettres se ressentent de la disposition gaie ou mélancolique
où je suis’ (you know that when I write to you I do not leave my nature
behind, but write what I think, and naturally my letters reflect the gay
or melancholy disposition I am in).98 In old age, Anthony Jan van
Schinne accused his sister Magdalena of cruelty in their correspond-
ence, because she wanted him to write only about pleasant things and
contentment. Her brother’s response was that, because of their true
friendship, he wished his letters to reflect his state of mind at the time.
For him the most important thing was to be sincere, even if his style
then sometimes echoed his sombreness. He did not wish his sister to be
distressed by his mood, and assured her that he possessed the calmness
and strength of mind to display patience and humility.99
Along the same lines as the idea of the letter as the mirror of the soul
is the requirement for sincerity, as Jan van Heukelom (senior) put it to
his son, who was then at boarding school:
Were it not for my great aversion to insincerity, I would open this letter
with “great pressures of work have prevented me from writing to you
earlier”, or: “several times I have picked up my pen, but was interrupted
each time” – but that would all be untrue! The simple reason for my long
silence lies in procrastination.100
In everyday correspondence, sincerity was a significant aspiration. The
word ‘sincere’ occurs in a large percentage of the letters. Especially in
ceremonial correspondence, the desire for sincerity was sometimes at
odds with the fixed patterns which governed such letters. For this rea-
son, the ‘cult of sincerity’ will be examined further in Chapter 5.

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 23 October 1826.
╇ NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Anthony Jan van Schinne to Magdalena van Schinne,
20 January 1835 and 23 January 1836.
╇ GAL, FASVH, inv. no. 148, Jan van Heukelom sr. to Jan van Heukelom jr., 15 June
everyday correspondence87

Like the concept of ‘naturalness’, ‘sincerity’ was contrasted with ‘arti-

ficiality’. Otto Hora Siccama accused his brother Jan of cultivating an
artificial and grandiloquent style. He found Jan’s style not sufficiently
‘humble’, as is clear from Jan’s rather piqued answer: ‘What do you
think of this manner of writing? Am I now sufficiently humble? The art
will have to be not to touch on any subject that might cause my imagi-
nation to flare up again. Not your gift of La Fontaine, certainly, as it
would surely seem artificial to say too much of that’.101 The ‘humble
style’ or sermo humilis is a term taken from rhetoric. The manuals pre-
scribed a humble style for friends and family, and an elevated style for
mourning letters and letters of condolence. This view was shared by
Otto Hora Siccama, as the above quotation attests. Jan, however,
believed that his contrived style was a sign of refinement.
The authors of manuals advised letter-writers to adapt their style to
the personality of the intended recipient. In rhetoric, the notion of
aptum or decorum, appropriateness, was formulated as a point of good
style. Paul Hubrecht junior’s view of style was in line with this. In an
open letter sent to his family in the Netherlands from Paris, where he
was on honeymoon, he commented: ‘The general nature of the letter
will make it easier for me to describe things, as letters to individual
people always have to have more the tone of the conversation that one
would have with those people’.102 So the style could be determined by
the occasion of writing, the relationship between the correspondents,
but also the personality of the recipient.
Not only should the style of a letter not be ‘artificial’; the Hora
Siccamas also debated about whether truisms were acceptable in cor-
respondence, as is clear from a letter from Otto to his mother:
And yet I must admit that between the two I am sometimes so foolish as
to forget that I have only myself to think about. – You would be well, dear
Mama, constantly to remind me of this; a hint is enough for me, for do
believe me that whatever my faults, avarice fortunately cannot as yet be
reckoned among them. But I realize that I am committing the fault of
saying things which you characterize as mere phrases and which cannot
thus be agreeable to you.103

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 73, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 30 August 1838.

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, general open letter from Paul Hubrecht jr., 27 April

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
15 September 1828.
88 chapter two

By ‘phrases’, Otto apparently meant ‘clichés’, and he was aware that his
mother disliked them. A few months later, however, she herself claimed
that she was always interested in his letters, even if they contained
nothing but commonplaces.104 Otto was impressed that his fiancée
Pietje never fell back on ‘phrases and expressions’, even if she had no
news to report.105 Apparently a characteristic style with clichés was
acceptable for some people.
The style of letters was not only commented on critically. Cato van
Schinne’s letters, for instance, were praised by her uncle and aunt (even
when she was in her late twenties) for their natural turn of phrase,
lively tone, and charming naivety.106 In his courting days, Otto Hora
Siccama was lyrical in his praise of the sparse, and in my view rather
dull letters of his fiancée Pietje: ‘peut-on écrire mieux que vous!-
Â�peut-on s’exprimer avec plus de justesse et d’esprit?- et avec moins de
prétention?’ (can anyone write better than you! – can anyone express
themselves with more aptness and spirit? – and with less pretension?)107
Here aptness, spiritedness and unpretentiousness are the stylistic ele-
ments that were particularly prized. Otto also praised the narrative
style of letters from his sister Angelique:
It is truly a pity that you are not French; then you would certainly make
your debut as a ‘femme auteur’ and perhaps be a match for Madame
Dudevant [George Sand’s real name, WR]. ‘Aber, zufrieden mit stillerem
Ruhme’ (‘But content with quieter glory’), in your domestic circles you
do your sex more honour than the infamous George Sand: ‘ce n’est pas
jurer gros,’ (that’s not saying much), you will perhaps say, but wait a
moment! Her outstanding writing talent also has its value!108
This was a familiar theme in the appreciation of women authors: their
style was praised, but the publication of their work, and thus their entry
into the public sphere, was felt to lead them to neglect their womanly

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
21 March 1828.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 7 August 1841.
╇ NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Gabriel Mingard to Catharina van Schinne, 26 March
1778 and E.H. Mingard-van Schinne to Catharina van Schinne, 25 December 1784.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 3 September
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, n.d. [probably between 11 and 18 April 1840].
everyday correspondence89

duties, and was interpreted as a sign of a lack of feminine modesty.109

Nevertheless, in another letter to Angelique, Otto did hint at her pub-
lishing her letters:
You do indeed put me to shame, my dear Angelique! You write so nicely;
your style is so pleasing; thoughts occur to you so happily, that I would
almost wish to publish your letters. Only they are rather few in number. –
For I believe that someone who can put pen to paper so well should sel-
dom allow that pen to rest.110
In many examples the term ‘style’ remains rather an abstract one, which
was also the subject of confusion at the time the letters were written.
Concretely speaking, style may refer to the sequence of subjects dis-
cussed, the tone, or the manner of writing.
A commonly voiced comment, uttered both by writers and recipi-
ents of letters, was that a letter ‘hangs together like loose sand’.111 The
letter-writing manuals ordained that the sender should reflect carefully
before beginning the letter. Otto commented in the same vein in writ-
ing to his brother Jan: ‘Please forgive me this confused missive. I have
already penned a great deal today, and I wanted to make the most of an
intervening hour, so I sat down to write without ordering my thoughts
properly. But with a little trouble you will, I hope, understand me’.112
Writing neatly and calmly would lead to legible handwriting and an
orderly letter, Otto preached to his brother Louis:
Your letters gave me great pleasure, as always; and yet I found it regret-
table that you, who can write such a good hand, imitate me so faithfully
in writing with excessive haste. It seems to me, however, that a letter does
not take you much time, or you could write neatly; that would preserve
you both from grammatical mistakes and ‘Confuser Stil’.113
Many letters also apologized for poor handwriting, or ‘mauvais griffon-
age’, which seems to have become virtually a clichéd modesty formula.

╇Streng, Geschapen om te scheppen?, 6–7. E.C. Goldsmith and D. Goodman,
‘Introduction’, in: Idem eds, Going public. Women and publishing in early modern
France (Ithaca 1995) 1–9.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 7 August 1841.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 10 July
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 6 November 1846.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 22 November
90 chapter two

Sometimes such apologies do really relate to an illegible hand, but often

this is more reminiscent of rhetorical modesty topoi.
Furthermore, letter-writers sometimes complained that they had
not received an answer to questions in previous letters. And many cor-
respondents grumbled that it was always they who opened the exchange
of letters. Jan Hora Siccama, for instance, chided: ‘Therefore I shall not
calculate according to strict rules, coolly, whether you should not really
write to me first, but shall get down to the matter directly, as a good
friend should’.114
Certain sentences were viewed as clichés. In the words of Abrahamine
Hubrecht-Steenlack: ‘Time presses me to conclude (although Papa says
it is very impolite to write this)’.115 Or: ‘now, as people so vulgairement
say, time and paper have run out’.116 One phrase severely censured by
the manuals but encountered very frequently in letters is ‘I take up my
pen in haste’. Few correspondents, therefore, seem to have felt bound
by this norm from the advice literature. The same holds true of the
sentence ‘I break off with my pen, but not with my heart’.
Letter-writing manuals gave no clear answer to the question of
whether letters should be long or short. Some correspondents com-
plained that the letters they received were too short; but others pre-
cisely that they were too long. Since the recipient paid the postage, the
sender sometimes felt obliged to write a long letter so that it was worth
paying for. On the other hand, a reason to restrict the length of the let-
ter might be that the writer did not wish to lay too great a claim on the
recipient’s time. On birthdays, especially, the recipient would have a
great many letters to read. Moreover, by sending a very long letter one
might suggest that the recipient had nothing better to do.117
Correspondents thus seem to have attached considerable value to
the style of letters, to judge from both the positive and negative com-
ments on this matter. Like the letter-writing manuals, many saw the
letter as the mirror of the soul, which should be sincere and not artifi-
cial. A natural, lively and spirited style was appreciated, but the letter
should not be overstated. The letter-writer must think carefully before
putting pen to paper, to ensure that the final product would be a neat

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 17 January 1825.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht,
5 January 1828.
╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Betsy Steenlack to Ambrosius Hubrecht,
5 November 1850.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, Paul Hubrecht jr. to Pieter Hubrecht, 31 January 1852.
everyday correspondence91

and well-structured letter. In practice, many people of course did not

do so, to judge from the reprimands one finds in the letters.
Correspondents were also on the alert for clichés, which were not really

Themes and taboos

Standard parts of the letter

In addition to stylistic clichés, there were also standard subjects for let-
ters. Certain building blocks occur so often that it is possible to sum up
what a standard letter generally comprised. After the salutation, the
first paragraph tended to deal with the state of the correspondence: the
writer expressed thanks for a letter received, apologized for not having
written for so long, or remarked on when he or she had last received a
letter from the other. This was followed by a brief allusion to that letter,
such as that it had been pleasant to receive it, or to gather from it that
the sender was in good health. Then letter-writers moved on to news
about themselves and their families, friends and acquaintances.
Generally this concerned their health, as well as births, marriages and
deaths. Next the letter would turn to plans for the near future, such as
house parties. Finally, compliments were passed on to the recipient’s
family, and the letter ended with a concluding formula, signature, and
sometimes a postscript. This pattern seems to have been the same
throughout Western Europe.118
The first part of the letter, especially, about the state of the corre-
spondence and the health of the sender and recipient and their fami-
lies, affirmed the connection between the writer and the person
addressed and between their families. The compliments to be passed
on also served to show that the sender and recipient were embedded in
a certain network: by greeting others in the recipient’s circle, the sender
showed that he or she had certain contacts, which formed a sort of
social collateral. If he did not yet know them well, such compliments
could serve as an introduction.119 Some people felt offended if there

╇Chotard-Lioret, La socialité familiale, 74. R. Baasner, ‘Briefkultur im 19.
Jahrhundert. Kommunikation, Konvention, Praxis’, in: Baasner, Briefkultur, 1–36,
here 24.
╇Y. Hasselberg, ‘Letters, social networks and the embedded economy in Sweden:
some remarks on the Swedish bourgeoisie, 1800–1850’, in: Early, Epistolary selves,
92 chapter two

was no response to compliments they had expressed. This was the case
with an acquaintance of the Hubrechts’: ‘Sanders was a little piqued
that there was no response to his compliments to you and the rest of the
family in his New Year letter – write me a word or two for him so that
I can read it aloud’.120 The standard elements of the letter, such as the
salutation, the compliments and the concluding formula, gave people
something to go on, and were expected to elicit standard responses.

News and family life

Although the structure of the letter was often the same, the themes in
the letter showed considerable variation. Historical studies of various
kinds which use letters as a source generally also pay some attention to
what was not discussed in correspondence. There is a consensus about
the main component of all letters: family news and health. Most histo-
rians, with the exception of Gay, note one general taboo: sexuality.121
Otherwise the taboo subjects in letter-writing differ from study to
study, but they can be roughly grouped into three categories: money,
politics, and religion.122
The Dutch correspondents whose voices are heard in this study also
saw passing on family news as the most important function of their
letters. Generally illnesses, engagements, marriages and deaths are
considered news. Family life also constitutes an important theme in

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 406, Jaqueline Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 18 January 1831.
╇Gay, The naked heart, 325–326.
╇ In the letters at the basis of Vickery’s research into women of the English bour-
geoisie and gentry, both religion and sexuality were forbidden territory: A. Vickery,
The gentleman’s daughter. Women’s lives in Georgian England (London 1998) 11. The
French family described by Dauphin et al. avoided the theme of religion, probably
because the husband was Catholic and the wife Protestant. Money, on the other hand,
was discussed: Dauphin, Ces bonnes lettres, 38, 172. For the German family studied by
Habermas, finances were taboo in correspondence: Habermas, Männer und Frauen,
298. The Swedish letters investigated in Hasselberg’s study, on the other hand, dis-
cussed both finances and gossip: Hasselberg, ‘Letters, social networks’, 96. The late-
nineteenth-century French correspondence examined by Chotard-Liotard drew a veil
over such subjects as family scandals, gossip, causes of death, financial problems
(except in letters between spouses), sexuality, love relationships between family mem-
bers or extramarital affairs, jealousy and mourning. Politics was only touched on if one
was sure that the recipient was of the same political persuasion. Only neutral matters
such as health, business, and the exchange of services or presents were safe. Chotard-
Lioret believes this is due to the underlying aim of correspondence: to reinforce the
family network. Too much mourning, for example, might reduce optimism about fur-
ther life, which would ultimately not be constructive for the family network. Chotard-
Lioret, La socialité familiale, 37–38, 449.
everyday correspondence93

many letters. In recent years, historians have stressed that it was not
only women who took an interest in the private domain of the house-
hold and children’s upbringing. Men’s correspondence bears witness to
the great value they attached to their children.123 My own research fully
backs up these conclusions. To give just two examples: Cornelis Oomen
reported to his cousin Hendrik on the progress of his daughter: ‘Lientje
[…] has started to walk holding one’s hand, and has 7 teeth already’.124
And Paul Hubrecht jr. wrote to his father about his wife Marie’s prob-
lems with breast-feeding: ‘Marie’s left breast is painful, so now she
only allows the child to feed at one breast; the other one has a poultice
on it’.125

Fashion, business and illness

There is one theme that is virtually only discussed in letters between
women: fashion. Women wrote about fashion a lot, and exchanged pat-
terns, as well as recipes for dishes or for medicines. Business, on the
other hand, was confined to letters from one man to another, as one
woman wrote: ‘Wilhelm has so much to do that he has no time to
write – well, to Papa, of course, about business, but as a rule ladies are
not terribly interested in that’.126 This may well be a typically nineteenth-
century development. This period saw the separation of the living and
the working sphere, whereas in the preceding centuries women were
still often involved in the family business, or were at least better
informed about it, since it operated from the home. The letters of
Emilie Fijnje-Luzac (1748–1788), for instance, written in 1787–1788,

╇Vickery, The gentleman’s daughter, 124. Shoemaker, Gender, 123–124. T. de Bie
and W. Fritschy, ‘De “wereld” van Réveilvrouwen, hun liefdadige activiteiten en het
ontstaan van het feminisme in Nederland’, Jaarboek voor Vrouwengeschiedenis 6 (1985)
30–58, here 49. Habermas and Trepp suggest that men’s interest in family dates from
the early nineteenth century, but in fact it was also present in the early modern period,
see: Habermas, Frauen und Männer, 377–378. A.-C. Trepp, ‘The private lives of men in
eighteenth-century Central Europe. The emotional side of men in late eighteenth-
century Germany (theory and example)’, Central European History 27 (1994) 127–152.
J. Hokke, ‘â•›“Mijn alderliefste Jantie lief.” Vrouwen en gezin in de Republiek: regentenv-
rouwen en hun relaties’, Jaarboek voor Vrouwengeschiedenis 8 (1987) 45–73. B. Roberts,
‘Fatherhood in eighteenth-century Holland. The Van der Meulen brothers’, Journal of
Family History 21 (1996) 218–228.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1318, Cornelis Oomen to Hendrik Oomen, 16 January
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, Paul Hubrecht jr. to Pieter Hubrecht, 16 April 1853.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 326, Marie Kraemer to Joanna Fuchs, 29 November 1867.
94 chapter two

show her great involvement in her husband’s printing press, and her
considerable knowledge of affairs of business and finance.127
The stereotypical image of nineteenth-century correspondents is
that they expended reams of paper pouring out all the details of their
various illnesses.128 This image is not entirely accurate. Certainly ill-
nesses were a frequent subject for letters, but it was often not the ill
health of the letter-writer that was discussed. Correspondents tended
to describe the illnesses of members of their family or household rather
than their own. The reason for this may have been a very practical one:
people who are ill are often unable to write letters. It may also have had
to do with the prohibition on egocentrism, which will be discussed fur-
ther at the end of this section. A correspondent writing to Baroness De
Constant Rebecque apologized, for instance, for his detailed descrip-
tion of his illness.129
Dwelling on one’s own illness in a letter perhaps occurred less often
that we might expect, but it was not taboo. Sexuality, on the other hand,
clearly was forbidden territory for letters. Young men sporadically
exchanged the odd frivolous, somewhat risqué remark about ‘conjugal
delights’,130 but it seldom became more explicit than that. This reticence
is apparent, for instance, from the advice the 22-year-old Maria Oomen
asked of her mother when she was on her honeymoon:
Just between the two of us, dear Maman, last week I did not have my
change [menstruation, WR], though it was the time for it; and yet I am
very well. I assume that it must just be a matter of the air; please do say a
word or two, because being married, other things are also possible; but if
you do write, please make sure to seal your letter.131

╇Emilie Fijnje-Luzac, Myne beslommerde Boedel. Brieven in ballingschap 1787–
1788, ed. J.J.M. Baartmans (Nijmegen 2003).
╇Gay, The naked heart, 326.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69X, E.A. de Geen de Casembroot to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 3 April 1856. See also T. Wijsenbeek-Olthuis,
‘Ziekte en tegenslag. Ziektebeleving in de hoogste kringen van de Republiek in de
zeventiende eeuw’, in: M. Gijswijt-Hofstra and F. Egmond eds, Of bidden helpt?
Tegenslag en cultuur in Europa, circa 1500–2000 (Amsterdam 1997) 71–86, here 74. The
way in which illness is written about in egodocuments would be a fruitful area for
further research. One book on this subject is: G. Piller, ‘Krankheit schreiben. Körper
und Sprache im Selbstzeugnis von Margarethe E. Milow-Hudtwalcker (1748–1794),
Historische Anthropologie 7 (1999) 212–235.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 48, P.A. van Meeuwen to Franciscus van Lanschot sr.,
27 March 1809.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1304, Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz,
11 June 1832.
everyday correspondence95

The daughter asked her mother to send her answer in a sealed envelope
so that her husband could not read it.
Pregnancies were also always written about in euphemistic terms.
One of the many examples is a letter from Antoinette van Lanschot to
her sister in law:
Now, dear sister, about a chaplet,132 which I kindly request you to keep to
yourself and Papa: for some time now I have thought that things are that
way with me, and since we are assured that Papa and you will share in our
happiness, and that this will give you pleasure, we will no longer keep
silent; I have also written to Mama, but with the request not to tell any of
the family, like Cato […], since I do not like it to be spoken of so early.133
According to John Gillis, describing pregnancies in euphemistic terms
was a late eighteenth-century development. From that time, pregnant
women were increasingly excluded from the public domain, and writ-
ing about pregnancy also became less and less explicit. Birth was
described in less concrete terms, and the attention focused on the ide-
alization of maternal feelings. The woman was extolled as a delicate
creature – too delicate for her pregnancy to be written about clearly.134
Apart from sexuality, few subjects were universally taboo. Money,
politics or religion, themes which were unmentionable in correspond-
ence for some families in other countries, were acceptable subjects for
the Dutch families studied. Financial matters surfaced in letters when
talk turned to the costs of running the household, or to amounts
received for effects sold by members of the family. Incomes were also
discussed if there was a question of a possible engagement. For after all,
the precise state of a couple’s financial affairs could make or break a

The question of whether correspondence alluded to politics depended
mainly on the period of writing. Times of political unrest or the tumult
of war, such as the Ten Days Campaign in 1831, were understandably
reflected in contemporaries’ letters. Correspondents’ own personal

╇ Here the word ‘chaplet’ seems to be used to refer to a secret.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 233, letter from Theodorus and Antoinette van Lanschot
to Theodora van Lanschot, 16 June 1840.
╇ J.R. Gillis, A world of their own making. Myth, ritual, and the quest for family
values (Cambridge 1996) 166–169.
96 chapter two

interests also affected whether they wrote about politics. Otto Hora
Siccama wrote to his brother Louis in 1831: ‘Shall I now write to you
about politics? The newspapers are so full of it already’.135 The political
reporting of popular newspapers may explain why some families, such
as the Hubrechts, corresponded little about political affairs. Moreover,
it was not really proper for women to talk or write about politics, as
Otto Hora Siccama explained to his sister Angelique: ‘Come, enough
babbling! And all about affairs of war, at that! For I do not wish to make
an Amazon of you: a woman should be and remain a woman. General
Amor is the only one under whom they may serve’.136 Nevertheless,
Otto’s mother was the one to bring up the question of the Southern
Netherlands in writing to her son in 1831:
I continue to flatter myself that our blood will only be risked for the pres-
ervation of our territory, and in no way to drag ungrateful step-brothers
back to the parental home against their will and without their thanks, to
the sorrow and disadvantage of one’s own children. But then this is of the
realm of political questions, is it not? And we women are not competent
to cast judgement on that.137
Over twenty years later, the mother of the fifteen-year-old Victor de
Constant Rebecque corresponded with him about the political rela-
tions between Russia and Turkey.138 It would seem then, that although
women were expected not to concern themselves with politics, they did
sometimes do so in their letters.

Where religion is concerned, there can be absolutely no question of a
taboo. Indeed, quite the contrary, for many families religion was an
important subject for letters. Especially in the correspondence of the
Protestant families studied, the Hubrechts and the De Constant
Rebecques (and to a lesser extent the Hora Siccamas), religion was a
central theme. Tineke de Bie and Wantje Fritschy conclude in their

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 26 January
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique Hora Siccama,
17 November 1830.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, n.d.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69D, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 1 February 1854.
everyday correspondence97

investigation of the correspondence between men and women of the

Réveil (a religious movement that flourished in the Netherlands in the
first half of the nineteenth century) that virtually every letter had a reli-
gious component.139 Baroness De Constant Rebecque was in contact
with the Da Costas, one of the leading families of the Réveil. She was
friendly with Hannah da Costa and attended discussion and poetry
evenings led by the author Isaac da Costa.140
The Van Lanschots, a Catholic family, also occasionally mentioned
religion in their letters, but in a very different manner from the
Protestant families. The letters of the Protestant families show much
more evidence of intimate deliberations of conscience. There is one
particular function of the letter that we encounter most clearly in the
correspondence of the Hubrechts, who had Pietist leanings: this is the
letter as a means to stimulate faith, to foster the internalization of belief.
In general, letters were an excellent aid to developing one’s ideas, as
Louise Berkhout-Steenlack wrote: ‘otherwise we will talk about it on
paper some time, and then we will both profit, since there is nothing
more suitable for developing and ordering one’s own ideas further’.141
Particularly the members of the Hubrecht family developed their
ideas about religion in their letters. In dwelling on religious matters in
their correspondence, the correspondents not only drew closer to each
other, but also closer to God, which gave rise to a sort of triangular
j’éspère que vous étiez en communion avec nous et surtout avec celui
dont le corps a été rompu et le sang verzé en remission de nos péchés,
c’est une communion si précieuze et il y a quelque choze de bien donc
pour notre coeur dans ses instants solennels dans la pensée que nos plus
chers amis sur la terre sont en lui en communiant avec nous. (I hope that
you were in communion with us, and especially with Him whose
body  was broken and whose blood was poured out for the remission
of  our sins. This is such a precious communion, and there is there-
fore  something good for our souls in these solemn moments in the
thought that our very dearest friends on earth are in Him in communi-
cating with us.)142

╇ De Bie and Fritschy, ‘De “wereld” van Réveilvrouwen’, 56.


╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120B, Julie de Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van


Giessenburg to Victor de Constant Rebecque, 2 July 1854.

╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Louise Berkhout-Steenlack to Ambrosius Hubrecht,
19 January 1850.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 416, Victor Guye and Jaqueline Guye-Steenlack to
Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack, 9 April 1849.
98 chapter two

It was not merely that religion was reflected on in letters; the bond with
God was strengthened by the tightening of the bond between the
sender and the recipient. Exchanging religious experiences also created
a certain intimacy: often correspondents of the Hubrecht family picked
out a special person to write to about religion. This was the case, for
instance, with the exchange of letters between Jaqueline Steenlack and
her brother-in-law Pieter Hubrecht. Particularly for Protestants with
Pietist leanings, correspondence with like-minded believers was an
important way to obtain assurance in matters of faith. In this sense,
correspondence functioned as an extension of the conventicle, a dis-
cussion group for devout believers, which served among other things
to exchange experiences of faith and to strengthen one another in
belief. Pietist egodocuments, such as autobiographies and diaries, were
often read aloud at these conventicles.143 My research demonstrates
that letters were also important in the reading and writing culture of
Pietists. This would be a fruitful field for further study.

Between themes and taboos: engagements, gossip, and conflicts

Religion, thus, was by no means taboo in correspondence. Finances
and politics were acceptable subjects too, although women were not
really supposed to discuss political matters in their letters. There were
several other subjects that were not forbidden in correspondence, but
were perhaps problematic. Negotiations over engagements, or in the
period leading up to them, for instance, often made for embarrassing
letters. A preliminary letter was generally enough to describe potential
marriage candidates. For after all, there was always the risk that the
engagement might not ultimately take place, and in that case it was bet-
ter for as few people as possible to have got wind of the matter. For this
reason, correspondents sometimes preferred to discuss possible fiancés
orally rather than in a letter, as Maria van den Broek-van Lelyveld sug-
gested: ‘more on this anon by mouth; do not wish to entrust too much
to paper without it being necessary’.144
Besides candidates for engagement, gossip also inhabited the grey
area of what was or was not acceptable in correspondence. Corre�
spondents certainly did gossip in letters, but many, especially the

╇ F.A. van Lieburg, Levens van vromen. Gereformeerd piëtisme in de achttiende
eeuw (Kampen 1991) 128, 141, 157, 165.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1174, Maria van den Broek-van Lelyveld to Pieter van
Lelyveld and Cecilia van Lelyveld-Marcus, 19 January 1780.
everyday correspondence99

Protestants, felt uncomfortable about it. Often gossip about others was
followed by a comment such as ‘between ourselves’, or ‘you can trust
me to keep a secret’. In these cases too, some correspondents preferred
to talk face to face rather than by letter; others chastised themselves
after written calumnies, as did Octavie Steenlack, for instance, after a
rather less than proper description of a few members of her family: ‘But
basta – no unpleasantnesses’.145 Gossiping was often associated with
women,146 but men went for it in their letters too, like Mr Falck in a let-
ter to his grown-up daughter Amelie: ‘They tell me that Mrs Fexier,
erstwhile Van Hemert, now lodging with her parents, has been happily
delivered of a son. They say that Fexier left her a good 1½ years ago’.147
Conflicts too were on the borderline of what was and was not suita-
ble subject matter for a letter. In her research in to the Blussé family,
Arianne Baggerman notes that not a single letter in the family archive
refers to a conflict. There was scarcely any trace in the family papers of
one of the Blussé sons, who was committed to an institution. This part
of the family history was probably deliberately excluded, so as to create
the right image of the family for later generations.148 Although doubt-
lessly papers were deliberately preserved or omitted from the family
archives – a policy, incidentally, that is generally difficult to rÂ� econstruct –
traces of conflicts can indeed be found in the correspondences of the
families I have focused on here. However, some correspondents found
such things easier to write about than others. There are allusions, for
instance, to the family row that blew up when Otto Hora Siccama
wished to marry his aunt,149 and the rift between Julie de Constant
Rebecque and her father when she had kept him in the dark about a
marriage proposal and he did not agree with her choice of fiancé.150
Julie and her father did correspond openly about a family member who
had been committed to an asylum.151

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 420, Octavie van Heukelom-Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht,
19 December 1850.
╇ M. Tebbutt, Women’s talk? A social history of ‘gossip’ in working-class neighbour-
hoods, 1880–1960 (Aldershot 1995) 13.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 41, O.W. Falck to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 11 September
╇ Baggerman, ‘Autobiography and family memory’, 169.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, 5 May
1829, 31 January 1830.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69A, Joan d’Ablaing van Giessenburg to Julie d’Ablaing van
Giessenburg, 18 December 1829.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69A, Joan d’Ablaing van Giessenburg to Julie de Constant
Rebecque- d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 11 February 1847.
100 chapter two

Although rows were sometimes written about, it seems as though the
content of the ideal letter should attest a more positive attitude. In the
words of Vincent d’Ablaing van Giessenburg: ‘on dit qu’on ne doit écrire
que dans des momens de belle humeur’ (they say that one should only
write at moments when one is in a good mood).152 This brings us to the
theme of the emotions: which emotions could one display in everyday
correspondence, and which not? The above quotation shows that it was
good etiquette only to write letters if one was in a good mood. A late
nineteenth-century etiquette book for women prescribed this explic-
itly: ‘If one wishes to share one’s thoughts and feelings, one should as
far as possible avoid writing when one is in a subdued mood’.153 Otto
Hora Siccama’s mother extolled a letter from Otto’s brother Jan for
being ‘very pleasantly and light-heartedly written’.154
If every letter-writer had heeded this advice, we would never find
passages about feelings of depression or anger in letters. This is not the
case, since correspondents do indeed mention feeling melancholy in
letters to intimate friends and relations. Sometimes the author apolo-
gized for this, as in a letter written to Pieter van Lelyveld by a friend:
‘perhaps the tone in which I write this letter is too melancholy in
pitch’.155 More often we see the recipient of a depressed letter trying to
cheer up the sender. Thus Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg’s cousin
urged her not to succumb too much to depression: ‘Je vous prie, Julie,
chère Bonne, ne vous laissez pas trop aller à cette melancholie, elle fait
du mal à votre santé, et vous savez que c’est un de nos devoirs de soigner
de prolonger notre vie qui ne nous appartient pas’ (I pray you, Julie, my
dear, do not give in so much to this melancholy, it is bad for your health,
and you know it is one of our duties to take care to prolong this life
which does not belong to us.)156
Both men and women mention feeling low in their correspondence.
In gender difference theory, women were characterized as emotional
and men and rational, but recent research has demonstrated that in

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69I, Vincent d’Ablaing van Giessenburg to Julie de Constant
Rebecque- d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 11 December 1840.
╇ Van Rijnkerke-Olthuis, De vrouw, 259.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
16 December 1826.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1180, J. Ph. Ruys to Pieter van Lelyveld, 9 March 1799.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69R, Margaretha Dedel to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg,
16 May 1831.
everyday correspondence101

practice having and displaying feelings was also important for men in
the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in part due to the influ-
ence of sentimentalism and Romanticism.157 Otto Hora Siccama, for
instance, read The Man of Feeling, a sentimentalist novel by the Scottish
author Henry Mackenzie, first published in 1771. In this novel, extreme
compassion, to the point of tears, was advocated in men.158 Generally,
however, controlling the emotions was characterized as manly, as
Dorothée Sturkenboom has demonstrated in the case of the spectato-
rial journals of the eighteenth century.159 A letter of condolence
addressed to Augustinus van Lanschot reinforces this image:
Pleurez, cher ami, l’excellent enfant, qui n’est que trop digne de nos
larmes; mais que notre douleur soit cette d’un homme, vous le devez à
vous même; vous devez à votre famille une conduit ferme, dans la quelle
elle trouve quelqu’appui quelque solagement-armez vous, contre cet arret
irrévocable de raisons et de philosophie et même d’un peu de stoïcisme,
qu’une réligion éclairée guide votre douleur. (Weep, my dear friend, for
this excellent child, who is only too worthy of our tears. But may our sad-
ness be that of a man. You owe it to yourself, you owe your family firm
conduct, in which it find some support, some solace. Arm yourself
against this irrevocable arrest of reason and philosophy, and even of a
little stoicism. May an enlightened religion guide your sorrow).160
Sturkenboom also concludes, incidentally, that controlling the emo-
tions was generally seen as the goal to strive for. This too can be seen in
several letters from the five family archives studied. Emotions are laud-
able, but it is equally laudable to keep them in check. Thus Otto Hora
Siccama’s mother grumbled about the over-buoyant tone of one of his
letters: ‘Your letter to Antoinette that she received yesterday also dis-
plays high spirits, I would almost say to excess, since I found a good
deal too much in the letter that was unfitting, to put it mildly.’161
It would seem, then, that a letter should be optimistic and cheerful, but

╇Trepp, ‘The private lives’, 152.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
11 March 1824. For more about this novel, see: M. Gassenmeier, Der Typus des man of
feeling. Studien zum sentimentalen Roman des 18. Jahrhunderts in England (Tübingen
1972) 124–152.
╇ D. Sturkenboom, Spectators van hartstocht. Sekse en emotionele cultuur in de
achttiende eeuw (Hilversum 1998) 110.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 119, L. Lightenvelt to Augustinus van Lanschot,
8 September 1827.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
16 January 1831.
102 chapter two

should not take this to extremes. Otto himself, who, by his own account,
was considered by many ‘très froid’ – an impression he was at pains to
rectify,162 (perhaps this was behind his reading of the novel The Man of
Feeling) – wrote to his sister Angelique: ‘je me flatte que tu voudras bien
t’observer un peu, et que tu tâcheras, pas d’être moins triste, mais d’être
douce. C’est tout ce que je te demande, en te priant d’excuser ce que ma
lettre pourrait avoir de trop franc’ (I flatter myself that you would like
to take heed to yourself a bit, and that you may strive, not to be less sad,
but to be gentle. That is all I ask of you, begging you to excuse anything
about my letter that is perhaps too frank).163 Not only did Otto urge
Angelique to be ‘gentle’, but he feared that his letter had gone too far,
had been too frank. We encounter the same fears in the intimate cor-
respondence between another brother and sister: Henri and Theodora
van Lanschot. Although Henri proudly declared that ‘frankness is my
motto’, he was also sometimes afraid that he had been too openhearted,
as with regard to a probably rather negative comment on a possible
marriage candidate for Theodora: ‘peut-etre me suis-je expliqué un peu
trop liberalement’ (perhaps I expressed myself rather too liberally).164
Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-van Rhemen, too,
feared that her frankness might not be appropriate for letters: ‘j’espère
vous tout dire je préfère ne pas la faire par lettres vous savez que je suis
franche peutêtre même trop quelquefois’ (I hope to tell you all. I prefer
not to do so by letter – you know that I am frank, perhaps sometimes
too much so).165
It was also possible to overstep the mark where religious sensibilities
were concerned. Thus Sara Wrangel-Dedel wrote to her cousin Julie,
Baroness De Constant Rebecque, that she had received a letter from
Dina Singendonck that was excessive in its pietism: Dina brought reli-
gion into everything, even the most mundane matters, which was
excessive, in Sara’s view.166 It is fine to express religious feelings, then,

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 39, Otto Hora Siccama to Harco Hora Siccama, 22 November
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique Hora Siccama, 1 February
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 228, Henricus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot,
7 August 1828.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van der Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 1 October 1830.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69Q, Sara Wrangel-Dedel to Julie de Constant Rebecque-
d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 30 July 1842.
everyday correspondence103

but this too should be kept within certain limits. Pietist families such as
the Hubrechts, however, seem not to have felt such boundaries.
Striving for moderation and the ‘golden mean’ was also at the fore-
front in other genres in the Netherlands in the first half of the nine-
teenth century. This ideal was part of the longing for peace and
reconciliation after the turbulent period of French rule, in which dis-
sension and radical ideas had led to unrest. The desire for moderation
and calm found expression in the visual arts and poetry, for instance, in
striving to reconcile extremes.167 And yet it is questionable whether
there was any such direct connection between letter-writing culture
and the mentality of the Dutch restoration period (1815–1848). From
Aristotle’s day, many had espoused the ideal of the golden mean, both
when it came to expressing emotions (the ethical mean) and in matters
of style (the stylistic mean).168 So the idea that a letter should not be
excessive might also fit into this longer tradition.
The way in which correspondents mould their emotions by means of
letters is perhaps more interesting than simply establishing whether
certain emotions were or were not described in letters, and by whom.
It would be artificial to construct an opposition between, on the one
hand, prescriptions regarding the expression of emotions and, on the
other hand, people’s perception of emotions in practice, to be recon-
structed from letters. At the end of her study into spectatorial writers’
views on the emotions, for instance, Sturkenboom suggests that the
question of whether these authors influenced the emotional experien-
tial world of their readers might be answered by examining diaries and
letters, which would reveal people’s personal perceptions of certain
emotions.169 However, it is not so simple to reconstruct people’s per-
sonal perceptions of feelings using egodocuments. It is virtually impos-
sible to ascertain whether an emotion expressed in a letter is ‘genuine’
or not. When it comes to the emotions, the distinction between pre-
scription and practice is not a very fruitful line of enquiry.
For this reason, research into the emotions has taken a different
turn. The historian and anthropologist William Reddy, for instance,
has argued against approaching expressions of emotion either as a ‘dis-
course’, i.e. words that bear no relation to reality, or as an u
� nproblematic

╇ Streng, ‘Romantiek als spookbeeld’, 35.
╇Jansen, Decorum, 43–46.
╇Sturkenboom, Spectators, 368.
104 chapter two

‘practice’, in which the words used to express the emotions refer directly
to the emotions themselves. Instead, Reddy emphasizes precisely the
capacity of expressions of emotion to evince change in that to which
they refer, i.e., in the state of the speaker. He coins the term ‘an emotive’
to designate a feeling which, simultaneously with its expression,
changes that feeling. In Reddy’s anthropological approach, the dynamic
nature of the expression of emotion is central: communities and indi-
viduals attempt (whether consciously or not) to direct their emotions.
If for instance a person is asked whether he is angry and answers ‘yes’,
he may become angrier in answering than he was originally. Expressing
the emotion has altered the emotion itself. In this way emotions can be
channelled in the desired direction.170
The dynamic character of emotions is also emphasized in the con-
cept of ‘emotion work’, as developed by the sociologist Arlie Russell
Hochschild. Emotion work refers to the effort of conforming to cul-
tural norms that prescribe which emotions one should or should not
feel. To live up to these norms, two sorts of action are possible: ‘surface
acting’, conscious body language such as crying, and ‘deep acting’, the
construction of feeling itself. Martha Tomhave Blauvelt has demon-
strated the significance of emotion work in a case study of an American
woman in the nineteenth century, who used her diary to work on her
emotions so that she could eventually display the emotions that befit-
ted the socially acceptable role of (a good Calvinist) daughter, wife and
The concepts of the ‘emotive’ and of ‘emotion work’ seem to me to
clarify matters, since they sidestep the rather misleading opposition
between prescription and practice where emotions are concerned. The
letters written by women from the Hubrecht, Van Lanschot, and De
Constant Rebecque families also show evidence of this sort of emotion
work. Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-van Rhemen,
for example, wrote to her friend Julie:
je suis si triste que je pouvrai pleurer toute la journée mais je me dis à
moimême allons soyons raissonable quand je pense à mes malheureuses
amies prisonnieres je dois me trouver encore bien heureuse n’est il pas
vrai ? Enfin parlons d’autre choses car ceci n’est pas propre à vous égayer

╇ W.M. Reddy, ‘Against constructionism. The historical ethnography of emotions’,
Current Anthropology 38 (1997) 327–351, here 327–330.
╇ M. Tomhave Blauvelt, ‘The work of the heart: emotion in the 1805–35 diary of
Sarah Connell Ayer’, JSH 35 (2002) 577–592, here 577–578.
everyday correspondence105

(I am so sad I could cry all day long, but I say to myself, come on, be
reasonable – when I think of my dear friends, those imprisoned women,
I should count myself very fortunate, should I not? But still, let us talk of
other things, as this is not really fit to make you cheerful).172
Sophia reproached herself for writing that she was feeling melancholy.
In writing, she tried to cheer herself up. In another letter from Sophia
to Julie, she confessed that she was sometimes a little jealous of the way
a man talked about Julie. She adds: ‘je veux tacher de ne pas avoir ce
vilaine défaut pour lequel jaurais beaucoup de disposition’ (I will strive
not to have this ugly failing, for which I could have rather a predisposi-
tion).173 Sophia not only strove to control her depressive feelings in her
letters, but also to keep her jealousy in check. Pauline van der Kun, on
the other hand, struggled with the virtue of patience, as she reported to
her sister-in-law in a letter in which she complained about her serv-
ants: ‘il faudra encore me résigner, non sans peine ce qui est très naturel,
aussi la patience est une belle vertu comme dit le proverbe et je tacherai
de la mettre en pratique’ (I shall have to resign myself yet again, I fear –
not without difficulty, as is very natural – and of course patience is a
virtue, as the saying goes, and I will strive to put it into practice).174
Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken too urged herself to be patient: ‘but be
patient, one cannot have everything as one would wish, but I do tend to
be rather impatient, and that is an ugly complaint that can easily make
us peevish and discontented’.175 Elisabeth also excused herself for peri-
ods of despondency: ‘forgive me, my dear Piet, if I am not always mas-
terful enough to subdue those melancholic thoughts’.176 It is striking
that all these quotations are from women. The two passages quoted
above about gossiping also showed that the male correspondent, Mr
Falck, did not feel the need to follow up his gossip with an apology or
self-reproof, whereas Octavie Steenlack did. Women much more fre-
quently used the letter as a means of disciplining themselves than did
men. Emotion work seems to have been practised primarily by women,

╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, n.d..
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 4 July 1826.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 235, Pauline van Lanschot-van der Kun to Theodora van
Lanschot, 15 December 1834.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 6 June 1828.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 409, Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken to Pieter Hubrecht,
23 August 1850.
106 chapter two

which can be explained by the stricter rules governing women’s behav-

iour. Women had to appear even more patient and cheerful than men.
Emotion work seems then to have had a double function. Not only did
women attempt in their correspondence to internalize their emotions,
they also projected an image to their correspondents of a woman who
was trying to live up to the character traits that were expected of her.

The previous chapter noted that several authors of manuals advised
correspondents not to write too much about themselves. The family
archives of the Protestant Hubrecht, Hora Siccama and De Constant
Rebecque contain in total about a dozen letters, all dating from after
1831, in which the writer apologizes for writing too much about him-
self or herself. One correspondent of the De Constant Rebecque family
excused himself, as mentioned above, for entering into so much detail
about his own illness. Otto Hora Siccama too was afraid of being taken
for an egocentric hypochondriac:
Please excuse me, dear Mama, for taking up so much of your time about
myself, and moreover I run the risk of being called a hypochondriac: but
I do not deserve that name, since I do not display the behaviour by which
Vosmaer recognizes such people, who keep looking at their tongues in
the mirror, etc. etc.177
In another letter, Otto’s mother decreed that one’s own character did
not constitute a suitable subject for conversation.178 In addition to the
question of whether the speaker/writer may be at the centre of atten-
tion in a letter or conversation, the theme of ‘egocentrism’ was also a
social issue in the letters. Otto Hora Siccama, for instance, endorsed a
hypothesis of his aunt’s that in general men were more selfish than
women.179 Nevertheless, he believed that women who did not wish to
marry and have children were indeed selfish.180
Both men and women apologized for being self-centred in their let-
ters. I cannot establish whether people really did start to write more

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
6 January 1829.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
22 December 1831.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 14 August 1826.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 1 November
everyday correspondence107

about themselves. This also depends strongly on the individual and his
or her stage of life, as well as the relationship between the correspond-
ents. It is striking, however, that it was in about 1810–1830 that the
manuals started to preach more vociferously against egocentrism, and
that the apologies for this failing are found in letters from precisely this
period. The ‘ego’ probably became a more central cultural theme, with
negative connotations. Indications are admittedly scarce, but it is
noticeable that a mention of egocentrism in a letter dating from 1802
was not accompanied by an apology, and was even rather applauded.
A friend of Magdalena van Schinne’s was writing about her experiences
since Magdalena’s departure: ‘Cela sera fort interessant mon Egoisme
vous en est garant et que plus est mon amour propre m’assure que vous
voudrez bien être du même avis’ (This will be extremely interesting –
my egoism guarantees it, and, what is more, my self esteem assures me
that you would be of the same opinion).181 It must, of course, remain
speculation, but the cautious observation that the ‘ego’ became a prob-
lematic issue in letters in about 1810–1830, together with the fact –
discussed in the first chapter – that it was in this same period that the
ideal of naturalness took hold in the Netherlands, seems to point to a
cultural turning point in letter-writing. Perhaps the taboo Â�regarding egoÂ�
centrism was connected with changes in public morality in the wake of
the French occupation: the French Revolution’s ideology of equality
came to be viewed as toleration of egotism. Instead, it was precisely the
common good, not individual interests, which was valued most highly
in the Netherlands after the French period. Simplicity and unity were
paramount.182 Is the prohibition of egocentrism in letters an equivalent
of this? Or is it rather an indication of the ascendancy of the ‘ego’?

Receiving a letter

In conclusion of this chapter, which has traced the letter’s path from
writing by candle-light, via language and style, to the sender, some-
thing must be said about the way in which this same sender handled
the letters he or she received. Several correspondents alluded to the
practice of reading letters aloud in the family circle. Jaqueline Steenlack,
for instance, read out passages from correspondence she had received:

╇ NA, FAVS, inv. no. 174, Louise to Magdalena van Schinne, 25 August 1802.
╇Westers, Welsprekende burgers, 203–204.
108 chapter two

I find it sweet of you to write so many good things of him; then I can read
it out to the governess, who is quite well pleased by it […] but now I
would like to [know, WR] who told you that I was so fond of him as you
say; pooh, pooh, Piet, you made me turn a rare old colour when I read
Mama various bits and pieces from your letter.183
Jan Hora Siccama too mentioned reading letters aloud, or having them
read aloud to him: ‘We had just got back yesterday evening […] when
I received the letters, which were listened to with much sympathy’.184
Nevertheless, the Hora Siccamas mainly wrote to each other individu-
ally, rather than addressing letters to the whole family. It is not very
clear, therefore, how widespread it was to read letters aloud. Although
there are few explicit mentions in the letters of reading aloud, corre-
spondents did often request each other to keep the contents of the letter
‘between ourselves’, and not to let others read it. This might allude to
the custom of reading letters aloud or allowing others to read them, but
might equally be a way of promoting the bond of trust between the
sender and the recipient. In any case, I have not observed any chrono-
logical development from reading aloud to silent reading, or from a
public to a private approach to correspondence.
In Chapter 1, it was mentioned that there was a discussion in the
advice literature about whether spouses might read each other’s letters.
This was also a matter of dispute in practice. When Maria Oomen
asked her mother’s advice about the absence of her menstruation on
her honeymoon, she requested her mother to seal her reply sepa-
rately.185 This explicit request pointed to the fact that it was customary
to send several unsealed letters in one envelope, so that Maria’s hus-
band could easily have read her letters. Henri van Lanschot was also of
the opinion that he might read letters addressed to his wife Pauline,
since ‘man and wife are one’.186 Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye
van de Poll-van Rhemen, on the other hand, swore to her friend Julie
that she never showed the latter’s letters to her husband.187 Letters are

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 416, Jaqueline Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, n.d. [1 January
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 38, Jan Hora Siccama to Harco Hora Siccama, 5 August 1822.
See also De Nijs, In veilige haven, 251.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1304, Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz,
11 June 1832.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 228, Henricus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot,
5 December 1833.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 26 October 1825.
everyday correspondence109

here clearly defined as a private matter. This view was echoed in a

British lawsuit, in which a woman applied for divorce on grounds of
psychological abuse; one of the arguments adduced was that her hus-
band opened her letters.188
To prevent others from reading a letter, but also sometimes due to
shame, the sender sometimes requested the recipient to burn it after
reading it. There are about twenty letters that express this wish. The
senders were mainly young men and women. This corresponds with
the desire for intimacy that is often part of adolescence.
One reason not to burn such letters, but rather to keep them, was
their sentimental value. Letters from deceased family members, espe-
cially those who had died young, were preserved because of the memo-
ries they kept alive of the writer. Henriëtte Steenlack, for instance,
confided: ‘This week I came across a few letters from dear Hermine
from days gone by, and also one she wrote me two years ago now, after
Pauline’s death. I am happy I kept them; I find them such pleasant
reminders’.189 Jaqueline Guye-Steenlack too cherished the last letter
from her nephew Ambrosius, who died young: ‘a sincere, melancholy,
but entirely Christian tone and mood prevails, which struck us force-
fully, especially on later reading – later on it will also gratify you and be
a pleasure for you to read’.190 Keeping letters could also lead to a certain
amount of hilarity in the family if they were read aloud later: ‘This very
evening Tante Zezette read us out letters and declarations from unfor-
tunate lovers who had asked for her hand; we all dutifully laughed’.191


This chapter described everyday correspondence in actual practice.

Writing materials and postage cost money, and time and space could
not be taken for granted either – all of these factors influenced letter-
writing. Letters were full of apologies for bad handwriting as a result of
poor quality quills, and women especially expressed the belief that

╇ A. James Hammerton, Cruelty and companionship: conflict in nineteenth-century
married life (London 1992) 129.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 417, Henriëtte Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 10 April 1840.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 444, Jaqueline Guye-Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 11 January
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 39, Otto Hora Siccama to Harco Hora Siccama, 25 January
110 chapter two

their lack of time and space due to household and nurturing tasks had
a negative influence on the content and style of their letters. The fact
that until 1850 the recipient of the letter paid the postage also influ-
enced the sending of letters.
As far as the choice of language was concerned, it was established
that the majority of the letters studied were written in Dutch. French
was also used for letter-writing, because it was felt to be a beautiful
language which was well suited to a narrative style. A number of cor-
respondents made a nationalistic plea for the use of Dutch in corre-
spondence as a way of countering the influence of France. Further it
was striking that many letters mixed French and Dutch, and that
women were more likely to use French when writing amongst them-
selves. Finally, it emerged that French was used less often in letter-
writing after 1810, and that Latin was sometimes still actively used for
correspondence in the nineteenth century.
In addition to the material prerequisites and the choice of language,
the use of forms of address and the style of letters in practice were dis-
cussed. Forms of address and concluding formulas could be used to
express hierarchies or emotions. Further, letters were praised for their
naturalness or vivacity, or criticized for being artificial or confused.
The main themes that featured in letters were also examined.
Sexuality was definitely taboo in correspondence. Arguments, gossip
and reports of engagements were perceived as sensitive issues. Women
were not really supposed to write about politics or business, but politics
did sometimes come up in their letters. Otherwise, correspondents
wrote more about the illnesses of others than about their own health.
This was perhaps connected with the prohibition on egocentrism: it
was ‘not done’ in correspondence to focus too much on oneself. At the
same time, a letter should ideally exude optimism and cheerfulness.
This requirement was sometimes at odds with the notion of the letter
as the ‘mirror of the soul’: on the one hand, letters were to be sincere;
on the other hand, the sender should not show any evidence of low
spirits or egocentrism.
Letters could also serve precisely to shape the emotions, as was pos-
ited using Reddy’s concept of the ‘emotive’. This is apparent especially
from the way in which women used correspondence as a way to guide
their own emotions into socially acceptable channels. They reproved
themselves in their letters if they demonstrated jealousy, impatience or
selfishness. In this way, in their letters they moulded their emotions in
the right direction, thus shaping their own character and at the same
everyday correspondence111

time sending a signal – namely of ideal feminine behaviour – to the

recipient of the letter.
Not only emotions, but also religious experiences and beliefs were
given form in correspondence. Especially for Pietists, letters functioned
as a means of searching their conscience and achieving religious cer-
tainty. The letter simultaneously strengthened the bond between the
sender and the recipient, and their mutual bond with God. This meant
that for Pietists the letter had somewhat the same function as other
egodocuments such as diaries and autobiographies.
In the final section, I turned to the manner in which people treated
letters they received. Letters were sometimes read aloud, but many
senders also asked for their letters to be treated as confidential. There
were apparently differences, then, in how people treated their letters in
In this chapter, I have aimed not only to highlight the performative
nature of the letter in forming emotions and identities, but also to
address the question of to what extent the norms propagated by letter-
writing manuals concurred with correspondence in actual practice.
First of all, one should point out that there is little explicit evidence of
these books being consulted by the elite. This is in line with Brouwer’s
observation that booksellers in Zwolle – whose clients came, inciden-
tally, from both the upper and lower classes – actually sold very few
advice books in the period from 1777 to 1849.192 The many reprints of
such books do certainly suggest that they were popular, but they were
probably read mainly by the petty bourgeoisie and sold by door-
to-door salesmen.193
Otherwise, there is a certain amount of more implicit evidence
against the practical use of letter-writing manuals by the elite. We saw,
for example, that the boys in the Hora Siccama family asked each oth-
er’s advice by letter about the correct form of address for a given situa-
tion. This suggested that the rules governing correspondence were
learned mainly within the family, rather than being looked up in letter
and etiquette books.
Nevertheless, many similarities can be observed between the norms
espoused by the letter-writing manuals and actual practice: the use of

╇Brouwer, Lezen en schrijven, 299.


╇ Austin has established that at the end of the eighteenth century in England the

lower classes used letter-writing manuals as models: F. Austin, ‘Letter writing in a

Cornish community in the 1790s’, in: Barton and Hall, Letter writing, 43–61, here 52.
112 chapter two

larger spaces when addressing one’s betters; the rule that the sender
must think carefully before sitting down to write; Madame de Sévigné’s
role as the great example of style; the prohibition on focusing too much
on oneself in a letter; the advocacy of the mother tongue; the discus-
sion about whether spouses might read each other’s letters; the charac-
terization of the letter as a conversation between absent friends or as a
mirror of the soul; and rhetorical concepts concerning the elevated and
humble style and terms such as aptum or decorum.
There are also several points where letter-writing in practice diverges
from the content of the manuals. The authors of letter-writing manuals
maintained, for instance, that there were no rules for letters between
close friends and relatives; in practice, however, it was precisely mem-
bers of the same family who criticized each other’s letters, which shows
that they most definitely did have ideas about what a letter, even a letter
to a close relative or good friend, should look like. In addition, certain
clichés and set phrases which were disparaged by the authors of letter-
writing manuals were frequently encountered in correspondence.
In this case, the advice literature seems to have been reacting against
common practice.
Further, it is important to point out that certain ideas about the cor-
rect content and style of letters occurred only in practice, whereas they
were entirely absent from the advice literature. Letter-writing manuals
said nothing, for instance, about the use of Latin in correspondence,
about any question of women being forbidden to write about politics,
or about mentioning religion, gossip, or rows in correspondence. This
shows that general cultural norms also influence correspondence. The
fact that writing about politics was viewed as unsuitable for women
was in keeping with gender difference theory, for instance, as propa-
gated in advice literature and in bringing up children. Manuals are thus
not the only sources to influence correspondence in practice. The fol-
lowing chapter, then, will examine the influence of the family (and
teachers) on the content and form of children’s letters.
Chapter Three

Children’s Letters

Where are your letters then?

Do not tell me you are too busy with your studies; writing letters is also a
way of studying.1


The art of writing, and especially of composing proper letters, was

extremely important if one was to function successfully in the highest
circles of society. This meant that children from these circles had to
master the necessary skills from an early age. Children were taught
how to write by tutors, governesses, and their teachers at boarding
schools, but they learned letter-writing above all in practice, from the
comments they received from their relatives. Parents and grandpar-
ents, aunts, brothers and sisters all contributed to the written socializa-
tion of girls and boys. In their own letters, they made clear what tone
children’s letters should have, and what a proper letter should be about.
What ideas did the elite hold about children’s letters? What does this
tell us about their image of children? Did these ideas concur with the
epistolary theory conveyed in letter-writing manuals?
In the view of historians and contemporaries, childhood in this
period was defined as approximately the first twelve years of life. Then
came puberty, which continued to about the age of sixteen; then fol-
lowed adolescence. The current chapter takes childhood and puberty
together, dealing with ‘children’ up to the age of sixteen. The following
chapter will address adolescents of sixteen and over.
Three points are made in this chapter. First, there is the fact that the
family had a vested interest in the socialization of children. It was above
all from relatives that children learned to write letters. Secondly, I hope
to show that the rules and ideas about correspondence are not timeless,
but rather culturally determined. This aspect emerges very clearly in

╇Jan Blijdenstein to Benjamin Blijdenstein, 30 September 1793, published in:
Elderink, Een Twentsch fabriqueur, 61–64.
114 chapter three

letters to and by children, as new ideas about children and upbringing

influenced the theory and practice of correspondence. Thirdly, in this
chapter we return to the term ‘appropriation’: people’s ability to impose
their own interpretation on given cultural concepts. This is particularly
true of the terms ‘confidential’, ‘private’ and ‘natural’.
In addition to advice literature about letter-writing, and especially
about children’s letter-writing, I consulted both letters preserved in
manuscript form in the family archives and a few published letters to or
by children. The manuscript letters included a total of over 250 letters
sent by children, and about 200 letters addressed to children. Birthday
wishes and New Year’s letters constitute a large part of this corpus. The
majority of the other letters were sent by and to children at boarding
school. The published letters derive from the archives of Jan Bernard
Blijdenstein (1756–1826), who ran a factory in Twente, in the east of

Fig. 3╇ Kornelis writing a letter to his friend. De Taalspiegel [Mirror of

Language] (Gouda n.d. [1859]), The Hague, Koninklijke Bibliotheek
1090 F26.
children’s letters115

the Netherlands; of these, about twenty were addressed to children,

and seven were composed by children.

Learning to write letters

Tutors and schools

There were several schools for children of the upper classes, but they
might equally be educated by tutors at home. When they were very
young, the boys and girls of the Hubrecht family, who lived in Leiden,
were given lessons by their mother. She taught Paul (1829–1902) to
read when he was four.2 In the families of the upper-middle classes, it
was customary for mothers to teach their children basic reading and
writing.3 Thereafter, their education was continued by various tutors
and governesses. At the age of five, Hermine Hubrecht (1843–1883)
was taught reading, writing and needlework by her governess.4 After
several years of home tutoring, children might be sent to school. The
three sons of the Hubrecht family attended De Gelder’s Paedagogium
as day boys for about two years each; this was a boarding school in
Leiden run by Jan Jacob de Gelder. In the first half of the nineteenth
century, private tutors often prepared their pupils for their academic
studies better and more quickly than the Latin schools, which had not
seen educational reform for centuries.5 Paul was sent to De Gelder’s
Paedagogium at the age of ten; his brothers, Ambrosius (1831–1853)
and Willem (1839–1888) each started when they were twelve.6 Paul,
the eldest, was at the school for two years, and it is not clear what school
he went to after that. Ambrosius was sent to board in Zutphen after
about one-and-a-half years. He attended the Municipal Grammar
School in Zutphen, and also received extra piano and drawing lessons.
Ambrosius complained about his busy schedule, commenting that he

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 406, Cornélie Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 17 January 1834.

╇Habermas, Männer und Frauen, 323. De Nijs, In veilige haven, 116–122.

╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 450, J.B. van Epen to Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack,
27 November 1848.
╇ W. Frijhoff, ‘Crisis of modernisering? Hypothese over de ontwikkeling van het
voortgezet en hoger onderwijs in Holland in de 18e eeuw’, Holland 17 (1985) 37–55,
here 50–51.
╇ GAL, bibl. no. 50280/01, Affairs relating to the private college of Mr De Gelder
(1832). See also J. Bervoets, ‘De kostschooljaren van Alexander Ver Huell’, Jaarboekje
voor geschiedenis en oudheidkunde voor Leiden en omstreken 37 (1985) 107–126. Paul
Hubrecht is not listed in the roll of pupils of the Latin school in Leiden.
116 chapter three

had little time to write letters: ‘You quite rightly grumble at me about
letter-writing, as it is certainly rather bad; but I cannot easily get around
to it, as to put it frankly I do not have much opportunity. I have to do it,
as I am now, at about 6 or 7 in the morning, and then I usually have to
learn my lessons’.7
It is impossible to tell whether the boys of the Hubrecht family actu-
ally received instruction in writing letters at these boarding schools.
They did use schoolbooks about the arts of grammar and rhetoric,
which also included theoretical discourses about letters. They had to
read letters by classical authors such as Cicero, and the curriculum
also  included the letters of Lady Mary Montagu.8 As noted above,
Kneppelhout read Madame de Sévigné’s letters when he was at board-
ing school.
The children of rich Catholic families were often sent to seminaries
or boarding schools just over the Belgian or German border.9 The chil-
dren of the Van Lanschot family from ‘s Hertogenbosch were no excep-
tion. Louis van Lanschot (1804–1841) is known to have been a pupil at
a boarding school in Borg, near the German town of Münster, when he
was fifteen. In a letter to his sister Theodora, Louis told her about a
surprise visit he had received at school from his mother and younger
sister.10 He claimed not to have recognized them. This might be evi-
dence of the fact that children in the nineteenth century sometimes did
not see their families for extended periods. Correspondence between
parents and children was seen as one way to counteract the alienation
that might ensue.
Boarding schools at this time had a rigorous teaching schedule.
In  their letters home, almost all the children who went to boarding
school gave an hour-by-hour account of their daily regime of lessons
and activities at school. Louis van Lanschot, for instance, writing in
1819, described a 6am start, with prayers, German and mass before
breakfast. Then there was French at 9am, English at 10, Latin at 11, and
lunch at 12pm; this was followed by recreation until 3pm, after which

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 12 June 1846.
╇ GAL, bibl. no. 50281/1 List of activities in the course of 1836, up to the summer
vacation of 1837, from 22 August to 8 July. The book in question is Weiland’s
Spraakkunst, H. Blair, Lessen over de Redekunst en Fraaije Letteren, Cicero, Epist.
Sel. Nagel ed..
╇ Kloek and Mijnhardt, 1800, 271.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 235, Theodorus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot,
13 May 1820.
children’s letters117

there was writing and arithmetic and then recreation again. At 5pm,
the pupils had either geography or catechism, each three times a week,
and this was followed at 5.30pm by a religious reading, in German and
French alternately. Soup was served at 7pm, and then there was further
recreation until evening prayer. The boys went to bed at 9pm.11
From 1817, Louis’s elder sister Theodora (1802–1887) attended the
Pensionnat des Dames in Ghent, a girls’ boarding school run by the
Dames de l’Instruction Chrétienne in the old abbey of Dooresele. From
1819–1820 she continued her education at the girls’ boarding school in
the Berlaymont convent in Brussels, which was run by Augustinian
nuns. Only the daughters of the most eminent Catholic families were
sent to this school.12 Several of the girls in the Van Lanschot family
spent a year at Berlaymont. The main aim of this education was, as
Theodora’s father put it, ‘that you will come home sufficiently educated
to go out into the world and to be able to get along with all people’.13
The knowledge that was imparted to girls of the upper classes was thus
not so much something to be aspired to in itself, or a preparation for a
profession, as was the case with education for boys, but more a way of
fitting them for life in the highest circles of society.14
Theodora’s cousin, Maria Oomen (1809–1889), also attended this
boarding school when she was the same age of sixteen or seventeen.
Maria described daily life at Berlaymont in 1825:
We generally get up at five o’ clock in the morning, then go to the chapel
to hear mass, then have breakfast; after this, classes start and we have
geography or parsing. At 8 o’ clock Mademoiselle Koekhem comes and
reads aloud, and we practise needlework as she reads to us. At 9 o’ clock
there is another mass, which we may attend, but do not have to; after that
the music and drawing teachers come. During this time we read French
aloud, conjugate verbs aloud, and write things out neatly. At 11 o’ clock
we eat, and then we have relaxation until 1pm. At one o’ clock we have to
learn French spelling and a little Dutch (for those who are not already

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 235, Theodorus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot,
13 November 1819.
╇L. Stratenus, Berlaymont (n.d., circa 1885): ‘even today, her education is renowned
as one of the most excellent that can be bestowed on Christian girls of the highest rank’.
See also J. Schyrgens, Berlaymont. Le cloistre de la Reyne de tous les saincts (Brussels
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 229, Franciscus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot,
17 September 1819.
╇ See also M. van Essen, Opvoeden met een dubbel doel. Twee eeuwen meisjesonder-
wijs in Nederland (Amsterdam 1990).
118 chapter three

familiar with it); after that we learn to write nicely, and at half past two we
drink tea. After that we have history of some kind, and after that a letter
in French or something else; at six o’ clock we eat again, and after that we
go to church for evening prayers. We have the Rosary every other day,
and then we get undressed, walk, and go to bed at 8.30pm.15
This account shows that reading and writing were an important part of
the curriculum. The girls read aloud in French and recited verbs, and
close attention was also paid to practising neat and well-formed hand-
writing. French spelling, Dutch, and writing letters in French were also
part of the curriculum. The nuns dictated fictional letters to the girls in
French, letters whose contents were largely made up of moralistic
reflections. The copybook in which Maria wrote down these letters has
been preserved in the Van Lanschot family archive.
Maria Oomen later married Augustinus van Lanschot (1794–1874).
Their children were sent to boarding school from an early age:
Godefridus (1835–1907) and Augustinus (1834–1919) attended a
boarding school in Baarle-Nassau from the age of nine. Later, from the
age of twelve, the brothers spent several years at the Jesuit Boarding
School in Katwijk, together with their brother Franciscus (1833–1903).
This school had one hundred pupils, all boys. Jan Willem de Constant
Rebecque (1841–1893), the son of an aristocratic family from The
Hague, also attended various boarding schools, such as the Instituut
Burnier in The Hague and the Instituut Van Heumen in Delft. He was
never at school for very long. Jan Willem was also frequently tutored at
home. In various letters, he and his mother lamented the lack of conti-
nuity in his education. His older brother Victor (1838–1860), on the
other hand, was sent to the Military Academy in Breda when he was
only fourteen. He would spend several years there and complete his
education at that institution.
The children of the Van Schinne family had a tutor and a French
governess when they were younger, then attended a school in the town
for a while, but also went to boarding schools in Breda or Oosterhout.
One of the sons went to the Latin School in The Hague at the end of the
eighteenth century. Magdalena van Schinne (1762–1840) had English
lessons at home from a special tutor. Later, at boarding school, she
learned letter-writing in an unusual manner, as she explained to her

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen Ingen-Housz,
19 August 1825.
children’s letters119

elder sister Catharina (1757–1840), who was also known as Cato.

As she wrote (in English):
Master Wagenaar commes in the morning at eight a clock then we take
our lesson of dance and to draw there is always one who read in the
Magsin of children otherwise named Madam bonne and instead of the
journals we make letters who contained a short relation with the reflec-
tions we have made on the historys we have read, in short we will traduct
from french in dutch. in particular j have read the memoires de Milady
B: and the Doyen de Killerine but it are romans and j like much better the
History of England.16
The popular children’s book Magasin des Enfants, by Madame Leprince
de Beaumont, in which the central figure, Madame Bonne, encourages
her readers to keep a diary, was read aloud to the girls at the boarding
school. Instead of a diary, however, the pupils were told to write a letter
expressing their views of the stories they had read. At the same time,
they translated from French to Dutch, so that in this case the letter
functioned more as an essay about books and a medium for learning
We do not know how Cato van Schinne, the addressee of the above
letter, learned to write letters. We do know, however, that when she was
eighteen she spent some time with her aunt and uncle in Switzerland,
and that during that time she read the letters of Lady Mary Wortley
Montagu in English and translated them into French. Perhaps the let-
ters Lady Mary wrote on her long journeys were an influence on the
content and style of Cato’s own letters; certainly she gave a detailed
account of her own travels.17 Whatever the case may be, Cato used let-
ters as a way to practise translating.

Learning reading and writing at home

At school, children learned to read before they learned to write.
At home, too, children were taught the basics of reading from the age
of four. They wrote their first letters when they were five, and by the age
of six or seven all children had taken up correspondence. They were
often encouraged to write by their relatives. In 1801, Uncle Van
Tomputte received a New Year’s poem from his Van Lanschot nephews,

╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Magdalena van Schinne to Catharina van Schinne,
15 December 1776.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 28, Catharina van Schinne to Sara van Schinne-van Ruster,
8 February 1775.
120 chapter three

aged six and seven, and noted that they ‘are progressing very well in
writing’.18 About forty years later, a great uncle of the eight-year-old
Franciscus van Lanschot gave him money to reward him for a hand-
some New Year’s letter.19
Children were taught French from an early age, often with the help
of a French governess. They were also encouraged to write letters in
that language. Ambrosius, for instance, received a letter of best wishes
from his grandmother on his seventh birthday: ‘now I hear, dear Ambo,
that you have already started learning French. When you come to stay
with grandmama in the summer we’ll speak French, shall we? And
then sometime you can write to me in French, too’.20 The children of the
Van Lanschot family started writing ceremonial letters in French at the
age of ten. People writing to children at boarding school in the first half
of the nineteenth century used both French and Dutch. In one case a
mother used French to write to her daughter at boarding school,
whereas the girl’s father wrote in Dutch.21 Writing letters in foreign lan-
guages was viewed as an accomplishment, as in the case of the thirteen-
year-old Louis van Lanschot, who wrote New Year’s letters in French,
German and English.22 The daughters of the Van Schinne family were
encouraged by their mother to learn English: they had English lessons
and wrote letters to one another in English to practise the language.
Learning foreign languages, learning to write, and writing letters all
often went hand in hand. Some parents encouraged their children to
correspond with one another. Angelique Hora Siccama, for instance,
was told by her mother to exchange letters with her older brother Otto
to ‘accustom her to writing letters’. She was ‘very much in need of this
practice’.23 It was extremely important to master the art of correspond-
ence, a mother explained in a letter to her son: ‘your writing, dear

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 51, H.A. van Tomputte to Franciscus van Lanschot,
8 January 1801.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 117, A.J. Ingen-Housz to Augustinus van Lanschot and
Maria Oomen, 3 January 1842.
╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken to Ambrosius
Hubrecht, 22 December 1838.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. nos 229, Franciscus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot
and 230, Jacoba van Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel to Theodora van Lanschot.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 230, Jacoba van Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel to Theodora
van Lanschot, 1 January 1818.
╇NA, FAHS, inv. no. 39, Otto Hora Siccama to Harco Hora Siccama, 4 February
1825 and inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama, 27 January
children’s letters121

Adriaan, is much improved, especially in your latest letter. Do continue

to apply yourself to learning to write properly: this is a necessary
requirement for young people’.24

Relatives correcting children’s style

Teaching children to write good letters was pre-eminently the task of
relatives. In the view of Petrus de Raadt, who founded and ran the
Noortheij boarding school for boys in Voorschoten, school lessons
were not enough to teach the art of letter-writing. It was only by
exchanging letters with his or her relatives that a child learned how to
compose a good letter. In this process, the letters the boys received
from their parents were to serve as an example: ‘The parents’ letters
should serve as a guideline for those of the children. There is some-
thing in letter-writing style that has nothing to do with schooling:
namely all that is natural, sincere, innermost and true’.25
De Raadt was quite right in realizing that his institution could not
provide proper teaching in letter-writing. It was indeed within the fam-
ily circle that children learned the art. Sometimes compliments were
given to encourage them, as was the case with Benjamin Blijdenstein:
‘I received your most recent letter with great pleasure, both because it
is one of the best in terms of composition of any of yours I have seen
thus far, and because of your sensitive heart and your love towards me,
which is very visible in it.26 Victor de Constant Rebecque’s mother, too,
praised one of his letters for the cheerful tone that prevailed in it.27 Otto
Hora Siccama’s father responded positively to a letter from his son:
‘Your latest was especially pleasing to us, due both to the beautiful writ-
ing, the good style, and the pleasing content’.28 Just as often, however,
parents and other relatives criticized children’s letters. Victor de
Constant Rebecque, aged fifteen, commented that a letter by his twelve-
year-old brother Jan Willem was badly written; he also told him off for

╇RANB, FADJVZ, inv. no. 434, A.G. van Haeften Hetterschy to Adriaan van
Haeften, 22 March 1841.
╇P. de Raadt, Noortheij, huis van opvoeding en onderwijs (Amsterdam 1849)
╇Jan Blijdenstein to Benjamin Blijdenstein, 20 October 1794, published in:
Elderink, Een Twentsch fabriqueur, 67.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 121B, Julie de Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg
to Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque, 1 October 1856.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Harco Hora Siccama and Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora
Siccama, 17 May 1823.
122 chapter three

crossing his letter.29 Herman Blijdenstein, at the age of about sixteen,

received the following advice from his grandfather:
I can tell that you have the makings of a good correspondent, once
you have got the knack of it. Your second letter was already noticeably
better than the first. Just bear in mind that in composing your letter you
should always remember the rule ‘write as you would speak’, and all will
be well.30
The comparison between letter-writing and conversation, and the ideal
of a cheerful tone in the letter are elements we encountered in the pre-
vious chapters about epistolary theory and letter-writing practice in
general. Even at the age of nineteen, Benjamin Blijdenstein still called
his father’s advice to mind when composing a letter:
I also never spare myself the trouble of writing a letter out in full once or
twice. I imagine I am just talking, put it all on paper, writing everything
down as it comes into my mind. Sometimes it all hangs together like
loose sand, but my father has taught me to link even such jottings together
by adding or omitting something.31
It was not only parents and grandparents who commented on chil-
dren’s letters; brothers and sisters also felt called to do so. A unique
correspondence between two brothers from Leiden has come down to
us from the period 1846–1849. They exchanged on average about three
letters per month. At the beginning of their correspondence, the elder,
Paul Hubrecht, was sixteen and his younger brother, Ambrosius, four-
teen. Ambrosius had been sent to a boarding school in Zutphen because
he had behavioural problems: he was prone to temper tantrums.
Although Ambrosius’ grandmother and aunt lived near Zutphen, he
was a boarder at the school run by Mr Matthes, head of the Zutphen
Municipal Grammar School. Paul remained in Leiden, and the broth-
ers wrote to each other about the subjects they were doing at school,
their hobbies, and their family. Sixteen-year-old Ambrosius helped his
older brother Paul to think of things to write about in their correspond-
ence: ‘The new year has not brought any improvement in your letter-
writing – I hope it will get better. You say you have nothing to write

╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120C, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Victor de
Constant Rebecque, 26 March 1854.
╇ Jan Blijdenstein to Herman Blijdenstein, 5 October 1825 or 1826, published in:
Elderink, Een Twentsch fabriqueur, 236.
╇ Benjamin Blijdenstein to his uncle and aunt (among others), 15 January 1800,
published in: Elderink, Een Twentsch fabriqueur, 163.
children’s letters123

about, but there can be no lack of material in great big Leiden: about
gas, about Stoffels’ advertisement in the newspaper and its conse-
quences. Just choose a subject: I would dearly love to correspond with
you about something specific’.32 Paul in turn urged Ambro, as he usu-
ally called his younger brother, to write in Latin, since he would need
to have a good command of that language when he went to university.
After all, the lectures would be in Latin. For this reason, he corrected
not only Ambrosius’ Latin grammar, but also his general letter-writing
Neque te pigere arbitror quum vitiorum, quae ego in istas observavi te
certiorem reddo, non ad te reprehendendum, procul hoc a me absit!
laudo contra te sed si litteras latinas ad studia nostra utiles erint, necesse
credo ut invicem vitia observata dicemus. Primum quaedam de initio.
Duum in epistolis nostris latina uti volumus sermone, veterum romano-
rum exemplum inprimis sequendum esse arbitror. Hoc quoque de initio
valet. Si bene memini Cicero in epistolis ad Atticum incipere solet ut ego
studivi facere. Nequi orator umquam scripsit ille celeberrimus: ‘Attice
amatissime!! Neque “frater vel fili carissime!” sed solum salutem dicit
lectori, bonaque valetudine fatii (?) ei optat. Denique scripsisti: “me
stultissimum esse discipulorum gymn. Zutph.”. Humilitas pulchra virtus,
sed quod franco-Galli dicere solebant: les extrêmes se touchent, etiam de
[miser?] valet.33
Paul Hubrecht here praises Cicero’s simple style. In addition to com-
menting on Ambrosius’ style, Paul also comments about how Ambro
writes the address on the envelope, his use of titles, and his concluding
formula. Ambro is not familiar with the concluding abbreviation TT
(‘totus tuus’, or ‘all yours’); he thought that his brother had written two

╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 7 February
╇ ‘But I think you will not mind if I point out the errors I noted in your letter – not
to reprove you, far be it from me to do that! Quite the contrary, I am full of praise,
but since Latin letters are useful for our studies, I think it is necessary for us to tell
one another about the errors we have observed. First, the opening lines. If we want to
use the Latin language for our letters, I believe we should follow the example above all
of the ancient Romans. This also applies to the opening lines. If I remember rightly,
in his letters to Atticus, Cicero used to begin as I have tried to do. The famous orator
did not write “dearly beloved Atticus!!” or “dearest brother, or son!!”; he merely
expressed a greeting to the reader and wished him good health. Finally you wrote “that
I am the stupidest pupil of Zutphen grammar school”. Modesty is a great virtue, but as
the French say “les extrêmes se touchent” – this holds even for [?]’.GAL, FAH, suppl. II
box 19, letter from Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, n.d. (This is the fair copy of
a composition written out in draft on 7 April 1847, inv. no. 675.)
124 chapter three

sevens, and imitated this. His elder brother teased him about this: ‘what
I always write at the end of a letter is “T.T.”, that is: totus tuus and not,
as others write, “7.7.”, so that at first I thought you were sending me a
bankdraft for f 77’.34 Ambrosius later explains: ‘I didn’t understand what
TT was, and because I did not have time to conclude properly, I thought
I could just write 77 instead of a couple of ts’.35 This shows that a fifteen-
year-old had to learn a common concluding formula for letters from
his elder brother, in practice; evidently he had not learned this at

Fig. 4╇ Silhouette portraits of Paul Hubrecht (left, c. 1840) and

Ambrosius Hubrecht (right, c. 1840), Leiden Municipal Archives.

╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht jr. to Ambrosius Hubrecht,
25 February 1847.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 27 February
children’s letters125

Confidentiality, naturalness and individuality

Letter-writing manuals on style

Ideas about the correct style and content for children’s letters can be
distilled from letters from relatives, texts written by the heads of board-
ing schools, children’s books, and letter-writing manuals. As the nine-
teenth century progressed, such manuals devoted an increasing amount
of attention to children’s letters.36 At the same time, more letter-writing
manuals were published specifically for children. When, in 1865,
G.N. Landré published the fifth edition of his Verzameling van brieven,
om met behulp der Nederduitsche taal, de jeugd, door het vertalen van
geschikte en uitgezochte voorbeelden, tot de kennis van den Franschen
briefstijl op te leiden [Collection of letters to educate young people,
using the Dutch language and through translating suitable selected
examples, in the knowledge of French epistolary style], he added a
wider range of children’s letters.37 Like the letter-writing manuals for
adults, those for children provided advice about the content, style, and
sealing of letters. One of the basic premises of this advice, as of that
given to adults, was that a child’s letter should reflect the character of
the writer: a letter unmarred by blots or spelling mistakes was a sign of
an impeccable character.38 The German educationalist A.H. Niemeyer
(1754–1828) also had a considerable influence in the Netherlands on
the teaching of composition in general, and on letter-writing manuals
for children in particular. In Niemeyer’s view, good style could only be
developed if the writer wrote as he thought, always assuming that this
thinking would be correct, clear, and well-structured.39
As far as style is concerned, a difference can be observed between the
advice given in the eighteenth and that given in the nineteenth century.

╇ C. Dauphin, ‘Les manuels épistolaires au XIXe siècle’, in: Chartier, La correspon-
dance, 209–272, 233–234.
╇ G.N. Landré, Verzameling van brieven om met behulp der Nederduitsche taal, de
jeugd, door het vertalen van geschikte en uitgezochte voorbeelden, tot de kennis van den
Franschen briefstijl op te leiden ([1839] 5th edn; Leiden 1865).
╇L.M. Schultz, ‘Letter-writing instruction in 19th century schools’, in: Barton and
Hall, Letter writing, 109–130, here 119.
╇H.J. de Vos, Moedertaalonderwijs in de Nederlanden. Een historisch-kritisch
overzicht van de methoden bij de studie van de moedertaal in het middelbaar onderwijs
sedert het begin van de 19e eeuw. Vol. I (Turnhout 1939) 42–44. I. van Hoorn, Historisch-
critisch overzicht der in de vorige eeuw verschenen methoden voor het stelonderwijs
(Groningen 1903) 6–11.
126 chapter three

The author of a letter-writing manual published in the mid-eighteenth

century suggested that ‘children, when writing to their parents, should
use the most respectful, deferent and humble expressions’.40 In the
nineteenth century, on the other hand, the respect of the eighteenth
century is joined by a new prerequisite for letters from children to their
parents: sincerity.
Esteem, respect, candour, and open-heartedness must be the principal
characteristics of letters that children write to their parents, or young
people to their older relations […] Letters from a child to his or her par-
ents must always be detailed […] Frequently parents of the lower classes
are written letters in such grandiloquent terms that they are incompre-
hensible to them […] for any one with common sense, such letters are
proof that it is not the full, open mind speaking here, but that bits and
bobs from novels and short stories have simply been tacked together into
a rough patchwork. […] The simpler, the more sincere and heartfelt, the
expressions in a letter from a child to his parents, the better it will be […]
In letters of this kind, parents will immediately find the sincere and hon-
est mind of their child revealed; and what is said to them makes its way
directly to the heart, without let or hindrance.41
In 1885, Louise Stratenus, a well-known writer of etiquette books,
wrote of ‘the proper tone […] that should prevail in letters from a child
to his or her parents; great intimacy, and yet a sense of friendly respect;
a spirit of contentment and courage to look life in the eye, even if exist-
ence is not always entirely cloudless’.42 Although relatively few recom-
mendations about children’s letters have come down to us from the
eighteenth century, and filial respect continued to be important in the
advice literature a century later, it seems as though intimacy, candour,
simplicity and sincerity received a stronger emphasis in the nineteenth
One concrete expression of the requisite sincerity and simplicity
was the salutation that opened the letter. In the mid nineteenth cen-
tury, excessive ceremoniousness in such salutations was frowned upon.
In about 1850, several authors of letter-writing manuals pointed out
that it was no longer fashionable to use ‘UE’, which had been replaced
by the less formal ‘gij’, ‘u’ and ‘jij’. A letter-writing manual from 1856,

╇Anonymous, Handleiding tot de kunst van het brievenschryven, 77.
╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, 248–249. J. Vana, Onmisbaar brievenboek (‘s-
Hertogenbosch 1881) 113–114.
╇Stratenus, Brieven, 12.
children’s letters127

for example, discouraged parents from addressing their children with

Quite apart from the fact that this banishes all sincerity from your tone
and gives the appearance of stiff artificiality, the form becomes doubly
ridiculous if this manner of address is used in expressing reproach, dis-
satisfaction, or indelicacies, or even invectives, so that parents might say
to their children ‘UE has been naughty’. […] In polite society, then,
between man and wife and even towards children the words ‘jij’ and ‘je’
are used, and ‘UE’ is entirely banished.43
In practice, the use of ‘UE’, both by parents and children, did indeed
disappear in the mid nineteenth century. Around the same time, more
familiar terms such as ‘papa’ and ‘mama’ came to be used, terms that an
eighteenth-century letter-writing book had censured for children over
four years old:
The words ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’ may perhaps be tolerated in children under
the age of four; but hearing a grown-up son or daughter speaking
as though they were still attached to their mother’s apron strings is too
base for a worthy citizen to bear […] In the body of the letter, young
children should use terms such as ‘my dear father’, ‘my good’ or ‘my dear
mother’; children of adult age, however, should write ‘father’ (Mon Pere)
or ‘mother’ (Ma Mere), since this is more manly.44
In addition to the rise of less humble terms of address, one can observe
a tendency towards less subservient formulas for concluding letters.
From the early nineteenth century, children no longer signed off with
‘your humble servant’, but with ‘your affectionate son’, or ‘your loving
niece’ etc. Adults writing to children seem to have addressed them more
often by their name rather than simply as ‘son’, ‘daughter’, or ‘niece’.45
In the eighteenth century, the emphasis in discussing children’s
letter-writing style lay primarily on respect, whereas in the nineteenth
century, though respect continued to be important, open-heartedness,
candour, simplicity and sincerity were also prized. Children were
encouraged to write like children.

╇Anonymous, Gids door het leven, 96–97. See also H. Baarschers, Kinderbrieven
(Amsterdam 1851) 40–41.
╇Anonymous, Handleiding tot de kunst van het briefschryven, 76–77.
╇ See also Gillis, A world, 74–75. According to De Nijs, In veilige haven, 116, letters
from the second half of the nineteenth century reflect a more lenient attitude of parents
towards children. Although I did not study any letters from that period, the changes in
forms of address and opening formulas in the first half of the nineteenth century also
seem indicative of a less formal relationship between parents and children.
128 chapter three

A new theory of education

This shift was also noted by a reviewer who discussed two books in
the journal De recensent, ook der recensenten in 1807: a manual for
young letter-writers published by the Maatschappij tot Nut van
‘t Algemeen (Society for Public Welfare) and a book of model New
Year’s letters for children. The reviewer found both books too artificial
and not sufficiently childlike.46 These strictures applied not only to
letter-writing books, but to all books for children. In journals from
the first half of the nineteenth century, the criteria for children’s
books in general were virtually always simplicity, naturalness and
‘childlikeness’ (i.e., the books should not be wordy or artificial). Such
criteria were part of a new, enlightened theory of education, whose
central tenet was that a child should be a child, rather than a miniature
adult. This theory of ‘natural pedagogy’, particularly associated with
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), valued the natural development
of the child and recognized that a child would, of his or her own accord,
pass through a number of age-related stages; children no longer had
to race to reach adulthood.47 As the eighteenth century drew to a close,
more boundaries were imposed between childhood and adulthood.
Whereas in the early modern period there were few subjects that
were taboo for children, at the dawn of the nineteenth century children
were increasingly shielded from severe Christian dogma and subjects
such as death or sexuality. Children were to be allowed to play, rather
than focusing strongly on intellectual development at a very young
In the Netherlands, it was above all the German Philanthropines
who were influential for educational theory at the end of the eighteenth
century and into the nineteenth century. These enlightened peda-
gogues had high regard for the importance Rousseau attached to
nature, but believed that children still needed guidance. Children’s
emotions, for instance, had to be directed, and they had to learn to
keep their tempers under control. It was important, too, to fashion a

╇Anonymous, DR II (Amsterdam 1807) 749–751.
╇ W. Koops, ‘Imaging childhood’, in: W. Koops and M. Zuckerman eds, Beyond the
century of the child. Cultural history and developmental psychology (Philadelphia 2003)
1–18, here 5–6.
╇ M.E. Heijboer-Barbas, Een nieuwe visie op de jeugd uit vroeger eeuwen (Nijkerk
1956) passim. See also E. Kloek, ‘Early modern childhood in the Dutch context’, in:
Koops and Zuckerman, Beyond the century of the child, 43–61, here 46–47.
children’s letters129

child’s conscience.49 These Enlightenment theories of education, which

were also espoused by Romanticism and the Réveil, emphasized respect
for the individual character of each child; this character would best
reveal itself to the child’s parents in an atmosphere of trust and inti-
macy.50 Ideas of this kind also influenced correspondence in practice.

The ideal of intimacy

In the publicity brochure for his boarding school, headmaster Petrus
de Raadt waxed lyrical about the function of correspondence for his
pupils. At Noortheij school, the hours after breakfast on Saturday were
set aside for the pupils to write letters home. Great quietness prevailed
in these periods, as the children contemplated what to say to their par-
ents. De Raadt stressed that the schoolboys’ letters were not read by the
teachers. He described the correspondence between parents and son as
an ‘ongoing conversation, which nobody may eavesdrop on’.51 According
to De Raadt, this exchange of letters served first and foremost to
strengthen the love that parents and child felt for one another, by culti-
vating an intimate relationship.
This ideal of intimacy does indeed come to the fore in letters between
parents and their children at boarding school. Fear that the letters
would be read by teachers and monitors at school was widespread.
In 1799, a father asked his daughter whether she composed her letter
all by herself: ‘Your letter pleased me inordinately; did you compose it
yourself, or did Madlle correct it?’52 Henri van Lanschot urged his six-
teen-year-old sister Theodora, then at a girls’ boarding school in Ghent,
not to have her letters corrected, as he would not then feel as though he
were conversing with her.53 Another sixteen-year-old, Maria Oomen,
wrote reassuringly to her mother a few days after her arrival at
Berlaymont girls’ school in Brussels, which was run by nuns: ‘parents’

╇A. Baggerman and R. Dekker, Kind van de toekomst. De wondere wereld van Otto
van Eck (1780–1789) (Amsterdam 2005) 61–95.
╇P.Th.F.M. Boekholt and E.P. de Booy, Geschiedenis van de school in Nederland
(Assen/Maastricht 1987) 81, 92. See also M. van Essen and J.D. Imelman, Historische
pedagogiek. Verlichting, Romantiek en ontwikkelingen in Nederland na 1800 (Baarn
1999). N. Bakker, Kind en karakter. Nederlandse pedagogen over opvoeding in het gezin
1845–1925 (Amsterdam 1995) 19, 228. De Nijs, In veilige haven, 107.
╇De Raadt, Noortheij, 122. See also De Nijs, In veilige haven, 123–126.
╇ Jan Blijdenstein to Maria Blijdenstein, 3 March 1799, published in: Elderink ed.,
Een Twentsch fabriqueur, 160.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 228, Henricus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot,
7 October 1818.
130 chapter three

letters are not read, and I do not have to have mine read, so you need
not be embarrassed’.54 Her mother was relieved to hear it:
I am glad that you can write to me without the letters having to be read,
and that mine also will not be seen. Write and tell me some time in all
honesty how the other young ladies behave towards you – are they polite,
or very grand – and do you have a friend? […] You see, Mieke my dear,
that my writing is not really much like a letter: if something occurs to me
I just start writing, more so as not to forget. But this is nothing if they will
not be seen by anyone.55
The frequency with which concern is expressed about letters being
read by others does seem to suggest that this was, or had been, com-
mon practice.56 And indeed, a letter from Auguste van Lanschot to his
parents shows that the composition of letters was not always left to the
pupil’s own skills. At the time of writing, Auguste was fourteen, and a
pupil at the Jesuit boarding school in Katwijk, together with his two
brothers. Before starting in Katwijk when he was twelve, he had been at
boarding school in Baarle-Nassau from the age of nine, along with his
younger brother Godefridus, whom he writes about in the following
quotation. At that school, the boys’ letters were corrected by the teach-
ers: ‘you cannot judge how good he is at French from the letters he
wrote from Baarle, since you know as well as I do that they were written
entirely under Mr Brand’s direction and were always corrected’.57
If letters were read by third parties, this would damage the desired
bond of intimacy between parents and children. This ideal of intimacy
had many followers among the Dutch upper middle classes. Again and
again, Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz entreated her daughter to be
open-hearted in her letters. She herself insisted: ‘I write you the honest
truth’.58 Sophia Hubrecht-de Veer, too, was convinced that children and

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1304, Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen Ingen-Housz,
13 August 1825.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz to Maria Oomen,
August 1825.
╇Letters were also subject to censorship at Catholic girls’ and boys’ boarding
schools in the 20th century. See M. Hilhorst, Bij de zusters op kostschool. Geschiedenis
van het dagelijks leven van meisjes op rooms-katholieke pensionaten in Nederland en
Vlaanderen ([1989] 4th edn; Utrecht 1994) 30 and J. Perry, Jongens op kostschool.
Het dagelijks leven op katholieke jongensinternaten (Utrecht 1991) 98–99.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 140, Auguste van Lanschot to Augustinus van Lanschot
and Maria van Lanschot-Oomen, 29 October 1848.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz to Maria Oomen,
25 August 1825.
children’s letters131

parents must be each other’s best friends, as she wrote to her son Pieter:
‘continue, my dearest child, to write to us, as you do, exactly what you
think. If you wish to ask something, do so boldly? You know that your
parents are your best friends’.59
Sometimes, however, this ideal of intimacy turned out to have its
limits. Jan van Heukelom wrote to his fourteen-year-old son: ‘It is
important that there be a great deal of contact, especially personal con-
tact, between us, and since circumstances keep us apart, our exchange
of letters must fill the gap’.60 When, however, the boy wrote in his letters
that he did not trust the teachers at his boarding school, he was soundly
rebuked by his stepmother:
You fear that your letters are read. This is a very bad assumption, which
you must not have, and in which there is not a shred of truth, I can
assure  you. I ask you never again to think or speak of it. Never sus-
pect anyone of doing wrong when you have no certainty of it, as you are
doing goodness a mischief. Always think and assume the best of some-
one. The result will be that your thoughts and letters are fit for the eyes
of all.61
The boy’s father strove for intimacy, but his stepmother threw a span-
ner in the works: she immediately gave the child a telling off when he
confided his misgivings about his teachers. In this case, there was a
clash between the child’s and the stepmother’s view of openness.
The ideal of children confiding in their parents was not only propa-
gated when children were at boarding school. When in 1773, at the age
of sixteen, Cato van Schinne was sent to stay with her uncle and aunt in
Switzerland for her health, her mother wrote her a letter outlining her
instructions for the tone and content of their correspondence:
And you must write to me naturally, just as the thoughts occur to you, as
though to your best friend. For you may be sure that I am that, more so
than any other, and that all my designs contend towards seeing you happy
and contented. This is why, my dearest, you must always be open and of
good faith, without deceit, and should not keep anything hidden, so that
at times, perhaps, I might be in a position to help you with advice, which
you will assuredly welcome on various occasions if you have need of it;

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 404, Sophia Hubrecht-de Veer to Pieter Hubrecht, 18 May

╇ GAL, FASH, inv. no. 148, Jan van Heukelom to Jan van Heukelom, 7 April 1854.
╇ GAL, FASH, inv. no. 146, Octavie van Heukelom-Steenlack to Jan van Heukelom,
23 March 1853.
132 chapter three

for it is impossible to give this if one is hiding oneself, or dissimulating,

and later one regrets it when it is too late.62
Like so many parents, Cato van Schinne’s mother wished to adopt the
role of best friend and confidante in her correspondence with her
daughter. Cato answered that she would not keep anything hidden
from her mother and would write to her about everything that hap-
pened to her, and even about her thoughts.63 Nevertheless, it remains
questionable how open Cato could really be in her letters to her mother,
since Cato was urged to let her aunt read her letters: ‘My dear, show
yours very naturally, without shame or timidity. Adopt a confiding tone
with your aunt. Read them your letters sometimes, and mine. Then
they will see that you are happy, and I am sure that their affection for
you will intensify as they see how sincere and natural you are’.64 Cato’s
mother assumed that the letters would show that the girl was con-
tented, and this meant that she could safely read them out to her aunt
and uncle, who would then appreciate her sincerity and ‘naturalness’.
Moreover, Mrs Van Schinne read Cato’s letters aloud to the household,
because she found them so charming. Cato’s thinking was excellent,
and she expressed herself so well, her mother thought. Everyone who
heard Cato’s letters read aloud by her mother admired them and
thought Cato wrote like an angel. Mrs Van Schinne confessed her
‘indiscretion’: she just could not resist reading Cato’s letters out to eve-
ryone who was longing for news of Cato. Cato should not be embar-
rassed, her mother said, as she would not read the confidential passages
aloud. So Cato could continue to write as freely as she liked.65 Cato’s
mother also read the letters to the family doctor, and she urged Cato to
send her compliments to him in her letters, so Mrs Van Schinne could
pass them on to him.66

╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
1 June 1773. For more about this correspondence, see S. Slee, ‘Ma chère mère’. Een reis
door de belevingswereld van Catharina van Schinne 1773–1775 (unpublished under-
graduate dissertation, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam 2004).
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 28, Catharina van Schinne to Sara van Schinne-van Ruster,
20 June 1773.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
5 July 1773.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
21 December 1774.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
1 June 1773.
children’s letters133

‘Intimacy’, in Mrs Van Schinne’s view, seems thus not to have implied
an exclusive relationship between mother and daughter, but related to
the close circle of family and friends. Cato does not seem to have felt
inhibited by the fact that her letters were read aloud. When, for exam-
ple, she was critical of something her father intended to do, she apolo-
gized in a letter to her mother for expressing her criticism so candidly,
but believed she could open her heart in this way because her mother
had urged her to view her as her best friend.67 In another letter, Cato
wrote that people who believed human beings’ hearts to be naturally
bad were themselves bad people. She apologized to her mother for
expressing this thought, which had found its way from her head to her
pen without her noticing. And yet Cato felt she need not be ashamed of
this view: if it was a bad thought, she was sure she could count on her
mother’s understanding and knowledge to enlighten her. In the same
letter, however, she asked her mother not to tell her father she had cried
because of a ball: he would ridicule her for it.68 Six months earlier, Cato
had asked her mother not to read out a certain part of her letter to
Robert, their family doctor, as he would be sure to think she was
On the one hand, then, Cato seems to have kept few things and
thoughts from her mother, so that in this way she lived up to the ideal
of openness her mother desired for their correspondence. On the other
hand, she did feel it necessary to apologize whenever she wrote any-
thing that was perhaps overly candid, and used her mother’s instigation
to view her as her best friend as a shield against a possible reprimand.
Moreover, Cato asked her mother not to read certain parts of her letters
to her father or the family doctor. This, too, suggests that it was not
entirely clear what this intimacy boiled down to. The mother and
daughter seem to have worked towards a more precise definition in
practice, though the mother seems to have espoused a rather broader
remit than her daughter.
One of Cato’s younger sisters, Magdalena, was also not entirely at
ease about the confidentiality of her letters. She wrote to Cato that
she  was afraid their grandmother would pick up mistakes in her

╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 28, Catharina van Schinne to Sara van Schinne-van Ruster,
30 October 1774.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 28, Catharina van Schinne to Sara van Schinne-van Ruster,
26 November 1774.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 28, Catharina van Schinne to Sara van Schinne-van Ruster,
9 April 1774.
134 chapter three

spelling or style. For this reason, she did not wish to write letters at the
table with her grandmother. Magdalena was also afraid that Cato might
show her letter to their aunt. Magdalena did not want Cato to read her
letter aloud.70 Perhaps these children had a different view of confiden-
tiality from their mother, believing that letters should only be read by
the recipient. Mrs Van Schinne, by contrast, believed – like other par-
ents – that if a letter displayed happiness it was so ‘natural’ and ‘sincere’
that it could also be seen by others. This view concurs with the German
author Gellert’s ideas of naturalness. After all, he believed that if people
had assimilated the correct moral codes of behaviour, they would auto�
matically write ‘natural’ letters, which would reflect their proper
refinement. Perhaps Mrs Van Schinne was influenced by the German
educationalist Niemeyer, who, as outlined above, was of the opinion
that children would develop a good writing style if they wrote as they
thought. The condition was, of course, that they thought in a proper,
lucid, and structured manner.
Some children understood their parents’ invitation to take them into
their confidence as a command. When the fourteen-year-old Victor de
Constant Rebecque was a cadet at the Military Academy, he received a
letter from his mother asking him to write more intimately:
But my dearest child, I would so much like it – as I write time and time
again – if you would open your heart to me a little, and talk to me about
what is going on within you and not only around you. You will end up
becoming a machine of the present century if the true life is not nour-
ished, the life of the soul and the heart, Vikkie. Vikkie, do not lock your-
self in so. I see before me the advantage of saying frankly, without false
reserve (for there is a spirit of reserve which is certainly not to be resisted),
what happens within us.71
In the months and years to come, baroness De Constant Rebecque
would continue to lament that Victor did not confide enough about
his  intimate feelings: ‘You will, I hope, give me details about your-
self instead of declaring “I am very well”, as this phrase has often con-
tained the opposite of the truth, and that is not permitted under any
circumstances’.72 Victor’s father, too, professed the adage: ‘just tell us

╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Magdalena van Schinne to Catharina van Schinne, n.d.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120B, Julie de Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg
to Victor de Constant Rebecque, 4 March 1855.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120B, Julie de Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg
to Victor de Constant Rebecque, 9 September 1855.
children’s letters135

everything that is in your heart’.73 But in this family, too, it proved dif-
ficult to attain the desired intimacy, mainly because, as Victor himself
wrote to his mother, he found it difficult to speak about intimate
And then you think I do not feel because I do not speak. I have an antipa-
thy (or, at least, I cannot do it) and this is a result of my school life with
older boys, or that’s what I think. Enough – that’s the way it is: I can never
speak about sensitive issues without immediately imagining that others
will think I am acting a comedy, even if there is nobody there, and I can-
not subject my feelings to that. Enfin, that’s just the way it is, and I shall
never learn to do otherwise. I will probably never be able to come out
with my feelings openly, and so, dearest Mother, please do not plague me
with it any more.74
Victor’s father, too, got involved in the discussion:
My dear boy, Mama is far from thinking that you have no feelings – some
express things more than others […]. Above all, one must be true. And
then one can always express what one thinks without having to be afraid
that others would believe the opposite. The basis of that thought, like
formidity, generally lies in self-love, pride, together with fear of what oth-
ers might say or of being exposed to comment. Of the abundance of the
heart the mouth speaks, they sometimes say – but I fully understand that
it is not always given to everyone, and unaccustomedness to being able to
express one’s feelings on a daily basis with the conviction of meeting sym-
pathy may be a cause of this. But one should not make a den of thieves of
one’s heart, and I believe that if you had never been away from mint and
pint [his parents, WR] speaking would come more easily to you and this
certain timidity would not be your habit.75
Not only did Victor find it difficult to express his feelings in his letters
to his parents; in another way, too, the relationship of trust between
them was somewhat compromised. In 1855, Victor’s father accidentally
opened a letter from the boy to his uncle and decided not to send it
because of the informal manner of writing and a comment in the letter
that was expressed in an unpleasant tone. Baron De Constant Rebecque

╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 12 November 1853.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69D, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 24 January 1857.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 26 June 1857.
136 chapter three

apologized to his son for opening this letter: ‘In general it is not per-
missible and even completely forbidden to open letters, but a father
and guardian has that right because he is obliged to ensure that all that
could do ill – either in word or in deed – is prevented’. His father hoped
‘that we will always be honest with one another and will keep that trust,
the only one that can and must notably and honestly exist, that is
between father and son […] There is nobody in the world you can trust
more and in whom you can confide all your secrets’.76
The ideal of intimacy reigned among all parents of the elite. However,
it was mainly the parents who defined, and sometimes delimited this
intimacy, and their views sometimes diverged from the views of their
children. In practice, then, the concept of intimacy was shaped accord-
ing to the wishes of parents, though children did have a certain amount
of room to resist.

It was not only in letters to and from children at boarding schools that
the limits to the ideal of intimacy emerged. Everyday correspondence
also often failed to evince the freedom this ideal seems to propagate.
Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken, for instance, complained about the let-
ters of her eleven-year-old grandson Paul Hubrecht when writing to
her daughter Abrahamine, the boy’s mother:
If I have time, I shall write a few words to Paul – not so much to thank
him for his letter, as to make him realize that he is really getting too old 
to dare to write such a sloppy letter to grandmama. You understand,
my dear Bramine, that I do not set much store by a Ceremonious
Missive   – I find it much more pleasant for children to write in their
own manner. But this was really too awful, and I believe it is necessary to
point it out to him, in order to make him feel the respect due to his par-
ents and grandparents, something he has a tendency to lose sight of too
In principle, then, grandmother Steenlack wished to receive ‘childlike’
letters, written in a personal style, rather than excessively formal ones.
Yet these letters did have to be neatly written and show respect for the

╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 11 October 1855.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 409, Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken to Abrahamine Hubrecht-
Steenlack, 10 April 1840.
children’s letters137

child’s parents and grandparents. The same ideal of an individual style

comes to the fore in a letter by Jacoba van Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel,
who, in 1818, confessed to her fifteen-year-old daughter: ‘I would have
replied to you sooner, but I thought I might receive another New Year’s
letter, a less formal affair, as you know well that I do not like those very
composed letters.’78
Here the mother makes a distinction between a formal letter and a
letter with a more personal touch. Another mother also encouraged
her seven-year-old daughter to compose her letters in free style: ‘the
children will also write to you. They are hard at work. I prefer to leave
them to their own devices – even if it is less good. I find one idea of
one’s own better than twenty imitations. Marie has suddenly taken to
writing, and now absolutely loves sending letters’.79 Evidently there
were two sorts of letters: on the one hand ‘ceremonious’, ‘formal’, ‘gran-
diloquent’, ‘poetic’ and ‘composed’ letters; on the other hand ‘simple’
letters, written ‘in one’s own manner’, in a ‘natural style’, using ‘one’s
own ideas’.
So letters to parents were expected to evidence intimacy. An indi-
vidual style was appreciated, as long as it was appropriate for the child’s
age and showed the necessary respect. Further, the ideal style was a
natural one. Thus Otto Hora Siccama commented to his brother Jan
that their sister Angelique had sent him a ‘truly delightful letter, very
natural and cheerful’.80 In Chapter 1 above we saw that in epistolary
theory the term ‘natural’ could mean refined, individual, or ‘appropri-
ate’ (for the theme, writer or recipient). These ideas were expressed in
practice too: as, for instance, when Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack
urged her thirteen-year-old son Paul to adopt a natural style for
Your letter to grandmama was quite good and neat, only there was not a
single comma or full stop – I suppose you think punctuation superfluous
and unnecessary in the Dutch language! And then the letter was a bit
wordy, not a natural style for your years – it becomes slightly pedantic.
And on the birthday of a dear grandmother, would she not rather have a

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 230, Jacoba van Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel to Theodora
van Lanschot, 1 January 1818.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1369, Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack to Elisabeth Steenlack-
Francken, 30 December 1841.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 26 December
138 chapter three

few simple but heartfelt words from her grandson than a poetic depiction
of happy old age? I am telling you this not to rebuke you but to set you
straight and to let you see that at your age childlike simplicity is still so
fitting, and is generally pleasing to people.81
The natural style is fitting for a child, who must not try to appear older
than he or she is. In this case, then, ‘natural’ means ‘appropriate’ for the
writer (and the writer’s age), the theme, and the recipient. A letter-
writing manual for Catholic girls also reveals the requirement that they
should write letters appropriate for their age:
I advise you most especially, dear girls, to write as you think and speak.
[…] Do not be afraid to be simple and artless. On the contrary, this is
precisely what is required of your youth. By using a high-handed tone,
you will, in the eyes of the person who reads your letters, lose that inno-
cent appearance that is so preferable in a child to intellect and scholar-
ship. But beware of confusing that simplicity I would so gladly see in your
letters with carelessness, which is unforgivable in letter-writing style and
completely at odds with its demands.82
A simple style was thus most emphatically not the same thing as a free
or casual style, which might lead to sloppiness. The form and style that
children’s letters should ideally possess were propagated not only in
letter-writing manuals, but also in children’s literature. In an epistolary
novel for children published in 1798, for instance, a mother wrote to
her twelve-year-old son: ‘tell me of your amusements and diversions;
but above all, write as though you are speaking to me. A letter must be
simple and natural, and without carefully chosen words; but do pay
attention to your spelling; it becomes one so ill not to know one’s
mother tongue properly’.83
‘Writing naturally’ could thus mean either ‘writing like a child’ or
‘writing in a simple, unartificial manner’. A third connotation of the
word ‘natural’ was ‘appropriateness’. Sara van Schinne-van Ruster, who
encouraged her daughter Cato to write letters in a natural manner,
used the word ‘natural’ very often, also in contexts which had nothing
to do with correspondence. She gave the following instructions to her

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 674, Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack to Paul Hubrecht jr.,
10 August 1843.
╇P. L’Olivier, Handboekje der wellevendheid en levensregelen voor jeugdige meisjes
(‘s-Hertogenbosch 1864) 135–137.
╇ M.G. de Cambon-van der Werken, De kleine Grandisson, of de gehoorzaame zoon.
Vol. 1 ([1782] 2nd edn; The Hague 1789) 3–5.
children’s letters139

daughter, for instance: ‘it is so natural at your age to like dancing […]
I would be more inclined to mock those who, at over fifty years of age,
have pretensions in keeping neither with their age nor with their
estate’.84 ‘Natural’ can here mean ‘by nature’, but can also be read as ‘as
is fitting for a young lady’. So when she urged her daughter to use a
natural style in her letters, she probably also meant a proper style, as
was fitting for a young lady of her station.
The ideal letter by a child should demonstrate a confiding, natural
and individual style. This might perhaps seem to suggest freedom in
composing a letter, but in practice the concepts of confidentiality, natu-
ralness and individuality were given a more specific definition by par-
ents or other adult relations. Confidentiality might mean that children’s
letters were read aloud by their parents to relations or family friends.
Moreover, the letter should ideally evidence contentment. The child
should not complain too much. And if a child had difficulty expressing
intimate feelings, parents sometimes pressed very hard to be taken into
his or her confidence. Naturalness could mean ‘appropriate for a child’,
or could refer to artlessness, but parents also often defined it as ‘proper,
or comme il faut’. An individual style, finally, was greatly appreciated
in New Year’s letters, for instance. But the large numbers of identical
New Year’s letters preserved in archives, which, moreover, strongly
resemble those in books of model letters, testify to the fact that chil-
dren were also encouraged to copy letters, or, at the very least, that they
did not have a great deal of leeway in composing letters for specific
The German historian Gunilla-Friederike Budde has characterized
this phenomenon as a ‘dual pedagogical ideal’: on the one hand, par-
ents in the highest circles wished to conform to the newest pedagogical
insights and allow children to be children and develop their natural
abilities; on the other hand, however, boys and girls of the upper classes
did have to be moulded into proper, well-mannered adults.85 Parents’
instructions concerning their children’s correspondence demonstrate
the dilemma of this twofold ideal: a child was free to write as he or she
wished (confidingly, naturally, individually), as long as this remained
within the bounds of what was deemed proper.

╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
21 December 1774.
╇ G.-F. Budde, Auf dem Weg ins Bürgerleben. Kindheit und Erziehung in deutschen
und englischen Bürgerfamilien 1840–1914 (Göttingen 1994) 78.
140 chapter three

Character building

In the above sections, the dual pedagogical ideal was discussed primar-
ily in relation to the tone and style of children’s letters. However, the
ideal also emerges when we examine the themes felt suitable for letters
by and to children. Grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters all
encouraged children to write about anything and everything. Herman
Blijdenstein’s grandfather, for instance, wrote to him: ‘I can imagine
that you are sometimes at a loss for subjects to write about. […]
Everything you write, even the most insignificant trifles about yourself,
is of interest to us.86 Baron De Constant Rebecque, too, assured his son
Victor: ‘and yet you know that even the tiniest details of your life inter-
est me’.87 Nevertheless, in practice it emerges that in children’s letters
specific subjects were prized by parents and other relations. Just as the
tone and style of children’s correspondence seemed in theory to be free,
but was in practice bound by rules of propriety, parents’ and children’s
choice of subject matter also turns out to reveal certain views about
how the children of the upper classes should be brought up.
First of all, learning to write often went hand in hand with learning
certain values. One of the ways children learned to write was by using
writing books, some of which have been preserved in the family
archives. In 1842–1843, Maria Hubrecht (1834–1844), for instance,
copied out sayings in her writing book to improve her handwriting.
At  the same time, the aim was for her to take the content of these
moral sayings to heart, such as ‘L’oisiveté est la mère de tous les vices.
L’ambition est la mere de tous les crimes’ (Idleness is the mother of all
vices; ambition is the mother of all crimes).88 In this way, learning to
write went together with acquiring norms and values.89 In writing, the
child internalized what he or she wrote, so that in this way the letter
could serve as a means of socialization or self-discipline.
Secondly, many parents and other relatives explicitly commented on
the content and subject-matter of a child’s letter. A letter written by Jan
Bernard Blijdenstein to his son at boarding school in 1793, for instance,

╇ Jan Blijdenstein to Herman Blijdenstein, 5 October 1825 or 1826, published in:
Elderink, Een Twentsch fabriqueur, 236.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 3 December 1852.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 637, the writing books of Maria Hubrecht, 1842–1843.
╇Linke, Sprachkultur und Bürgertum, 291–316. De Nijs, In veilige haven, 151.
Schultz, ‘Letter-writing instruction’, 110.
children’s letters141

reads like a page from an advice book. The long letter was an instru-
ment to inculcate values such as orderliness, thrift, and diligence. The
father also stressed the importance of choosing one’s reading matter
carefully.90 This ‘advice book tone’ is also evident in a letter by the same
father to his daughter: ‘From your most recent letter we are pleased to
realize that it was not carelessness or laxity that had led you to forget to
inform us that you had received the ring. I like to see that my children
are precise and careful even in small things’.91 Politely acknowledging
the receipt of presents and answering the questions parents had put in
their letters was all part of the skills of correspondence. Parents would
naturally have to set a good example.

Who wrote to the children – mother or father?

According to the boarding school headmaster De Raadt, for the first
few years of a child’s time at boarding school maintaining a corre-
spondence was the task of the mother. It was her duty to write about
everything that might interest her son. The most important factor was
the style of her letters: ‘She must ensure that her letters have the same
tone as her conversations used to have, the tone of affectionate love and
concern for her son’s temporal and eternal happiness’. In this way she
could implicitly (rather than with repeated admonitions) guide her son
along the right moral and religious path. The son should write honestly,
openly, and candidly. Excessive or grandiloquent language was to be
shunned at all costs.92
After a while, the father should also initiate an exchange of letters
with his son. In De Raadt’s opinion it was the father’s task to enquire
about the progress his son was making at school. Moreover, the father
should carry on a discussion with his son on paper about the subjects
that had been addressed in lessons, so that the child would become
acquainted with the world of scholarship that he would enter in a few
years’ time. The boy’s choice of a profession should also be discussed in
this correspondence. Like the mother, the father should strive to instil
moral values and religious feelings in his son, and to encourage him to
develop a cheerful but at the same time serious disposition.93

╇ Jan Blijdenstein to Benjamin Blijdenstein, 30 September 1793, in: Elderink, Een
Twentsch fabriqueur, 61–64.
╇ Jan Blijdenstein to Maria Blijdenstein, 11 June 1798, published in: Elderink, Een
Twentsch fabriqueur, 155.
╇De Raadt, Noortheij, 119–120.
╇Ibid., 120–121.
142 chapter three

In practice, most children at boarding schools exchanged letters

with both their father and their mother. There were only two families
in which it was clearly the mother’s task to correspond on a regular
basis. Theodora van Lanschot, as a boarder at girls’ schools in Ghent
and Brussels from 1817–1820, received letters from her mother con-
veying the everyday news of the family. Her father only wrote on his
daughter’s birthday, and in one such letter he alluded to his reasons for
writing so seldom:
I have not written to you for a long time because I could not think of
anything particular to tell you, and because Mama is in correspondence
with you and tells you all the news anyway, and that we are all in good
health. I read the letters that you write to Mama with great pleasure, see-
ing the diligence you always apply to your studies and how you take note
of the lessons you receive, and the proper attention you pay to everything
in order to live up to our wishes.94
When Catharina van Schinne was in Switzerland, she also exchanged
the most letters with her mother. Hammer-Stroeve, in her study of the
upper classes in Enschede, observes that it was indeed often the moth-
ers who maintained contact with their children at boarding school by
exchanging letters; in this way the contents of the children’s letters
reached their fathers indirectly.95 Nevertheless, just as many children
seem to have corresponded with both parents. Baron and Baroness De
Constant Rebecque, for instance, both wrote regularly to their two
sons. Their letters were very similar in content. Otto Hora Siccama, on
the other hand, working as a young clerk in The Hague, wrote to his
mother more about feelings, and to his father more about financial
matters. There was evidently no set pattern about whether children
who were away from home corresponded with their father or their
Sometimes the correspondence between mother and daughter did
have a special quality. Jacoba van Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel, for
instance, shared her concerns about the household and servants with
her daughter. In this way the girl could already learn about some of the
tasks that would confront her in later life. What is more, Jacoba
addressed her daughter as ‘chère amie’, and mentioned confidential

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 229, Franciscus van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot
4 March 1820.
╇Hammer-Stroeve, Familiezoet, 105.
children’s letters143

matters to her. The correspondence between Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-

Housz and her daughter Maria also dealt with intimate matters (or
what we would view as such). Elisabeth urged her daughter to write to
her not just as her mother, but as ‘a faithful and affectionate friend’. And
Maria did not fight shy, when at boarding school, of writing about her
menstruation, which she referred to as ‘the change’.96

Another intimate subject often broached in correspondence was home-
sickness. Anna Barbara van Meerten-Schilperoort, an acknowledged
expert of her day on girls’ education, suggested that children did not
dare to write about homesickness in their letters because, at boarding
schools, they were read:
Homesickness, that yearning longing for the parental home, that feel-
ing which – to my mind – is so appropriate, is laughed at and ridiculed
until good children learn to be ashamed to show their attachment to
their parents. The letters to parents are generally read, and so the chil-
dren do not even dare to speak freely to their nearest relations: they must
write contrary to their feelings, and become accustomed to lying and
In practice, however, children often wrote about homesickness.98 Jan
Willem de Constant Rebecque, for instance, wrote (in English): ‘I dond
know why I cannot feel me here as well at home as before some weeks
I always have an unmeasured desire to go home. Oh how I should like
to come and stay with you my moesie [mama]’.99 Jan Willem found it
terribly hard to part with his parents after a visit home. He was also
worried about the fact that he missed his parents so much, even when
he was only away from them for a few days or weeks. How would he
manage later when he was in the navy and might not see his parents for
years at a time?
So the thought of perhaps not being able to be sad to leave you made me
shed many tears. Oh how sad I was that I could not remain attached to

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz to Maria Oomen,
16 August 1825 and Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz, 19 August 1825.
╇ Van Meerten-Schilperoort, Encijclopédie, vi.
╇ See also De Nijs, In veilige haven, 123.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69E, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, n.d.
144 chapter three

your skirts and to papa’s trousers all my life long unto death, but that
would be an impossibility.100
Four months later, in a letter to his mother written on pink paper, Jan
Willem again lamented about homesickness. He was happy his father
could not see how sad his spirits were.101 Although Jan Willem’s father
also urged him to confide in him, and often corresponded with his son
about the same subjects as did his wife, the boy was apparently still
afraid he would disapprove of his homesickness.
At the age of sixteen, Maria Oomen wrote to her mother about feel-
ing homesick, but like Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque she seems to
have been imbued with a sense that she should not give in to these feel-
ings too much. This led her to add a few sentences to her passage on
homesickness in her letter, in which she showed her awareness of the
necessity and benefits of her time at boarding school:
Was very sad, but the necessity of completing my education here, bearing
in mind and imagining the happy prospect that, having spent a certain
amount of time here, I shall be united with you even more strongly,
revived my hope and led me to commend you to God in a heartfelt
The contents of this letter bear a strong resemblance, incidentally, to
fictive letters in Maria’s letter-writing book, which has survived
from her school days. The girls at Berlaymont were taught the art of
writing letters in part by writing fictive letters, probably at the nuns’
dictation. One of the letters is from a mother who admits that she
does  indeed miss her daughter, but that it is better for her to be at
boarding school.103 In another fictive letter, from a daughter to her par-
ents, she says that she misses them, but takes heart from the conviction
that they know she still loves them dearly.104 These phrases from the
fictive model letters correspond closely to the actual letters. It seems

╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69E, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 13 March 1855.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69E, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 23 July 1855.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Maria Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen Ingen-Housz,
19 August 1825.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 137, list of letters received by Maria Oomen, 1825–1827,
letter 22, from a mother Victorine to her daughter. This letter-writing book is wrongly
described in the index; it does not contain genuine letters.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 137, list of letters received by Maria Oomen, 1825–1827,
letter 59, 30 December 1826.
children’s letters145

probable, then, that the model letters influenced the letters the girls
wrote home.
Both of the model letters just mentioned contain the phrase ‘to
alleviate the absence through your letters’.105 For Maria Oomen and
other children, correspondence was a way to allay homesickness.
At the age of eighteen, Otto Hora Siccama still mentioned the sadness
that overcame him when he thought of home. However, he tried to
suppress these feelings with the help of the first letter his mother
had written him when, at a young age, he went to The Hague to work as
a clerk and lodged with his uncle and aunt. In that letter, his mother
had stressed that her son might find it difficult to be so far away from
But I always call to mind Mama’s first letter she sent me in The Hague,
about the roses and thorns of life […] that letter of Mama’s that I just
mentioned helps me to overcome it, so as not to become homesick
when  I  think about everything I am missing for the honour of uncle
giving me good prospects for my further existence. For despite all the
friendliness and affection of Uncle and Aunt, which I really do appreci-
ate  very much, I often feel what the companionship of parents, broth-
ers and sisters is, which I can enjoy so seldom compared with Jan, Louis
etc. And I must confess that suppressing this feeling, as in part I believe
to be necessary, and as I simply attempt to achieve by always looking
on the bright side, has already instilled in me a certain indifference to
many things, which is not pleasant to me, especially since I fear that
in the future this indifference, if it spreads to greater matters, will
sometimes drive me to insincerity. But I would rather elaborate on this
face to face. – I can already hear you laughing about the serious tone
I  have slipped into, and that is so little my style; so I’ll drop it at that,
laughing about it myself by now.106
So children did write about homesickness, but often followed up such
passages in their letters with their awareness that their stay away from
their childhood home was in their best interests. They knew that they
should try to suppress these sorts of melancholy feelings, and they tried
to do so in their letters too. As with adult women who tried in their
letters to live up to the ideal image of womanhood, here too we can talk

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 132, Pauline and Aloïza Gibson to Maria Oomen, 1 May
1827.RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 137, list of letters received by Maria Oomen, 1825–1827,
letter 17: a daughter Célina to her mother.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 39, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
24 December 1823.
146 chapter three

of ‘emotion work’. In this way, correspondence between parents and

children guided children’s emotions into the right channels. This did
not even require explicit corrective comments from parents. Children
used their correspondence as a means to discipline themselves.

Correspondence as a gauge of a child’s development

Children’s letters were not only used for self-discipline, however.
Headmaster De Raadt viewed correspondence as a means to monitor
children’s moral and intellectual development. For this reason, chil-
dren were expected to give account of their progress in the various sub-
jects at school. The handwriting, style, and content of the letter also all
bore witness to the progress the child was making.107 In this vein, Cato
van Schinne’s mother asked her to report in her letters how she was
getting on with her English, drawing and harp lessons.108 Most children
were aware that correspondence functioned as a gauge of their pro-
gress. They stressed that they were not neglecting their studies and that
they were doing their best to ensure that they came first in their various
subjects.109 If there were several sons in one family, they were often
compared with one another. This helped to instil in them the middle-
class ideal of achievement.110 This applied, incidentally, to girls as well
as boys.
Parents, brothers, and sisters also expressed an interest in the sub-
jects taught at school, which meant that a great deal of the correspond-
ence from children at boarding school was taken up with descriptions
of how they spent their day. This helped to imbue girls and boys with
values, equally middle-class perhaps, such as efficient time manage-
ment and diligence, as well as a strong work ethos.111
Nevertheless, parents’ letters to their children did not consist solely
of reprimands and exhortations. Many parents displayed a genuine
interest in their children’s ideas and concerns. Many of the letters kept
the children informed about the welfare of pet birds or other animals
who had to be left behind at home.

╇De Raadt, Noortheij, 123.
╇NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to Catharina van Schinne,
10 December 1773.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 140, Auguste van Lanschot to Augustinus van Lanschot
and Maria Oomen 19 November 1848.
╇Budde, Auf dem Weg, 162.
╇Ibidem, 405.
children’s letters147

Ceremonial letters from children

In the above sub-sections, I have highlighted various functions of cor-
respondence to and from children: as a means of self-discipline and as
a manner of monitoring a child’s moral and intellectual development.
Both of these aspects are part of the general function of correspond-
ence examined in this book, namely socialization. This socialization
process reached its peak on religious feasts and annual celebrations
such as birthdays. On such occasions, adults felt bound to explicitly
call children to account regarding their moral progress, and children
demonstrated that they had internalized the norms of etiquette and
Children, above all, were expected to send salutations on such occa-
sions.112 The family archives contain a large number of letters from
children to their parents expressing birthday and New Year’s greetings.
A few of these letters are informal in tone, but stiff, stylized occasional
letters predominate. We have already seen that an individual style was
contrasted to the ceremonial nature of birthday and New Year greet-
ings and letters of condolence (see also Chapter 5).
Although schools did pay some attention to the composition of
occasional letters,113 writing at New Year and on birthdays was mainly
a matter for family supervision. Some children composed their own
letters; others were helped by their mother or a governess, who might
correct the spelling or decorate the initial letters with calligraphy, for
example. Many verses, taken from books written especially for this
purpose, were copied out neatly on coloured or decorated paper.114
Children presented their parents or grandparents with the New Year’s
and birthday letters, which were often in rhyme, but also frequently
recited the poems to them, surrounded by the rest of the family.115

╇ ‘Voorschriften tot het opstellen’, 32.


╇ J. le Francq de Berkhey, Natuurlyke historie. Vol. 3 (Amsterdam 1773) II, 1296–

1297: ‘in most of our schools it is customary at New Year, Easter, Whitsun, Christmas,
and other feasts, and also on the birthdays of parents, uncles, aunts, godparents etc., for
the children to salute various relatives with splendid odes, or at least written in their
best writing, and to present them with such writings, adorned with sketches by the
master; this is usually, depending on the level of progress, followed by exhortative
appreciation. One even finds special printed and enclosed prints of wreaths or frames,
the middle of which is left open for the children to write such odes’.
╇ One such example is C. Brinkman, Kleine verzameling van gedichtjes bij gelegen-
heid van het nieuwe jaar, ten gebruike der jeugd (Amsterdam 1821).
╇According to De Nijs, In veilige haven, 110–112, letters or poems were read aloud
on birthdays and at weddings. Linke, Sprachkultur und Bürgertum, 294, 299 mentions
that New Year’s letters were presented to parents and Christmas letters were declaimed.
148 chapter three

Fig. 5╇Pen and ink drawing by Alexander Ver Huell, from: Alexander
Ver huell, Afspiegelingen. Ze zijn er! [Reflections. They are there!]
(Leiden, s.d.) [183?] [‘Dear Grandfather ! With great pleasure I take
up my pen to converse with you for a few moments…’. (One hour
later) ‘Dear Grandfather ! With great pleasure I take up my pen to
converse with you for a few moments, dear grandfather…’]

New Year’s greetings from children included a number of standard ele-

ments: blessings for the year to come; wishes for a prosperous year, free
of afflictions; and gratitude to parents for all the good things the chil-
dren had received over the past year. As the author of one letter-writing
manual put it: ‘towards one’s parents one recalls all the proofs we have
received of their love; one thanks them for these, and wishes them
health, happiness, good spirits, and all true joy; one promises, as far as
it is in one’s power, to increase this joy; and one begs for the continu-
ance of their parental love’.116 As Linke has pointed out, for children

╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, 184–185.

children’s letters149

New Year’s letters were simultaneously an exercise in written composi-

tion and an exercise in acquiring proper norms and values such as filial
gratitude and obedience.117
The same is true of birthday greetings. The family archives contain
many birthday greetings from children to their parents, often in rhyme.
To some extent, these letters resemble the birthday greetings exchanged
by adults. What is typical of children’s letters, however, is the gratitude
the children express to their parents and their promises to do their best
to ensure that their parents can be proud of them, as the author of the
letter-writing manual says: ‘On such occasions, children rightfully stir
up their love for their parents, to whom, besides God, they owe the gift
of life’.118

Letters from adults to children to mark special occasions

Adults also wrote letters to children to mark special occasions, albeit to
a lesser extent than children to adults. In part, such letters contained
the same greetings as those exchanged by adults among themselves or
those written from children to older relatives. There was, however, one
distinctive feature: adults very definitely strove to socialize children on
these occasions.
When Theodora van Lanschot turned sixteen, for instance, her
mother’s birthday greeting urged her to strive for contentment, obedi-
ence to her parents, and daily prayer. Her parents were pleased
with her.119 Theodora’s mother seized the girl’s birthday as an opportu-
nity to instil obedience to parents and teachers and piety. At the
same time, a birthday was a benchmark for the child’s character and
Not all parents were so delighted with their offspring. Ambrosius
Hubrecht, who was sent to boarding school in Zutphen because of his
tantrums, repeatedly received reprimands by letter from his grand-
mothers, aunts, and parents. Birthdays and the New Year were the
perfect opportunity for character-building correspondence. Take, for
instance, the sharp words that grandmother Steenlack-Francken

╇Linke, Sprachkultur und Bürgertum, 297.


╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, 184–185.

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 230, Jacoba van Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel to Theodora
van Lanschot, 7 September 1818.
150 chapter three

addressed to her grandson in congratulating him on his fourteenth

If you have ever thought about how many good things you have enjoyed
in the past year, and asked yourself whether, in your behaviour, you have
lived up to all the care and trouble your dear, good parents have taken for
your sake, you will certainly have to reproach yourself with many short-
comings. But I trust, my dear, darling Ambro, that you have now cer-
tainly formed the resolution to do your best to amend in this year all that
you have not done so well. In so doing, you will be happier yourself and
a greater joy to your parents. I know and am convinced, dear Ambro, that
you feel this yourself, and that it is often temper and impetuousness
that makes you behave and speak otherwise than you would wish, and
that repentance follows swiftly. But for this reason, you must be all the
more on your guard to make sure you are not carried away by your tem-
per. And always bear in mind to whom you are speaking: have honour,
respect and obedience for your parents; besides to God, it is to them you
owe these things the most […] May mutual love bind you and your
brothers and sisters closely together. Give them space, and they will love
you dearly and will do a lot for you. And it is because I too love you very
dearly, my dearest Ambro, that I am writing you all this, since it may be
helpful for your happiness to receive good advice. After all, I know, dear
boy, that you will accept it from me, will you not?120
Ambrosius’s grandmother accompanied these incitements to self-
control, gratitude and brotherly love with a fitting present: a pencil for
Ambrosius to keep a diary. He was to record his behaviour every day
and evaluate it on a weekly basis. Children’s diaries, like letters, func-
tioned as a pedagogical tool, as Baggerman and Dekker have shown
using the example of the diaries of the young Otto van Eck.121
Ambrosius’s other grandmother, in the letter of condolence she
wrote to him after the death of his grandfather, her husband, also
reminded him of his duty to be devout and to reciprocate the love and
care bestowed on him by his parents.122 It is striking, incidentally, that
the family archives contain very few letters of condolence written by
children. One or two letter-writing manuals mention that children
virtually never had any dealings with such letters.123 This is probably

╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Elisabeth Steenlack-Francken to Ambrosius
Hubrecht, 24 December 1845.
╇ Baggerman and Dekker, Kind van de toekomst, 97–139.
╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Sophia Hubrecht-de Veer to Ambrosius Hubrecht,
9 April 1846.
╇Anonymous, ‘Voorschriften tot het opstellen’, 21.
children’s letters151

because of the change in attitude to death from the eighteenth century

on. Death gradually ceased to be viewed as a natural part of daily life;
rather it was increasingly banished to the margins.124 In this way, chil-
dren too became less familiar with death. Everything that might upset
a child had to be kept at bay. At the end of the nineteenth century, death
had all but disappeared from children’s books, and had become a peda-
gogical taboo.125
Birthdays, deaths, and the New Year were thus all occasions on
which one might pause to reflect on a child’s achievements, but above
all shortcomings. Children’s behaviour and character were held up for
inspection in occasional correspondence. Some children even tried to
preempt their parents in this exercise. Victor de Constant Rebecque,
for instance, wrote:
Only another six or so days to go and I will be sixteen years old !!!! […]
What have I learned in these eight years… to be twice as wicked towards
you as I was then, do you think, Minkie? No, Mama, at least now I can
begin to form the tiniest inkling of an idea of all that you have suffered
and prayed for me. And then how infinitely much more He suffered for
my sake, and yet still forgives me all. Oh yes, Mama, what a blessed
thought it is that we will never be parted from one another. Oh Mama, a
thousand times I thank you for battling against my hypocrisy and selfish-
ness, and above all pride, which is so very hard to combat.126

Children’s letters and religion

Everyday correspondence by Protestant children such as Victor de
Constant Rebecque also shows signs of conscience-searching and anal-
ysis of behaviour. Although the letters to and from Protestant and
Catholic children have many points in common – they were all spurred
on to more orderly and pious behaviour in birthday greetings, for
instance – there are some notable differences. The boys of the Protestant
(Pietist) Hubrecht family had conscience-searching instilled in them

╇H. Franke, De dood in het leven van alledag. Twee eeuwen rouwadvertenties en
openbare strafvoltrekkingen in Nederland (The Hague 1985) 10.
╇R. Spruit, De dood onder ogen. Een cultuurgeschiedenis van sterven, begraven, cre-
meren en rouw (Houten 1986) 64, 71, 90. Pietist groups were the exception to this rule.
They emphasized the transience of human existence, so that death was merely a new
beginning. From this perspective, children should not learn to fear death, but should
be reassured by confronting it with proper guidance.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69D, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Julie de Constant
Rebecque-d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 10 May 1854.
152 chapter three

from an early age. They admonished themselves sternly if they did not
live up to the ideal of how a good child should behave. Paul, for instance,
wrote a letter while he was at home, promising to mend his ways. He
thus deliberately chose the letter form rather than a face-to-face
encounter to impart the following to his father:
Dear papa, I firmly promise you that I will improve myself as much as is
at all possible. And oh, if you see me faltering, then say ‘Think of the let-
ter’. Dear papa, forgive all my faults that I have committed until now, for
which truly the greatest repentance prevails in my heart. I pray you to
forgive me. I shall also pray to God this evening that he will forgive me
my faults – then I can step out with a quiet conscience. I shall also ask
him to prompt my conscience to say ‘think of that letter’. In that way I will
become better and one day enter into heaven with you, mama, and all
Dear papa, do not grant me an answer to this letter, as I am not yet
worthy of it. Farewell, dear father, I must go to bed now; otherwise
I  would perhaps write more. Your loving, repenting, and hoping-
to-improve son Paul.127
The letters that Paul’s brother Ambrosius sent his parents from board-
ing school are also full of repentance about his behaviour. On returning
to Zutphen after a six-week stay with his parents in Leiden, he evalu-
ated his behaviour during that period:
Oh, I did not at all live up to all your loving care. I unpacked half my
trunk this evening, but that brought it home to me all the more. Dear
parents, I do not deserve so much kindness. Every book I brought with
me prompts that thought in me, and oh, I would so dearly wish to do
something about it. Truly, I promise you that I will improve and I will
pray God that he help me in this. Oh, my dear parents, please do forgive
me all the evil I have done against you. Oh, it is so much to ask; oh, I feel
so disgusted that I am so bad. You have convinced me of my badness
through your great kindnesses. Oh, write to me sometime how I could
live up to this kindness to some extent and then I will do my best to do
so. You have sometimes told me that one only values one’s privileges
when one has to do without them; that is what I feel now. Oh, those
parental lessons – I wish I could still receive them, for they are worth
more than the best gold. This evening I feel as though I had lost you. May
the good Lord grant that this does not happen to me in a very long

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, Paul Hubrecht jr. to Pieter Hubrecht, n.d.

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 441, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Pieter Hubrecht, 13 September

children’s letters153

Although in ceremonial letters Catholic children, too, promised good

behaviour, this was virtually never accompanied by self-reproach or
soul-searching. Letter-writers with a Catholic background tended to
make frequent use of terms such as tendresse and loving one’s neigh-
bour. Protestants laid more emphasis on developing an internal con-
science; Catholics were more preoccupied with the child’s attitude
vis-à-vis the external world. The circles of the Réveil and Pietist groups
especially stressed individual examination of one’s faith.129 We see
traces of this particularly in the letters, both by adults and children, of
the Pietist Hubrecht family and of the De Constant Rebecques, who
were in contact with leading figures of the Réveil movement.

Religion thus influenced the way children wrote. Was gender also a fac-
tor? This question is significant not least because Chapter 1 above dem-
onstrated that gender did play an important role in epistolary theory.
Women were supposed to write natural letters, but to be more prone to
spelling mistakes and stylistic faults than men. What is striking when
one studies letters to and from girls and boys of the elite, however, is
that the natural style was taught to both sexes. The subjects addressed
in such letters, such as homesickness and progress at school, were also
largely the same for girls and boys. And even the values the children
were supposed to learn through correspondence differed very little:
respect for their elders, punctuality, neatness etc. Where the socializa-
tion of children through letter-writing is concerned, then, gender dif-
ferences are relatively minor.130 Moreover, as the following chapter will

╇ This concurs to some extent with Bakker’s findings on the subject of the peda-
gogy of the family. She concludes that until 1920 individuality did not play a role in
the developmental teachings of Catholics. She also posits that from 1900 the ideal of
character-building was internalized, but that this was much less prevalent in Catholic
parental education; in their case, character building was more focused on appear-
ances  and loving one’s neighbour. Bakker, Kind en karakter, 233, 238. My archival
material suggests that for Protestants this internalization was already present in the
mid-nineteenth century.
╇I agree with D. Vincent, The rise of mass literacy. Reading and writing in Modern
Europe (Cambridge 2000) 60–61 that the gendered aspects of education are often over-
emphasized, at the expense of the similarities between boys’ and girls’ schooling:
‘Where the difference occurred was not in the lessons themselves, but in the way in
which they were embedded in the rest of the learning experience. In the schools of
western Europe, girls were even more intensively exposed than boys to the moral
indoctrination which suffused so much of the early systematic curriculum. They were
154 chapter three

show, the differences between the sexes in correspondence only really

became significant in adolescence.
Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of correspondence where
gender differences are indeed notable. Thus, according to a letter-
writing manual for girls of between ten and fifteen published in 1829,
girls’ letters should be modest in tone. In this work, letters were
described as ‘nothing other than conversations conducted with those
who are absent’, and should therefore be written ‘without artificiality,
but with that modesty that is at all times, whether in speaking or in
writing, the hallmark of a good upbringing’.131 A letter-writing manual
for Catholic girls also emphasized modesty: ‘First and foremost, dear
girls, modesty and simplicity are essential requirements of epistolary
In practice, too, modesty seems to have been more important for
girls. Girls complained less than boys about their busy school sched-
ules. They virtually never voiced negative comments about their teach-
ers, whereas boys did. Modesty was actively propagated at Berlaymont
convent school. Maria Oomen’s letter-writing book, in which, as men-
tioned above, she wrote out fair copies of letters dictated to her in
French, seems to be typical for Catholic girls. Writing out dictated
letters was not only intended to teach the girls the art of letter-writing:
the girls at Berlaymont simultaneously absorbed from the nuns the
qualities that a Catholic woman would need to maintain a household
and bring up children. The letters expounded at length on the virtues
of gratitude, patience, resignation, generosity to the poor, honesty,
moderation, piety, humility, obedience, cheerfulness, gentleness and
useful pastimes. Vanity, fashion, complacency, slander, meddlesome-
ness, fickleness and worldliness were firmly censured. In one of the
letters in this book, for instance, a mother thanked her daughter for

more likely to attend schools controlled by the church, and were seen as bearing a
special responsibility for transmitting moral values to their own homes, and to those
they would form as adults’. Niemeyer, in positing that correspondences served ‘für
die Bildung geschlechtsspezifisch weiblichen Verhaltens’, is putting it too strongly,
certainly where children’s socialization is concerned. B. Niemeyer, ‘Der Brief als weib-
liches Bildungsmedium im 18. Jahrhundert’, in: E. Kleinau and C. Opitz eds, Geschichte
der Mädchen- und Frauenbildung, Vol. 1 Vom Mittelalter bis zur Aufklärung (Frankfurt
am Main 1996) 440–452, here 452.
╇Anonymous, Brieven over allerlei onderwerpen, voor jonge jufvrouwen, van tien
tot vijftien jaren (tweede druk; Rotterdam 1829) 6.
╇L’Olivier, Handboekje der wellevendheid, 135–137.
children’s letters155

complimenting her on her letters, but added that she herself found her
letters so unimportant that she never dared to re-read them.133
Re-reading one’s own letters admiringly would ill befit a modest
woman. The Catholic girls at Berlaymont could repeat these phrases
in letters to their parents. In this way, both writing lessons and actual
correspondence reinforced one another in instilling Catholic female
Not only should girls’ letters exude modesty; girls were also expected
to show in their letters that they were sweet and kind. Sophia
Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-van Rhemen reproached
her friend Julie d’Ablaing van Giesenburg because Julie’s daughter had
written an unpleasant postscript:
Your daughter’s PS displeases me greatly. I find her very impertinent
towards you and towards me. How have you brought her up, my dear?
My advice to you would be to strive to convey to her something of your
sweetness, which is so essential for a young person.134
In addition to sweetness and modesty, good handwriting was probably
more important for girls than for boys. As Johannes Martinet puts it in
his Huisboek voor Vaderlandsche Huisgezinnen (House book for
Households of the Fatherland): ‘it looks dainty, if a daughter writes
prettily’.135 Writing books were in circulation that were intended to
teach a distinctly feminine hand.136
On the one hand, then, gender aspects were important when it came
to socialization by means of letters: good handwriting was more impor-
tant for girls, and letter-writing manuals for girls emphasized modesty
in style. On the other hand, the similarities in boys’ and girls’ letters far
outweighed the differences, and the most important differences only
emerged in adolescence. For young children gender differences were
perhaps instilled using other means of socialization, such as clothes,
toys, or oral instructions.

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 137, list of letters received by Maria Oomen, 1825–1827,
letter 21, from a mother ‘Ninie’ to her daughter.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de
Poll-van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing de Giesenburg, n.d.
╇Martinet, Huisboek, 229.
╇ Volumes 22–24 of Darnell’s sure guide to a good handwriting are entitled Ladies’
Angular Writing. GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 3, school copy book of Ambrosius Hubrecht,
156 chapter three


Letters are often viewed as a source which might reveal the reality of
how children were brought up.137 In this, historians tend to overlook
the social conventions to which letters, and children’s letters no less so,
were subject. However, by concentrating precisely on how writing itself
was learned, rather than merely on the contents of letters, it is possible
to distil out parents’ pedagogical views.
Children of the upper classes learned the fundamentals of reading
and writing from their mothers. Tutors and schools (both boarding
and day schools) built further on these foundations, but ultimately
children honed their writing skills in the family circle. Not only par-
ents, but also grandparents, aunts and older brothers involved them-
selves in this aspect of children’s upbringing. Schools primarily
provided pure knowledge; manners and the elite lifestyle were the
province of the home.138 Learning to write was connected with teaching
moral values: the norms of propriety were instilled into children as
they tried to master the composition of letters. The aim was that in the
end they would internalize these values and that they would ultimately
be able to conduct correspondences independently. In the upbringing
of children, then, correspondence was a means of learning discipline
and an exercise in manners.139
Children received compliments for their writing, but more often
reprimands. Composing letters was thus apparently not a talent that
came naturally to children. Paradoxically, the authors of letter-writing
manuals, teachers, and parents professed the ideal of a natural, indi-
vidual and child-like style, and of intimacy in correspondence between
parents and children. This ideal seems to have gained ground in the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Children’s books were also
required to have a natural style and to be genuinely intended for chil-
dren, rather than for miniature adults.

╇Roberts, Through the keyhole, 11.
╇ Frijhoff, ‘Crisis of modernisering?’, 55 points out that as the eighteenth century
progressed, education came to be seen more and more as a means of acquiring knowl-
edge rather than a means of socialization. Vincent, Literacy, 89, states that in England
children did not learn letter-writing at school until 1862. This does not seem to apply
to the Netherlands: school books and letter-writing manuals, as well as the accounts by
Le Francq de Berkhey, all mention lessons in letter-writing a great deal earlier. It is very
possible, however, that teaching in this area differed for the upper and lower classes.
╇Niemeyer, ‘Der Brief als weibliches Bildungsmedium’, 452.
children’s letters157

Parents reiterated the desire for intimacy and individuality time and
time again, as though it could be fulfilled by the mere repetition. On
closer inspection, it emerges that these ideals could mean different
things to different parents. ‘Natural’ could mean ‘unaffected’, ‘childlike’,
or ‘appropriate’. In advocating an intimate relationship, parents
appeared to mean that their child could be entirely open with them in
his or her letters; in practice, however, children’s letters were expected
to demonstrate contentment and self-reflection. Parents thus created
their own definitions of terms such as ‘confidential’, or ‘private’. They
appropriated these concepts as a way to bridge the ‘dual pedagogical
ideal’. On the one hand, parents of the elite wanted to bring up their
children in accordance with the ideals of enlightened educational the-
ory: i.e. each child’s individual character should be respected, and par-
ents would get to know their child best by creating the conditions for
intimacy. Moreover, children should be viewed as children, and not as
miniature adults. On the other hand, parents found it important for
their children to conform to the social conventions of the elite. By rede-
fining concepts such as naturalness and intimacy, they could combine
the two pedagogical aims.
Like stylistic freedom, adults also professed the ideal that children
were free to choose the subjects they wrote about in letters. In practice,
however, there was a marked preference for themes that testified to the
child’s moral and educational development. At New Year and on birth-
days especially, there was a strong focus on assessing the child’s devel-
opment. Moreover, though children were indeed free to write about
emotions such as homesickness, they were aware that they had to try
and overcome their melancholy feelings. In this way, letters also
served as a way of disciplining oneself. Protestant children were more
likely than their Catholic counterparts to use letters as a means of self-
reflection and self-castigation.
It is striking, finally, that when it came to socialization through cor-
respondence, the differences between girls and boys were not very
great. Both sexes were taught the natural style, and girls and boys often
wrote about the same subjects. Girls, more than boys, were encouraged
to cultivate a modest style and to develop neater handwriting. However,
the real gender differences in correspondence did not take shape until
Chapter Four

Adolescents’ letters

Der Holländer ist von einer ordentlichen und ämsigen Gemuthsart, und,
indem er lediglich auf das Nützliche sieht, so hat er wenig Gefühl für das-
jenige, was im feineren Verstande schön oder erhaben ist. Ein großer Mann
bedeutet bey ihm eben so viel als ein reicher Mann, unter dem Freunde
versteht er seinen Correspondenten, und ein Besuch ist ihm sehr langweilig,
der ihm nichts einbringt. (The Dutchman is of an orderly and industrious
disposition, and, since he is concerned exclusively with what is expedi-
ent, he has little feeling for that which the more refined mind classifies as
beautiful or exalted. For him a great man means the same as a rich man,
‘friend’ is synonymous with ‘correspondent’, and a call is extremely tedi-
ous unless it yields him some advantage.)1


In 1824, the nineteen-year-old Otto Hora Siccama informed his brother

Louis, two years his junior, that the style of the latter’s letters was too
Moreover, having just read your last letter aloud again, I venture to offer
you the brotherly advice that you should write, whenever the opportu-
nity presents itself, either to me or to others, in Dutch or in French, in
order to practise writing in a flowing epistolary style. It is about time: you
really do write rather childishly for your age. And yet I can excuse this in
you, since I am aware how seldom you compose a letter.2
Whereas, as we saw in the previous chapter, a thirteen-year-old boy
was urged by his mother to write letters of ‘childlike simplicity’, Louis
Hora Siccama, at seventeen, was exhorted no longer to write like a
child. If one examines letters written by boys aged between about six-
teen and twenty-three, it emerges that the style and content of their

╇ I. Kant, Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen (Riga 1771)
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 2 July 1824.
adolescents’ letters159

correspondence was different both from children’s letters, on the one

hand, and from the letters written by adult men. This is apparent even
from the forms of address used. When Otto was sixteen, for example,
he instructed Louis to ‘Tell Jan [their older brother, WR], that I am not
Mijnheer [Sir] but Jongeheer [Young sir]’.3 ‘Jongeheer’ was the correct
form of address for adolescents, boys of about sixteen and over.
Historians and contemporaries distinguish three phases in the devel-
opment of a child into a man or woman in the eighteenth and nine-
teenth centuries: childhood (up to about twelve), puberty (from about
twelve to sixteen), and adolescence (from sixteen to marriageable age).
The current chapter focuses on adolescence. Contemporaries used
the  word ‘childhood’ for the first phase, and ‘youth’ for adolescence.
A ‘jongeling’ was a boy of about fifteen or sixteen, a ‘jongedochter’ was a
girl of about the same age. This period of adolescence could last until
the age of about twenty-five or even thirty-five.4
The historical debate has focused on the question of whether adoles-
cence, like childhood, was viewed as a separate stage. It is often argued
that adolescence started to receive more emphasis in about 1800. There
has also been discussion about whether becoming an adult involved a
long transitional period, or whether, at a relatively young age, children
were simply designated adult.5 In his research into the prosperous
Rotterdam bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century, Thimo de Nijs con-
cludes that the sons of such middle-class families enjoyed a lengthy
adolescence and were permitted a great deal of freedom as students
and during periods abroad. The same cannot be said for girls, who con-
tinued to live at home during this period in their lives. In this way, boys
had considerable scope to develop an individual identity; at the same
time, however, they remained subject to their parents’ authority and
continued to be financially dependent on them.6
The present chapter will discuss a few of the rites de passage that
constituted the symbolic transition from childhood to adolescence and
from adolescence to adulthood. Some of these are distinct events, such

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 22 October
╇ I. Krausman Ben-Amos, Adolescence and youth in early modern England (New
Haven/ London 1994) 9. P. Stokvis, ‘From child to adult: transition rites in the
Netherlands ca. 1800–1914’, Paedagogica Historica 29 (1993) 77–91, here 80–81.
╇ For an overview of the critical literature, see Krausman Ben-Amos, Adolescence
and youth, 1–9.
╇De Nijs, In veilige haven, 130, 150–152.
160 chapter four

as confirmation or engagement; others are more gradual processes.

I  argue that correspondence played a significant role in all this.
Adolescents’ letters have a character of their own that distinguishes
them both from children’s letters and adults’ letters. Writing letters was
one of the ways in which adolescents developed their identity, so the
performative aspect of correspondence also comes to the fore clearly in
their letters. Young men, especially, crafted their identity in letters
before enacting it outside the realms of correspondence. This perform-
ative function was also important in letters exchanged by fiancés: the
relationship between the future marriage partners was negotiated and
shaped in the correspondence. In this way, the letters are a precursor of
the relationship between the married partners.
The present chapter, like the others, is based mainly on correspond-
ences preserved in manuscript in various family archives. An edition of
the letters of the student and artist Alexander Ver Huell (1822–1897)
furnished supplementary source material. From 1838 to 1840, he
attended Jan Jacob de Gelders’ Paedagogium for Instruction in the
Ancient Languages, where Paul Hubrecht and subsequently his brother
Ambrosius were also pupils.7 Alexander Ver Huell was friendly with
the student author Jan Kneppelhout (1814–1885). Ver Huell’s letters
bear many similarities to the letters written by the boys of the Hubrecht,
Hora Siccama, Van Lanschot and De Constant Rebecque families dur-
ing their adolescence.

From schoolboy to student

Confirmation as a rite of passage

On 26 November 1847, the fifteen-year-old Ambrosius Hubrecht sent
a birthday greeting to his elder brother Paul, who turned eighteen that
day: ‘10 years ago I also wished you happiness on this day, but then as
a child; now I greet a youth’.8 Ambrosius thus clearly distinguished
between children and adolescents. Four years later, Ambrosius con-
gratulated Paul on his twenty-second birthday. On this occasion, he
emphasized that this was Paul’s last birthday as a youth. For at twenty-
three he would become an adult in the eyes of the law. For Paul, this

╇Bervoets, De briefwisseling.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 26 November
adolescents’ letters161

was also the last year that he would really be part of the family house-
hold, as he was about to get married and move from Leiden to
Rotterdam. For this reason, too, Ambrosius commented that it was a
special birthday.9
Legally coming of age (on reaching twenty-three) constituted the
official end of adolescence, although many young men, especially the
unmarried ones, continued to behave as adolescents, or to be treated as
such by their parents or brothers. The transition from child to adoles-
cent and from adolescent to adult often took many years, but was also
marked by a series of rites of passage. One obvious occasion of this
kind was First Holy Communion for Catholics; for the children of the
lower classes this meant the transition from school to working life.
Until 1910, when Pope Pius X introduced child communion, Catholic
children made their First Holy Communion when they were about
twelve years old.10 I did not encounter any references to First Holy
Communion in my selection of manuscript letters.
The rites of passage encountered in the elite families that feature in
this study relate rather to the transition from adolescent to adult:
Confirmation, for Protestant children, and leaving boarding school for
Catholic children; both these events occurred when children were
about eighteen. The archives of the Hubrechts, a Protestant family,
include letters of congratulation on the Confirmation of Pieter
Hubrecht (1823), Paul Hubrecht (1847) and Ambrosius Hubrecht
(1850). Paul was seventeen years old at the time of this solemn occa-
sion; Pieter and Ambrosius were eighteen. The content of the letters is
the same. The sender congratulates the young man on making his
Confirmation and draws his attention to the obligations this entails.
Above all, the writer warns of all the worldly temptations that will be
lurking: it is precisely at the moments when temptation rears its ugly
head that the boy must remember his Confirmation. As Paul’s parents
admonished him in 1847:
When you read these lines, you will have taken an important step in your
life […] Who would congratulate you more sincerely on this occasion
than your parents […] who now gratefully rejoice that the eldest of their
children has pledged himself, of his own free will, to the service of our
Only Lord and Saviour, in this way becoming one with them in faith and

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 26 November
╇ Stokvis, ‘From child to adult’, 82.
162 chapter four

hope; and may we also be one in love; […] The path that you will now
tread more on your own is so dangerous, perhaps more so than you your-
self suspect. How easy it is to be led by frivolity, by the craving for diver-
sion and pleasure; and how easily these lead to wickedness. How easily
pride and the desire to know all may lead to unbelief, and how many
thousands of snares are laid by our own mistaken heart and foolish
senses? […] May God grant you and us that precious gift in abundance
through his Spirit, and thus unify our hearts to his service, through Jesus
Christ our Lord.11
Although Paul was living at home with his parents at this time, they
deliberately chose to communicate these best wishes and admonitions
in writing: ‘Just a word or two, my dearest Paul, I did feel bound to
write for you today; there are some things one cannot say just like that,
and then there is the fact that the written word is more enduring, and
we like to think that you will glance at this missive now and then in
later years’.12 The idea was thus that Paul would re-read this letter in the
future and would take the exhortations to heart yet again. At the same
time, it would strengthen his memories of his parents.
Three years later, Paul copied out this letter word for word for his
younger brother Ambrosius, when the latter came to make his
Confirmation. Since their mother had died in the interim, this copy
also served to keep alive her memory. Paul added his own letter of con-
gratulation, in which he warned against sin, but also urged that they
should be patient with each other’s weaknesses. He stated that the bond
between the brothers had become closer through Ambrosius’ confir-
mation. In the original letter, the boys’ father had also described
Confirmation as strengthening the love between father and son. Paul
concluded his letter to his brother with the word ‘Amen’, which reflects
the solemn nature of his writing.13
This shows that a letter of congratulation on the event of a young
adult’s Confirmation served several purposes. It was to be preserved
and re-read to recall the essence of Confirmation, and at the same time
to remind the addressee of his family. The letter also reaffirmed the

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 674, Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack to
Paul Hubrecht jr. 28 March 1847. (See also inv. no. 454, H. Polman to Pieter Hubrecht,
25 March 1823.)
╇ Ibid. Margaretha and Hermine Hubrecht also received written congratulations on
their confirmation from people who lived very nearby. See inv. no. 458, diary of Pieter
Hubrecht 1829–1831, entry for 12 April 1829.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 623, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, 24 March 1850.
adolescents’ letters163

existing bonds of kinship, since the boys had now become members of
the same church.
The letters that the Protestant Hubrecht boys received after making
their Confirmation resemble the letters sent to Catholic girls on leaving
the convent and boarding school of Berlaymont. When Maria Oomen
left Berlaymont at the age of eighteen, she received a letter from J. de
Clotr, who seems to have been one of her former teachers. In this letter,
De Clotr expressed her pleasure at Maria’s devoutness. To safeguard
this piety, she advised Maria to read religious works every day. This
would help Maria to withstand the dangers of the outside world. This
letter, like those discussed in Chapter 3, strongly resembles the fictive
letters in Maria Oomen’s book of model letters, which suggests that it
was a commonplace to warn young people against worldly tempta-
tions.14 The fact that these types of letters were preserved in the family
archives shows that great value was attached to them and that they
were probably re-read frequently.

The correspondence between Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht

Confirmation or leaving school were clear milestones on the path to
adulthood. Generally, however, this transition was less clearly marked.
The correspondence between Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht testifies to
this. The boys were sixteen and fourteen years old, respectively, when
they embarked on their correspondence. We already saw in the previ-
ous chapter how the elder brother taught the younger to write letters by
commenting on his style, his use of titles, his concluding formula, and
the way he wrote the address on the envelope.
The correspondence between Paul and Ambrosius began in 1846,
when Ambrosius left for the boarding school in Zutphen that he would
attend until 1849. At the time, Paul was still living with his parents in
Leiden. The brothers promised to write to each other daily and to keep
the letters so they could re-read them later. And in 1852, when Paul
had established himself as a lawyer in Rotterdam, and Ambrosius was
studying Law in Leiden, Ambrosius did indeed look back over their

╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 131, J. de Clotr to Maria Oomen, 13 June 1827. RANB,
FAVL, index of letters received by Maria Oomen, 1825–1827, letter 25 from Emelie to
a friend, and letter 26 from Julie to a friend.
164 chapter four

Just now I looked through the letters you sent to me in Zutphen in 1846–
1849 (this must have been clear from the heading). At the bottom of the
first (19 Feb. 1846), it says: ‘P.S. You must keep all my letters, and I shall
do the same with yours. It may be nice to have them afterwards. Vale PH’.
Did you do so? I did, and now I am gathering the sweet fruits of that
advice. Then it was your first letter to me, who had left home; now it is
you who has left, and this is my first letter. So similar and yet so different!
Who were we then? Who are we now? How did I leave home then, and
where was I bound? How did you leave now, and where are you bound?
One thing struck me about those first letters: the repetition of the word
‘Jaap’, and in those days you did not yet sign off with ‘TT’.15 It was not
until later that you wrote and told me what the ‘FF’ I had written at the
bottom of my letter meant, that I had written in imitation of you. I would
appreciate seeing my letters again sometime. Yours are frightfully typical:
about doing lines, about Zeeman being nicknamed the crow because of
his κερας, κερατος, κεραααααα16 and other such talk.17
‘Jaap’ meant Jan Jacob de Gelder, the headmaster of the boarding school
that Paul and Ambrosius had attended (as dayboys) in Leiden. The
boys’ letters contained gossip about their former fellow pupils at this
school, but the main themes were their schoolwork and schoolbooks.
Both Paul and Ambrosius had to work extremely hard. Ambrosius
went to the Municipal Grammar School in Zutphen, and lodged with
the headmaster of the school, Mr Matthes. Ambrosius also received
private tutoring from him, and in addition took drawing, music, and
catechism lessons.
A large proportion of the correspondence between the brothers was
taken up by complaining about how much schoolwork they had, and,
as a consequence, how little time they had to correspond, which in turn
led to grumbling from the other brother. The boys’ favourite hobby was
also a topic: smoking. A recurrent question was: ‘How is the smoking
going?’; the word ‘smoking’ was not spelled out, but represented by a
little drawing of a figure with a pipe or a cigar in his mouth. The boys
exchanged smoking experiences and gave a critical assessment of vari-
ous makes of cigars and pipes. They also drew out games of chess.
Another recurrent theme in the exchange of letters was Ambrosius ask-
ing Paul if he could perhaps put in a good word for him with their

╇ See Section 3.2 for explanation of TT.
╇ Keras means ‘horn’. Zeeman seems to have been a fellow pupil who, when declin-
ing the Greek noun κερας, pronounced it ‘kras’, which sounded like a crow’s caw.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 24 April 1852.
adolescents’ letters165

parents, so that he could come home in the holidays. Ambro was cer-
tainly not allowed to return to Leiden every school vacation. Perhaps
financial considerations played a role here, but it is also possible that
his parents could not handle his temper tantrums. In his letters to his
parents, Ambro sometimes pleaded to be allowed to spend Christmas
or Easter with his family. Finally, Ambro frequently impressed on his
brother in Leiden that he must always be sure to let him know if anyone
in the family was ill.
The letters exchanged by the Hubrecht brothers were quite intimate.
Often one brother asked the other to burn the letter, or in any case not
to let anyone else read it. Usually the letter in question contained silly
or mildly scurrilous jokes, or sometimes frank questions. The exchange
of letters between Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht has all the features of
a typical adolescents’ correspondence. Adolescence is often described
as the period in which a child detaches itself from its parents, develop-
ing an independent personality and intense bonds of friendship.
Adolescents are said to feel a need for self-reflection and to go in search
of norms from others or in literature.18 Several aspects that assumed
increasing importance in the exchange of letters between the Hubrecht
brothers are clearly in line with this image of adolescence. From the
moment the elder brother embarked on his study of Law at the
University of Leiden, his style changed, and he tried to prepare his
brother for his future life as a student by modelling his vocabulary and
mentality on those of students. While still at school, Ambrosius already
eagerly anticipated his college days: ‘I’m almost a student already, for
that matter; that is, I’ve gone out this winter as never before.19 Using
Latin and colloquial expressions, and adopting student vocabulary and
demeanour – all these marked the transition from schoolboy to stu-
dent. The concern for sincerity expressed in the correspondence and
the theme of friendship are characteristic of adolescents’ quest for
identity and of the loneliness this may entail.

One of the striking features of the correspondence between young men
of the Dutch upper middle classes was their use of Latin. Paul encour-
aged Ambrosius to write in Latin (and Greek), because a year later he

╇ J. Limonard, ‘Inleiding’, in: Idem ed., De vertrouwde van mijn hart. Het dagboek
van Alexander van Goltstein (1801–1809) (Hilversum 1994) 7–48, here 42–44.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 5 February 1847.
166 chapter four

too would be at university, like Paul. After all, all university lectures
were in Latin. In 1846, sixteen-year-old Paul wrote to fourteen-year-
old Ambrosius: ‘I shall soon write you a letter in Latin, to which you
must reply in Greek. I’m sure you must already have on a lot by now’.20
Ambrosius replied: ‘frater carissime! Tibi scribo has litteras latinas, quia
tibi volo praebere, me stultissimum esse discipulorum gymnasii
Zutphaniae; omnia verba, quae quaesivi, collocabam-.’21 He found it no
easy task to write a letter in Latin, and he could not even attempt to
write Greek:
Non possum tibi scribere epistolam graecam nisi latinam non sum tam
doctus faciendi istius, hoc bene potes videre […] I just wrote this, but
I  can’t think of anything else, and looking it up is not a pleasure, it is
The brothers Jan (1802–1853) and Otto (1805–1879) Hora Siccama
from Utrecht, like the Hubrecht brothers, used their correspondence to
improve their Latin. In other respects too, which I shall discuss in more
detail below, these two correspondences between adolescents resemble
one another. Jan studied Law at the University of Utrecht. Otto was sent
to The Hague in 1821 to work as a clerk at the Ministry of Education,
Industry and Colonies, as a charge of his uncle Anton Reinhard Falck
(1777–1843), who was a Minister of State there. Otto continued to
practise Latin with his uncle and through private study. His older
brother Jan tried to keep Otto’s Latin up to scratch by exchanging let-
ters with him in Latin and sending him lists of the errors he had made
in his letters. Jan realized that writing Latin was not easy, but urged his
brother to persevere ‘with the help especially of the letters of Cicero’.23
Otto did try his best to do so from 1822 to 1824, but it never really
worked and he eventually threw in the towel.
Boys’ initiation into the learned world of Latin has sometimes been
described as a male rite of puberty: the boy distancing himself from his

╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, 4 April 1846.
╇ ‘Dearest brother! I am writing you this letter in Latin, because I want to prove to
you that I am the stupidest pupil at Zutphen grammar school; I am underlining all the
words I had to look up.’ The words printed in bold are all underlined, probably by Paul
as corrections; the word underscored above was underlined in pen by Ambro himself
to show that he had to look it up. GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul
Hubrecht, 7 April 1847.
╇ ‘I cannot write you a letter in Greek, but in Latin, as I am not learned enough to
do this, as you can well see’. GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul
Hubrecht, 10 May 1846.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 7 or 8 July 1824.
adolescents’ letters167

family, where the vernacular was spoken, and learning a sort of secret
language. At the same time, this also distinguished him from women
and girls, who did not learn Latin at school.24 The Hubrecht boys were
well aware of the secretive aspects of Latin, as is clear from one instance
of them using Latin to ensure that their letters were not read by others.
Ambrosius revealed to his brother in a letter that he was planning to
take the school leaving examinations secretly in Haarlem, as his par-
ents had forbidden him to take them that year at his own boarding
school in Zutphen. They did not believe he was ready. As Ambrosius
wrote: ‘I have heard that it is in Haarlem “quod optimum esset, nam
hunc fortesse examen facere possem, meis parentibus insciis. Hoc tibi
latine scribo quod fortasse, quod tamen non spero, aliquis has litteras
videre possit, et melius sit hoc non fieri”â•›’.25 Since Paul and Ambro’s
father was a lawyer, and thus well versed in the classics, Latin was no
impediment to him reading the letter. The boys’ use of Latin must have
been intended as a smoke screen for somebody else.
In this way, learning Latin was all part of adopting a manly identity.
This also holds for a comment Paul made about one of his brother’s let-
ters. As we saw above, Ambro wrote that he was the most stupid pupil
at Zutphen grammar school. While Paul acknowledged that modesty
was a virtue, he urged Ambro not to exaggerate (see Section 3.2). Since
letter-writing manuals for girls advocated a modest writing style, as
was discussed in the previous chapter, curbing modesty in boys can be
interpreted indirectly as part of teaching a manly identity. Writing
about smoking and chess was also in keeping with male patterns of
behaviour. A boy’s time at university was seen as the apotheosis of his
development into a man.

Colloquial and college language

Paul was not content merely to urge his brother to write in Latin. He
also commented on his younger brother’s conduct and the content of
his letters. And in his own use of language and style, and his choice of

╇ W.J. Ong, ‘Latin language study as a renaissance puberty rite’, in: Idem, Rhetoric,
romance and technology. Studies in the interaction of expression and culture (Ithaca/
London 1971) 113–141, here 119.
╇ ‘which would be the best thing, because there I could perhaps take the examina-
tion without my parents knowing. I’m writing you this in Latin, because someone – I
hope not – might see this letter, and it would be better if that did not happen’. GAL,
FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 12 April 1849.
168 chapter four

subject matter, he set an example to Ambrosius. From the moment

Paul took up his studies at the University of Leiden, his use of language
underwent a transformation into ‘studentese’.
One of the general characteristics of this correspondence is the use
of colloquial expressions. Ambrosius, at fourteen, wrote, for instance:
‘O boy, o boy! That was a jolly little jape yesterday, by gum!’26 He also
uses the colloquial word ‘bakkes’, meaning ‘mug’ (‘don’t just sit there
with that smug look on your mug, as though you don’t know what I’m
on about’).27 That word was also used by younger correspondents, as a
letter from the sixteen-year-old Otto Hora Siccama to his brother
shows: ‘Recently papa and I met the prince at a political gathering;
I only had eyes for his foppish dress, and looked more at his silly mug
than at his adjutant’.28
Invectives are also characteristic of spoken language. In the letters,
they were often indicated by the first letter or letters followed by dots,
as in ‘by th.[under WR]’ or ‘d.[amn]…’. One of the Hubrecht brothers’
favourite expressions is ‘soup’, as in: ‘this is all soup, of course, but how
else are you supposed to fill a whole letter?’29 Ambro teased Paul about
his bad handwriting: ‘and that writing! My first thought was to burn it
[his most recent letter], but in the end I took the trouble to decipher
it the following day’.30 Paul was quick to retort: ‘You’re quite right to
burn my letters if it’s all too much soup for your learned brain’.31
Adolescence is a time when boys hurl abuse at one another to their
hearts’ content. At the age of seventeen, Otto Hora Siccama, for
instance, called his brother a ‘stupid cur’.32

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 15 April 1846.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 22 September
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto and Harco Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 16
October 1821. The author Kneppelhout also used this word. Alexander Ver Huell
reacted as follows to the use of this word in one of Kneppelhout’s letters: ‘I did have to
laugh, despite myself, at the expression bakkes’. Alexander Ver Huell to Jan Kneppelhout,
n.d. (13 December 1848 or later), in: Bervoets, De briefwisseling, 236.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 12 April 1849.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 18 February
╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, 25 February
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 15 December
adolescents’ letters169

Not only invectives are part of adolescence; scurrilous jokes, too, are
a regular feature of correspondence between young men. Otto gave
Louis the following advice about how to stop his pet hummingbird
from flying off: ‘but if you are attached to him and want to take him
with you to Groningen, to make him really loyal to you, you should piss
on his food every now and then; not too much, but enough for him to
taste it; it’s very effective; all ladies do this with lapdogs they are very
fond of ’.33 Victor and Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque, too, wrote
about lapdogs ‘pissing’ on their owners’ laps and about ‘cacking’ in
When Paul Hubrecht matriculated to study Law at the University of
Leiden in 1846, he much enjoyed student life, and introduced student
jargon into his correspondence with his brother. He took to making
disapproving comments about ‘sjouwen’ (being drunk in public, lying
in bed all day and not studying)35 and about ‘diplomats’: ‘Dedel Fagel
[…] play the fool and are ‘diplomats’; nobody wants anything to do
with them and they’ve been thrown out of the public house twice
already’.36 The term ‘diplomat’ was widely used among students. The
‘diplomat’ is also one of the types featured in ‘Studententypen’, a series
of satirical sketches about student life by Johannes Kneppelhout, pub-
lished under the pseudonym Klikspaan between 1839 and 1841.
Klikspaan describes the ‘diplomat’ as an affected youth, usually of noble
birth, whose family is well regarded in court circles and whose father is
a military man or occupies a high position at court. Diplomats ‘are
brought up in ignorance of poverty, in contempt of the bourgeoisie,
and with all the arrogance of money or of courtly connections’.37 The
fact that Paul Hubrecht speaks of these ‘diplomats’ in derogatory terms
is perhaps an indication of the chasm he perceived between these well-
born young men of the nobility and himself: though he came from a
respectable patrician family, he was still a member of the bourgeoisie.

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 2 July
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120C, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Victor de
Constant Rebecque, 26 September n.y. and 23 September 1852.
╇ W. Otterspeer, De wiekslag van hun geest: de Leidse universiteit in de negentiende
eeuw (The Hague 1992) 521.
╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, n.d.
╇Klikspaan, Studenten-typen. December 1839-Mey 1841, M. Stapert-Eggen ed.,
(Utrecht/Antwerp 1982) 99–100.
170 chapter four

Students described themselves as ‘young fellows’.38 Non-students,

town as opposed to gown, were described as ‘cads’, to judge from the
following quotation from one of Ambrosius’ friends, writing to him
about their school friends who have just started university. ‘Visch has
become a infernal layabout and is said to be very much the student.
[…] How about Herwerden – is he a true student, or more a cad?39
Student slang was not always comprehensible to outsiders. Victor de
Constant Rebecque, a cadet at the Military Academy in Breda at the age
of fifteen, provided his father with an explanation of the terms he
used  in his letter: ‘Cutting out (an Academy word for leaving the
Academy without permissio) is currently practised famously’.40 Whereas
Alexander Ver Huell’s father used student jargon himself to show his
son he was still familiar with student ways, his mother was confused
when Alexander mentioned ‘cads’ in a letter: ‘I thought at first that
these cads were students, who were called this name because of their
common behaviour, but now I remember that this is what you like to
call ordinary citizens’.41
Not everybody appreciated such student language. Otto Hora
Siccama warned his eighteen-year-old brother not to use ‘coarse lan-
guage’ in his letters. His words had been seen by his mother, who had
flown into a rage about it. Otto tried to calm his mother:
To reassure you, I just want to say that the expressions Louis wrote to me
were indeed inappropriate, but not of the nature as to suggest moral
degeneracy. They were just of the sort that, unfortunately enough, young
fellows often employ in daily speech. However, they are indeed not suit-
able for a letter, so I too would have taken that amiss.42
Otto’s comments show that there was a separate adolescent language,
which both Otto and his mother judged inappropriate for letters.

╇ Jan Kneppelhout to Alexander Ver Huell, 14 December 1840, in: Bervoets, De
briefwisseling, 56–57.
╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, E.S.B. Vergilius Claerbergen to Ambrosius Hubrecht,
16 February 1850.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 65a, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Charles de Constant
Rebecque, 22 February 1854.
╇ Louise Ver Huell-de Vaynes van Brakell to Alexander Ver Huell, 23 November
1841 [French], in: Bervoets, De briefwisseling, 77.
╇ NA, CHS, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 19 June 1825.
adolescents’ letters171

Student behaviour
Student language is a reflection of specific student behaviour. Ambro’s
elder brother instructed him in their correspondence about how he
should conduct himself as a student:
I hope you’ve become rather more human by now and are already no
longer a schoolboy. December’s about time, if you are to become a stu-
dent in September, because otherwise you’re in danger of being thor-
oughly shafted, as you would deserve. Keeping your own counsel, not
being dependent on others, being self-reliant, not worrying what anyone
else thinks; not doing, saying, or thinking silly things; being decent, that
is, not getting drunk, or puking, or sitting babbling about nothing, but
knowing how to rub along well with others without bowing down to any-
one. That’s what it takes, and that’s what I hope to see when you get here.
And never knowing boredom, that’s another part of it, never being down
in the dumps, except about bears [debts, WR]; always be a good, stalwart,
‘round’ brother.43
Several of the terms in this letter, such as ‘puking’ (kotsen), ‘babbling’
(lullen) and ‘bears’ (beeren) are typical student vocabulary.44
A few months later, Paul again imparted advice, this time both about
how to write and how to behave. First, he criticized the style of
Ambrosius’s letters for lacking coherence:
You know of course that Buffon said ‘le style c’est l’homme’, but if ever
that was true, it was roundly proved by your last letter. Where that excite-
ment came from, and all that jumping back and forth from one thing to
another in your letter – more of that anon. Certainly you didn’t read your
letter through before you sent it, otherwise you would have laughed; look
here, for example: […] try to make something of that, it hangs together
like hot sand.45
The latter sentence is, incidentally, a variant or a garbled version of the
expression, often used by correspondents, that a letter ‘hangs together
like dry sand’.46

╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, n.d. [prob-
ably December 1847.
╇ See also Alexander Ver Huell to Jan Kneppelhout, n.d. [6 July 1843], in: Bervoets,
De briefwisseling, 115. GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht,
2 October 1852.
╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, 4 April
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 16 December
172 chapter four

These comments about the style and contents of Ambrosius’ letter

were followed by a lecture on amorous fancies. Paul cautioned his
younger brother against excessive daydreams, fancies, ideals, and
worldly delights.47 Ambrosius thanked Paul for his moral teachings and
good advice.48
We find the same pattern in the correspondence between the Hora
Siccama brothers: in this correspondence, too, the older brother
imparts moral wisdom to the younger, and again this goes hand in
hand with advice about the style and contents of the letters themselves.
The nineteen-year-old Otto viewed the correspondence with his
brother Louis, two years his junior, as a means for Louis to improve his
idiom, handwriting and style:
Perhaps you will find me a little pedantic, but I must tell you that in com-
parison with your earlier letters, your language, writing and style have
undergone a marked improvement; I say this since it gives me an oppor-
tunity to urge you to pay attention to such details, especially in business
matters or when corresponding with strangers. Our correspondence,
which I strive thus to enliven, will furnish you with abundant practice;
perhaps you have already experienced how an inaccurate letter furnishes
the stuff of laughter or remarks; certainly this is the case at the office.49
It was not only handwriting, idiom and style that could be improved by
the correspondence between the brothers. The content of their letters
also served a purpose. Otto advocated ‘moral admonishments’ in his
exchange of letters with his brother. He considered these extremely fit-
ting for young men:
All admonishments founded in morality, whether from you or from oth-
ers, will always be highly welcome to me; for I do not see why youths of
eighteen and twenty years old, who are well out of pinafores, should not
correspond about more instructive and serious matters than those the
conversations of young men tend all too often to resort to. […] Do not,
dear brother, view or designate this letter as pedagogy, which would
become me very ill, but as sincere brotherly interest in all that may influ-
ence your life to come.50

╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, 4 April
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 10 April 1848.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 27 October
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 12 June 1825.
adolescents’ letters173

Both Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht and Otto and Louis Hora Siccama
used correspondence to learn to write better letters, but also to improve
each other’s characters. Often the two aspects were inextricable. The
correspondences between the brothers in these two families display
great similarities. This is due partly to the fact that adolescents’ letters
are so characteristic. In terms of style, a typical exchange of letters
between adolescent boys consisted of practising Latin and using col-
loquial language and student jargon. As for the contents, ‘moral
admonishments’ were a characteristic theme, as was the desire for sin-
cerity. Openness and sincerity were part of an understanding of friend-
ship that was extremely influential among adolescents in general, and
brothers in particular.

Brotherly love, sincerity and friendship

In one of the above quotations, Paul enumerates various qualities that
Ambrosius should adopt as a student, including being ‘a good, stalwart,
round brother.’ ‘Round’, or ‘round-chested’, meaning ‘open-hearted’,
was part of the specific vocabulary of young men.51 Jan Hora Siccama,
aged twenty, even viewed open-heartedness as a typical characteristic
of young men: ‘in the company of their fellows, young men very sel-
dom conceal their emotions, since the same fire of youth prevails in all
of them’.52 In the correspondence between the Hubrecht brothers, the
longing for open-heartedness became ever stronger, sometimes going
to extremes: ‘see there the sincere, pure, simple, open truth, of which
I trust you will reveal nothing to anybody’.53
Especially when writing letters, there was a deep-rooted desire to
come across as sincere. The opposite of sincere was ‘stiff ’, or ‘proper’.
When Ambrosius, aged fifteen, opened his letter ‘dear brother’, he asked
Paul: ‘Dear brother! Tell me, you don’t find that stiff, do you?’54 The fear
of coming across as conventional and insincere and the quest for sin-
cerity were characteristic of adolescence.

╇ Alexander Ver Huell to Jan Kneppelhout, 24 September 1843, in: Bervoets, De
briefwisseling, 121.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 3 September
╇GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Ambrosius Hubrecht, 1 May
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 30 June
174 chapter four

In the case of Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht, the desire for sincerity
and the ideal of a bond of trust were strengthened after the death of
their mother in 1849. This brought the brothers closer, especially since
their father increasingly cut himself off from his family. Ambrosius was
painfully aware of the distance between himself and his father, and
poured out his heart to his older brother:
O dearest brother, do not take it amiss; you are the only person on earth
I can talk to about these things, and I have a strong need to talk inti-
mately with somebody, but that has not happened for such a long time
[…] Oh, let us always be brothers, and live in trust with one another; this
will be a comfort. […] It has done me good, writing like this, I am a little
less stifled than just now, because oh! if I have nobody to turn to, nobody
to provide a firm hold, I become submerged in despair, and can scarcely
Brotherly love became an increasingly important theme in the corre-
spondence between the Hubrecht brothers. It was connected with an
ideal of friendship that was very much in vogue among adolescents at
the time: ‘Come brother, let us forget all our childish bickering in the
past […] let us reinforce the bond that nature has ordained between us
still further with that of deepest friendship’.56
The Hora Siccama brothers, too, viewed brotherly love as the highest
form of friendship, as the twenty-year-old Otto stated: ‘For we are now
reaching an age at which one sensible exchange can give us more satis-
faction that all of the pleasantries of our so-called friends, who gener-
ally only spend time with us because they can’t do any better for the
moment’.57 At the age of nineteen, Jan Hora Siccama concluded a letter
to his brother Otto, two years younger, with ‘your brotherly friend
Jan’.58 This deep longing for a close and intimate friend was widespread
in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.59 In the essay
‘L’Education par l’amitié’, for instance, published in 1835, the author

╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 15 July
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 30 June
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 22 November
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 23 January
╇ See also Limonard, ‘Inleiding’, 40, 63, 76. Otterspeer, De wiekslag van hun geest,
adolescents’ letters175

Johan Kneppelhout argued that a devoted friend was the best educa-
tion for a young man. He put this idea into practice in his friendship
with Alexander Ver Huell, eight years his junior.60 However, this ideal
of friendship prevailed not only among the romantic student authors of
Leiden. Traces of it can be found in all the family archives consulted for
the present study, often in letters between brothers, but also between
friends and fellow students.
Hendrik Oomen (1776–1815), whose daughter Maria (1809–1889)
would marry Augustinus van Lanschot (1794–1874) in 1832, kept up
with the friends of his student days, corresponding with them through-
out his life. He studied Law at Duisburg and Leiden around 1800. In
1801, he became a lawyer in Amsterdam, and lodged with relations in
the city centre. A year later, he moved to Breda, where he became estab-
lished as an attorney, and later became a local councillor and deputy
burgomaster. Several letters that Hendrik received from the friends of
his student days have survived; he continued to correspond with them
in later years.
His friends from his time in Duisburg gossiped about their fellow
former students, about professors, and their love lives. Railleries
abounded in these letters, as in a New Year’s letter from a certain
Therefore, my dear fellow, at this entry of the New Year (better late than
never), I wish you whatever you can spread on a slice of bread. A girl –
young, beautiful, wealthy, good – in a word, may the best come your way,
and if you marry before 1st April, I wish that before the year is out you
may have a little nipper that looks more like you than your neighbour, as
the labour of making it you will probably wish to take upon yourself.61
In addition to sometimes rather smutty jokes, the friends sometimes
poured out their hearts to one another. Another of Hendrik’s friends,
J.H. Verhoeven, confessed to him that he was in love:
In the earnest hope that you will keep silent […] there is a girl who is
causing my heart a certain amount of restlessness. I found it difficult to
enjoy her presence when in company; I then secretly and gently pressed
her hand, and this did not seem displeasing to her, since she squeezed me

╇ J. Kneppelhout, Opvoeding door vriendschap, M. Mathijsen and F. Ligtvoet eds


(Amsterdam 1980) and P. van Zonneveld, De romantische club. Leidse student-auteurs

1830–1840 (Leiden 1993) 117–121.
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1321, C.T. Wesselman to Hendrik Oomen, 29 January
176 chapter four

back with unspeakable gentleness, and tenderness, so that I was filled

with emotion. And now I have no more opportunity to speak of her.
Don’t know what I shall do about it either. I long for the vacation, so that
I can pour out my heart to you entirely. I hope then to speak to you in
person, et tuus de omnibus latius [to tell you of all that has passed]. Ah!
How often I wish I could spend an evening with you every now and
then – that would be a genuine pleasure to me.62
Hendrik confided in this friend in return, telling him that he was
depressed because his law firm was not going well, and he feared that
he would never be able to keep a wife. These young men cherished a
romantic notion of friendship. Correspondence was viewed as pre-
eminently the way to maintain a friendship, as was demonstrated by
one of Hendrik’s friends, who described failing to write as follows:
‘I  have sinned against the duty of sincere and faithful friends’.63
Correspondence was an obligation for loyal and sincere friends. Otto
Hora Siccama too saw a direct connection between friendship and cor-
respondence. At the age of twenty, he wrote: ‘It would pain me immeas-
urably if what happened had embittered you so much towards me that
you wished to break off both the correspondence and your friendship
with me because of it’.64 Victor de Constant Rebecque’s father also
encouraged him in such terms to correspond with his younger brother
Jan Willem: ‘Why not enter into a regular correspondence with him –
think of him as your best Friend’.65
The authors of letter-writing manuals and etiquette books also some-
times associated the concept of friendship with correspondence. In his
Huisboek voor Vaderlandsche huisgezinnen [Housebook for families of
the fatherland], Martinet dealt with the subject of friendship in his
chapter about young people:
If you seek a pastime in the home – such as playing draughts or chess,
drawing, or studying commemorative medals, objects from natural his-
tory, or prints or paintings – then the lathe or any other exercise might
give you the same pleasure. Here let me recommend to you the entertain-
ment of a pleasant and useful correspondence with an absent friend or

╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1321, J.H. Verhoeven to Hendrik Oomen, 15 February
╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1315, F. Havermans to Hendrik Oomen, 20 June 1799
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 12 June
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120A, Charles de Constant Rebecque to Victor de Constant
Rebecque, 9 November 1853.
adolescents’ letters177

acquaintance. This will also give you the opportunity to perfect the art of
an elegant epistolary style, which is unfamiliar to many.66
An author in De recensent, ook der recensenten, writing in 1806, empha-
sized the important role played by letters in establishing a friendship:
In the first beginnings of friendship, letters are, as it were, the ministers
that keep alive the negotiations to bring about a union of hearts, and that
actually effect it; once the covenant of eternal friendship has been con-
cluded, the intervention of these emissaries is no longer necessary, since
the parties share in each other’s interests and trust each other’s hearts,
without having to be assured of this each time through written declara-
tions. A true friendship, to my mind, has no need of letters to remain
lodged within our hearts, even for years on end.67
The above quotation reveals correspondence’s performative function
for friendship: friendship actually begins in the letters themselves
before it can function independently of the text. According to this
author, letters were no longer necessary once the friendship had been
established. Although few of his contemporaries will have shared his
view, it is interesting to note that the author is slightly sceptical about
the efficacy of letters as a means to maintain a friendship once it has
fully developed. In this quotation, he seems to be talking about friend-
ship between adult men, so one could perhaps infer from this that cor-
respondence is only beneficial between young men who are just
embarking on a friendship. The anonymous author seems to consider
correspondence between adult friends as rather excessive.
A slight distaste for letters of friendship can also be sensed in
G.C. Claudius’ Volledig brievenboek. Claudius objects to an overly
romantic tone in letters requesting the recipient’s friendship:
The language of such letters must above all be heartfelt and natural. If one
asks another for his friendship, one should pay attention to the formali-
ties and be more careful in choosing expressions than when writing to
friends whom one has already known for a long time. One should state
what prompts one to request the friendship of the person addressed, and
should not employ any romantic assurances, or affected or contrived
expressions; for affectation of this kind tends to make for dry and dull
style. […] In letters in which one requests the continuance of friendship
once given, or oneself gives assurance of such friendship, a more intimate
tone is permitted.68

╇Martinet, Huisboek, 313.


╇ Anonymous, ‘Iets over het brievenwisselen tusschen vrienden’, DR 1 (1806) 155–

156, here 156.

╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, 209–210.
178 chapter four

It seems that letters of friendship between adult men may not be exces-
sive, and certainly not romantic. No objection is raised, however, to
romantic friendships between young men. On the contrary, such
friendships seem to have been encouraged by authors such as Martinet
and by young people’s parents. Perhaps, then, we would be justified in
characterizing romantic friendship in the first half of the nineteenth
century as mainly the province of adolescents, whereas in the eight-
eenth century it seems to have been a more general concept. This view
has been taken by German and French historians.69 Friendship in this
time of life is also sometimes referred to as a rite of passage, as it chan-
nels adolescents’ emotions in the years before they start to invest their
energies in marriage relationships.70 Adolescents were expected to
maintain romantic friendships, but friendships between adults should
definitely not be romantic. Did this hold only for men, or also for

Adolescents’ letters and gender

Gender and friendship

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was widespread dis-
cussion about the capacity of men and women to enter into friend-
ships. A critic writing in De recensent, ook der recensenten in 1817, for
instance, agreed with the author Ehrenberg, who posited that women’s
nature was not very well suited to friendship:
That nature did not form women […] quite so much for friendship; that
especially the friendship of the heart is rarer and weaker in that sex than
in men, and that as a general rule women are more suited to love than to
friendship – we are in complete agreement with the writer.71
Other authors emphasized the danger that ‘sentimental and romantic
attachments posed to young ladies’, as a writer in the Algemeene vader-
landsche letter-oefeningen put it in 1783. This author held that women,

╇E. Meyer-Krentler, ‘Freundschaft im 18. Jahrhundert. Zur Einführung in die
Forschungsdiskussion’, in: W. Mauser and B. Becker-Cantarino eds, Frauenfreundschaft-
Männerfreundschaft. Literarische Diskurse im 18. Jahrhundert (Tübingen 1991) 1–22,
here 2. A. Vincent-Buffault, L’exercice de l’amitié. Pour une histoire des pratiques ami-
cales aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles (Paris 1995) 158.
╇Vincent-Buffault, L’exercice de l’amitié, 158.
╇Anonymous, DR 10 (1817) I, 540–543, here 543.
adolescents’ letters179

like men, were entirely capable of maintaining lasting friendships.

However, he made fun of the excessive sentimentalism of young ladies
who read sentimental books, penned sentimental letters, and embarked
on sentimental friendships. He suggested that young women con-
firmed their soul-felt friendship through ‘constant exchanges of letters,
although they live in the same town – a correspondence in which the
two friends impress on one another the falsest of notions’. The letters
‘are filled to the brim with attestations of eternal friendship and never
ending love’. Exclamations and quotations ‘make up a goodly part of
them’. The author discouraged overly sentimental and romantic vocab-
ulary in correspondence between young women.72 In general, the
authors of advice literature held that women, especially young women,
tended towards excessive sentimentalism, which might also find
expression, incidentally, in keeping a diary.73
Despite such warnings about excessive sentimentalism, there were
indeed profound friendships between women in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, such as that between Betje Wolff (1738–1804)
and Aagje Deken (1741–1804).74 Nevertheless, literary historians and
other scholars have often tended to view friendship in the eighteenth
century as a men’s affair.75 However, as more works of literature and
letters by women come to light, it increasingly emerges that they too
wrote about friendship.76 In the present chapter, we are not so much
concerned with descriptions of friendships between women in novels
or treatises, as with the connection between friendship and letter-
writing as social practice. The American historian Carroll Smith-
Rosenberg has been a significant force in initiating research in this
area. In 1975, she published an influential article about friendships

╇ Anonymous, ‘Het gevaar van sentimenteele en romaneske verbintenissen aan de
jonge jufferschap ontdekt’, AVL 5 (1783) II, 367–374.
╇ W. Ruberg, ‘â•›“Je n’écris qu’en vue de m’amuser”. Over sekseverschillen in negent-
iende-eeuwse autobiografieën en dagboeken’, TvSG 25 (1999) 157–182, here 160. See
also A. Meijer, ‘â•›“Houdt altyd in het oog dat gy een christen zyt”: de Nederlandse dis-
cussie over het sentimentalisme, 1750–1800’, De Achttiende Eeuw 31 (1999) 3–20.
╇ See M. Everard, Ziel en zinnen. Over liefde en lust tussen vrouwen in de tweede helft
van de achttiende eeuw (Groningen 1994) 30–79.
╇ Meyer-Krentler, ‘Freundschaft’, 19–22.
╇M. Heuser, ‘â•›“Das beständige Angedencken vertritt die Stelle der Gegenwart”
Frauen und Freundschaften in Briefen der Frühaufklärung und Empfindsamkeit’, in:
Mauser and Becker-Cantarino, Frauenfreundschaften, 141–165, here 165. B. Becker-
Cantarino, ‘Zur Theorie der literarischen Freundschaft im 18. Jahrhundert am Beispiel
der Sophie La Roche’, in: Mauser and Becker-Cantarino, Frauenfreundschaft, 47–74.
180 chapter four

between women, in which she argues that there was a different sort of
emotional landscape in nineteenth-century America that had an
impact on the style and content of correspondence between women.
Since, as Smith-Rosenberg explains, men and women’s worlds were
strictly separate in this period, it was natural for women to address one
another in extremely emotional terms, mentioning love, tenderness,
and physical intimacy. For modern-day readers, this terminology has
connotations of homosexuality, but, again according to Smith-
Rosenberg, in the nineteenth century it was considered normal because
the concept of homosexuality had not yet been invented.77
Another American historian, E. Anthony Rotundo, has studied let-
ters between young men in the same period, establishing that they too
wrote about friendship in romantic terms. He confirms Smith-
Rosenberg’s hypothesis that no clear distinction was made in the nine-
teenth century between homo- and heterosexuality. One difference
between the romantic friendships between girls and boys was that boys
only described their friendships in flowery terms during adolescence,
whereas women used rapturous and intimate language throughout
their lives in entrusting their friendships with other women to paper.
The reason for this was the requirement imposed on adult men to curb
their emotions: they were expected to be self-sufficient and self-
controlled. Once a man was married, founded his own household, and
embarked on a career, he had to abandon the playful romanticism of
adolescence. Women, on the other hand, Rotondo holds, continued to
depend on the network of women that surrounded them and that had
been building up from birth. For men, adolescence was a time in which
they made new friends.
Finally, Rotundo gives several reasons why romantic friendship
became so popular among young men in America around 1800. First,
in the early nineteenth century, young men became more independent
of their families due to the opportunities to find work in expanding
trade and in independent professions. Prior to this, family members
had often arranged apprenticeships. Young men, a long way from
home  and family, sought the support of their peers of the same sex.
Men and women’s worlds were separate, so that young men were forced
into contact with other young men. In Rotondo’s opinion, romantic

╇C. Smith-Rosenberg, ‘The female world of love and ritual: relations between
women in nineteenth-century America’, Signs 1 (1975) 1–29.
adolescents’ letters181

friendship between young men is characteristic of the first half of the

nineteenth century. At the end of that century, homosexuality was first
defined and labelled as different, which meant that men tried to dis-
tance themselves from it. In addition, at the end of the nineteenth cen-
tury, the concept of the strong, sporty man became popular, which
lessened the divide between boys and men. From that period, the tran-
sition from boy to man more often occurred under the guidance of
schoolmasters at school. A boy had less need of an intimate friend to
help him in uncertain times.78
Two questions arise in response to Smith-Rosenberg and Rotundo’s
articles. First: did Dutch girls in the first half of the nineteenth century
use letters to shape romantic friendships? And secondly: what explana-
tions can we suggest for the popularity of the ideal of friendship in this
To start with the link between young ladies, correspondence, and
friendship, there is only sporadic reference in letter-writing manuals
and etiquette books to any connection between correspondence and
friendship between girls. Only one advice book for girls recommends
that they continue to exchange letters with their former classmates
once they leave school:
Anyone who has attended an institute as a girl rather than a child – that
is, after the end of her schooldays – and has enjoyed all the benefits it had
to offer while maintaining her bond with her home, parents, brothers,
sisters and friends through intimate and steadfast correspondence, may
rightly rejoice over this pleasant period. […] But how do things stand
now with your correspondence? Has it already begun to dwindle, despite
all those professions of friendship and tears of fond farewell, and is the
way from the heart to the pen too far for you? – You have rediscovered
your old friends at home, and have opened your heart to them, as they
have done to you! That is good and praiseworthy; but your absent friends
should not be entirely forgotten. It is precisely due to this swift transition
that your sex is accused of inconstancy and fickleness; and yes, severe
critics even accuse you of disloyalty. […] Constancy in all that is good is
a beautiful thing, and loyalty in all that is proper is very much to be

╇E.A. Rotundo, ‘Romantic friendship: male intimacy and middle-class youth in the
Northern United States, 1800–1900’, JSH 23 (1989) 1–25.
╇ K.N. Meppen, Agatha. Kern van levenswijsheid. Of: hoe bereikt het meisje hare
bestemming? (Amsterdam 1846) 26.
182 chapter four

However, if we glance at the letters between girls and young women

preserved in the family archives, we again encounter the view that cor-
respondence is the way to maintain a friendship, or even more strongly:
friendship and correspondence are virtually equated. As a friend of the
twenty-three-year-old Catharina van Schinne put it: ‘those who speak
as you say on the subject of correspondence have no soul whatsoever,
and are not worthy to have friends’.80
Moreover, as with correspondence between young men, we see
friendship described in emotional terms. The correspondence between
the two young women Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de
Poll-van Rhemen and Julie d’Ablaing van Giesenburg, for instance, tes-
tifies to their earnest pursuit of sincere friendship:
I think of you no less, my dearest. The friendship that I have bestowed on
you is sincere and lasting, and in whatever situation in my life I may find
myself, whether far or near, you will always remain the same for me. And
I dare to flatter myself that this friendship is reciprocal.81
Sophie assured Julie that she never allowed her husband to read Julie’s
Another similarity between boys’ and girls’ correspondences is the
use of correspondence as a means to impart moral instruction. Eugenie
Steenlack, for instance, thanked her friend Marie Moens for the
character-forming remarks in her letters. The girls’ correspondence
aimed to improve their moral development. The bond between these
two young women was described in romantic terms:
If you even knew how much my affection for you grows stronger; for
I sense more and more how much your correspondence has made me
more vigilant, more heedful of myself and regarding myself. I would
never wish to refute the much too good opinion you have of one who
merits it in so few respects. Dearest Marie, if you had seen into the core
of her whom you have been so good as to call your friend, oh, you would
never have been able to vouchsafe to her this affection so tender, so gen-
tle, so attentive, that you have shown her ever since she had the joy of
making your acquaintance. You have put up with all my faults without
complaining, and as though I were perfect. And this esteem that you have
shown me has in itself been inherent to causing me to make some pro-
gress in godliness. Dearest good Marie, maintain this same kindliness

╇ NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Cornelie to Catharina van Schinne, August 1780 [French].
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, n.d. [French]. See also RANB, FAVL,
inv. no. 132, Pauline and Aloïza Gibson to Maria Oomen, 1 May 1827.
adolescents’ letters183

towards me, this same attachment which makes me so very happy. And
may the God in whom we love one another continue his blessings to
Another example of correspondence functioning as an instrument of
character-forming for young women is a passage from a letter written
by Abrahamine Steenlack at the age of twenty-one, describing her cor-
respondence with her friend Fanny.
At long last the fourth arrived this evening, and brought me a delightful
letter from dear Fanny. The first half was about committees, and the sec-
ond half took me to task about various things I had written to her about
before – you will understand, no doubt – above all that I was somewhat
quick-tempered these days. And she is quite right. I cannot thank her
enough for telling me all that, and in such a delightful manner.83
As far as the ideal of friendship is concerned, letters between girls and
young women did not differ substantially from those between young
men: both sexes advocated romantic friendship, in which intimacy was
key. The correspondence itself was the ideal means to create or main-
tain this friendship. A further important characteristic of friendships
of this kind was their aim to be character-improving.
Several of the reasons Rotundo gives for the popularity of the ideal
of friendship among young men in America in the first half of the nine-
teenth century seem equally applicable to young women in the
Netherlands. After all, in the families studied here, a large number of
the girls also went to boarding school and made new friends there.
Nevertheless, the emphasis Rotundo places on the new friendships
formed during a period at a boarding school or other educational insti-
tution does not seem to have been decisive for Dutch adolescents.
Contact with family continued to be very important, as was clear from
the exchanges of letters between brothers in the Hubrecht and Hora
Siccama families. Moreover, the romantic ideal of friendship was also
espoused between brothers and sisters.
It was precisely within family relationships that a romantic friend-
ship could flourish between men and women, particularly brothers and
sisters. One example is the collection of 27 letters written by Henri van
Lanschot (1797–1887) to his sister Theodora (1802–1887) between

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1377, Eugenie Steenlack to Marie Moens, 2 January 1841
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 7 August
184 chapter four

1818 and 1838. Theodora’s letters have not survived, perhaps because
she asked all her correspondents to burn her letters. This intimate cor-
respondence between brother and sister consists largely of passages
about the importance of their friendship and their exchange of letters.
Accounts of events scarcely feature in the letters. Henri wrote openly
about his melancholy, his aversion to ‘convivial’ soirées, and his desire
to get married. Sometimes he gossiped about others in this letters, or
asked Theodora about her sombre moods. The first paragraph of his
letters was always devoted to his relationship with his sister and the
state of their correspondence:
The pleasure I experience, dear sister, in receiving news of you is difficult
to describe to you, and this is why I affectionately supplicate you to pick
up the pen frequently, to prove to me that I am in your thoughts. I would
be very wrong to suspect that you no longer care about me, as the proofs
of your friendship you gave me during my stay in the country assure me
how much I am in your good grace. And I much appreciate them and
strive to merit the esteem of a much loved sister, to which I attach the
highest value.84
Henri was happy that Theodora dared to confide her secrets in him and
wrote that for his part ‘frankness is my motto’.85 At New Year, the
brother and sister wished each other a spouse, as Hendrik Oomen’s
university friends wished him in about 1800. Perhaps the fact that they
were both unmarried was the reason for the intimate bond between
them. Only four letters from Henri to his sister have survived from the
period after his marriage in 1831, and two of these are birthday greet-
ings. But the Van Lanschot family archive includes eighteen letters to
Theodora from Henri’s wife, Pauline van der Kun. This gives the
impression that Pauline took over from her husband where everyday
correspondence with her sister-in-law was concerned. The intimacy in
the letters of friendship between the brother and sister seems to have
been prompted more by their shared unmarried status than by their
ages, although the two aspects are obviously connected, since the
majority of unmarried people were indeed young.86

╇ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 228, Henri van Lanschot to Theodora van Lanschot, 7
August 1828 [French].
╇Even in old age, unmarried brothers and sisters might continue to address one
another in very intimate terms, as in the case of the 69-year-old Anthony Jan van
Schinne and his 72-year-old sister Magdalena van Schinne. Anthony Jan, who had
adolescents’ letters185

Anne Vincent-Buffault suggests that in France the distinction

between friendship and family ties became less sharp in the nineteenth
century: people were quick to attach the label ‘friendship’ to existing,
intimate, familial relations. Moreover, friendships between men and
women became increasingly problematic due to the sexual connota-
tions. Only friendships between brother and sister were unproblem-
atic.87 This is borne out by the intimate friendships between brothers
and sisters cited above. It is also striking that virtually none of the sur-
viving letters in the family archives I studied were the product of
friendships between non-related men and women.
The strict division between men and women – unmarried ones, at
any rate – seems to have been important for the emergence of the
romantic ideal of friendship. Living away from the parental home, at
boarding school or for an apprenticeship, seems also to have been a
contributing factor. And yet precisely the link with members of the
family, especially brothers and sisters, remained very important in
this phase. Romantic friendship was shaped especially in exchanges of
letters between brothers and, to a lesser extent, between brothers and
sisters.88 Fraternal love and friendship sometimes even became synon-
ymous. The socio-economic explanations put forward by Rotundo,
such as the fact that boys had to leave their parental home far behind
them in seeking work, are therefore not sufficient to explain the popu-
larity of the ideal of friendship. Pedagogical practices and literary influ-
ences perhaps also played a role. In the previous chapter we saw that
parents advocated intimacy and friendship in their correspondences
with their children. Boarding schools were also important socializing
institutions. Jan Jacob de Gelder’s Paedagogium for Instruction in the
Ancient Languages in Leiden, which Alexander Ver Huell, along with
Paul and Ambrosius Hubrecht, attended in the 1840s, has been referred

spent almost his entire life in the Dutch East Indies, sometimes addressed his sister as
‘my friend’, and viewed sincerity as the purpose of their correspondence and friend-
ship. NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Anthony Jan van Schinne to Magdalena van Schinne,
20 January 1835.
╇Vincent-Buffault, L’exercice de l’amitié, 124–125.
╇ I came across virtually no correspondences between sisters in the family archives
I studied. This is probably not due to them being thrown away, but merely because
these families happened to have more sons than daughters. The exception to this is the
Van Schinne family. In the exchange of letters between the sisters Magdalena and
Catharina van Schinne, I found only one reference to a romantic ideal of friendship:
‘Adieu cher soeur, you can not comprehend how much j love you’ [in English], NA,
FAVS, inv. no. 157, Magdalena van Schinne to Catharina van Schinne, 23 October
186 chapter four

to as ‘a hotbed […] of romantic notions’.89 And Maria Oomen’s mother

asked her in a letter whether she had already made a friend at boarding
school (although in this case she did not mean a friendship through
correspondence).90 Furthermore, the model letters dictated to Maria
by the nuns at her school largely consisted of letters between girls or
young women. Both parents and teachers thus probably encour-
aged  young people to enter into intimate friendships through their
In addition to parents and teachers, romantic literature may also
have been influential when it came to writing about and conducting
friendships. When, at the age of twenty-five, Otto Hora Siccama wrote
to his mother that he had made a true friend, he borrowed the terms in
which he described this ‘enduring bond’ from Schiller’s trilogy of
plays,  Wallenstein (1799), especially the fateful friendship between
Wallenstein and Octavio Piccolomini.91 The Hubrecht brothers also
quoted Schiller. Perhaps these young men had read Schiller’s poem Die
Freundschaft. In any case, they were certainly familiar with German
and French Romantic authors. Together with parents’ encouragement
to develop a friendship through letters, reading texts about friendship
must also have influenced adolescents to pursue this as an ideal.

Expressing masculinity and femininity in letters

The ideal of romantic friendship was pursued by both young men and
young women. Both boys and girls aspired to friendships in which sin-
cerity and intimacy were key. The differences between the sexes where
correspondence between adolescents is concerned lay rather in young
men’s use of Latin, colloquialisms, and student jargon.
To judge from the letters in the family archives I studied, girls do not
seem to have used a language of their own that could compare with the
use of colloquial and student vocabulary by boys. Perhaps, as the lin-
guistic historian Linke posits, institutionalization or a group identity
are prerequisite for the development of a specific youth language.92

╇ Bervoets, ‘De kostschooljaren van Alexander Ver Huell’, 116.
╇RADB, FAVL, inv. no. 135, Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz to Maria Oomen,
25 August 1825.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 67, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
31 January 1830.
╇See also A. Linke, ‘Backfischsprache. Kultursemiotische Überlegungen zum
Sprachgebrauch jugendlicher Bürgerinnen der Jahrhundertwende’, in: J.K. AndroutÂ�
sopoulos and A. Scholz eds, Jugendsprache/langue des jeunes/youth language.
adolescents’ letters187

Boys also flouted the conventions by using colloquial language (includ-

ing invectives and dirty jokes); girls did not do so.
Aside from issues such as how to develop the right character traits
and proper behaviour, girls’ letters consist mainly of accounts of out-
ings, such as dances. Otto Hora Siccama was not entirely wrong when
he wrote to his twenty-one-year-old sister Angelique: ‘I am delighted,
my dear Angelique, to hear you reasoning in this way about the frivol-
ity of worldly pleasures: you are the exception that proves the rule that
the heads of young girls are filled entirely with pretty dresses and balls’.93
The purpose of balls was amusement. Linke was the first scholar to
point out the ubiquity of the phrase ‘je me suis amusée beaucoup’ in the
diaries of German girls of the upper bourgeoisie dating from the latter
part of the nineteenth century. When girls noted in their diaries that
they had had an amusing time, always referring to urban, semi-public
social events such as outings and balls, this was a sign that they had
internalized their feminine middle-class vocation. For after all, they
had successfully participated in the company of people of the same
class, thus affirming their identity as a member of the upper bourgeoi-
sie.94 Mentions of the motif of ‘amusement’ have the same function in
the Dutch correspondences between young girls examined here.
Although young men also mention in their letters that they have had
an amusing time, girls seem to write about it more often, and this
impression is perhaps strengthened by the fact that girls do not write
about other subjects that are important for boys, such as smoking, clas-
sical languages, and university.
Studying the style and content of letters written by young men and
women shows, then, that the real gender differences in correspondence
were created in adolescence, not in childhood. This is also sometimes
explicitly expressed by correspondents. When Otto Hora Siccama was
sixteen, for instance, his father formulated the wish that Otto might
‘acquire a manly hand with a manly style’.95 The father was admittedly
referring more to his son’s work as a clerk, but Otto’s handwriting in his

Linguistische und soziolinguistische Perspektiven 7 (Frankfurt am Main 1998) 211–231.

Linke did encounter one example of a ‘Backfischsprache’, a specific young girls’ jargon:
in the chronicles of a Swiss girls’ association in 1900–1905.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique Hora Siccama, 26 January
1830 [French].
╇Linke, Sprachkultur und Bürgertum, 265–290.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 66, Harco Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 2 December
188 chapter four

letters also reflected his progress at the office. Otto himself urged his
twenty-two-year-old brother Louis to cultivate particular manly char-
acteristics: ‘you are now so closely approaching the age of manhood,
that you must have the courage and strength to endure the blows
of fate  with patience and submission’.96 Otto’s admonitions to his
seventeen-year-old sister Angelique are even more explicit in terms of
expressing feminine identity in the style and content of her letters. Otto
made a clear distinction as regards the appropriate style for a child and
for a young lady:
Your letter of the 25th of this month, which I received this morning, gave
me great pleasure – many thanks for it. Due to the scarcity of your letters,
I was most struck by the genuinely good and natural style of this one, in
comparison with earlier ones. Please do not take it amiss if I comment
that for a moment I forgot that you have hung up your children’s shoes
and are now entirely a young lady, so that it should not surprise me to
find a good epistolary style in your letters. It would be very agreeable to
me if, now that you are less busy at home, you would keep up a more
regular exchange of letters.97
Otto’s view that writing good and long letters was one of the qualities of
a young lady also emerges from a comment he wrote to his wife, Pietje,
in 1846, when she was thirty-one: ‘You are truly behaving sensibly, like
a big girl: you go out riding, you invite ladies to call, you write long let-
ters! In a word, you are my dear little poetess!’98
As far as his sister Angelique was concerned, however, Otto had
more criticism than praise in store. When she was nineteen years old,
he reproached her for not mentioning their deceased father in a letter
she wrote on his birthday, within a year of his death. Otto could per-
haps have forgiven a young man for such an oversight, but for a girl of
Angelique’s age it was extremely important to express the proper senti-
ment on this occasion:
And it was also the 1st of June which had a large part in these memories,
a date that has become considerably less agreeable for over a year now.
I was therefore struck by a sentiment of regret – I may tell you frankly –
to note that your letter dated that very day did not contain even a single

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 8 April
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique Hora Siccama, 27 May
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje Hora Siccama-van Capellen,
18 June 1846.
adolescents’ letters189

expression that might demonstrate that you had not entirely forgotten
the date so often celebrated before in honour of a dearly beloved father,
to whom we owe so much. In a man, more insensible in general, I would
have been more willing to pardon an omission of this kind, but to a young
girl, at that very age when the heart should hold sway over her the most,
I can only express my regret at seeing such a day pass without honouring,
with a single memory of sadness and bitterness, a being who left us too
early, a father who loved us and sacrificed all to us, right down to the little
pleasures so much the due of a man at the end of his career.99
A year later, on Angelique’s twentieth birthday, Otto addressed her not
only birthday greetings, but also some pedagogical advice:
Your letter was very pleasing to me, but allow me to voice one remark!
Though haste prevents me from setting you a good example. – Do acquire
the habit of writing slowly and neatly! A man may be forgiven a certain
amount of negligence in this matter, especially if one knows that he is
very busy! But a woman, especially a girl, is never so busy that she may be
untidy! What will her suitors say, if they see such a thing! They will infer
from the lesser to the greater and will think (I believe and trust wrongly)
that this is not confined to your writing. In this I can hold up to you the
example both of your own mother and of other women. Write half as
much instead! This would be better for the writer and better for the
Slovenly handwriting might point to a slovenly and perhaps unprinci-
pled character, and this would make a young woman a less attractive
proposition on the marriage market. Young women’s letters must have
neat handwriting and demonstrate the proper feminine emotions.
Incidentally, Otto concluded the above letter with the exclamation
‘Adieu! Dear child! Be sweet! That befits a young maiden!’. As we saw in
the previous chapter about children’s letters, girls were encouraged by
way of letters to be good and sweet (douce). Adolescence was the time
for learning to become a man or a woman. Adolescents were urged to
adopt these identities in their correspondence. Their handwriting, like
the style and content of their letters, should express their gender.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique Hora Siccama, 4 June
1828 [French]. A German businessman voiced a similar reproach to his daughter in
1875, see: U. Frevert, ‘The middle classes as public and private: culture, gender, and
modernization in the nineteenth century’, in: A. Schuurman and P. Spierenburg eds,
Private domain, public inquiry. Families and life-styles in the Netherlands and Europe,
1550 to the present (Hilversum 1996) 210–219, here 216.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique Hora Siccama, 27 July
190 chapter four


Courtship and accès

The adolescent’s identity was thus clearly reflected in correspondence
and was in part developed through letters. Aside from specific concrete
events such as confirmation, this was a process that continued over
several years, concluding in engagement and marriage. Engagement
and marriage can be seen as the ultimate rite of passage, the moment at
which two people are established in a union of two fully-fledged
adults.101 A long period could elapse between courtship and an official
engagement, and between engagement and the actual solemnization of
matrimony. Moreover, this period was all too often beleaguered by
problems, rejections or doubts. The present section will examine the
role of correspondence in the entire process.
Historians have written a great deal about engagement and mar-
riage. For many years, there was debate about whether in the late eight-
eenth and nineteenth centuries marriages were contracted for love, or
whether they were arranged by the parents, over the heads of the actual
parties to the marriage. The general pattern for marriages among the
elite in Western European countries in the nineteenth century is now
relatively clear: in principle, men and women could choose a marriage
partner themselves, and the ideal was to marry for love. However, the
prospective husband’s social and material position was extremely
important: if he did not possess or earn enough money to set up an
independent household, the parents would not sanction a marriage.
Moreover, the choice of partners was restricted, since young men and
women of the upper classes were limited in their opportunities to meet:
at balls, dinner parties, or private gatherings, when attending the opera
or theatre, or when staying with relatives. Within these closed circles,
however, unmarried men and women of the elite were relatively free to

╇De Nijs, In veilige haven, 169. P. Ward, Courtship, love, and marriage in
nineteenth-century English Canada (Montreal/Kingston/London/Buffalo 1990) 90.
╇De Nijs, In veilige haven, 153–169. A.-C. Trepp, ‘Emotion und bürgerliche
Sinnstiftung oder die Metaphysik des Gefühls: Liebe am Beginn des bürgerlichen
Zeitalters’, in: M. Hettling and S.-L. Hoffmann eds, Der bürgerliche Wertehimmel.
Innenansichten des 19. Jahrhunderts (Göttingen 2000) 23–55. Habermas, Frauen und
Männer, 266–303. Vickery, The gentleman’s daughter, 40–41, 86.
adolescents’ letters191

It was almost always the young man who initiated courtship. If he

had made his choice, and his feelings were reciprocated, he could
request ‘accès’, meaning that his parents asked the permission of the
girl’s parents for their son to associate with her. A friend of Pieter
Hubrecht’s gives the following account of the request for ‘accès’ that his
parents addressed to his uncle and aunt (for the girl in question was his
cousin, Keetje):
Keetje was out, so they could discuss the matter at ease, since Uncle and
Aunt are on very close terms with Papa and Mama. And both parties
discussed the matter very freely, and I was permitted equally freely to
continue to converse with Keetje: to write to her, take her out in public,
and in fact to enjoy all those blessed privileges that ‘accès’ confers. Though
since in Dordrecht, at least, ‘accès’ is understood as an undertaking to
marry within the year or within such and such a time, which requires an
official announcement to the whole family, in my case, it goes under the
name of ‘entrée’; but in fact it boils down to ‘accès’.103
So accès entailed, among other things, the possibility of conversing and
corresponding with one’s intended fiancée. The young man first asked
the permission of his potential marriage partner, before he, and his
parents, formally addressed themselves to the girl’s parents. In this way,
although the initiative for the courtship came from the man, women
did have the choice whether to go along with it, to reject the potential
suitor, or keep him waiting. The period of courtship, before and after an
engagement, was a period in which women were in an exceptional
position of power, which they would never regain after marriage.104
Once accès had been granted, the young couple could begin to con-
verse, go for walks, go to church together, and exchange letters.

The engagement of Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine Steenlack

The archives of the Hubrecht and Hora Siccama families each contain
one correspondence between fiancés. We are fortunate that twenty let-
ters from Abrahamine Steelack to Pieter Hubrecht have survived from
the period leading up to their marriage in 1828, as Pieter’s future wife
frequently besought him to ‘immediately stuff my letter in the stove
and burn it, as I would not like it for my letters to be saved and read by

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 454, A.G. Brouwer to Pieter Hubrecht, 10 June 1822.

╇ N. Eustace, ‘â•›“The cornerstone of a copious work”: love and power in eighteenth-

century courtship’, JSH 34 (2001) 517–546, here 527.

192 chapter four

others’.105 The fiancés’ fathers, Paul Hubrecht senior and Ambrosius

Steenlack, were best friends, and the Hubrecht and Steenlack families
had known each other for a long time. It is uncertain whether
Abrahamine and Pieter were already in correspondence before they
were engaged. It seems unlikely, as no correspondence of theirs has
survived from before that event. In any case, once Pieter had singled
out Abrahamine, they initially wrote to one another once every two or
three weeks, but soon they were writing every three days. In the begin-
ning, Pieter Hubrecht’s enthusiasm was rather greater than that of the
Steenlacks, who had been taken by surprise by his plans. This initial
reluctance is apparent in the first surviving letter from Abrahamine to
Pieter. In this letter she confessed that she was not entirely convinced
of her affections for Pieter:
And as for becoming more closely acquainted with one another, as you
write, I believe I have already stated my feelings to you clearly enough;
I would be dissembling, and my behaviour would belie it, were I to avow
that I was entirely indifferent to you; what little day-to-day congress
I  have had with you has not shown me any unfavourable side of your
character and has inspired me with respect for you; since my dear parents
have no reasons to advise me against it, I have not rejected your request
to become better acquainted, but for the time being I can say no more
than that; it is truly no light matter to pledge oneself for one’s whole life,
and it is difficult to decide to leave one’s parental home and all the dear
relations in whose midst one feels so completely happy. I will and must be
honest, then, and repeat to you again that I do not as yet feel I can make
you happy, and we still know each other too little to be able to measure
this one way or another. But enough of this. We can talk this all through
at greater length before long.106
Abrahamine Steenlack did not leave her admirer in uncertainty for too
long. After three months she already wrote openly of the union she
would enter into with Pieter Hubrecht. She hoped
that she would always continue to deserve the affection and love which
the whole family [Pieter’s family; WR] always so unfeignedly bestow on
me; and I may now add how delighted I am that I shall perhaps one day
be part of such a dear, worthy family, and that I shall always strive to be a
worthy member of it. Yes, dear friend! I may now tell you that I look for-
ward with pleasure to a union which certainly imposes heavy duties on

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 20 December
adolescents’ letters193

us both, but which is made very much lighter and more pleasant by
mutual love and a willing disposition. May our Heavenly Father, from
whom all true happiness derives, bless our intentions and ensure that we
never regret a choice which is intended to ensure the happiness of our
The word ‘perhaps’ in the second part of the first sentence was added
later, possibly indicating that Abrahamine was not entirely convinced
of the fittingness of her reference to their future marriage. Incidentally,
this letter also reveals how important one’s future family-in-law was.
Abrahamine would shortly become part of the Hubrecht family in
Leiden, which was a long way away from her own family in Zutphen.
When Pieter’s parents came to Zutphen to visit, she was afraid they
would be disappointed in her. She wished very much to earn their love
and to merit her place among their children.108
To get to know her future family-in-law even better, Abrahamine
entered into correspondence with Pieter’s mother, sisters, and several
of his aunts. She was aware that these women would judge her charac-
ter partly on the basis of her letters, as she confessed to her fiancé:
‘I hope you will approve of my letter to your Mama, as it is conceivable
that she will read it to you’.109
The fiancés also cautiously explored the matter of the relationship
they envisaged with one another. Abrahamine wished for a candid rela-
tionship: ‘no happiness is possible without intimate candidness’.110 She
also wanted to correspond with Pieter about serious subjects.111 For
that reason, the two did not shy away from discussing their state of
mind in their correspondence. Abrahamine admonished herself to be
patient and Pieter to be less melancholy.112 She also wrote openly to her
fiancé about the doubts she sometimes felt at the thought of their
impending marriage:
Sometimes I dread it terribly, but I also often look forward to that day
calmly and happily. It is just that I am sometimes afraid that I will not be

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 15 March
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 21 June 1828.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 5 August
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 26 April
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 24 January
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 6 June 1828.
194 chapter four

able to fulfil all the duties that are associated with that state, I know how
little and how poorly I fulfil them at the moment, and now they are
recalled to me daily by the example of the lessons of my dear parents. All
the same, I trust all will be well, and hope and believe that we will make
each other happy. Certainly nobody is perfect and we must learn to bear
each other’s faults with patience, but affection and willingness to please
lighten this task all round […] I know full well, your thoughts are not
shallow, your fundamental principles are based on religion and virtue;
mine I believe to be perhaps not bad at the core, but they are not very
steadfast, and I am very easily swayed by the thoughts and behaviour of
those I associate with closely. How lucky, then, that yours are serious and
good, then mine will be governed by them and will adhere to them more
and more, because I have already often found that without religion and
virtue no true happiness is possible, […] without which [religion, WR]
we cannot possess a good conscience, which is the first and foremost
source of constant happiness.113
Abrahamine Steenlack thus used her correspondence with her fiancé to
overcome her own doubts about her impending marriage, which would
take place in 1828, and to analyse and improve her own and her fiancé’s
character. Correspondence throughout the engagement also served to
shape the couple’s future relationship. Knowing that her family-in-law
would constitute an important part of her married life, Abrahamine
already used letters to enter into contact with her prospective mother
and sisters-in-law, though she was afraid that they would find her let-
ters not good enough. Perhaps the fact that, right up to the age of thirty,
young people had to ask their parents’ permission to marry also played
a role here.

‘Notre fatable engagement’: the engagement correspondence between

Otto Hora Siccama and Pietje van Capellen
The extremely well documented engagement between Otto Hora
Siccama (1805–1879) and Lady Petronella (Pietje) van Capellen (1814–
1848) ran a rather more problematic course. Otto, a clerk with the
Ministry of Internal Affairs, had been a frequent visitor to the Van
Capellen household for some time. But the father of the family, Vice
Admiral and later Lord Chamberlain Theodorus van Capellen, died in
1824, and his wife followed him in 1835. The four unmarried sisters,

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 5 August
adolescents’ letters195

two of whom worked as maids of honour at the court, then rented a

residence beside the gates of the royal palace in The Hague. There Otto,
who, by his own account, was small and ugly, conversed a great deal
with Pietje at convivial soirées, as they both greatly disliked playing
cards. He fell in love with her and, in the winter of 1839, summoned up
his courage and confessed his feelings to Pietje during supper at a ball
given by Prince Frederik. Pietje immediately assented to his courtship.
But this would be the beginning of two miserable years. Although it
seemed that Otto’s feelings were reciprocated by the young lady, he still
did not earn anywhere near enough at the Ministry to establish an
independent household and keep a family. Pietje’s family raised objec-
tions: ‘fortunes were lacking, prospects were slight etc. But I would
rather keep silent on all the sorrows your mother and I had to endure
for almost two years. Our correspondence was our consolation’, as Otto
put it in the unpublished autobiographical notes he wrote for his
The correspondence between the fiancés – 106 letters in all, from
both Otto and Pietje – has survived virtually in its entirety. But why
this exchange of letters? After all, Otto lived on the Plein in The Hague,
just 200 yards away from Pietje’s house on the Noordeinde. Why were
regular visits and conversations not enough? The reason was, first of all,
that Otto and Pietje were never allowed to converse without a chaper-
one. If Pietje’s sisters were out, the couple could not arrange to meet as
there was nobody to ensure propriety. On one occasion, Pietje was
angry with Otto for calling one morning when she was forced to receive
him alone.115 Later the couple were allowed to meet at Pietje’s house
unchaperoned, but Pietje threatened to ask a friend to be present at the
conversations if Otto did not behave himself. Thus, with others con-
stantly present, they could seldom speak openly with one another. The
letters, delivered by a servant, allowed them to express thoughts and
feelings that they could not utter face to face. Secondly, Pietje was spar-
ing in granting Otto permission to visit her. Otto felt that he was too
seldom allowed to visit, and that Pietje, who had spent part of her
childhood in England, was guided too much by English engagement
customs, which were apparently stricter than Dutch customs.116 Letters

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 56B, autobiography of Otto Hora Siccama, 1846–1859.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 10 December

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 18 May 1841.
196 chapter four

Fig. 6╇Portrait of Otto Hora Siccama, Regionaal Historisch Centrum

Groninger Archieven (n.d.).

were the compensation for the fact that their meetings were brief and
At the beginning of his engagement with Pietje, Otto found these
restrictions normal, as he wrote to his sister Angelique: ‘On Sunday we
will attend the same church, but I may not walk through the streets
adolescents’ letters197

Fig. 7╇Daguerreotype of Petronella Anna Catharina van Capellen,

Regionaal Historisch Centrum Groninger Archieven (n.d.).

with her arm in arm’.117 But within no time he was lamenting how few
privileges Pietje permitted him. Otto fought hard and gained the right
to kiss his fiancée’s hand, but this did not lead on to other things. Quite
the contrary, Pietje behaved more and more distantly towards him. The
reason was her uncertainty about her feelings for Otto (she feared she

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 19 December 1839.
198 chapter four

did not love him) and her feelings of guilt about her sickly and jealous
sister Jemina, whom she helped to care for and whose companion she
was. Pietje was afraid that choosing Otto would mean losing her sister,
as Jemina was hostile in her comments about Pietje’s fiancé.
A year after the couple had become engaged, Otto complained about
his ‘allocation’ – the maximum of three hours a week that Pietje per-
mitted him.118 He was also angry because she did not want to write
many letters. This was not fitting for a woman, Otto felt:
And then already you prepare me for the sad effects of your coldness by
making conditions with regard to the number of letters you could not
dispense yourself from writing. Since when has a woman who loved even
the least in the world not found the desire and consequently the time to
When Pietje was about to set off to stay several months in Germany in
1841, she forbade Otto to write to her there with any frequency. This
prohibition arose from her uncertainty about the future of their rela-
tionship, but had the added advantage that Pietje did not have to write
too many letters in return. She was not fond of writing letters, as Otto
reported to his mother: ‘You can imagine, dearest Mama, that I greatly
dread this long separation, because she has such a horror of letter-
writing that in all this time I shall surely hear very little from her’.120 The
fact that Pietje did not like corresponding did not mean, incidentally,
that she was not good at it, Otto pointed out: ‘Thereafter we wrote very
sweet letters to each other, and she can, when she wishes, write very

The contents of correspondences between engaged couples

Pietje’s writing so ‘enchantingly’ was the exception, however. A large
proportion of Otto’s letters, which were almost always twice as long as
his fiancée’s, consisted of Otto reproaching Pietje for being reserved
and cold. Otto accused her of not behaving affectionately enough, and
criticized her letters for lacking feeling. Otto expressed himself in

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 1 April 1841.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 1 May 1841
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 17 May
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
14 September 1840.
adolescents’ letters199

strong and vehement language. And this ran counter to his belief that
it was not fitting to use such language to women: ‘There is a sort of
baseness in speaking harshly to a woman: imagine then how ashamed
I must be to have written such things to you’.122 On this point, Otto’s
views concurred with those of the authors of etiquette books, such as
If he is writing to a woman, a man must never compromise respect, either
in his words or his opinion; though without lapsing into those Italian or
Spanish cowardices, which are offensive both to feelings of self-respect
and to good manners. A woman, on the other hand, seldom has recourse
to expressions of respect.123
Otto alternated between sharp words and doting romantic sentiment:
Does not a movement of your head suffice to temper the effects of the
ardent desire I so often experience to draw you to my heart, to feel yours
beating against my hand, and to go mad at the idea that this treasure will
one day belong to him who, alas, will never cease to be tenderly yours.124
He also sent Pietje poems, such as ‘The Loveless Maid’, ‘To a Moss Rose’,
and ‘My Dearest Friend’, and quoted from Romeo and Juliet. Yet he
mocked himself for this ‘romantic’ language:
As for me, since I am rather romantic, when I had the pleasure of being
present at your luncheon, your tea seemed to me as nectar, your toast as
ambrosia, and thus you never descended from Olympus in my eyes,
although I must admit that Mietje Goedblad did not quite strike me as
Hebe, when she came trotting in with the teapot.125
The term ‘romanesque’ or ‘romantic’ had ambiguous connotations.
This is evident from the advice literature and unpublished letters. A
model letter in a letter-writing manual dating from 1770, for instance,
in which a lover replied to a sorrowing love letter from her young man,
read: ‘I am full of praise for your writing style, and find it a great
deal  more to the point than the cowardly, eloquent and romanesque
expressions otherwise often found in letters from persons in our

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 29 August 1840
╇J.V.D.L., De wellevendheid, 143–144.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 13 August 1840
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 11 August 1841
[mainly French, some Dutch]. Hebe was the goddess of youth, who poured youth-
bestowing nectar for the gods on Mount Olympus.
200 chapter four

circumstances’.126 When it came to love letters, the authors of letter-

writing manuals often advised men to compliment women, certainly,
but not to be effusive or unrealistic.127 The correspondence between the
Hora Siccama brothers also reveals an ambivalent attitude to romance.
Otto, for instance, on the one hand urged his brother Louis to adopt a
romantic attitude when ‘a-wooing’:
Continue, amice, to approach matters of love with that delicacy and chiv-
alrous gallantry that, to judge from your letters, I believe I have observed.
This rather romantic approach seems very pleasing to me for your years:
wooing according to today’s customs otherwise seems to me machine-
like or puppet-like.128
On the other hand, however, Otto complained to his mother about a
novel by Balzac that was ‘so abentheuerlich contrived, so thoroughly
romantic’ that he would not recommend it to his daughter.129 Here the
pursuit of moderation seems to be decisive.
Otto not only had mixed feelings about the use of romantic phrases,
he was also afraid of getting carried away in poetic expressions.130 In
this area, he followed the advice of ‘De Wailly’. By this he probably
meant Noël François de Wailly (1724–1801), whose works included the
grammar book Principes généraux et particuliers de la langue Françoise
(1754), in which De Wailly quoted Boileau’s warnings against exces-
sively flowery writing.131 Otto went in search of a stylistic model for his
letters, but feared he could never attain the level of the French romantic
author Paul de Musset (1804–1880).132

╇Anonymous, Nieuwe handleiding tot de manier van brieven schryven, 169.
╇ Ibidem, 159.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 25 March
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 17 May
1831. Rothman concludes from her research into courtship in America that both men
and women used the term ‘romantic’ to qualify emotions as childish, uncontrollable
and untrustworthy: E.K. Rothman, Hands and hearts. A history of courtship in America
(Cambridge and London 1987) 39.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 15 July 1840.
╇ M. de Wailly, Principes généraux & particuliers de la langue françoise ([1754] 11th
edn; Paris 1800) 420.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, n.d. [November
1840]. Paul de Musset was the brother of Alfred de Musset (1810–1857), a famous
French author and poet, who in his four Lettres de Depuis et Cotonet (1836–1837) iron-
ically denounced romanticism, censuring its sentimental excesses. Though one cannot
prove that Otto Hora Siccama read these letters, it is very possible they influenced his
adolescents’ letters201

Pietje responded equally laconically to all such endeavours. She

insisted for almost two years that she did not know whether she could
love her admirer. Part of the correspondence then concerned the dif-
ferences between friendship and love and the question of the role of
love in a marriage. Precisely because there were so many differ-
ences between the two fiancés, love – in the opinion of Otto and his
mother – was indispensable for their marriage:
Our characters, our ideas, our education – everything is different between
us, and the only thing that could overcome the difficulties that must nat-
urally be born from this state of affairs – fellow feeling, affection… is
lacking to us! And this with so little chance of good fortune.133
If Pietje could not really love him, Otto said, she should view him ini-
tially as a friend, a brother, and forget for the time being that he loved
her. This involved showing sincerity in their correspondence, as befit-
ted true friends. Along these lines, Otto praised a letter from Pietje
which had touched him ‘because you poured out your heart in it so
much. – Without putting it in so many words, it was to a friend you
were writing’.134
Not only did Otto encourage Pietje to see him just as a friend, he also
tried to lessen her fear of marriage by extolling the joys of motherhood
to her. If the prospect of the role of wife did not appeal to her, she
should just concentrate on the attractive position of motherhood.135
This explicit encouragement to fulfil the role of motherhood is just one
example of the way in which this correspondence between fiancés con-
stituted an exercise in gender models. One other example is a letter in
which Otto expressed his fear that Pietje would ridicule him if he used
sentimental expressions. He asked her to hold him dear and thus to
change him from a pedantic man into an ‘adroit and spiritual’ man.136
In Otto’s view, it was the task precisely of women to reform men and
keep them on the straight and narrow. In the same vein, a month later
he quoted a poem by Schiller, in praise of women: ‘Schiller’s tender
heart knew the influence of women on us wrathful men, and knew the

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 5 January 1841
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 1 October 1840
[Dutch and French].
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, n.d. [November
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 1 February
1841 [French].
202 chapter four

power of a single gentle glance, a single loving word from a beloved

mother, wife or sister on a man incensed by temper’.137 Otto felt that
women should form a link between men and heaven:
No, I was not mistaken when I saw united in you all those noble qualities
accorded to women to make of them a chain between man and heaven:
what would we men be, stranded, the slaves of our base passions, numbed
by earthly joys, if woman did not exist to recall us to the exalted senti-
ment of what is beautiful, just, true, and virtuous? – Thus woe betide the
woman who, forgetting her exalted mission, allows herself to be dragged
down to earth by man and demean herself with him; – but woe, too, to
the man who does not raise himself towards womankind, who does not
respect all that is worthy and estimable in them.138
In addition to ideas about women’s influence on men’s character, Otto
put forward his thoughts about the necessity of marriage for women in
a poem he composed, ‘The Loveless Maid’. In this poem he reminded
Pietje that now she was still young and could marry, but that she should
beware of becoming an old maid: ‘Let not the spring flit away, / Pluck
the bloom before it withers’.139 Pietje herself made a half-hearted
attempt to imagine herself in the role of obedient wife:
I still hope to manage to overcome these impulses of impatience and bad
humour and to become a good wife, obedient to the slightest sign from
my lord and master, willing even, if necessary, to sacrifice my pretty
hands to tend to his laundry and ensure his stock of sauerkraut –
In this correspondence, therefore, relations between the sexes were
rehearsed and constituted by explicit references from Otto to Pietje
about proper feminine behaviour, by quoting the opinions of various
authors on the subject, by Otto asking Pietje to make a better man of
him, and by the writer of the letter himself or herself promising to be a
good husband or wife. Other research has pointed to examples in the
correspondence between fiancés or newly married couples of the man
sometimes commenting on or correcting his fiancée or wife’s writing

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 1 March
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, poem by Otto Hora Siccama for Pietje van Capellen,
23 April 1841 [French].
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, poem by Otto Hora Siccama for Pietje van Capellen,
13 May 1840.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 11 April 1841
adolescents’ letters203

style.141 This does not hold for the couples from the Hubrecht and Hora
Siccama families studied here.
In this correspondence, the future roles in the marriage are negoti-
ated, so to speak. Pietje often uses the term ‘I permit you to’, for exam-
ple when she allows her fiancé to visit her. The power to shape the
frequency and extent of their relationship was thus in her hands. Otto
seems to realise this: ‘At the present time I have in all humility to accept
the role of your submissive adorer; although I have sometimes revolted,
I do fear that I have allowed you too much to glimpse your sovereignty,
and if you disdain me, is it not perhaps that I am too much your
The power struggle between Pietje and Otto also found expression in
the constantly recurring debate about the concluding sentence of their
letters and its significance. Otto ended his letters with the much used
concluding sentence: ‘I embrace you in my thoughts’. To this he added:
‘A little kiss like this will not harm you; – moreover, you cannot prevent
it or wipe it away’.143 But because Pietje was unsure of her feelings for
Otto, she did not wish to encourage him in the slightest, and responded
affrontedly to the merest allusion to a [written] kiss, as Otto claimed:
‘Did you, my dear!, recently also forbid me to embrace you in my
thoughts? Or does your strictness not extend that far?’144 In a moment
of reconciliation, Pietje did however concede: ‘I […] permit you a very
small kiss in thought’.145 Otto then went a step further along the path of
intimacy (perhaps also in reality), by describing the kissing of her
hands: ‘I would take your delicious little hands and cover them with
kisses as tender as… as… as butter! As you see, I take my poetical com-
parisons where I find them, which is to say, in my breakfast; – but the
fact remains that I am sincere, indeed’.146 Pietje gave a humorous
response to this:

╇Habermas, Frauen und Männer, 340–341. A. Baggerman, Een lot uit de loterij.

Familiebelangen en uitgeverspolitiek in de Dordtse firma A. Blussé en Zoon, 1745–1823

(The Hague 2000) 48. Niemeyer, ‘Der Brief als weibliches Bildungsmedium’, 448.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 11 October
1840 [French].
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 20 May
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 3 July
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 15 July 1840
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 9 September
1840 [French].
204 chapter four

But do not rejoice too much in this inkling of a compliment, as I also

have to rebuke you for permitting yourself to embrace me with your
‘heart and soul’, even in thought; in truth, you are becoming too imperti-
nent, and my delicious little hands would punish you for your insolence
if you were within their reach. They would escape in this manner the
greasy kisses you promise them. I was quite indignant at this threat. How
prosaic it is to seek your comparisons in your breakfast.147
This discussion about the possibility of a kiss, with an allusion to real-
ity, continues in the correspondence throughout the entire engage-
ment. A kiss on the forehead is the following step: ‘In the meantime,
my dearest and most beloved Pietje, I permit myself to give you a tiny
little kiss on the brow, in the hope that you will not hold it against me
too much and that this will not stop you from pressing my hand as
usual.148 A few months before they were eventually married, Pietje also
dared to send Otto a kiss of friendship in a letter.149
The final sentence of the letter thus indicated the degree of intimacy,
and this was a matter for negotiation. This also applied to the salutation
that opened the letter. Pietje consistently chose not to open with a salu-
tation, and used the briefest of concluding sentences. In the letter itself,
too, she virtually never addressed Otto explicitly. All this gives an
impression of distance. Otto, for his part, used the salutation and con-
cluding formula to characterize the state of their relations. At a point
when he was angry and wished to terminate the engagement, he no
longer addressed Pietje as ‘chère amie’, but with a cool ‘Mademoiselle’.
The concluding formula, too, contained no sweet words, but only his
name. In this way, the salutation and the conclusion of the letter helped
to express emotions.

Letters with the future family-in-law

The relationship between the affianced couple themselves was not the
only thing that was important in the ritual of engagement. Introducing
one’s new bride to her future family-in-law was also a significant step.
Within hours of asking Pietje to marry him, Otto poured out his heart
in a letter to his mother in Utrecht. His mother then asked her son

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 10 September
1840 [French].
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 26 July 1841
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 7 July 1841.
adolescents’ letters205

whether she should now write to her future daughter in law: ‘Shouldn’t
I perhaps write to Pietje? I wonder how to go about it’.150 This reaction
shows that it was not a matter of course for the future mother-in-law to
immediately embark on a correspondence with her daughter in law to
be. Nevertheless, Otto thought it was a good idea: ‘It would be most
pleasing to me, and it is something I forgot to ask Mama the last time,
if she would write to Pietje some time: that will prompt her to reply,
and that is a good way to get acquainted’.151
In the end, Mrs Hora Siccama did indeed write a letter to Pietje, in
which she pressed for a meeting in the near future; after all, they had
never even set eyes on one another. Mrs Hora Siccama also asked her
son whether she should now send a formal invitation to Pietje. In
response, Otto requested his mother indeed to send an invitation in
forma to Pietje, so that the couple could show it to Pietje’s sister. This
sister believed it was much too soon for the two families to meet, but it
would be difficult for her to refuse a formal invitation of this kind.
Otto’s mother was unsure, because Pietje was of noble birth and her
family was more wealthy than the Hora Siccamas. Nevertheless, she
believed that their cordiality would bridge the differences in class:
‘Moreover we are not the sort of people to call Pietje “My lady” for long,
and we are already so accustomed to that familiar name that it will
swiftly become very usual to us’.152
In return, Otto hoped that a letter from Pietje to his mother would
promote a good impression of his fiancée: ‘Her letter to Mama will
incline her favourably towards her’.153 He was very curious about Pietje’s
letters to the members of his family in Utrecht. He even asked his sister
Angelique if he could read a letter that Pietje had written her, as he was
so anxious to know the tone of the letter. In addition, Otto apologized
to his sister for the address on Pietje’s letter, which she had left
blank  because she was not certain enough of Angelique’s names.154

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 68, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
18 December 1839 [Dutch and French].
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 19 December 1839.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 69, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
16 January 1840.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 25 December
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 19 December 1839.
206 chapter four

Pietje’s uncertainty is also apparent from the salutation in the letter in

question, in which she addressed her future sister-in-law with the
impersonal and unspecific ‘Madame’, as well as from the following
words from Otto to his sister: ‘Pietje recommended above all that I
should not tell you too much about her; she is afraid she will not live up
to your expectations’.155 Pietje, like Abrahamine Steenlack, was afraid
she would not write well enough for her future family-in-law, as Otto
wrote to his mother: ‘Added to this is the fact that my little bride very
much shrinks from your visit, and said this morning that she was afraid
that she would not write pleasingly enough for you’.156
For the time being, no meeting was to come about between Otto’s
family in Utrecht and Pietje and her sisters of The Hague. A long period
of uncertainty followed, in which Pietje, especially, expressed doubts
about their engagement. Otto often lamented to his mother about
Pietje’s cool demeanour. On one particular occasion he returned from
Utrecht expecting to find a letter from Pietje, only to be disappointed
yet again. As he wrote to his mother:
I then took up her letters, her most recent missive and all her earlier ones,
and having read through them I decided that I would not take a single
step until I were forced to do so from her side. This morning I occupied
myself by copying out several of her letters, of which the content, I must
confess, generally struck me as more affectionate, after all, than my mem-
ory had held up to me in Utrecht.157
In the meantime, the families had to make do with reading each other’s
letters aloud. Otto read his mother’s letters to his fiancée: ‘she takes
great pleasure in hearing your letters’.158 Otto sent his mother copies of
letters from Pietje so that she could read them and judge the relation-
ship. Afterwards, however, Otto was not so happy about reading letters
aloud, as he admitted to his sister Angelique: ‘I have not yet told you
that I did not read your letter to P.: – actually I think it serves little pur-
pose to share letters, and I believe I should have considered this

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 19 December 1839.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
19 October 1841.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
8 January 1840.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 29 May
adolescents’ letters207

before’.159 Otto skipped some passages when he read his mother’s letters
to Pietje:
This morning I read out the passages from your letter about Henriette
and Aernout’s stay in Schalkwijk to my dear P: she is so taken with your
way of writing that I always give her great pleasure with communications
of this kind. – The passage about Jemina, on the other hand, I skipped.
I think P. despairs of ever seeing her sister more congenially disposed.160
Otto often asked the advice of members of his family, such as his sister
Angelique, to whom he gave a detailed account of a conversation he
had had (in French and Dutch) with Pietje. ‘I have conveyed to you our
entire conversation, as well as my memory allows, faithfully and almost
line for line, and I would gladly hear your judgement as to whether
I could and should have acted differently’.161 Several times Otto decided,
partly on the advice of his family, to break off his engagement, but he
then allowed Pietje to talk him round to maintaining the relationship.
With his mother, Otto did not paraphrase his conversations with
Pietje, but sometimes sent Pietje’s letters to his mother to judge. His
mother did not mince words: ‘I enclose the letter from Lady van Capelle
you sent, without any comment. She is beneath all criticism. You would
have to be as blinded as you say not to discern in it the height of selfish-
ness, the greatest coldness, and the lack of any self-respect.’162 When the
engagement was teetering on the brink yet again, Pietje begged Otto to
ask his mother’s advice once more before they definitively broke off
their engagement. But Pietje did demand that Mother Hora Siccama
should be more moderate and less prejudiced against her: ‘but ask her
to write to you in such a manner that, if need be, you could read her
letter to my sisters’.163 Thus letters circulated in both families, and were
read aloud and judged, in this way playing an important role in shaping
the relationship between the fiancés themselves, but also between the
fiancés and their families.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 24 January 1841.
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
24 February 1841.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 13 January 1841.
╇NA. CHS, inv. no. 68, Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck to Otto Hora Siccama,
9 January 1841 [Dutch, with ‘self-respect’ in English].
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
10 January 1841.
208 chapter four

The importance of these letters was also apparent on another occa-

sion when Otto was on the point of breaking off his engagement. He
offered to return Pietje’s letters to her, although he would prefer to keep
You would, my love (I cannot stop myself from saying it one more time),
no doubt wish to have your letters back? – I would greatly like to keep
them! They would be like a sacred relic for me: – but I understand that
I have no right to them at all: so if you could resolve to leave them with
me, I would hasten to return them to you at the first request that was
made to me on your part.164
Although Pietje had the right to demand her own letters back, Otto
would ideally like to preserve them as a relic. Many years before, Otto
had asked another woman to marry him. She refused and ultimately
married another man. Otto continued to come across her, and one
evening they decided ‘laughing, to stuff all the piles of letters we had
exchanged into the stove together’.165 So letters between fiancés might
either be cherished as a souvenir or consigned to the flames. In the case
of Otto Hora Siccama and Pietje van Capellen, the correspondence
between the two survived. They finally married in 1841, and their mar-
riage would last seven years, until Pietje’s death in 1848.

Summary: the function of correspondences between fiancés

Although Otto Hora Siccama followed the advice of a French grammar
book as regards the general style of his love letters, the fiancés discussed
above probably did not copy model letters from letter-writing manu-
als.166 The correspondences examined above are too personal in nature
for this to have been the case. The engagement correspondence between
Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine Steenlack differs greatly from that
between Otto Hora Siccama and Pietje van Capellen, but one can dis-
cern a few similarities. In both correspondences, as was customary,
it was the man who took the initiative for the courtship. It was very

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 101, Otto Hora Siccama to Pietje van Capellen, 5 January 1841
╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 56B, autobiographical notes of Otto Hora Siccama
╇Baggerman, Een lot uit de loterij, 47–48. Lystra believes that nineteenth-century
American correspondents made little use of letter-writing manuals as models:
K. Lystra, Searching the heart. Women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century
America (New York/Oxford 1989) 13–15.
adolescents’ letters209

unusual for a woman to initiate a correspondence of this kind.167 In the

early stages of the period of ‘courting’, the woman’s role tended to be
passive. After the first contacts had been made and access had been
granted, however, the woman’s control over the relationship increased
considerably. In both of the engagement correspondences examined
above, the woman had a rather detached attitude. This pattern has also
been encountered in other research. Two reasons can be identified for
this. First, the reputation of a woman and her family could be damaged
if it became known that an engagement was imminent but it did not
eventually come to pass, or worse still, was broken off.168 Second, young
women were more prone to misgivings than were young men, because
marriage was a greater step for them than for their future spouses. They
left their parental home and often had to move to a different part of the
country. Correspondence was therefore an important way for the fian-
cés to get to know one another and achieve greater certainty.169
This was particularly necessary as the fiancés had often only just met
and were, moreover, not permitted to spend very much time together
unchaperoned. One of the ways to become surer of their love for one
another was to build various trials into the exchange of letters. This
might include creating minor or even major crises in the engagement:
doubts about one’s feelings and the wisdom of getting married, or other
such obstacles. Karen Lystra’s research into love letters and letters
between fiancés in nineteenth-century America demonstrates the great
frequency of these types of tests and trials, which were generally set up
by women. For them this was a way of obtaining clarity regarding their
admirers’ intentions, usually in the wake of a significant commitment,
such as engagement. If the man stood the test, this strengthened the
relationship between the fiancés. In Lystra’s view, couples resorted to
these sorts of tests because parents increasingly allowed their children
to make their own marriage plans, without parental involvement.170 We
see the same pattern in exchanges of letters between fiancés in the
Netherlands: here too women express doubts and put up hurdles on
the path to the altar. Correspondence between fiancés was not just an
extension or reflection of the relationship between them; the relation-
ship was actually formed through the exchange of letters.171

╇Lystra, Searching the heart, 187.
╇ See also Baggerman, Een lot uit de loterij, 45.
╇ See also Rothman, Hands and hearts, 56–57.
╇Lystra, Searching the heart, 158, 166.
╇Rothman, Hands and hearts, 9.
210 chapter four

One aspect of this was the relationship between man and woman,
husband and wife. Correspondence between fiancés provided an
opportunity to rehearse gender roles and, where possible, to negotiate
them. When one of the parties was assailed by doubts about the mar-
riage, as was the case with Pietje van Capellen, it could be reassuring to
characterize the relationship with one’s fiancé as friendship. That was
perhaps less intimidating than love, but did imply openness and
Another way in which the woman could exercise power during the
engagement period was her influence over the frequency and content
of the letters exchanged. Pietje van Capellen determined how often her
fiancé might write to her and stipulated the degree of intimacy of their
We also saw, finally, that from an early stage of the engagement, let-
ters were exchanged with one’s future family-in-law. In both cases, it
was the woman of the engaged couple who corresponded with the
women in her future family-in-law. These women also judged her by
her letters, which led her to fear that her letters, and thus she herself,
would be found wanting. The involvement of the future family-in-law
proves that in the first half of the nineteenth century engagement was
not yet a matter between two individuals. In the research literature, the
eighteenth century is often described as a period of transition: before
that time, marriage was an alliance between families, generally agreed
with minimal involvement of the future fiancés. In the nineteenth cen-
tury, on the other hand, the choice would come to lie in the hands of
the young man and woman themselves. Thus in the eighteenth century,
love letters were still read by family members, whereas by the nine-
teenth century they had become a private matter between fiancés.172
Neither of the correspondences between fiancés discussed in the pre-
sent chapter seems to have been read by other family members, except
incidentally. On the other hand, one cannot conclude from this that the
engagement was a matter between two individuals. We saw that the
young women also entered into correspondence with the women in
their future family-in-law. Moreover, Otto Hora Siccama even gave his
fiancée’s letters to his mother to read. Perhaps, then, it would be more
apt to describe the first half of the nineteenth century, too, as a period
of transition from the collective influence of the family on a marriage
to a situation in which the wishes of two individuals were paramount.

╇Eustace, ‘â•›“The cornerstone”â•›’, 517–518.

adolescents’ letters211


In this chapter I have argued that the letters of adolescents bore a qual-
ity all their own. Moreover, correspondence played an important role
in rites of passage, events that marked the transition from childhood to
adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood, but also in more
structural changes in the life of young men and women.
One of the first rites of passage that springs to mind is confirmation.
On his confirmation, a boy received letters from his family and rela-
tions, warning him of the worldly hazards that might ensnare him and
reminding him of the solemn promises he had just made. These letters
also emphasized the strengthening of family bonds through confirma-
tion. These sorts of letters were kept and re-read often.
A more structural change in the life of a young man was going to
university. Young men and boys used letters to teach each other about
student habits, but also to experiment with adolescent and student lan-
guage. This included using colloquialisms, writing in Latin, and affect-
ing student jargon. Another characteristic feature of correspondence
between adolescents is romantic ideals of friendship. Such friendships
were also common among girls, and between brothers and sisters. This
model of friendship was encouraged at boarding schools and through
romantic literature.
The ultimate rite of passage was of course marriage and the period of
engagement that preceded it. Fiancés used correspondence as a way to
get to know one another and to exchange views about the contours of
their future relationship. This could become somewhat of a power
struggle, especially if the woman was not sure of her feelings. This
meant that correspondence between fiancés was one of the last times
the woman was in control. Throughout the engagement, letters played
an important role not only for the engaged couple themselves, but also
as a means to introduce a prospective wife to her future family-in-law.
Like letters between children, letters between adolescents served in
many ways as an important means of socialization. Family members,
especially those who were similar in age, encouraged young people to
write as adolescents (in the role of student, true friend, young man, or
young woman). It was pretty clear how an adolescent was expected to
conduct himself or herself. Correspondences between young men bear
strong similarities to one another.
Not only did correspondence between adolescents serve to develop
their identities as young men or women; these letters also functioned
as a means to fulfil certain roles in society: human relationships were,
212 chapter four

so to speak, actually lived out in these texts. Especially in correspond-

ences between friends or between fiancés, relationships were created
through letters before they existed off the page.
The chapter opened with a quotation from Kant, in which he sug-
gests that the Dutch have no finer feelings and are only interested in
what they can gain from relationships. The German philosopher
accuses the Dutch of simply numbering as their friends all those with
whom they are in correspondence. Kant suggests here that true, deep
relationships of friendship are unknown to this race of pragmatists.
As we have seen in the present chapter, this certainly cannot be said of
adolescents, for whom sincere, romantic friendship was crucial. Jan
Hora Siccama did reflect that the German ideal of friendship was more
sentimental that the Dutch one. When, at the age of thirty-two, he con-
sidered presenting his brother with a ring, he debated to himself
whether this was a suitable present for a man. He believed that since he
had been in Germany he had become infected with the sentimental
ideals that prevailed there between men:
We are not used to it, it is not in our nature, and we are initially overcome
with distaste if we witness friends embracing one another, walking hand
in hand, or exhibiting a tenderness which seems to us overly sentimental
or effeminate. And yet, I have now come across this strange behaviour so
much, among all classes and all ages, that I cannot say otherwise than
that these people are moulded differently, but are no softer than we. What
I wanted to say now – the friendship that exists between us is brotherly
love – may the strength of this word be a recommendation of my gift.
And if it does not fit, let it at least serve as proof that when a few hundred
hours’ distant from you, you are in my thoughts no less than when I am
at home.173
Even when they were well over thirty, the correspondence between the
Hora Siccama brothers continued to evidence all the preoccupations
that were typical for adolescents. This confirms the theory that the
phase of adolescence could often last a long time, especially for unmar-
ried young men such as Jan and Otto. They also continued to comment
on one another’s letters, as will be clear from the following chapter.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 2 July 1835.
Chapter Five

Ceremonial correspondence

From now on, I wish to live as improperly as possible: that is, I wish to act
only in accordance with the word of God, the whisperings of my con-
science, and the precepts of common sense. I no longer wish to express
my condolences, congratulations, and compliments to people to whom
I am entirely indifferent, and who only desire my bow for the sake of


Ceremonial correspondence, such as New Year letters, letters of con-

gratulation or letters of condolence, merits a chapter of its own because
this sort of letter was viewed as a specific genre by contemporaries.
Betsy Steenlack, for instance, wrote to her brother-in-law on the occa-
sion of his birthday: ‘I certainly cannot permit my pen to be idle on
such an occasion, although ceremonial writing is not otherwise quite
my thing, or my forte’.2 Letter-writing manuals, too, devoted a special
chapter to ceremonial correspondence, recommending an ‘elevated
style’ for these letters. They also recommended keeping them short. For
after all, both in the case of a birthday or a death, the recipient had bet-
ter things to do. Betsy Steenlack was well aware of this in her birthday
letter to her brother-in-law: ‘You will perhaps say that this letter is
indiscreetly long for a first letter of congratulation; I hope not everyone
will occupy you for so long’.3
The family archives I studied contain a total of 900 ceremonial letters
in manuscript. Some of the family archives have preserved more of
these letters than others. The Hubrecht family archive, for instance,
includes a very large number of letters of congratulation and letters of
condolence. This may mean that some families attached more impor-
tance to ceremonial correspondence and were thus more likely to keep

╇Peterson, Het fatsoen, 119.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 406, Betsy Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 17 January 1828.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 423, Betsy Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 18 November 1831.
214 chapter five

such letters. In addition, the archives of the Van Lanschots, a Roman

Catholic family, include several ceremonial letters that are typical of
the Catholic calendar, such as Lenten and Easter letters.
On the one hand, ceremonial letters had a clear social function: fam-
ily members and acquaintances could use such letters to express their
awareness of important events such as births, marriages or deaths. This
awareness strengthened the bonds of friendship. ‘Friendship’ here does
not mean the romantic concept of friendship that applied mainly to
adolescents. Rather it is friendship as Kooijmans has described it for
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: links with relations, who
together made up a network of solidarity one could rely on for support.
These links were maintained by keeping up ‘correspondence’: writ-
ing one another letters and exchanging courtesies, gifts, and services.4
Births, birthdays, marriages, deaths, and New Year were the occasions
on which to take stock of the state of such relations: great precision
attended the question of what notification was appropriate for whom.
The response to such a notification also revealed a good deal about how
relations stood. Ceremonial letters could thus function as a means of
distinction: to indicate who did or did not belong to one’s intimate cir-
cle of friends, but also to show what social class one belonged to.
On the other hand, ceremonial letters also had a very personal dimen-
sion: the sender had somehow to give a personal touch to a highly
standardized letter whose contents were prone to clichés. He or she had
somehow to convey the impression of sincerity. In this way, ceremonial
correspondence functioned both as a social binding agent and as a
measure of the sincerity of the individual. This tension between the
private sphere (the sincere individual) and the public sphere (bonds of
friendship) is at the centre in the present chapter.

Means of communication and customs

Announcing deaths and births

Various means of communication could be used to inform people of
a birth, a marriage, or a death. One could make use of an announcer,
place an advertisement in the paper, or send printed or handwritten

╇ L. Kooijmans, Vriendschap en de kunst van het overleven in de zeventiende en
achttiende eeuw (Amsterdam 1997) 14–17, 327–329.
ceremonial correspondence215

The profession of the ‘announcer’, also known as the ‘doodbidder’

(proclaimer of death) or ‘begraavenis-nooder’ (funeral announcer),
was an old and venerable one. The announcer was both an undertaker
and the person who went from house to house to notify people of a
birth or a death, or to invite people to attend the funeral. Until the end
of the eighteenth century, the announcer often distributed printed
mourning letters, sometimes with a rhyming text.5 At the beginning of
the nineteenth century, he imparted his message orally; later the
announcer only delivered a printed card.6 The profession of announcer
seems to have gone into decline in around 1860.7 In the nineteenth
century, he was often ridiculed for his pompous speech, stiff and arro-
gant bearing, and meticulous mourning apparel (black cloak, white
bands, black three-cornered hat with mourning crape and a long silk
hatband, and white gloves), whilst his heart was indifferent to the
deceased.8 According to Derk Snoep, already at the end of the eight-
eenth century the announcer was criticized for appealing only to the
snobbery of the bereaved (who had to pay for each extra attribute or
item of clothing the announcer used) and for basing his income on
this. Not only was there criticism of the announcer’s demeanour; new
forms of communication gradually rendered them redundant. In 1846,
J. Boeke wrote in the Vaderlandsche letteroefeningen that the announcer
often came too late: people had heard about the death a day earlier
from the paper or by word of mouth. Servants no longer felt it was
worthwhile to pass on the announcer’s message, Boeke wrote.9
The smarter the family, the more announcers it hired.10 The Van
Lanschot family, for instance, hired eight announcers for the funeral of
Godefridus van Lanschot in 1799.11 That was the height of decorum.12
One can reconstruct the means of communication used in connection

╇ J. le Francq van Berkhey, Natuurlyke Historie van Holland. Vol. 3 (Amsterdam

1773), 1857–1859.
╇D. Snoep, ‘Sterven en rouwen 1700–1900’, in: Dood en begraven. Sterven en rou-
wen 1700–1900 (Utrecht 1980) 4–73, here 46–48.
╇ Anonymous, ‘De Amsterdamsche aanspreker’, in: F.H. Greb ed., Jaarboekje voor
Rederijkers 4 (1860) 180–184, here 183.
╇ J.v.L., ‘De aanspreker’, in: De Nederlanden (The Hague 1841) 21–24.
╇ J. Boeke, ‘Gesprek over onze manier van begraven en rouwbetoonen’, VL (1846)
II, 209–241, here 223.
╇ Snoep, ‘Sterven en rouwen’, 10–11.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 36, documents relating to the death and burial of the par-
ents of Franciscus van Lanschot, Godefridus van Lanschot and Anna Potters, 1799.
╇ Le Francq van Berkhey, Natuurlyke Historie, 1859.
216 chapter five

with events such as funerals and births from the accounts. In addition,
some family archives – such as the Hubrechts’, for instance – include
lists of the names of those called on by the announcer and those
who received printed and handwritten mourning letters, marriage
announcements and birth announcements.13 Pieter Hubrecht’s accounts
book notes that in 1838 Hendrik Kokshoorn was paid five florins for
‘announcing the death of my beloved child’ Elisabeth Hubrecht, and
Gerrit Kokshoorn received three florins for ‘telling it abroad’.14 Births
were also announced, as Johannes le Francq van Berkhey described in
his anthropological study of the population of Holland: ‘People of note,
in the large cities, employ an announcer for this purpose; he then
makes the event known, dressed on this occasion merely decorously in
black, with white gloves, without his mourning dress, cloak or bands’.15
The birth of Paul Hubrecht on 29 November 1829 was announced to
fifteen people that same day, as his father’s list shows. The following
day, the announcer Hendrik Kokshoorn called on 155 of the Hubrechts’
acquaintances in Leiden, and another announcer informed thirty-
six households in neighbouring Leiderdorp of the happy event. All in
all, then, 206 people were informed of Paul’s birth by word of mouth
(this included both family members who lived locally and acquaint-
ances). The close relatives among them probably swiftly called to view
the new arrival.

Printed and written announcements

In addition to hiring the announcer, Pieter Hubrecht also sent written
birth announcements. According to the same list, Pieter wrote forty-
one of these letters, addressed to more distant family (uncles, aunts,
cousins, etc.) who lived further afield. The archives preserve thirty-five
letters of congratulations on the birth of Pieter’s firstborn son. These
were nearly all written by people who had received a written birth
announcement. A written birth announcement was thus expected to
be followed by a written response.
A further distinction was made when it came to announcements
of births, marriages and deaths: between entirely handwritten letters,
entirely printed letters, and printed letters in which the salutation

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 365 and 443.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 519, account book of Pieter Hubrecht 1838–1843, April 1838.
╇ Le Francq van Berkhey, Natuurlyke Historie, 1242–1243.
ceremonial correspondence217

(the name of the person addressed), and possibly the title (for which
blank spaces could be left) and the signature were written by hand.
Writing the names and addresses on printed marriage announcements
was quite an arduous task, as Betsy Steenlack discovered when she
helped her sister Octavie and the latter’s fiancé to do so: ‘we have to
hurry to get everything done before the post. Yesterday we wrote and
filled in the names, and that was already a pretty long session’.16
When Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine Steenlack got married
in September 1828, seventy-six distant relatives and acquaintances
received entirely printed letters, forty people received a letter with a
handwritten salutation and signature, and thirteen close relatives mer-
ited a completely handwritten letter. The newly-weds received fifty-six
letters of congratulations. The senders of these letters correspond with
the names on the list of those who were sent entirely handwritten wed-
ding invitations, or printed invitations with handwritten names. This
means that acquaintances who received entirely printed wedding invi-
tations were not required to respond, but that this was de rigueur if one
received a partially or entirely handwritten letter.
Letter-writing manuals and etiquette books did not prescribe
how one should deal with written and printed ceremonial letters; this
was apparently something one learned in practice. It was not always
exactly clear what etiquette demanded. Jan Hora Siccama, for instance,
was not entirely sure whom he should inform of his intended marriage.
When sending the wedding invitation to his brother Otto, he com-
mented: ‘We’re sending you this letter two days before we post the
remaining sixty. For nobody here seems to be able to tell us whether,
in my capacity as clerk of a national administration, I am also required
to inform the king and princes, the Prince of Orange and Prince
Frederik – of intended marriage’.17 A year later, Otto consulted his
brother Jan, who was now experienced in the matter of sending wed-
ding invitations: ‘Finally, I would indeed like a model of your letter of
announcement, as well as the list of people they should be sent to, stat-
ing which should be entirely handwritten, which just signed, and which
entirely printed’.18

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 420, Betsy Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine

Hubrecht-Steenlack, 5 June 1846.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 74, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 24 April 1840.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 25 September
218 chapter five

Notices in the newspaper

In addition to printed and handwritten announcements of births,
marriages and deaths, notices in the newspaper could also serve as a
manner of informing people. On the death of his wife in 1849, for
instance, Pieter Hubrecht placed a death notice in the local paper, De
Leydsche Courant, which cost him 4.30 florins. He also spent 9.50 flor-
ins on 110 folio-sized mourning letters, and had 244 mourning letters
Notices in the newspaper had been used to announce births, mar-
riages and deaths from 1793.20 From the second half of the eighteenth
century it was customary in the higher echelons to have mourning let-
ters and wedding invitations printed. However, due to the high costs of
printing and postage, at the end of the eighteenth century people began
to resort to notices in the newspaper, which were considerably cheaper.
For the government, the printing of such notices meant a reduction in
the income derived from postal services. This prompted the Provincial
Government of Holland to levy a tax on all birth, marriage, and death
notices: 1 florin for a birth, 2 florins for a death, and 3 florins for a mar-
riage announcement.21 However, this tax did not lead to a decline in the
number of such notices.22
Death notices were inserted to inform people who would not receive
personal notification that a death had taken place. Such notices were
not intended as an invitation to the funeral, as there was not enough
time between the publication of the notice and the burial ceremony to
allow somebody to make the journey.23 Nevertheless, sometimes a
notice in the newspaper conveyed the news of a death more quickly
than a letter. Just as Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye-van de
Poll was reading a letter from her friend Julie saying that an acquaint-
ance had not yet died, her aunt read the announcement of his death in
the paper.24 It also happened that family members had heard the news

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 342, documents relating to the death and burial of A.A.L.
Hubrecht-Steenlack, 1849.
╇P.D. ‘t Hart, ‘De eerste overlijdensadvertenties in de Nederlandse kranten’,
Jaarboek van het Centraal Bureau voor Genealogie 37 (1983) 243–269, here 251.
╇ Publication of the Provincial Government of Holland, 1797. Quoted in Rignalda,
Hoofdtrekken, 108–109.
╇Franke, De dood, 26.
╇Ibid., 29.
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 69V, Sophia Schimmelpenninck van der Oye-van de Poll-
van Rhemen to Julie d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, 25 September 1824.
ceremonial correspondence219

on the grapevine before they received their official announcement, as

in the case of a birth, for instance: ‘Yesterday evening we heard the joy-
ous news that our dear sister had been happily and safely brought
to bed of a healthy son, and today we received the ceremonial announce-
ment thereof; for both which swift communications our heartfelt
A notice in the paper could be less expensive than having a death
announced by an announcer. Thus when Pieter van Lelyveld’s second
wife was on her deathbed in Leiden, his brother-in-law Rudolf Mees,
who lived in Rotterdam, asked in advance ‘please let me know, when
it comes to announcing the death, whether apart from my children
there are any others here whom you would like me to send my servant
to inform, and whether this is also to be carried out generally by
announcers’.26 When on 17 March 1806, two days later, the lady did die,
Rudolf Mees only had his servant deliver the message of her death to
his own relatives in Rotterdam: ‘We have had the announcement made
to our closest relatives by our servant in our own name, and will leave
it at that, since it is your intention to place a notice in the paper, and a
general announcement can be rather a cumbersome and costly busi-
ness here’.27
Some acquaintances only heard about the death through the news-
paper. This meant that the families in question were no longer in regu-
lar correspondence. In such cases, a letter of condolence had to be
prefaced by an apology:
Although we are no longer accustomed to write letters of communication
[…], bound by mutual love and friendship I hope you will not take it
amiss that I have taken the liberty to write this letter, since due to the
relations between our families our forefathers (as I am well aware) always
maintained sincere friendship to the death. […] it would be agreeable to
me to continue the same.28
It was not customary to send a letter of condolence if the writer had
heard of the death through the paper or had received a printed mourn-
ing letter. A cousin of Pieter Hubrecht’s acknowledged: ‘etiquette may

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1163, A. Mees and Hester Mees-van Staphorst to Pieter van
Lelyveld and his parents, 17 February 1765.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1177, Rudolf Mees to Pieter van Lelyveld, 15 March 1806.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 1168, Rudolf Mees and Sara Mees-van Lelyveld to Pieter van
Lelyveld, 17 March 1806.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 236, G. van Hoogeveen to Paul Hubrecht sr., 30 April 1809.
220 chapter five

perhaps absolve me from replying to your announcement, but I cannot

refrain from sending you a few lines on so deeply sad an event’.29
Mr Matthes, the proprietor of the boarding school attended by
Ambrosius Hubrecht, and with whom Ambrosius even lodged, reacted
in the same way on learning of the death of his former pupil through a
printed mourning letter. ‘Although etiquette absolves me of the obliga-
tion to answer your sad letter, my heart feels the need to address a few
words to you, sir, on the occasion of the sad loss you have suffered’.30

Proper convention
Sometimes correspondents hesitated about what the proper conven-
tion was. In a letter to his mother, Otto Hora Siccama claimed that in
1841 it was falling out of fashion to write letters to announce both the
intended marriage and the solemnization of matrimony:
I planned not to announce our intention to marry, but merely the mar-
riage itself in the paper – since here the writing of letters of communica-
tion is rather falling out of fashion. I deliberated about it somewhat, whilst
on my bride’s side there are no relatives to whom they need to be
addressed, so that it is scarcely worth the trouble to get them printed: […]
why should I make all those unknown cousins stump up the postage?31
Printing was evidently an expensive matter in small quantities; moreo-
ver, sending marriage announcements put the recipients to expense. In
another letter, Otto complained to his brother Jan that he had to pay so
much money for the letters of congratulation he received after his wife
Pietje gave birth to their first child.32 He obviously never got used to it,
because after their second child was born, Otto grumbled about the
strain of sending birth announcements: ‘Understandably tired as I am
from the abundant writing of letters and notes […], consider that I am
entirely on my own in all this, and on Pietje’s side there are also
many uncles and aunts who must have letters, and you will perhaps
understand why I have drawn a line at all the possible cousins etc.’.33

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 443, E.A. Mees to Pieter Hubrecht, 11 December 1849.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 444, Matthes to Pieter Hubrecht, 14 January 1853. Inv. no. 342
shows that after the death of Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack Matthes received a
printed mourning letter, so this was probably also the case after the death of Ambrosius
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 45, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 10
October 1841.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 6 November 1846.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 9 August 1842.
ceremonial correspondence221

Five years earlier, Otto had grumbled to his other brother, Louis, that
receiving congratulations on the occasion of his marriage had cost him
so much money, and answering them so much time.34
Communication by word of mouth via relatives was another possi-
bility. Thus Otto Hora Siccama promised his brother Louis, who had
just become a father, that he would pass on the news to one of their
uncles: ‘I shall call on Uncle B., who is indisposed, and tell him of your
fatherhood; and since he is in regular correspondence with Uncle and
Aunt, I shall ask him to tell them of it on your behalf: I see no reason
for a separate communication. Neither Uncle or Aunt is punctilious in
such matters, so you can save them the postage and yourself the letter-
writing.35 The aunt and uncle in question would apparently not be
offended to be informed of the birth in the family by way of another
relative, even though their family connection should really entitle them
to expect a written communication from the proud parents themselves.
This could indeed be otherwise. Paul Hubrecht had received a printed
letter to inform him of the death of his aunt Antonia. He had expected
a more personal, handwritten letter, and viewed the printed letter as
lacking in feeling. He complained about this to his father, who answered:
the letter of communication about Aunt Antonia’s death affected you […]
So much has been said and written about those letters already, and I will
tell you plainly that I had no opportunity, no time to get that message to
you in any other way. It was agreed and decided to inform everybody in
this way, so that the people concerned would not find out through the
newspapers. […] For with all those letters and all those deliveries it was
impossible for me to write individual letters; I have frequently received
letters with the names printed, which I answered, since I viewed the com-
munication as a sign of friendship and not as a cold mourning letter.36
Other correspondents felt mildly offended if they heard of an intended
marriage via a letter from a third party, as happened to a friend of HenÂ�
drik Oomen’s: ‘Nothing could be pleasanter to me than to hear from a
letter from Wesselman to NONNE that you are shortly to embrace the
matrimonial state: truly this was great news to me, of which I would
perhaps have expected to be apprised by a letter from you yourself ’.37
The matter of whether important news was communicated by word of

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 3 October

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis Hora Siccama, 16 July 1837.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, Pieter Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht jr., 23 November 1852.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1320, J. Valentijns to Hendrik Oomen, 2 February 1802.
222 chapter five

mouth, or by a printed or handwritten letter could have deeper signifi-

cance, therefore: it revealed something about the state of the relation-
ship between the sender and the recipient.

Criticism of ceremonial correspondence: mourning letters

The choice of whether to announce births, marriages of deaths in hand-
written or printed letters was a means of marking out the boundaries of
intimacy within the circle of family and friends. The distinction
between printing and writing could also reflect class differences. Thus
an anonymous commentator writing in De Denker (The Thinker) in
1774 expressed the opinion that sending printed mourning letters was
a bourgeois habit: ‘As you know, when bourgeois people die, mourning
letters are printed; bourgeois people, I say, since this excludes the nobil-
ity, who, since printing is now so common, have these things written by
hand’.38 In his view, then, members of the nobility used writing as a
means of distinction, a way to distance themselves from the bourgeois
custom of printing.
In the dictionary M. Noël Chomel published in 1792, he made a dis-
tinction not between the middle classes and the nobility, but between
the middle and lower classes. In his view, all ‘decent’ people wrote
mourning letters; ‘the lowly people do not yet share in this splendour’.39
Le Francq van Berkhey, on the other hand, believed that ‘less wealthy
people’ produced these letters ‘in mere hand-writing’ because they
could not afford to print them.40
Though their interpretations differ, these late eighteenth-century
critics all view the approach to mourning letters as a means of distinc-
tion. The lower classes did not write mourning letters at all, or had no
choice but to write them by hand because printing was too expensive.
The middle classes sent a great many, and because they tended to print
them, the nobility apparently reacted to this by resorting to handwrit-
ten mourning letters to distinguish themselves. Since my research is
confined to the higher classes, I cannot draw a comparison with the
habits of the lower classes in sending mourning letters. I could find no
evidence, either, of a difference between the nobility and the middle
classes. This is perhaps partly because the archives preserve fewer

╇Anonymous, De Denker 11 (Amsterdam 1774) 273–278.
╇M. Noël Chomel, Algemeen huishoudelyk, natuur-, zedekundig- en konstwoorden-
boek. Vol. 8 (Amsterdam 1792) 5877–5880.
╇ Le Francq van Berkhey, Natuurlyke Historie, 1859.
ceremonial correspondence223

mourning letters from the eighteenth than the nineteenth century;

moreover, the archives of the De Constant Rebecque family, the only
family of the nobility studied here, contains few mourning letters of
any kind, and none from the end of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless,
it is important to note that the difference between having ceremonial
letters printed or writing them by hand could be viewed as an expres-
sion of class. Herman Franke has concluded, furthermore, that in the
first half of the nineteenth century the nobility aimed to distinguish
themselves from other social groups by publishing very sober, solemn
death notices. This would be imitated by the lower classes in the period
from 1855 to 1865. Franke’s impression is that ‘precisely when the
wearing of outward signs of mourning and cultivating specific precepts
regarding mourning became commonplace among wider sections of
the population, members of the upper classes began to distance them-
selves from this’.41
The late-eighteenth-century commentators quoted above also
express criticism of the habit of sending mourning letters. The world
and his wife is sent a mourning letter, they say, even people one has just
bumped into by chance along the way. Under the heading ‘rouwbrief ’
(mourning letter), Chomel dismissed sending such letters as a ridicu-
lous and expensive habit. Although, in his view, mourning letters had
been rendered obsolete by the advent of the newspapers, everybody
continued to send ‘corpse letters’, boasting about the number sent,
which showed how extensive one’s circle of acquaintances was. Chomel
advocated doing away with mourning letters: that way the costs for
both the sender and the recipients – who, after all, had to pay to receive
the letter – would not run so high. Chomel also found the contents of
mourning letters hypocritical.42 Other authors, too, criticized such let-
ters for their lack of solemnity and sincerity.43

Criticism of ceremonial correspondence: New Year letters

In the nineteenth century, various authors expressed criticism regard-
ing the practice of sending best wishes for the New Year. In 1805, Arend
Fokke Simonsz. remarked that New Year greetings were a sorry shadow
of what they had once been:

╇Franke, De dood, 49, 62.


╇Chomel, Algemeen huishoudelyk, natuur-, zedekundig- en konstwoordenboek,


╇ ‘t Hart, ‘De eerste overlijdensadvertenties’, 249.
224 chapter five

It is thus clear as day that this habit of wishing people a happy New Year
is becoming more and more an irritating, meaningless, yet considerably
expensive formality which, certainly in this enlightened age, should
either be abolished entirely, or at least instituted in an entirely different
way among decent people and people of taste.44
According to Fokke Simonsz., the elite had begun to realize how mean-
ingless the New Year letters had become, and had started sending one
another cards bearing only a name. He suggested replacing these cards
with printed letters with best wishes for the New Year.
The author of a letter-writing manual published in 1811 also took a
dim view of New Year letters: ‘the cowardly nonsense of a New Year
letter inspires the greatest aversion; may the duties of this ceremony
not become too rigid’.45 When Landré came to write a letter-writing
manual in 1839, he expected to be criticized for devoting too much
attention to ceremonial letters. He gave the excuse that many still con-
sidered such letters to be ‘an important duty’.46 Although ceremonial
letters were thus still exchanged in great numbers, evidently some peo-
ple had reservations about them. We find these objections again in an
etiquette book written two years later, in which the habit of leaving
calling cards on New Year’s Day was alluded to as a ‘meaningless
reminder’ that certainly did not merit a return visit. It was sufficient to
reciprocate by sending one’s own card.47
Whilst cards at New Year were initially a substitute for calling, they
had gradually become a meaningless end in themselves. For this rea-
son, the author of another etiquette book, published in 1855, feared
that bringing round cards on New Year’s Day might be impolite: ‘One
should equally not take this leaving of cards, especially on New Year’s
Day and suchlike, too far, since etiquette demands that the person who
receives a card leave one in return. Thus by forcing them to do so, an
excess of politeness would actually end up making us impolite’.48
The custom of leaving cards at New Year seems to have declined by
the end of the nineteenth century, to judge from a passage in an eti-
quette book by Engelberts:

╇ A. Fokke Simonsz., ‘Ontwerp van een nieuw formulier van nieuwjaarswensen’,
AVL (1805) II, 695–700, here 695–696.
╇Anonymous, De keizerlijke secretaris, 141.
╇Landré, Verzameling van brieven, x–xi.
╇J.V.D.L., De wellevendheid, 83–84.
╇Van der Aa, Lessen over de wellevendheid, 68.
ceremonial correspondence225

Genuine New Year letters are written only to blood relations or close
friends. For the rest, it is sufficient to send one’s calling card, and this is
done to one’s whole circle of friends and acquaintances. However, it is not
all too great an omission if one does not send calling cards. This custom
is no longer as widespread as it once was.49
Mrs Van Rijnkerke-Olthuis, writing an etiquette book in the late
nineteenth century, believes she has observed a new development,
For some years now it has been the fashion to send special New Year
cards with elaborate flowers or other drawings. However, since this fash-
ion is becoming so common that even servants are sending pretty cards,
one has to resort to extremely expensive and unusual ones if one wishes
not to resemble them. For this reason, we believe that this fashion will
not last long, and will certainly not become a firm custom.50
The above quotation again reveals the urge of the elite to stand out: as
soon as their inferiors began to imitate a given habit – in this case send-
ing ornate New Year cards – the upper classes had to think of some
other way to be distinctive. Ceremonial letters seem to have been a way
to articulate social distinctions.

The content of ceremonial letters

As we have seen, then, the form of a ceremonial communication –

whether it was printed or written – served as a means for the elite both
to distinguish themselves from other classes and to indicate a hierarchy
of intimacy within their own class and their circle of family and
acquaintance. The contents of the various types of congratulatory let-
ters, which were often virtually identical, could also help to reinforce
family or group ties by alluding to shared values.

Birthday greetings
Birthday greetings were not simply a matter of wishing the person in
question a happy day. The aim of these ceremonial letters was to pause
for a moment, to dwell on the meaning of life and to give thanks to
God. Abrahamine Steenlack expressed precisely these sentiments in
congratulating her fiancé on his birthday:

╇Engelberts, De goede toon, 336.
╇Van Rijnkerke-Olthuis, De vrouw, 187.
226 chapter five

The occasion of this day, when a new year is about to begin for you,
prompts me to address you my felicitations; may the dear Lord add many
years of happiness to the year which has just passed, and pour out on you
His richest blessings. Although I do not much care for birthdays or name
days, I nevertheless believe that they can be very beneficial. They are
junctures in human life when one pauses for a moment, or returns for a
moment to the past, and notes how much time one has lost, or even mis-
spent; this leads to contemplation and to good resolutions for the future.51
Victor de Constant Rebecque, too, philosophized about the function of
birthday greetings on his father’s birthday:
A birthday, or rather its celebration, is not about quickly conceiving
and expressing a wish. Rather, this is the moment when one expresses
the wishes of the whole year, and a moment of calm in life to think about
the past, and thence to prepare for the future. God hears my wishes for
In a birthday greeting, the sender reviewed the happinesses of the past
year of the recipient’s life and thanked God for sparing both of them.
He or she wished the recipient good health and yet more blessings
for himself and his family, as well as a ‘useful and industrious life in
society’ (for men). Furthermore, the writer did not fail to mention eter-
nal life, since every birthday was a step closer to the day of joyful reun-
ion with the Heavenly Father and departed loved ones. This strikes the
twenty-first-century reader as somewhat morbid. Thus Pieter Hubrecht,
on reaching his fortieth birthday in excellent health, received the
following wishes: ‘God grant you […] all that you need to stride forth
and fight the good fight, and to await the end calmly and with presence
of mind.53
Evaluating the year just past and anticipating death and the life to
come are core elements of birthday greetings. Additional sentences
often express the hope that the recipient may enjoy the company of his
or her spouse and children (‘domestic happiness’) for many years to
come, as well as the wish that children may grow up to be decent and
useful people, a joy (‘jewel’) to their parents, and that they may be a
support to their parents when the latter reach old age. Generally the

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 408, Abrahamine Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 17 January
╇ NA, FADCR, inv. no. 65A, Victor de Constant Rebecque to Charles de Constant
Rebecque, 15 September 1857.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 407, Jaqueline Guye-Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 17 January
ceremonial correspondence227

birthday greeting, like so many other letters, concludes by commend-

ing the sender to the friendship of the recipient.
Several of these elements can be found in all birthday greetings, but
Protestants generally devoted a greater part of their birthday letters to
religious matters. The Protestant Hubrecht and De Constant Rebecque
families, especially, were inclined to take a birthday as an occasion to
reflect about religion, individual conscience, death and the life to come,
whereas the Roman Catholic Van Lanschots concentrated on the
immediate future and one’s fellow men.

Marriage congratulations
Letters of congratulation on a marriage generally invoked blessings on
the couple. The sender hoped that the newly wed couple would experi-
ence ‘domestic contentment’ for ‘many years to come’, well ‘into old
age’; he or she ‘shared in their joy’. In addition to expressing thanks for
‘the honour of receiving the communication’, the letter of congratula-
tion again generally concluded with a commendation in friendship.
Several terms from the marriage announcement, such as the ‘legal per-
mission of the respective parents’ were repeated.
In comparison with birthday greetings, which often also included
other news, letters of congratulation on a marriage were short. Senders
apologized for writing too much, and especially for being self-centred.
One person who congratulated Pieter Hubrecht on his marriage, for
example, was apologetic: ‘It is my wish that your marriage will be an
abundant source of domestic contentment for both you and your dear
wife, and, if I may be permitted to express myself so selfishly, that the
happiness which I have so abundantly enjoyed with my own wife will
also be granted to you both in the same measure’.54
As was noted above, egocentricity was to be avoided in correspond-
ence, and this applied also – or perhaps particularly – to ceremonial
correspondence. A similar taboo forbade alluding to future progeny in
marriage congratulations. Although Geerling, whose letter-writing
manual was published in 1838, explicitly stated that it was permissible
to express the hope that the recent marriage would be blessed with
children, he seems to have been an exception in the nineteenth
c� entury.55 Whereas eighteenth-century marriage poems and letters of

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 336, unknown sender to Pieter Hubrecht, 13 September 1828.
╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, 186.
228 chapter five

congratulation frequently alluded to future offspring, often humor-
ously, in the nineteenth century the subject was mentioned in increas-
ingly euphemistic terms or simply omitted. A festive poem from 1792
contains the lines: ‘And you, my dearest sister bride, when May comes
back again, he will find you at the cradle, singing to the babe therein’.56
A few nineteenth-century correspondents did still hint at the arrival of
children,57 but this element was increasingly omitted altogether or cir-
cumscribed in terms such as ‘all the delights […] that the very happiest
of marriages may bring’.58 In the same way that pregnancy came to be
referred to only in roundabout terms in nineteenth-century letters, the
gradual disappearance of explicit references to children in letters
expressing marriage congratulations is a further sign of society becom-
ing more prudish.

Birth congratulations
The archives of the Hubrecht family include both printed birth
announce� ments and printed birth congratulations. The printed
announcements date from between 1768 and 1794; the date of the
printed congratulations is 1765. Since I did not come across any printed
birth congratulation letters from the nineteenth century, it would seem
that printing such letters was a passing fashion in the late eighteenth
century. In the second half of the nineteenth century, telegrams were
sometimes used to inform people of a birth. Telegrams enforced con-
ciseness, as Pieter Hubrecht wrote in 1853, after the birth of his grand-
son: ‘these telegraphic dispatches are pleasant for the sake of speed, but
leave many questions unsatisfied’.59
The fact that there were also printed birth congratulation cards, with
blank fields in which the writer only had to fill in the titles and name of
the recipient, and the child’s sex and date of birth, shows how standard

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 32, celebration poems on the occasion of the marriage of
Franciscus van Lanschot and Jacoba van Rijckevorsel, 1792. See also A. Nieuweboer,
‘Medeleven volgens voorschrift en verzen op bestelling. Achttiende-eeuwse gelegen-
heidsgedichten’, Literatuur 3 (1986) 15–22, here 20.
╇ ‘have the privilege that has not befallen us/ to have children who will enhance life
for you and who may grow up to be a joy to you and to be the perfection of your hap-
piness and virtues.’ RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 138, Van Ryckevorsel and T.M. van
Ryckevorsel-van Lanschot to Augustinus van Lanschot and Maria Oomen, 7 May 1832.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 336, A.G. Boetzelaer to Pieter Hubrecht, 15 September
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 433, Pieter Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht and Marie Hubrecht-
Pruys van der Hoeven, 4 March 1853.
ceremonial correspondence229

the contents of these types of letters were. A typical letter of congratula-

tion on a birth (though this time written by hand) might read:
Dearest nephew!
With thanks for your communication of the happy confinement of your
beloved wife, our dear niece, we heartily wish that the newborn child
may prosper and grow up to the honour of his creator, the good of soci-
ety, and the joy of his parents and grandparents, and that, after a felicitous
lying-in, the new mother may swiftly be restored to the fullness of her
Commending ourselves mutually to your friendship, we have the hon-
our, dearest nephew, of addressing you with the greatest of respect, your
most humble servants Ad. Mees [and] C.E. Mees née Van Oordt.60
The essential elements here are the congratulations on the birth and the
propitious confinement, as well as the hope that the new mother will
make a swift recovery. Almost always the sender also adds the wish that
the child may grow up to be a joy to his parents (and other members of
the family), sometimes to the greater glory of God and the greater good
of society. Many express their thanks for the honour of receiving the
communication, and most explicitly commend themselves to the
friendship of the recipient. Moreover, many ask to be kept informed. It
was probably customary for the birth announcement to be followed by
further letters reporting on the health of the mother and child, though
I did not come across any examples.
The good wishes on the birth of a daughter differ slightly from those
on the birth of a son. A son has higher expectations to live up to. Of
course it is only if he has a son that the father is congratulated on the
birth of an heir, and the hope is expressed that the child will contribute
to the ‘glory of the line’. But in letters of congratulation on the birth of
a son one also comes across sentences such as ‘may the child grow up
to make a worthy contribution to society’. This aspect is not mentioned
in printed unisex birth congratulation cards, since it only applies to
boys. The phrase ‘to be a joy to the child’s parents’ also occurs less fre-
quently in relation to daughters. This is not by any means to say that
people were not overjoyed with the birth of a daughter. Quite the con-
trary. When Pieter Hubrecht’s second son was born, several relatives
and acquaintances wondered whether he and his wife were perhaps a
little disappointed. And most parents were particularly delighted if

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 422, Ad. Mees and C.E. Mees-van Oordt to Pieter Hubrecht,
1 December 1829.
230 chapter five

their (second or subsequent) child was a daughter.61 The ideal was evi-
dently a family with both sons and daughters.

New Year letters

New Year greetings, like birthday greetings, had the function of paus-
ing to reflect with gratitude on the year just past, as Cornélie SteenÂ�
lack put it: ‘on such occasions it is customary to wish people happiness
and to cast a grateful glance on the past’.62 A New Year letter consisted
of wishing the recipient God’s most generous blessings, contemplating
the year just past, expressing gratitude for blessings received, and finally
affirming the bonds of friendship for the year to come. The priest
Father Oomen, in thanking his sister-in-law Elisabeth Oomen for
her New Year letter, acknowledged the ‘uplifting’ function of such
I was not a little uplifted by your letter of the day before yesterday, in
which my sister, though younger in years, contemplates the newly com-
menced year as though it were the last of her life. This is truly what we
should think, in this way liberating ourselves for the eternal life to come.
If we act in this way, the year that has just commenced will be blessed
for us.63
Incidentally, this New Year letter from the archives of the Roman
Catholic Van Lanschot family is an exception. Most of the New Year
greetings from Roman Catholics were a great deal shorter and less
pious, and were generally part of a longer letter containing other news.
Catholics often limited themselves to wishing the recipient health and
happiness in a postscript. New Year letters from children, on the other
hand, seldom contained other news. This gives them a more ceremo-
nial quality than those written by adults.
Finally, one should mention that individual families might have their
own conventions regarding writing at New Year. At the age of eleven, Jan
Willem de Constant Rebecque commented, for instance: ‘I recently
received a letter from Isard, but how do you think his letter concluded?
Every health and blessing for the N.Y. etc. etc. You can imagine how

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1304, Augustinus van Lanschot to Elisabeth Oomen-
Ingen-Housz, n.d. [1837].
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 443, Cornélie Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 30 December
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 1338, Antonius Oomen to Elisabeth Oomen-Ingen-Housz,
7 January 1836.
ceremonial correspondence231

boring we found this at home.’64 Evidently the De Constant Rebecques

did not appreciate clichéd New Year greetings.

Outward conventions for printed mourning letters and letters of

Letters of condolence occupy a place of their own within the genre of
ceremonial correspondence. Although the function of this sort of letter
has a certain amount in common with letters of congratulation and
New Year letters – i.e. conveying and confirming middle-class norms
and values (socialization), and consolidating relationships – the pri-
mary purpose of letters of condolence is to comfort the recipient.
Letters of condolence were often a response to a mourning letter or
printed letter notifying people of a death.
Mourning letters, notifying people of a death, almost always had a
black border. However, not all letters of condolence were written on
black-edged paper. Many people used white or light blue paper for such
letters. If mourning letters or letters of condolence had a black border
and were sealed with black wax, one could see well in advance that the
letter concerned a sad event. The recipient of a letter might get a terri-
ble shock on seeing a black seal. When Pietje van Capellen received a
packet from her fiancé that was sealed with black wax, without this
having anything to do with a death, she begged him in future only ever
to use a black seal in the case of a bereavement.65
Not only mourning letters and letters of condolence were usually
black-edged; the daily correspondence of the deceased’s family was also
supposed to have black borders to display mourning. For this reason,
Otto Hora Siccama apologized, after his father’s death in March 1827,
that he did not have any mourning paper to hand when writing a letter
to his mother.66 There were also conventions governing the breadth of
the black border on mourning paper. The border was to become nar-
rower as the period of mourning progressed. As with mourning dress,
where gradually certain elements could be omitted, or replaced with
shades of grey, the outward characteristics of mourning also became
less pronounced as time went on. After Otto Hora Siccama’s father

╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120C, Jan Willem de Constant Rebecque to Victor de

Constant Rebecque, 9 January 1853.

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 98, Pietje van Capellen to Otto Hora Siccama, 16 October 1840.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck, 16 April
232 chapter five

died, Otto’s letters had black borders until December of that year. His
mother, on the other hand, continued to use black-edged writing paper
for her letters until February 1829. It was customary for a widow to
show mourning for longer than a son, both in clothing and in other
areas of life. It was not always easy to keep to these rules, as Otto wrote
to his mother: ‘I have written to De Bas to send me some writing paper
with broad borders; here it is impossible to get it any wider than this,
and it is extremely expensive even then. – I am only telling you this so
that you will not take it amiss that I am not meeting the requirements
in this matter’.67
The other way around, correspondents sometimes resorted to
mourn�ing paper if they had no other paper to hand, as did Jan Hora
Siccama: ‘Why the paper with black borders? Your question is as sim-
ple as my answer: “I had none other to hand.” When I think about it,
this display of mourning is not entirely inappropriate. According to a
letter that we received yesterday, our respected cousin Benier passed
away in Makassar on 5th May’.68 Since the death rate in the nine-
teenth century was fairly high, it frequently happened that people used
black-edged writing paper for their daily correspondence for years on
end: every time the end of mourning was in sight, another family mem-
ber succumbed, so they had to resort to black-edged paper yet again.
Here too there is a parallel with clothing: old women in the nine-
teenth century were sometimes permanently dressed in black, because
by the time the period of mourning for one relative elapsed, another
had died.
The rule that the black borders on writing paper should become nar-
rower as time passed by was stated in a few etiquette books,69 but most
did not mention it. Like choosing between printed and handwritten
letters, this was a part of the etiquette that had to be picked up in prac-
tice. For this reason, a bereavement often prompted a lively exchange of
letters about the right mourning customs, such as the duration of
mourning and the specific materials and colours permissible for
mourning dress.70

╇NA, CHS, inv. no. 44, Otto Hora Siccama to Amelie Hora Siccama-Falck,
11 March 1827.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 72, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 24 October 1829.
╇Van der Woude, Vormen, 233.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 231, Pauline van Lanschot-van der Kun to Theodora van
Lanschot, 15 March 1839. NA, FAVS, inv. no. 157, Sara van Schinne-van Ruster to
Catharina van Schinne, 5 December 1774.
ceremonial correspondence233

The content of printed mourning letters and letters of condolence

Not only the outward appearance of mourning letters and letters of
condolence was subject to rules; this also held for the contents. At the
end of the eighteenth century, Le Francq van Berkhey had this to say
about mourning letters: ‘These days one can buy customized letters for
this purpose at booksellers’ shops; but in the majority of cases the
bereaved compose a letter themselves, which they then have printed on
black-edged paper’.71 The mere fact that pre-printed mourning letters
were available to buy suggests that the content of such letters was fairly
Although many mourning letters resemble one another, the content
did also vary from one period to another. Sturkenboom has noted that
printed mourning letters in the second half of the eighteenth century
were personal and emotional in nature. From the mid-nineteenth cen-
tury, printed mourning letters changed from ‘extensive, emotional
announcements to short notifications of a sober nature’.72 One example
of a standard printed mourning letter is the following, from the
Hubrecht family archives, dating from 1847. The body of the letter is
printed, but the salutation, address, and concluding sentence were
added by hand:
Honourable Lady! Dearest cousin!
It is my sad duty to inform you, honourable lady, that it has pleased
Almighty God today to bring to an end the life of my beloved husband,
the honourable Meester Cornelis Constantijn van Valkenburg, Former
Alderman and Director of the Post Office in Haarlem.
He passed away after a slow decline in strength, at the advanced age of
eighty-three years, after a happy marriage of over thirty-three years.
Deeply saddened by this loss, so irreparable for me, my children,
children in law and other relations, I hope, in grateful reverence to
the all-knowing and beneficent Heavenly Father for all the bless-
ings enjoyed by the deceased, to mourn his death with Christian forti-
tude, trusting, through the merits of our Lord and Saviour, that he has
entered into everlasting glory and that for this reason for him to die is
Firm in my conviction that you will share in my loss, I wish that you,
honourable lady, may long be spared from sad losses.

╇ Francq de Berkhey, Natuurlyke Historie, 1859.


╇D. Sturkenboom, ‘â•›“…want ware zielesmart is niet woordenrijk”. Veranderende


gevoelscodes voor nabestaanden 1750–1988’, in: A. van der Zeijden ed., CultuurÂ�
geschiedenis van de dood (Amsterdam 1990) 84–113, here 98.
234 chapter five

I have the honour, honourable lady, dearest cousin, respectfully to

address you as your grieving honourable servant, C.J. van Heeckeren
Wuise, widow Van Valkenburg.73
The opening sentence of a printed mourning letter always stated that it
had pleased God to take a member of the family. Then the age of the
deceased and the illness of which he or she had died were given in
detail. As the nineteenth century progressed, mourning letters or let-
ters of condolence gave fewer and fewer details about the deceased’s
last illness. Thus a letter-writing manual published in 1806 advised
mentioning ‘the nature of the illness (in just a few words)’.74 Franke
notes that in death notices from 1815 onwards there is also increasingly
little detail concerning an illness or cause of death.75 In addition, a
man’s profession was often stated, and the duration of a marriage. If the
deceased was married, it was standard to refer to him or her as ‘my
dearly beloved spouse’ and to the marriage as ‘the happiest of unions’.
Sometimes this was followed by a sentence typifying the character of
the deceased. Then came the reasons for consolation. At the end of the
eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, these were pri-
marily religious: the deceased had ‘exchanged this temporal life for
eternal life’ and was now blessed in heaven, where the family hoped
eventually to be reunited with him or her again. In the course of the
nineteenth century, the sentiment was added that the memory of the
many good and loving gifts of the deceased also brought comfort. It
seems as though the consolation of a happier existence in the life to
come was gradually replaced by this consolation of keeping the mem-
ory alive, but also by the emphasis on a ‘gentle and peaceful’ departing,
which appeared in printed mourning letters from about 1840. This is in
line with the image presented by Pat Jalland on the basis of British
accounts of people dying written by the bereaved. Jalland observes that
in the late Victorian period the ideal of the deathbed shifted from con-
cern about the state of the dying person’s soul to an emphasis on a
death free of physical suffering.76
Not only was a ‘gentle death’ important in printed mourning let-
ters; the dying person was also praised if he or she faced death with

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 194, printed mourning letter from C.J. van Valkenburg-van
Heeckeren to Antonia Hubrecht, 26 January 1847.
╇ Anonymous, ‘Voorschriften tot het opstellen en schrijven van brieven’, 21.
╇Franke, De dood, 33–38.
╇ P. Jalland, Death in the Victorian family (Oxford 1996) 52.
ceremonial correspondence235

fortitude. The bereaved relatives who composed the mourning letter,

for their part, stated their intention to bear their loss with Christian
Accepting God’s will also entailed keeping one’s emotions in check.
Sturkenboom has studied both mourning letters and letters of condo-
lence from the point of view of expressing emotions. She concludes
that in the second half of the eighteenth century, the bereaved wished
to express both ‘impassioned mourning’ and ‘devout acceptance’, which
resulted in lengthy and emotional letters of condolence. The Romantics
placed less and less emphasis on the necessity for self-control, and
there was more room for grief. The words of consolation were less
admonitory in tone, and placed a greater emphasis on the sender shar-
ing in the grief of the bereaved. From the second half of the nineteenth
century, curbing emotions played a more central role.77
Both the letter-writing manuals and the letters in the archives con-
firm this general tendency.78 At the end of the eighteenth century, the
letters of condolence in the family archives did indeed reveal both
strong emotions and the wish to control them. In the nineteenth-cen-
tury letters, feelings were given a place, as Henriëtte Steenlack explic-
itly stated:
Do not be ashamed to let your tears flow, for after all we may indeed weep
on the graves of our dear departed, […] but do also recognize that the
dear child is better looked after above, that it will be brought up better
there with Jesus than you could have done here below, with the best will
in the world. […] so weep not as those without hope.79
Her sister Betsy took the same view: ‘oh how fortunate the person who
can be at the same time deeply feeling, resigned and accepting’.80
The consolations proffered did not change much in the period from
1770 to 1850. Several correspondents did show an awareness of the
conventional nature of these consolatory words. Paul Hubrecht, for
instance, wrote in a letter of condolence: ‘Just a few words to extend my
sympathy to you, as one customarily says after the senseless blow that

╇ Sturkenboom, ‘â•›“…want ware zielesmart’, 90–98.


╇ See, for instance, Anonymous, Nieuwe handleiding, 34. Van der Aa, Lessen over de

wellevendheid, 174.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 427, Henriëtte Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine
Hubrecht-Steenlack, 4 April 1838.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 427, Betsy Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht and Abrahamine
Hubrecht-Steenlack, 3 April 1838.
236 chapter five

has struck us all’.81 And on the death of his young daughter Maria,
Pieter Hubrecht received a letter of condolence from his good friend
Storm with the following words: ‘I need not remind you of the usual
and well-known consolations; you are familiar with them, and I am
glad to see from your letter that you recall them to one another’.82 He
then went on to sum up these conventional consolations regardless,
though in his own words.
Religion offered the most significant comfort. People wrote that
God’s wise decisions are sometimes beyond our mortal comprehen-
sion, but that He always has our best intentions at heart. After all,
whom the Lord loveth, he correcteth. Moreover, the dear departed was
now in heaven and thus happier than here on earth, where he or she
would perhaps have had to suffer a great deal more. Above all, however,
there was comfort in the thought of the reunion of the deceased with
already departed family members in heaven. According to Sturkenboom
and Jalland this comfort motif of the joyful reunion was a nineteenth-
century innovation: before that the emphasis was on the joy of being
reunited with God, rather than with loved ones who already dwelled in
the land of the blessed.83 However, I also came across a few late-eight-
eenth-century letters of condolence that mention the joyful reunion
with loved ones. A second consolation was the memory of the deceased.
This consolation seems to have been invoked more often as the nine-
teenth century progressed. A third comforting phrase often used is that
‘time heals all wounds’.84
Sturkenboom suggests that the end of the nineteenth century saw a
change when it came to the letter-writer expressing his or her own emo-
tions: letter-writing manuals and etiquette books at the time advised
against excessive displays of grief, suggesting eulogies about the life
and virtues of the deceased instead.85 As I pointed out in the first two
chapters above, criticism of egocentrism in everyday correspondence

╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Betsy and Cornélie Steenlack,
18 December 1849.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 440, W. Storm to Pieter Hubrecht, 28 June 1844.
╇ Sturkenboom, ‘â•›“…want ware zielesmart’, 95. Jalland, Death in the Victorian fam-
ily, 310.
╇Jalland, Death in the Victorian family, 315. According to Jalland, this consolation
was avoided in condolences in the early and mid-nineteenth century because at that
time the bereaved rejected the suggestion that they might ever forget the deceased.
Since only a few of the letters I studied mention this consolation, this seems a plausible
╇ Sturkenboom, ‘â•›“…want ware zielesmart’, 99.
ceremonial correspondence237

and in letters of congratulation is found in the advice literature before

this time. I did not find any explicit prohibitions against mentioning
one’s own feelings in letters of condolence. However, the letters in the
archives do show that even in the first half of the nineteenth century
some letter-writers felt it was more appropriate to keep themselves in
the background in letters of condolence, as a friend of Pieter Hubrecht’s
intimated in 1844: ‘I could write a great deal more about my brother –
about myself – but this letter should be devoted entirely to you and to
your circumstances’.86
It is conceivable that in addition to taking centre-stage, it was also
perceived to be impolite to discuss matters other than the bereavement
in a letter of condolence. The letter-writing manuals say little on this
subject. In practice, however, it is striking that, in both mourning let-
ters and letters of condolence, the response to the death of a child is
often combined with discussion of more general matters. Johan Steen�
lack, for instance, wrote to his brother-in-law Pieter Hubrecht that his
wife had had a fine delivery, but had given birth to a stillborn daughter.
Although this had not been entirely unexpected, he was nevertheless
disappointed. He did count himself fortunate and grateful that his wife
was in good health. He continued with an account of the ‘rheumatic
pain’ suffered by a family member, and congratulated Pieter on his son,
who had just completed his studies.87 A few decades later, one of Paul
Hubrecht’s cousins mentioned the death of his child in terms which to
our eyes seem excessively dismissive. In a letter about winding up an
inheritance, he mentioned in passing ‘since this week I again lost a
child; otherwise all is well, as I hope it is with you too’.88
Otto Hora Siccama, too, followed up his condolences to his sister
Angelique on the death of her child with a question about whether
another of her daughters could speak yet. Perhaps in our eyes this may
seem somewhat inappropriate, but in the second half of the eighteenth
century and the first half of the nineteenth century it was customary to
discuss other matters besides the bereavement. It also depended on the
age of the child who had died. When children died very young, shortly
after birth, for instance, letters of condolence were often short, and

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 440, W. Storm to Pieter Hubrecht, 28 June 1844.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 415, Johan Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 20 May 1850.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 314, Egbert Thesingh to Paul Hubrecht, 14 March 1873. See
also NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 13 January 1849
and RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 117, A.J. Ingen Housz to Augustinus van Lanschot and
Maria van Lanschot-Oomen, 14 October 1840.
238 chapter five

offered the consolation, apart from the fact that the child had probably
been spared much suffering and was now blessed in heaven, that at
least the mother still had her health. The high death rates for babies and
for women in childbirth thus had an influence on the content of mourn-
ing letters and letters of condolence. If older children died, these sorts
of letters were often longer and more emotional.
Otto Hora Siccama did find it difficult to find the right tone to com-
fort his sister in the above-mentioned letter of condolence. Having
adopted the accepted stance of manly self-control, he corrected him-
self: ‘I perhaps spoke just now with a little too much confidence of the
greater strength of mind that is generally expected of a man; indeed I
fear, on closer reflection, that he [Angelique’s husband Calkoen, WR]
must also have been deeply affected, and perhaps even less in control of
himself than you are’.89 In a subsequent letter, written two days later,
Otto apologized for his first letter of condolence:
to tell you that I am not at all happy with the letter I sent you a few days
ago. I fear that I did not adopt a tone that could please you, or that could
let you see the sincere sympathy for you and Calkoen that fills me. –All
that I can add in my own defence is: I meant it better, but I did not have
the talent to express such things; or rather, I was afraid to say too much
or too little, and thus tied myself up in knots.90
When Otto’s brother Louis and his wife Coosje lost their son Harco,
Otto also had to search for the right words: ‘Oh how can I find the
words that do not seem cool in the face of the violent emotions of the
first moments?’91 He consoled them with the thoughts that Harco had
brightened all their lives, that the child was preserved from evil, that
his death would bring them closer to one another, and that Johanna,
Harco’s little sister, would be a comfort to them all. Most of these con-
solations are in line with the advice given by a letter-writing manual on
sending a letter of condolence to parents who had just lost a child:
If one has to write to a father or mother about the death of a child, one
mourns with the parents; one can scarcely believe the sad tidings; this
was such a beautiful, such a good, such a promising child. Yet the child is

╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 23 May 1837.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 91, Otto Hora Siccama to Angelique van Beeck Calkoen-Hora
Siccama, 25 May 1837.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 90L, Otto Hora Siccama to Louis and Coosje Hora Siccama, 25
October 1838.
ceremonial correspondence239

not lost forever, the afflicted parents will see it again one day, in a better
life. God perhaps gathered it to himself earlier in order to spare it many
tribulations, much bitter suffering on this earth. One draws the attention
of the grief-stricken to other, still more unfortunate parents.92
Due to the comfort they gave, letters of condolence were especially
suitable for keeping and rereading. Thus, for instance, when Abrahamine
Hubrecht’s daughter died, she received a letter from an acquaintance
who had herself lost a child. With her letter, she enclosed one of the
letters of condolence she had herself received at that time, in the hope
that it might be a source of consolation to Abrahamine, as it had been
to the original recipient.93

The function of ceremonial correspondence

Strengthening bonds of friendship and disciplining

In addition to comforting the family of the deceased and allowing the
letter-writer to ‘vent his or her feelings’, letters of condolence also had
the function of strengthening family ties and bonds of friendship. On
the death of a person who formed a link between a family and family-
in-law, for instance, a letter of condolence might express the hope that
relations would not fade: ‘In the sincere hope that her loss will not
weaken the bonds of affection between her remaining relatives, which
she valued so greatly’.94 Others were of the opinion that bereavements
actually drew the family circle closer together: ‘grief unites us even
more than joy’.95 Precisely after one of their number has died, a group
feels weakened and tries to compensate for this by sharing grief, in this
way giving the group a new lease of life.96
On happier occasions, too, such as engagements, marriages and
births, ceremonial letters strengthened the bonds of friendship. More�
over, the content of ceremonial letters affirmed the norms and values
of the upper middle classes. Extolling domestic happiness, expressing

╇Geerling, De Nederlandsche briefsteller, 228.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 427, M.I. Quarles van Ufford-Hoeuff to Pieter Hubrecht and
Abrahamine Hubrecht-Steenlack, 1 April 1838.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 240, unknown sender to Paul Hubrecht sr., 23 February 1844.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 342, Margaretha van der Goes-Hubrecht to Pieter Hubrecht,
20 December 1849.
╇D. van den Bosch, ‘De laatste eer aan de eerste stand. Aristocratische begrafenis-
rituelen in Limburg van de 18e tot de 20e eeuw’, TvSG 17 (1980) 181–210, here 182.
240 chapter five

the hope that little boys would grow up to be of value to society, or

the conviction that a dead man had led a useful life, as well as the con-
stant emphasis on gratitude, all constitute core values of the upper
bourgeoisie. Domesticity, family, and usefulness are viewed as typically
middle-class concepts. Religion also has a firm place in this set.
Ceremonial letters were eminently suitable for strengthening religious
convictions. Faith and emotions were shaped in this way. There was
constant repetition of how one should use one’s reason to keep joy and
grief in check.
For this reason, Ursula Machtemes, in her study of nineteenth-cen-
tury widows of the German Bildungsbürgertum, discusses the disci-
plining function of letters of condolence. She concludes that letters of
condolence to widows had two functions. First of all, they affirmed the
bonds between the widow and her surrounding circles (society) by
showing that the widow could count on the support of her family and
friends. Secondly, however, they had a disciplining function: they pre-
scribed what the widow should feel and what the rest of her life should
be like. Thus letters to widows spoke of eternal love for and fidelity to
the deceased husband, with the aim of discouraging the widow from
remarrying; in letters to widowers, on the other hand, such ideas were
not invoked.97 I did not find any letters in the Dutch family archives in
which a widow was explicitly encouraged to remain unmarried and to
worship her dead husband’s memory. It was indeed striking, however,
that in mourning letters in the Hubrecht family archives, widowers
depicted themselves and their children as helpless. This terminology
was also often adopted in letters of condolence. This might implicitly
indicate a wish to remarry. Incidentally, letters of condolence did have
a disciplining function in the sense that they prescribed to what degree
it was permissible to display emotions in mourning.

Men as senders
As far as gender aspects are concerned, there is one other matter to
note regarding the sex of the senders of ceremonial letters. We already
saw in Chapter 1 that many contemporaries viewed correspondence as
a woman’s task. A number of historians (and anthropologists) have also
described it as being above all women who maintained family contacts,

╇ U. Machtemes, Leben zwischen Trauer und Pathos. Bildungsbürgerliche Witwen im
19. Jahrhundert (Osnabrück 2001) 249–250.
ceremonial correspondence241

including through correspondence.98 De Nijs, in his study of the nine-

teenth-century bourgeoisie of Rotterdam finds it impossible either to
confirm or deny this hypothesis. Fewer letters from women than from
men have been preserved in the family archives he consulted. In this
context, De Nijs points out that correspondence by women, which was
often viewed as less important, was more likely to be destroyed.99 It is
indeed the case that family archives virtually always centre on men
with an important position in society. Nevertheless, the presence of let-
ters by women also varies from one family archive to another. The part
women originally took in a family’s correspondence also seems to have
One way to investigate the role of women in keeping the family
together by means of correspondence is to focus on the period imme-
diately after a marriage. Did anything change in the correspondence
habits of women and men? Did the new wife take over the task of main-
taining the correspondence with her family-in-law from her husband?
Although a lack of suitable archive material makes it difficult to find a
clear answer to this question, several cases do throw some light on the
matter. Pauline van der Kun wrote to her future sister-in-law, Theodora
van Lanschot, that she was delighted that she would soon be able to
number her among her sisters and that, now the marriage was immi-
nent, she was already entering into correspondence with her family-
in-law to be: ‘It is infinitely pleasing to me that I will soon number you
among my sisters. Now that the moment has come for you to marry
dear Henri, I am seizing the first occasion that presents itself to com-
mence correspondence with my revered new family’.100 Before his mar-
riage with Pauline, Henri van Lanschot maintained a frequent and
intimate correspondence with his sister Theodora. After the marriage,
Pauline seems to have taken over the task: the family archives preserve
only letters from her during this period. In this case, it does indeed
seem to be the wife who maintains the bond with her family-in-law
through correspondence.

╇M. di Leonardo, ‘The female world of cards and holidays: women, families, and
the work of kinship’, Signs 12 (1987) 440–453. Gillis, A world, 77–78. E. Joris and
H. Witzig, ‘Die Pflege des Beziehungsnetzes als frauenspezifische Form von
“Sociabilité”â•›’, in: H.U. Jost and A. Tanner eds, Geselligkeit, Sozietäten und Vereine
(Zürich 1991) 139–158, here 141.
╇De Nijs, In veilige haven, 251.
╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 231, Pauline van der Kun to Theodora van Lanschot,
15 April 1831.
242 chapter five

The Van Lanschot family archive includes another letter that resem-
bles the one quoted above. When Maria and Augustinus van Lanschot
were on their honeymoon in 1832, they too wrote to Augustinus’s sister
Theodora. Maria was a friend of Theodora’s even before marrying her
brother, but still she seems to have perceived a difference: ‘I feel a very
great pleasure, my dear Dorothy, at being able to write to you as a sister.
As a friend, you have occupied a place in my heart for a long time –
would that I may merit the place that I desire in yours’.101 Here it is
clearly a matter of a rite of passage: after the marriage the women
become sisters. The latter quotation does not reveal whether this also
marked the beginning of a correspondence. Pauline or Maria may have
written to their future sisters-in-law before they were married, but no
such letters have been preserved. It is clear, however, that in each of the
above cases it was the ‘newcomer’ to the family who wrote a letter to
commence a new relationship with her new sister-in-law. Jalland
observed precisely the opposite: in families of the English nobility, it
was the bridegroom’s female relatives who greeted his future bride as a
new sister or daughter by writing warm letters of welcome.102
However, there were also families in which the correspondence hab-
its scarcely changed after a marriage. Unlike the women in the Van
Lanschot family, Otto Hora Siccama continued to write to his mother
with the same frequency after his marriage in 1839. His new wife did
not take over the correspondence with either her mother-in-law or
other members of the family. As a general rule, many men seem to have
continued to exchange letters with their own families, even after they
were married. Sometimes married couples composed letters to family
members together.
Since many letters have been lost, it is difficult to reach a definitive
conclusion about women’s part in family correspondence. Practices
seem to differ. What is striking, however, is that it was men, not women,
who were responsible for ceremonial correspondence. Birthday greet-
ings and letters of condolence were generally written by men. If an
immediate relative was involved, husband and wife did indeed each
write a letter, especially in the case of a bereavement. However, in the
case of more distant relatives or acquaintances, it was virtually always
the husband who took on the task of sending a ceremonial letter on

╇RANB, FAVL, inv. no. 225, Augustinus van Lanschot and Maria van Lanschot-
Oomen to Theodora van Lanschot, 25 May 1832.
╇ P. Jalland, Women, marriage and politics 1860–1914 (Oxford 1986) 30–31.
ceremonial correspondence243

behalf of a married couple. Sometimes the husband composed the

letter and his wife signed it afterwards. Married women only took up
their pens in exceptional circumstances, such as if their husbands were
absent or ill. Mrs Hoynck van Papendrecht-Elgens, for instance,
explained why she was the one to congratulate Pieter Hubrecht on the
birth of his son: ‘Since my husband has been prevented from writing to
you every day due to pressures of work, and yet did not wish to post-
pone it still further, he asked me to do so’.103 Mrs Van Hogendorp-van
Citters also wrote her own letter of congratulation: ‘I am taking up the
pen on behalf of my husband, since I wished to write to you myself ’.104
The only possible explanation for this pattern seems to be that on cer-
emonial occasions men took their place as the head of the family, in
this way perpetuating the ties with other families.

Cult of sincerity

In addition to the social aspect, however, ceremonial letters also had

a private or individual side. Births, for instance, were not an occasion
for public celebration in the nineteenth century. It was no longer a mat-
ter of the whole village turning out; birth announcements were sent in
the private sphere.105 Cultural-historical studies about death, too, have
often observed a privatization process from the eighteenth century
onwards: following in the footsteps of Ariès, various authors have con-
cluded that death was increasingly banished from public life and estab-
lished itself more in private circles.106 P.D. ‘t Hart comments that it is
less personal to print a mourning letter than to write it by hand. Since
hand-written mourning letters were only sent to close relatives, this
might seem to indicate that the mourning process was being confined
to the circle of intimates. Van ‘t Hart views the request in many printed
mourning letters to be spared from receiving letters of condolence
(expressed, according to Franke, in death notices from 1795 to 1835107)

╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 426, G.H. Hoynck van Papendrecht Elgens to Pieter Hubrecht,
11 November 1836.
╇GAL, FAH, inv. no. 422, I.I. van Hogendorp-Citters to Pieter Hubrecht,
1 December 1829.
╇Gillis, A world of their own making, 192.
╇M. Duijvendak, ‘Elite families between public and private life: some trends and
theses’, in: Schuurman and Spierenburg, Private domain, 72–88. Van den Bosch, ‘De
laatste eer’, 202–203.
╇Franke, De dood, 46.
244 chapter five

as a further indication of a desire to exclude more distant acquaint-

ances from the mourning process.108 We saw above that the distinction
between printing and writing by hand was indeed used to mark degrees
of intimacy within one’s circle of acquaintance. In this sense, we may
speak of demarcating the private sphere with regard to various solemn
occasions. At the same time, certainly well into the first half of the
nineteenth century, an announcer was hired, which might seem to
indicate that the public aspect of death and birth remained significant.
Another way to study the emergence of the private sphere is to focus
on the emergence of the individual. Franke found, for instance, that
from 1825 onwards, but especially around 1835, death notices fre-
quently requested people to refrain from wearing mourning because
this was mere outward display, whereas it was the feelings within that
should count. What this amounts to is discouraging the public exhibi-
tion of grief. This reference to public displays of grief occurred less fre-
quently in such notices after 1835, and by 1875 it had disappeared
altogether.109 At the end of the nineteenth century, people were appar-
ently no longer worried about whether external displays of grief were
in tune with the internal emotions of the bereaved.
The emphasis on sincere emotions and a possible discrepancy
between exterior and interior were also of great importance when it
came to ceremonial letters. In this vein, Claudius, in his letter-writing
manual, alluded to the danger of hypocrisy that lurked in courtesy let-
ters, such as letters of congratulation or condolence:
These sorts of letters are among the most difficult: the aridity and uni-
formity of the material, on the one hand, and the hackneyed treatment of
daily occurring circumstances of life, on the other, are the reason
that cases of this kind offer very few new viewpoints. […] They are prod-
ucts one can scarcely avoid manufacturing, and which mostly bear the
stamp of deceit, hypocrisy, self-interest and toadyism. If such letters be
addressed to friends or relations, let sincerity and truth prevail: one
should write what one feels; if addressed to prominent persons, or our
betters, let them be brief: without betraying any intimacy, one should
express the feelings of one’s mind without affectation, and above all avoid
high-sounding words.110
Claudius contrasts truth and naturalness with hypocrisy and affecta-
tion. An anonymous writer of a letter-writing manual published in

╇ ‘t Hart, ‘De eerste overlijdensadvertenties’, 261.
╇Franke, De dood, 48–49.
╇Claudius, Volledig brievenboek, 144.
ceremonial correspondence245

1811 also brings up this subject. He feels that in letters of congratula-

tion ‘contentment and happiness [should] prevail; feeling must be
revealed, either genuinely meant or dissembled; in the former case, the
heart itself rejoices in it; in the latter, etiquette requires it’.111
Not only the authors of letter-writing manuals warned of the danger
of hypocrisy in ceremonial letters; many correspondents were also
aware of it. They also made a distinction between ceremonial letters as
a ‘duty’ and letters that were ‘truly meant’. Cornélie Steenlack, for
instance, wrote in a birthday greeting: ‘Do not think either that it is only
duty that brings me to do so; rather it is my heart which dictates these
words to me’.112 Baroness De Constant Rebecque reproached her son
Victor for not sending New Year greetings to his parents: ‘A stiff, mean-
ingless duty letter to strangers I find very excessive; those kinds of let-
ters are worthless, but for the Christian a day of reflection about the past
is a day of humility combined with praising and giving thanks’.113 Letters
of congratulation (on the birth of a child, for instance) were also viewed
by contemporaries as a duty: ‘Since I wished to answer the announce-
ment of your dear wife’s delivery myself, not merely as a duty, but from
sincere engagement’.114 Writing ‘from the heart’ was contrasted with cer-
emonial letters that were written ‘according to the rules’: ‘You will not
take it ill of me, dear friends, that I do not write you a ceremonial letter
of felicitation according to the rules’.115 A cousin of Pieter Hubrecht’s
also excused himself from the letter-writing conventions: ‘Excuse this
doggerel, but I had no wish or desire to write you a ceremonial answer;
I always find that so stiff ’.116 A letter of condolence might also be viewed
as too conventional: ‘excuse this writing […] I have written to you as
my heart inspired me. I felt no desire to send you a ceremonial answer;
I did not feel disposed to do so’.117 It seems as though correspondents
tried in vain to struggle free of clichés, like Paul Hubrecht, for instance:
May God grant you many more happy, many good days in your life, and
if possible every new birthday fewer thoughts of the grave, but rather

╇Anonymous, De keizerlijke secretaris, 133.


╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 406, Cornélie Steenlack to Pieter Hubrecht, 17 January 1834.
╇NA, FADCR, inv. no. 120B, Julie de Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van
Giessenburg to Victor de Constant Rebecque, 8 January 1854.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 423, Mrs Helmolt-van Rossem to Pieter Hubrecht, 3 January
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 422, H.A. de Veer to Pieter Hubrecht, 1 December 1829.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 423, Van Lanschot to Pieter Hubrecht, 27 December 1831.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 443, Van Lanschot Hubrecht to Pieter Hubrecht, 10 December
246 chapter five

wishes for a different fatherland. What are these wishes of mine? So cold
and so formal, whereas my heart is so completely otherwise, so full of
love, and cannot express in words what moves it.118
Ambrosius Hubrecht sent his brother Paul ‘a more proper letter than
usual’ on his birthday. Having listed all the standard good wishes, he
wrote, oddly enough: ‘It is perhaps not very elegant style. I am not to
blame for that, I just wrote to you plainly as I mean, and did not think
up a pleasant-sounding, melodious, ear-caressing, standard phrase of
congratulation, which would not, I think, have been pleasing to you’.119
‘Proper’, ‘stiff ’, ‘according to the rules’, and ‘ceremonial’ were con-
trasted with ‘informal’, ‘sincere’, and ‘unaffected’. A few letters between
Otto and Jan Hora Siccama, in which they commented on another’s
style of writing, reveal what stylistic ideals may have underlain such
contrasts. In 1835, when the two brothers were already in their thirties,
Otto accused Jan of adopting an affected style in his letters. In Otto’s
view, this style was only appropriate for ceremonial correspondence.
Jan acknowledged this, but pointed out in his own defence that he used
this style deliberately: he did not wish only to aspire to a ‘pure form’ on
special occasions such as New Year, marriages and births, but wanted
to write ‘in his Sunday best’ every day. He viewed this as a sign of refine-
ment and courtesy.120
Four years later, a similar debate blew up in the correspondence
between the brothers, which shows even more clearly what Otto’s sty-
listic ideal was and how Jan’s writing ran counter to it. Jan sent Otto the
following letter, telling him of his plans to get married:
Dearest brother! See here my actual communication of my intended
marriage. I hope in due time, you, as one, of all, to whom I have until now
accorded the powers of discernment, will become acquainted with your
future sister-in-law. I shall not describe her to you, any more than I shall
justify my choice. Her heart has responded to mine, and that has been
enough for me for the time being.121
Otto answered the following day:
May I then pour out my heart again, to say something unpleasant to you
in the midst of the happiness that you radiate at this time? – But I would

╇ GAL, FAH, suppl. II, box 19, Paul Hubrecht to Betsy Steenlack, 29 March 1852.
╇ GAL, FAH, inv. no. 675, Ambrosius Hubrecht to Paul Hubrecht, 17 November
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 73, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 25 April 1835.
╇ NA, CHS, inv. no. 73, Jan Hora Siccama to Otto Hora Siccama, 27 March 1839.
ceremonial correspondence247

suffocate if I did not say it to you.- Proff. van der Hoeven recently gave a
talk here about Buffon’s saying: ‘le stile c’est l’homme’, and argued the
truth of it. I was much inclined to agree. – Now, however, I would present
your latest letter to him as incontrovertible proof to the contrary; for how
could anyone who knows you recognize you, your character, your nor-
mal manner of being in those compositions? Believe me: as a true lawyer
you sacrifice the content to the form: – it is study, it is art; you violate your
nature. To such an extent that the one and only line in Angelique’s letter
depicts you more and better. And who, on reading your letter of yester-
day to me, your brother, the letter in which you further confirm to me the
fulfilment of your most heartfelt desires, would recognize in that style the
man of whom Louise writes to me so charmingly: ‘Hora is in the throes
of inexpressible gaiety; – he is already rejoicing about the two [chocolate]
“H’s, he will presently receive on St Nicholas” day’? – Here is the true, the
‘unsophisticated’ [in English – WR] Jan Hora! – The lovable, the simple,
the natural Jan Hora! – In his compositions, for I cannot honestly call
them letters, it is the Jan Hora with a veneer, the Jan Hora of the perfect
Betsy. – I want, saprebleu!, to shake you! – I’ve set my heart on it. You can
do better! And you will do better! – Just you wait! Your honest courtship
and then the snare of marriage will shake all that affectation off you!
‘Quantum distet ab Inacho Codrus,’122 that much is your present style an
adopted one and not your own, which, in the long term, is the only one
in which you will be able to succeed and live up to. As Boileau puts it: ‘All
too often a spirit flatters itself, and he who loves himself is mistaken
about his genius and does not know himselfâ•›’.123
Otto’s stylistic ideal was that of Buffon: ‘le style c’est l’homme’.
This entails that the letter-writer’s style should reveal his or her person-
ality. According to Otto, Jan’s writing style did not reflect his character.
Precisely in a letter in which Jan announced that he was going to
get married, Otto would have expected unalloyed happiness, not affec-
tation and studied phrases. This was not the ‘true’ Jan, who was ‘simple’
and ‘natural’. It is questionable whether this was what Jan was really
like, or whether Otto is here holding up a second stylistic ideal,
namely of a simple and natural style. ‘Natural’ here also has the mean-
ing of ‘in keeping with a unique personality’, whereas in the eighteenth
century ‘naturalness’ referred precisely to the shared nature of all
human beings.124

╇ ‘as distant as Inachus from Codrus’, Horace, Odes 3.19. Inachus was the son of
Oceanus, Codrus the last king of Athens.
╇ ‘Mais souvent un esprit qui se flatte et qui s’aime/ Méconnaît son génie et s’ignore
soi-même’. Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (1636–1711), L’art Poétique (1674); Chant pre-
mier. NA, CHS, inv. no. 52, Otto Hora Siccama to Jan Hora Siccama, 28 March 1839.
╇Sennett, The fall of public man, 96.
248 chapter five

In any case, naturalness, simplicity and sincerity are the ideals for
letter-writing style in the first half of the nineteenth century. And par-
ticularly when writing ceremonial letters, the risk of lapsing into cli-
chés was great, which heightened writers’ concern to make a sincere
impression. Gillis has suggested that the fear of coming across as insin-
cere was typically Protestant,125 but my archive material demonstrates
that Catholics were also concerned about this, especially in ceremonial
correspondence, though they did express such qualms less in daily cor-
respondence. The English traveller Bowring noted that the ‘false coin-
age of compliments’ was more common in the Netherlands than in
England.126 Perhaps the widespread fear of insincerity among the Dutch
correspondents in the present study was a reaction to this.
The ideal of sincerity encompassed more than just letter-writing
style. Streng, for instance, has pointed out the importance of sincerity
as a criterion for appreciation of art in the mid-nineteenth century.
Critics valued the personal experience of the artist as the basis for his
art. Here too the adage ‘le style c’est l’homme’ applied: the style was to
be determined not by the subject, or the intended public, as in the case
of rhetoric, but by the artist.127
We can even go a step further and extend the ideal of sincerity not
only to art in general in the Netherlands, but to a new type of personal-
ity that emerged in the nineteenth century. The sociologist Sennett, for
instance, has linked the emergence of a capitalist, secular urban culture
after the fall of the ancien régime with the emergence of the unique
personality. Whereas in the eighteenth century the predominant idea
was that of the natural character, a nature shared by all human beings
and independent of outward manifestations, in the nineteenth century
precisely these outer manifestations were seen as the exact reflection of
a unique personality. If one was well acquainted with a person’s dress,
speech and behaviour, one also knew his or her personality. In the pre-
vious chapters, for instance, we came across the idea that neat hand-
writing was a sign of an orderly personality. Where in the eighteenth
century the spoken word still had meaning in itself (speech as a sign),
a century later speech was understood as a symbol, an allusion to the

╇Gillis, A world, 63.
╇Bowring, Brieven, 270–271.
╇T. Streng, ‘â•›“Waar waarachtige poëzie mij aangrijpt”. “Oprechtheid” in de
Nederlandse kunst- en literatuurbeschouwing rond het midden van de negentiende
eeuw’, TNTL 111 (1995) 230–240, here 232.
ceremonial correspondence249

speaker as a person. People constantly wondered whether gestures or

words did indeed spring directly from the unique character of the
person speaking. Everything that was said in public was decoded by
the listeners. Nineteenth-century speakers thus lost their spontaneity
in public, because everything they said could be traced back to their
own, most intimate personality. In the eighteenth century, speakers
could still be spontaneous in public, because the performance was
separate from the private individual; it was bound by conventions. In
the nineteenth century, however, spontaneity was contrasted with con-
vention, and that led to reticence from the fear of saying the wrong
thing, as this might then be interpreted as a reflection of an unrefined
Karen Halttunen, too, has noted a cult of sincerity among the
American middle classes halfway through the nineteenth century. In
the dynamic immigrant society of North America, especially in the
major cities, social identity – recognizing and placing people – could
prove problematic. Large cities afforded anonymity, and the unlimited
possibilities for individuals to ‘make it’ ensured that society was con-
stantly in flux. For this reason, there was a fear of hypocrisy, of people
who were not what they seemed. The middle classes wanted all social
utterances to express true, sincere, inner emotions. However, this ideal
of sincerity was rather at odds with the aim of coming across as refined
and collected. In order to serve the ideal of self-control as well as that
of sincerity, Halttunen suggests, in about 1830 the American middle
classes came up with the idea known as ‘genteel performance’: a system
of polite behaviour that combined self-discipline with an apparently
natural, simple, and sincere manner of going about things. The inner
substance of polite social behaviour was seen as natural and sincere,
but observing the outward forms of good manners and etiquette was a
sign of proper self-control. The ultimate effect of this was that in about
1850 the ideal of sincerity was itself formalized to become a norm of
etiquette. After 1850, people recognized the necessity of etiquette to
regulate social life, and were no longer worried about whether such
precepts were hypocritical. Letter-writing was an important aspect of
genteel performance: ‘The genteel art of letter-writing demanded above
all a controlled communication of proper sentiments’.129 The contents of

╇Sennett, The fall of public man, 64–65, 80–87, 152–153.


╇ K. Halttunen, Confidence men and painted women. A study of middle-class culture

in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven/London 1982) 93, 121.

250 chapter five

the letter should demonstrate sincerity, but its form should evidence
self-control and standardization. Writing letters of condolence was the
ultimate occasion for showing self-discipline in emotional self-expres-
sion, as well as for self-improvement.130
The ceremonial letters discussed in this chapter also fit into this pat-
tern of genteel performance: many letter-writers felt the need to
emphasize that they sincerely meant what they wrote, but at the same
time they were stuck in the clichéd trammels of the ceremonial letter.
The contents had to be sincere, and in keeping with the unique person-
ality of the sender, but at the same time the letter had to contain all the
components demanded by the etiquette of ceremonial correspondence.
Despite all the criticisms of the clichéd and hypocritical nature of cer-
emonial letters, people continued to uphold their importance. It was
not until the end of the nineteenth century that long ceremonial letters
began to give way to shorter cards. In this way, as Halttunen describes,
etiquette became so formalized that the degree of sincerity of the con-
tents was no longer very relevant.


At the end of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth cen-
tury, criticism of ceremonial correspondence was a constant topic of
discussion. Both commentators and correspondents themselves viewed
writing such letters as a duty, and their contents as clichéd and some-
times even hypocritical. Nevertheless, few dared to advocate abolishing
these types of letters. The function of ceremonial correspondence in
affirming the bonds of friendship and strengthening middle-class and
religious values rendered it indispensable as social cement.
Besides keeping family and friends together, ceremonial letters could
also serve as a means of distinction. If a given habit in ceremonial cor-
respondence became the norm in a certain class, the higher classes
came up with a different custom to distinguish themselves from their
inferiors. Letter-writers also used ceremonial correspondence as a
means to mark degrees of intimacy within their circle of family and
friends. Close family and good friends received hand-written letters,
acquaintances merely printed ones. Etiquette stipulated that printed

╇Halttunen, Confidence men, 134.

ceremonial correspondence251

announcements did not require a response. This distinction in degrees

of intimacy may be a sign of a process of privatization.
The language used in correspondence also points to emerging
taboos: pregnancy was referred to in increasingly euphemistic terms in
everyday correspondence in the nineteenth century. Similarly, detailed
descriptions of illnesses were no longer included in printed mourning
letters, and it became improper to include explicit references to future
offspring in marriage congratulations. This can be interpreted as
increasing prudishness.
On the other hand, until the mid-nineteenth century, the elite con-
tinued to employ public announcers, and the funerals of important
local personages continued to be a public attraction.131 There is no clear
answer to the question of whether one can really speak of increas-
ing  ‘privatization’ of births, marriages and deaths. One can certainly
observe a tension between the public and private aspects of such events.
This tension finds expression particularly in the cult of sincerity in
connection with ceremonial letters. Many of these types of letters attest
to the writer’s wish to make the inevitably clichéd content of such let-
ters come across as sincere. The underlying concept here is the idea of
each individual’s unique personality, which should be able to be read
from the person’s appearance, and therefore also from clothing (includ-
ing mourning) and letters. This idea grew up in the nineteenth century,
and has sometimes been described as the emergence of the ego. The
desire for the sincere individual’s inner being to shine through in letters
became problematic in the context of clichéd ceremonial correspond-
ence. This tension would only be resolved at the end of the nineteenth
century by substituting short cards for long ceremonial letters. Etiquette
itself, observing the formalities, had by then become more important
than ensuring harmony between outer form and the sincerely intended
content within.

╇Duijvendak, ‘Elite families’, 86. Van den Bosch, ‘De laatste eer’, 190–191.

This study focused on letter-writing. Unlike other historical studies,

which tend to use letters as a source of historical content, here the
central issues were the writing process, the acquisition of correspond-
ence skills, and the norms and values that were passed on through
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, letters served not only as
a means of communication, but also a means of socialization. This
aspect came to the fore particularly in the chapters about children’s and
adolescents’ letters, as well as the chapter on ceremonial correspond-
ence. Children learned from an early age that a neat letter was a mirror
of an orderly character, and they were urged to ensure that their letters
exhibited neatness, respect for their elders, and punctuality. Young
men were encouraged by their peers to adopt student jargon, which
consisted of colloquialisms and typical students’ vocabulary. Forming
intimate friendships through and in correspondence was also charac-
teristic for this age-group. Ceremonial correspondence, finally, was
used as a means to affirm values such as piety, or benefit to society.
Another aspect examined was the performative function of letters,
the ability of correspondence to actually create relationships within the
exchange of letters before they exist independently of the written text.
This was apparent from the intimate relationship parents tried to create
in correspondence with their children, from the romantic friendships
in letters exchanged by adolescents, and from correspondence between
fiancés, in which the relationship between the future married couple
took shape before it was actually constituted off the page. Furthermore,
it was striking that letters were used to control and channel the emo-
tions. Women especially tried to instil the proper emotions in them-
selves by rehearsing them in letters. In that sense, correspondence also
functioned as a means of disciplining oneself. Pietist Protestants,
finally, used their letters to deepen their religious feelings; through cor-
respondence, an intimate relationship developed between the sender,
the recipient, and God, which led to a stronger experience of faith.
The performative and socializing functions of letters are closely con-
nected with the times in which they are written. It is essential to study
egodocuments in their historical context, rather than subjecting them
to anachronistic analysis. The period between 1770 and 1850 saw a

number of developments that influenced the practice of letter-writing.

First, in 1751, the popular German author Gellert argued in favour of
a natural style in letter-writing. The Dutch translation of Gellert’s
work came out in 1776. Throughout the last decades of the eighteenth
century, and especially in the first few decades of the nineteenth cen-
tury, there were frequent calls for a new, natural, simple and informal
style. There seems to have been a turning-point in the culture of Dutch
letter-writing in about 1810–1830: reviewers in that period contrasted
the new, natural style with an antiquated, stiff style. The authors of let-
ter-writing manuals also expressed disapproval of a self-centred style.
In the same period, correspondence between parents and children
reveals traces of a new pedagogical ideal, in which the child was to be
treated as a child, and allowed to develop naturally and gradually. ParÂ�
ents wanted the correspondence to be intimate and confiding, but in
practice this intimacy was limited by the boundaries of propriety.
Parents also urged their children to adopt a natural style in their letters.
Here too ‘natural’ might mean uncontrived, but also ‘fitting for a child’
or ‘proper, as befits the elite’. This reveals the inherent contradictions of
this pedagogical ideal: parents wished to bring up their children in line
with the new pedagogical insights (by emphasizing childlikeness and
naturalness), but at the same time they wanted to ensure that they grew
up well-mannered and aware of their place in society.
Moreover, the fact that romantic friendship is so prevalent in
adolescents’ letters reveals the influence of Romanticism, despite the
letter-writers’ own ambivalence about the term ‘romantic’. In this sense,
the Nether�lands did not escape Romanticism. Finally, historians have
viewed the birth of the individual and the emergence of the private
sphere as characteristic of the late eighteenth century and the first half
of the nineteenth century. Though it remains very difficult to define
these terms precisely, I found some indications in support of this view.
The intimate bond that parents aim to constitute in correspondence
with their children, for instance, is an example of creating a private
sphere. The concern about sincerity, which comes to the fore especially
in ceremonial correspondence, attests to the importance attached to
the individual. This also emerges in Buffon’s popular adage ‘le style c’est
l’homme’: the individual character of the letter-writer should be
reflected in his or her letter-writing style. The censure of egocentrism
in letter-writing, which we encountered both in letter-writing manuals
and several letters written in the early nineteenth century, also seems to
be related to the emergence of the ‘ego’ – in this case, in the sense of a
reaction against it.
254 conclusion

Nevertheless, this new central position of the individual remains at

odds with public, or semi-public, ideals of propriety and etiquette. This
is again apparent from letters exchanged between parents and children,
in which the exhortation to write naturally and openly often turns out
to mean ‘with propriety, as befits one’s social standing’. But in ceremo-
nial letters, too, such as birthday greetings, individuals strove almost
desperately for sincerity, but could not or would not break free of the
constrictions of the cliché-ridden standard letter. Further research
would be needed to establish whether etiquette did indeed become
more rigid at the end of the nineteenth century, as several etiquette
books seem to suggest. It seems as though the concern for sincerity, for
harmony between outward behaviour and inner feelings, is no longer
an issue in this period. The cult of sincerity appears to have reached its
peak in about 1830–1850.
In addition to the importance of the individual and the private
sphere, then, propriety and etiquette, as well as friendship and family
ties, play a significant role. Letters served not only to form the indi-
vidual, but also to express class differences. As we saw above, this was
especially the case in ceremonial correspondence. The nobility and the
upper middle classes could use the difference between written and
printed ceremonial letters to indicate class distinctions. And within the
elite, too, this difference between printing and writing letters, either in
part or in their entirety, could serve to establish a hierarchy of intimacy
in one’s circle of friends.
Bourdieu has pointed out the function of language as a means of
distinction, a way to express power. Language usage often reflects the
social position of the speaker: a speaker of the dominant class can
permit himself to be careless, lazy, or nonchalant in his use of language,
since his position of power is so evident that even expressions that are
normally associated with the lower classes will not detract from this
position. Bourdieu’s theories are equally applicable to the written
language of the elite. First of all, there is the very important concept
of naturalness. Not only did every letter-writing manual extol the natu-
ral style, but the children of the elite were urged from an early age
to write natural letters. This natural style is also associated with the
wish to exude nonchalance. The viewer, listener or reader should not
be able to divine how much effort it takes to uphold the proper style or
Secondly, we can deduce from their use of colloquialisms, invectives,
and scurrilous jokes that adolescents of the elite could take the liberty

to be sloppy in their use of language, a usage which might be associated

with the lower classes. The assurance of the position of the upper mid-
dle classes and nobility afforded young men of this standing the free-
dom to use this type of vocabulary in their letters.
Thirdly, analysis of a few letters written by correspondents from the
lower classes, such as Pieter Hubrecht’s gardener, shows that they used
humble and formal language. Although my sample number of letters
sent by members of the lower classes is small, this nevertheless does
seem to point in the direction of the hypercorrect and careful use of
language Bourdieu associates with speakers of the petty bourgeoisie,
who are thus more correct than their social superiors.1
The elite’s position of power thus seems to be reflected in their use of
language in letters. We should bear in mind, however, that letters from
subordinates to their employers of a higher class are difficult to com-
pare with correspondence amongst members of the elite. We cannot
rule out the possibility that members of the lower classes also wrote
informally and carelessly when corresponding amongst themselves.
However, the emphasis on writing naturally, on casualness, may well
have been characteristic of the elite. For the upper middle classes and
nobility, correspondence was such a matter of course that it should give
an appearance of effortlessness. For the lower classes, on the other
hand, writing a letter could be quite an achievement, so why should
this not be reflected in the fruit of that labour, the letter?
Although in ceremonial correspondence, especially, we do find some
evidence of typical bourgeois values such as religious devotion and
being of benefit to society, on the whole it seems more appropriate to
talk of the letter-writing culture of the elite, i.e. both the upper middle
classes and the nobility. I observed very few differences, in terms of
writing culture, between the De Constant Rebecques, who were mem-
bers of the nobility, and the families of the high bourgeoisie. However,
since I studied far more letters from upper middle-class families than
from aristocratic senders and recipients, further research would be
needed to establish what is typically bourgeois, and what is simply cus-
tomary for the elite in general.
Rather than class differences, it was gender differences that were most
striking in virtually all the areas considered in this study. Even in the
theory of letter-writing, a sharp distinction was drawn between men

╇ Bourdieu, ‘De economie’, 112.
256 conclusion

and women on the basis of gender difference theory. Women’s letters

were praised because women were said to display their emotions in
them, and because female writers were thought to have an instinctive
command of the natural style. In practice, the differences between
letters by girls and those by boys become increasingly marked dur-
ing  adolescence. It is no coincidence that sloppy language usage is
found virtually exclusively in letters by young men. Girls seem not to
have dared to deviate much from polite language. The gender differ-
ences reinforced through correspondence, such as neat hand-writing
and expressing proper feminine emotions, were accorded increasing
importance during adolescence.
The manner in which masculine and feminine behaviour was taught,
practised and internalized is one example of how the analytical distinc-
tion between theory and practice can fail to do justice to the historical
reality. It is not the case that advice literature enshrines norms, and that
these are then imposed on actual practice as revealed in �correspondence.
The relationship between theory and practice, between letter-writing
manuals and exchanges of letters, is a great deal more complex. Otto
Hora Siccama’s reproofs to his younger sister Angelique show that let-
ters, too, could sometimes bear a resemblance to etiquette manuals and
could propagate norms.
I found little evidence of correspondents of the elite making copious
use of letter-writing manuals or etiquette books. They were more likely
to pick up the rules of good letter-writing from family members. This
meant that the family was a significant instrument of socialization.
Many of the precepts of the letter-writing manuals can be found in cor-
respondence practice, but this practice had its own norms, which never
surface in the manuals. There is not a single letter-writing manual, for
instance, that prescribes who should receive a handwritten or a printed
letter to inform them of an important occasion. It thus remains some-
what of a mystery exactly who did read etiquette books and letter-
writing manuals. In light of the large print-runs and many reprints,
there must have been a considerable market for such works. Perhaps
their main readership was among the lower classes, whose members
used advice literature to make their way up the social ladder.
In any case, the status of advice literature and its relation to actual
prac�tice should be approached more critically than has hitherto been
the case in historical research. The concept of Â�appropriation, as applied in
historical anthropology, proves helpful here. After all, it emerges clearly
that different readers may adopt a given notion from advice literature

but give it individual interpretations. ‘Naturalness’ is one such example.

From the mid-eighteenth century, when Gellert gave new meaning to
the term, it was adopted by many correspondents. However, depending
on the situation in hand, the term was given a wide range of meanings,
including ‘fitting’, ‘child-like’ and ‘uncontrived’.
The culture of correspondence, in the broadest sense, is a fruitful
area for historical research, and there is a great deal more to explore.
Here I am referring not only to exchanges of letters between members
of the lower classes, but particularly to the writing culture within
government bodies and within clubs or societies and associations. The
link between letter-writing culture, modernization and civil society in
the Netherlands has not yet been examined in detail.2 But where the
elite is concerned, too, one could place the subject of correspondence
in perspective by comparing letters with other types of texts from fam-
ily archives, such as diaries and notebooks. Future research of this kind
could draw on the insights that emerge from the present study.
Egodocuments must be studied against the background of the specific
characteristics of the period in which they were written. Comparison
with the relevant advice literature, but also with other contemporary
sources such as journals or newspapers, could also be beneficial here.
Moreover, it is important always to bear in mind the function of
the writing in question. When studying correspondence, the func-
tions of socialization and performativity emerged as extremely impor-
tant. Letters did not simply record everyday reality. Correspondence
was used precisely to impart norms and values and to form social

╇ For Germany, see I.F. McNeely, The emancipation of writing. German civil society
in the making,1790s–1820s (Berkeley and Los Angeles 2003).
Appendix 1

Table 1.╇ Language of the letters

Language Amount of letters
Dutch 1775 (77%)
French 394 (17%)
French/Dutch 76 (╇ 3%)
Latin 31 (╇ 1%)
Latin/Dutch 12 (╇ 1%)
German 4 (<1%)
English 3 (<1%)
Other1 10 (<1%)
Total 2302 (99%)
╇English/French, Dutch/German, Dutch/Latin/
German and Dutch/Latin/French.

Table 2.╇Distribution of letters by period and decade

Period French Dutch Total of all
languages per
1750–1760 0 (╇ 0%) 1 (100%) 1
1760–1770 0 (╇ 0%) 39 (100%) 39
1770–1780 33 (52%) 25 (╇ 40%) 63
1780–1790 21 (30%) 48 (╇ 69%) 70
1790–1800 36 (26%) 95 (╇ 68%) 140
1800–1810 16 (╇ 9%) 131 (╇ 78%) 169
1810–1820 23 (46%) 19 (╇ 38%) 50
1820–1830 68 (22%) 227 (╇ 73%) 313
1830–1840 21 (╇ 8%) 226 (╇ 82%) 274
1840–1850 123 (21%) 422 (╇ 73%) 577
1850–1860 12 (╇ 4%) 278 (╇ 94%) 297
1860–1870 3 (╇ 6%) 44 (╇ 94%) 47
Unknown 177
260 appendices

Table 3.╇ Letters distributed by language and period of three decades

Period French Dutch Total of all
1750–1780 33 (32%) 65 (63%) 103
1780–1810 73 (19%) 274 (72%) 379
1810–1840 112 (18%) 472 (74%) 637
1840–1870 138 (15%) 744 (81%) 921

Table 4.╇Distribution by language and family archives

Family archive Dutch French French- Other Total
Hubrecht 1329 (94%) 46 (╇ 3%) 20 (╇ 1%) 17 (1%) 1412 (100%)
Van Lanschot 275 (60%) 119 (26%) 37 (╇ 8%) 27 (6%) 458 (100%)
De Constant 17 (27%) 39 (61%) 8 (13%) 0 (0%) 64 (100%)
Hora Siccama 61 (34%) 103 (57%) 12 (╇ 7%) 6 (3%) 182 (100%)
Van Schinne 1 (╇ 2%) 38 (88%) 0 (╇ 0%) 4 (9%) 43 (100%)
Malherbe2 85 (63%) 49 (37%) 0 (╇ 0%) 0 (0%) 134 (100%)
╇I have used the published correspondence of Jean Malherbe and Christina van
Steensel, belonging to the lower bourgeoisie, to test my database and have kept the
data to compare them with the letters written by the elite families.

Table 5.╇Distribution of letters by gender

Gender sender Amount of letters
Man 1367 (╇ 60%)
Woman 754 (╇ 33%)
Multiple 150 (╇╇7%)
Unknown 31 (╇╇1%)
Total 2302 (101%)

Table 6.╇Distribution of letters by language and gender

Gender Amount of Amount of Amount of Total
sender French Dutch letters Dutch-French
letters letters
Man 209 (16%) 1078 (82%) 25 (2%) 1312 (100%)
Woman 172 (23%) ╇ 534 (72%) 41 (6%) ╇ 747 (101%)
Multiple ╇ 10 (7%) ╇ 130 (87%) 10 (7%) ╇ 150 (100%)
Unknown ╇14 (30%) ╇╇33 (70%) ╇0 (0%) ╇╇47 (100%)
394 1775 76

Table 7.╇Distribution of letters by language and gender of sender and receiver

Genders sender- Dutch letters French letters Dutch- Total
receiver French (incl. other
letters languages)
Woman-woman 119 (46%) 106 (41%) 31 (12%) 261
Man-man 753 (89%) 43 (╇ 5%) 6 (╇ 1%) 846
Man-woman 126 (43%) 151 (51%) 17 (╇ 6%) 295
Woman-man 349 (83%) 62 (15%) 6 (╇ 1%) 419
Multiple 398 (89%) 30 (╇ 7%) 16 (╇ 4%) 447
Unknown 31 (91%) 3 (╇ 9%) 0 (╇ 0%) ╇ 34
Appendix 2:╇ Hubrecht family tree

Paul François Hubrecht (1778-1846)

x (1801)
Maria van Lelyveld (1776-1809)
x (1810)
Sophia Maria Henriette de Veer (1786-1874)

1 Françoise Agatha Lydia Hubrecht (1802-1873) 3 Margaretha Hermina Ferdina nda Hubrecht (1811-1897)
x (1823) x (1834)
Egbert Hendrik Geraerds Thesingh (1797-1876) Jhr. Willem van der Goes van Naters (1809-1841)
x (1854)
2 Pieter Glaudius Hubrecht (1805-1874) Jhr. Adriaan van der Goes van Naters (1808-1885)
x (1828)
4 Hermina Anna Petronella Hubrecht (1812-1840)
Abrahamine Arnolda Louise Steenlack (1807-1849)
x (1838)
x (1854)
Jan van Heukelom (1813-1886)
Elisabeth Maria Steenlack (1808-1876)

5 Pauline Cornelia Sophia Hubrecht (1817-1838)

1 Paul François Hubrecht (1829-1902)
x (1852)
Maria Pruys van der Hoeven (1824-1901) 6 Josias Johan Hubrecht (1819-1880)
x (1843)
Louise Rudolphine Julia van Alphen (1814-1847)
2 Ambrosius Arnold Willem Hubrecht (1831-1853)
x (1852)
Sabina Wilhelmina Verster van Walverhorst (1824-1899)
3 Maria Hubrecht (1834-1844)
7 Christinus Wijnand Hubrecht (1821-1889)
4 Elisabeth Maria Hubrecht (1836-1838) x (1847)
Jacoba A.P. Meerman van der Goes (1818-1872)
5 Willem Herman Hubrecht (1839-1888) x (1888)
x (1862) Henriëtte G.M. van den Santheuvel (1821-1896)
Catharina Henriëtte Femminae Jansen (1837-1866)
x (1867) 8 Anton Hubrecht (1823-1877)
Catharina Jeanne Bienfait (1838-1919)

6 Hermine Pauline Hubrecht (1843-1883)

x (1868)
Jan des Amorie van der Hoeven (1825-1877)

7 1846 stillborn daughter

Appendix 3:╇ Van Lanschot family tree

Franciscus A.A. Van Lanschot (1768-1851)

Jacoba C.M. van Rijckevorsel (1769-1838)

Godefridus (1793-1886)

Augustinus Cornelis (1794-1874)

Maria Helena Oomen (1809-1889)

Cornelis Antonius (1795-1816)

Henricus Johannes (1797-1887)

Regina Christina Maria (1799-1800)

Catharina Regina (1801-1877)

Theodora Maria (1802-1887)

Theodorus Ludovicus (1804-1841)

Gerardus Johannes Antonius (1809-1827)

Franciscus Augustinus Josephus (1833-1903)

Augustinus Jacobus Arnoldus (1843-1919)

Godefridus Ludovicus Hubertus (1835-1907)

Jacobus Franciscus Gasparus Ludovicus (1841-1841)

Maria Josephina Catharina (1837- 1858)

Henriëtta Isabella Maria (1839-1840)

Henricus Ferdinandus Maria (1842-1883)

Ludovicus Cornelius Theodorus (1844-1845)

Appendix 4:╇ Hora Siccama family tree

Harco Hilarius Hora Siccama (1770-1827)

Amelia Carolina Falck (1779-1852)

Johan Hora Siccama (1802-1853)

x [1840]
Henriëtte O. de Casembroot (1819-1892)

Otto Willem Hora Siccama (1805-1879)

x [1841]
Petronella Anna Maria Catharina van Capellen (1814-1848)

Louis Charles Hora Siccama (1807-1880)

J.S.W. van Haaften (1814-1851)
Jacoba Sara Warmoldina van Eelde (1824-1868)

Angelique Henriëtte Hora Siccama (1808-1872)

x [1834]
Aernoud J. van Beeck Calkoen (1803-1874)

Antoinette Louise Hora Siccama (1816- ?)

x [1844]
Georges de Hartilzsch (1815- ?)

Anna Louisa Rolina Hora Siccama (1822- ?)

Appendix 5:╇ Van Schinne family tree

Isaac van Schinne (1721-1779)

Sara Anna van Ruster (1735-1793)

Catharina van Schinne (1757-1840)

Isaac van Schinne (1759-1831)

Johanna Theodora Mossel (1767-1835)

Everdina Anna van Schinne (1760-1831)

Magdalena Antoinette van Schinne (1762-1840)

Anthony Jan van Schinne (1765-1837)

Abraham van Schinne (1767-1805)

Appendix 6:╇De Constant Rebecque family tree

Charles Théodore Jean De Constant Rebecque (1805-1870)

x [1832]
Juliana Frederica d’Ablaing van Giessenburg (1807-1879)

Victor Carel De Constant Rebecque (1838-1860)

Jan Daniël Cornelis Carel Willem de Constant Rebecque (1841-1893)

x [1869]
Henriette Sarah Hora Siccama (1844-1924)

Abbreviations used

AVL Algemeene Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen

BMGN Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden
CHS Collection Hora Siccama
DR De recensent, ook der recensenten
FADCR Family archives De Constant Rebecque
FADJVZ Family archives De Jonge van Zwijnsbergen
FAH Family archives Hubrecht
FASH Family archives Siegenbeek Heukelom
FAVL Family archives Van Lanschot
FAVS Family archives Van Schinne
GAL Gemeentearchief (Municipal Archives) Leiden
HVL Hedendaagsche Vaderlandsche Letteroefeningen
JSH Journal of Social History
NA Nationaal Archief (National Archives)
RANB Rijksarchief (Public Records Archive) Noord Brabant
TNTL Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde
TvSG Tijdschrift voor Sociale Geschiedenis
UBL Universiteitsbibliotheek (University Library) Leiden
VL Vaderlandsche letteroefeningen

Archival material

Municipal Archives Leiden

Family archives Hubrecht
Family archives (Siegenbeek) Van Heukelom
Files regarding the private school of Mr. de Gelder
Public Records Archive Noord Brabant, ‘s-Hertogenbosch
Family archives De Jonge van Zwijnsbergen
Family archives Van Lanschot
National Archives, The Hague
Family archives Van Schinne
Collection Hora Siccama
Family archives De Constant Rebecque
Leiden University Library
M. Siegenbeek, Lessen over de Nederduitsche welsprekendheid (Leiden n.d.)

â•… (lecture notes)
Letter from J. Kneppelhout to Beynen

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d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, Constant Rebecque, C.T.J. de╇ 9–10, 66,

J.D.C.C.W.╇80 135–136, 140, 142, 170, 176, 226
d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, J.F. Constant Rebecque, J.D.C.C.W. de╇ 9–10,
(see Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing 74, 80, 118, 121–122, 143–144, 169,
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d’Ablaing van Giessenburg, V.╇ 100 Constant Rebecque-d’Ablaing van
Anderson, H.╇ 51 Giessenburg, J.F. de╇ 60–62, 79–81,
Anton, A.╇ 31 84–86, 94, 96–97, 99–100, 102,
Ariès, P.╇ 243 104–105, 108, 121, 134–135, 143–144,
Aristotle╇103 151, 155, 163, 182, 218, 245
Arto-Haumacher, R.╇ 25 Constant Rebecque, V.C. de╇ 9–11, 57,
Austin, J.L.╇ 4 66, 74, 80, 96–97, 118, 121–122,
134–136, 140, 151, 169–170, 176, 226,
Baggerman, A.╇ 99, 150 231, 245
Balzac, H. de╇ 200 Costa, H. da╇ 97
Bekker, E.╇ 33, 37, 47, 179 Costa, I. da╇ 97
Berkhout-Steenlack, L.╇ 97
Bie, T. de╇ 96 Dedel, S.╇ 80
Bilderdijk, W.╇ 29, 47, 53 Deken, A.╇ 33, 37, 47, 49, 77, 179
Blijdenstein, B.╇ 121–122 Dekker, R.╇ 150
Blijdenstein, H.╇ 122, 140
Blijdenstein, J.B.╇ 114, 140 Eck, O. van╇ 150
Boeke, J.╇ 215 Ehrenberg, F.╇ 178
Bohn-Beets, D.F.╇ 43 Ehrenpreis, I.╇ 51
Boileau-Despréaux, N.╇ 200, 247 Engelberts, D.H.╇ 21, 35, 224
Bouhours, D.╇ 44
Bourdieu, P.╇ 6, 254–255 Fabius, A.N.J.╇ 82
Bowring, J.╇ 82, 248 Falck, A.R.╇ 9, 166
Brill, W.G.╇ 33–34, 45 Falck, O.W.╇ 55, 99, 105
Broek-van Lelyveld, M. van den╇ 78, 98 Fénélon, F.╇ 44
Brouwer, H.╇ 111 Fijnje-Luzac, E.╇ 93
Budde, G.-F.╇ 139 Fokke Simonsz., A.╇ 223–224
Buffon, G.L.L. de╇ 85, 171, 247, 253 Fontaine, J. de la╇ 87
Burke, P.╇ 2, 6, 67–68, 74, 77 Francq van Berkhey, J. le╇ 147, 156,
Bussy, R. de Rabutin, Comte de╇ 44 215–216, 222, 233
Butler, J.╇ 4–5 Franke, H.╇ 223, 234, 243–244
Frederik, prins╇ 195, 217
Capellen, J.F. van╇ 198, 207 Frijhoff, W.╇ 5, 68
Capellen, P.M.A.C. van Fritschy, W.╇ 96
(see Hora Siccama-van Fruin, R.╇ 46–47
Capellen, P.M.A.C.)
Capellen, T.F. van╇ 194 Gay, P.╇ 7, 35, 92
Chomel, M. Noël╇ 222–223 Geerling, L.F.╇ 21, 23, 32, 39, 42,
Cicero, M.T.╇ 22, 44, 48, 50, 53, 85, 116, 148–149, 227, 239
123, 166 Gelder, J. J. de╇ 115, 160, 164, 185
Claudius, G.C.╇ 23, 26, 29, 39, 41, 126, Gellert, C. F.╇ 13, 15, 24–28, 30, 32, 52,
177, 244 134, 253, 257
Clotr, J. de╇ 163 Gillis, J.╇ 95, 127, 248
280 index

Goens, R. M. van╇ 13, 26, 45 208, 213, 216–219, 221, 226–229,

Grassi, M.C.╇ 77 236–237, 243, 245, 255
Groot, H. de [Grotius]╇ 46–47 Hubrecht-Pruys van der Hoeven, M.╇ 60,
Guye-Steenlack, J.╇ 98, 107, 109 93
Hubrecht-Steenlack, A.A.L.╇ 61, 66–67,
Habermas, J.╇ 7 83, 90, 115, 136–137, 162, 183,
Halttunen, K.╇ 249–250 191–194, 206, 208, 217, 220, 225, 239
Hammer-Stroeve, T.╇ 58, 142 Hubrecht-van Lelyveld, M.╇ 50
Hart, P.D. ‘t╇ 243 Hubrecht, W.H.╇ 115
Heukelom jr., J. van╇ 62, 86, 131
Heukelom sr., J. van╇ 62, 86, 131 Jacobi, H.╇ 9, 22–23, 40
Hochschild, A.R.╇ 104 Jalland, P.╇ 234, 236, 242
Hogendorp-Citters, I.I. van╇ 243 Johannes, G.J.╇ 30, 48
Hooft, P.C.╇ 45, 48, 53 J.V.D.L.╇ 20, 36, 40, 199, 224
Hora Siccama, A.H.╇ 81, 82, 88, 89, 96,
102, 120, 137, 187–189, 196, 205–207, Kant, I.╇ 32, 158, 212
237–238, 247, 256 Klenk, M.╇ 84
Hora Siccama, A.L.╇ 101 Klikspaan (see Kneppelhout, J.)
Hora Siccama-Falck, A.C.╇ 57, 65, 71–72, Kloek, J.╇ 13, 31, 68
79, 87–88, 96, 99–101, 106, 120, 145, Kneppelhout, J.╇ 50, 116, 160,
170, 186, 198, 200, 205–207, 220, 168–169, 175
231–232 Koetsveld, C.E. van╇ 37
Hora Siccama, H.H.╇ 78, 121, 187 Kokshoorn, G.╇ 216
Hora Siccama, J.H.╇ 57, 65, 73, 78, 85, 87, Kokshoorn, H.╇ 216
89–90, 108, 137, 166, 168, 173–174, Kooijmans, L.╇ 214
212, 217, 220, 232, 246–247 Koolenkamp, W.K.╇ 22
Hora Siccama, L.C.╇ 65, 79, 89, 96, 145, Koselleck, R.╇ 13
158–159, 168–170, 172–174, 188, 200, Kun, P. van der╇ 57, 105, 184, 241
221, 238
Hora Siccama, O.W.╇ 8–10, 57, 65, 71–74, Landré, G.N.╇ 125, 224
78–79, 81, 85, 87–89, 96, 99, 100–102, Lanschot, A. van╇ 95
106, 120–121, 137, 142, 145, 158–159, Lanschot, A.C. van╇ 84, 101, 118,
166, 168–170, 172–174, 176, 186–189, 125, 242
194–208, 210, 212, 217, 220–221, Lanschot, A.J.A. van╇ 118, 130
231–232, 237–238, 242, 246–247, 256 Lanschot, F.A.J. van╇ 118, 120
Hora Siccama-van Capellen, Lanschot, G.L.H. van╇ 118, 130
P.M.A.C.╇ 61, 73–74, 88, 188, 194–208, Lanschot, H.J. van╇ 10, 71, 102, 108, 129,
210, 220, 231 183–184, 241
Hoynck van Papendrecht Elgens, Lanschot, T.L. van╇ 116–117, 120
G.H.╇243 Lanschot-Oomen, M.H. van╇ 56–57,
Hubrecht, A.A.W.╇ 9, 19, 59, 109, 115, 94, 108, 117–118, 129–130, 143–145,
120, 122–124, 149–150, 152, 160–174, 154, 163, 175, 186, 242
185, 192, 220, 246 Lanschot, T.M. van╇ 102, 116–117, 129,
Hubrecht-de Veer, S.M.H.╇ 130, 150 142, 149, 183–184, 242
Hubrecht, E.M.╇ 216 Lanschot-van Rijckevorsel, J.C.M.
Hubrecht, H.P.╇ 115, 162 van╇ 137, 142
Hubrecht, M.╇ 140, 236 Lelyveld, M. van (see Broek-van
Hubrecht jr., P.F.╇ 59, 62, 85, 87, 93, Lelyveld, M. van den)
115–116, 122–124, 136, 152, 160–169, Lelyveld, P. van╇ 82, 100, 219
171–174, 192, 216, 221, 235–237, Leprince de Beaumont, J.╇ 119
245–246 Lessing, G.E.╇ 28
Hubrecht sr., P.F.╇ 192 Linke, A.╇ 2, 19–20, 148, 186–187
Hubrecht, P.G.╇ 9, 61, 65–67, 73, 83, 93, Lulofs, B.H.╇ 29, 47
98, 105, 108, 131, 152, 161, 191–193, Lystra, K.╇ 208–209

Machtemes, U.╇ 240 Schinne, C. van╇ 50, 88, 119, 132–134,

Mackenzie, H.╇ 101 139, 142, 146, 182, 185
Maintenon, Mme de╇ 44, 49, 50, 85 Schinne, M. van╇ 85–86, 107, 118,
Malherbe, J.╇ 65 133–134, 184–185
Martinet, J. F.╇ 32, 36, 39, 155, 176–178 Schinne-van Ruster, S. van╇ 57, 132–134,
Matthes╇ 122, 164, 220 138–139, 146
Meerten-Schilperoort, A.B. van╇ 26, Schrant, J.M.╇ 28
38, 143 Sennett, R.╇ 28, 248–249
Mees, R.╇ 219 Sévigné, F.M. de╇ 44–46, 48–50, 53,
Mijnhardt, W.╇ 13, 31 84–85, 112, 116
Moens, M.╇ 182 Siebel, E.╇ 60
Montagu, Lady M. Wortley╇ 48–50, 53, Siegenbeek, M.╇ 27, 28, 45
85, 116, 119 Singendonck, D.╇ 102
Motké, J.╇ 84 Smith-Rosenberg, C.╇ 179–181
Musset, P. de╇ 200 Snoep, D.╇ 215
Staphorst, N. van╇ 82
Nassau, J. van╇ 45 Steenlack, A.╇ 192
Niemeyer, A.H.╇ 125, 134 Steenlack, A.A.L. (see Hubrecht-
Nijs, T. de╇ 159, 241 Steenlack, A.A.L.)
Noordhoek, W.J.╇ 26 Steenlack, C.╇ 230, 245
Steenlack, E.╇ 182
d’Ossat, Cardinal╇ 44 Steenlack, E.M.╇ 213, 217, 235
Oomen, A.╇ 76, 230 Steenlack-Francken, E.╇ 60, 66, 105, 120,
Oomen, C.╇ 93 136, 150
Oomen, H.╇ 76, 93, 175–176, 184, 221 Steenlack, H.╇ 109, 235
Oomen-Ingen-Housz, E.╇ 56, 94, 108, Steenlack, J. (see Guye-Steenlack, J.)
130, 143–144, 186, 230 Steenlack, J.╇ 237
Oomen, M.H. (see Lanschot-Oomen, Steenlack, O.╇ 99, 105, 131, 217
M.H. van) Steensel, C. van╇ 65
Stewart, K.╇ 50–51
Peterson, P.J.╇ 30, 213 Stone, L.╇ 77
Pijl, R. van der╇ 19 Storm, W.╇ 65, 236–237
Pius X╇ 161 Stratenus, L.╇ 35, 41, 126
Plokker, W.╇ 21, 24, 35 Streng, T.╇ 50
Prager Lindo, M.╇ 31 Sturkenboom, D.╇ 101, 103, 233, 235–236
Pruijs van der Hoeven, C.╇ 34
Tomhave-Blauvelt, M.╇ 104
Raadt, P. de╇ 121, 129, 141, 146 Tomputte, H.A. van╇ 119
Reddy, W.╇ 103–104, 110
Reigersbergh, M. van╇ 45–47 Valkenburg-van Heeckeren, C.J. van╇ 234
Rijnkerke-Olthuis, J. van╇ 34, 42, 58, Vellusig, R.╇ 31–32
100, 225 Verhoeven, J.H.╇ 175
Roemer Visscher, T.╇ 46 Ver Huell, A.╇ 148, 160, 168, 170–171,
Roest, H.╇ 83 175, 185
Rotundo, E.A.╇ 180–181, 183, 185 Vincent-Buffault, A.╇ 185
Rousseau, J.-J.╇ 32, 128 Vosmaer, C.╇ 41, 106

Sand, G.╇ 88 Wailly, N.F. de╇ 200

Schiller, F.╇ 186, 201 Wesselman, C.T.╇ 175, 221
Schimmelpenninck van der Oye van de Westers, O.╇ 28
Poll-van Rhemen, S.╇ 55, 60–61, 84, Wilmes, L.╇ 84
102, 104–105, 108, 155, 182, 218 Wolff, B. (see Bekker, E.)
Schinne, A.J. van╇ 86, 184–185 Wrangel-Dedel, S.╇ 102