May 31

A mean letter

The great age of vituperation has long since passed. Personal abuse in the 21st century is tediously predictable: “racist!”, “libtard!”, “transphobe!”, “reTHUGlican!”, “fascist!”, etc. Donald Trump lowered the bar even further with zingers such as “fat pig”, “loser”, or “disgusting animal”. In the old days, there was no less hateful speech — John Adams called Alexander Hamilton “the bastard son of a Scotch peddler” – but there was a more imaginative use of language that connoisseurs of English could appreciate.

Consider this letter of defiance sent by the redoubtable Mary Cavendish, Countess of Shrewsbury, to Sir Thomas Stanhope. Their families were involved in a heated quarrel over a river weir, a disagreement which had broken out in bloodshed between groups of their followers. The countess had earlier called Stanhope a reprobate and his son John a rascal but she clearly felt that more needed to said on the subject of her opponents’ personal deficiencies. Therefore she deputed two of her men to deliver the following hymn of opprobrium: 

My lady hath commanded me to say thus much to you. That though you be more wretched, vile, and miserable, than any creature living; and, for your wickedness, become more ugly in shape than the vilest toad in the world; and one to whom none of reputation would vouchsafe to send any message : yet she hath thought good to send thus much to you–that she be contented you should live (and doth no ways wish your death), but to this end–that all the plagues and miseries that may befall any man may light upon such a caitiff as you are; and that you should live to have all your friends forsake you; and without your great repentance, which she looketh not for, because your life hath been so bad, you will be damned perpetually in hell fire.

The only possible reply to such an attack would be that uttered by The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece The Big Lebowski:


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