Q: In reading Pomfret Towers, inspired by Pat’s Christmas essay on Angela Thirkell, I encountered this passage: “She wrote a handsome Collins to Lady Pomfret in which she expressed the hope that everyone was well.” Huh? The only “Collins” I know of is the one that’s imbibed.
A: The “Collins” in that sentence is a thank-you note, an older British usage inspired by Jane Austen’s obsequious clergyman William Collins. It was a familiar term when Thirkell wrote the novel Pomfret Towers (1938), but it fell out of use in the latter half of the 20th century.
Here’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “A letter of thanks for entertainment or hospitality, sent by a departed guest; a ‘bread-and-butter’ letter.” In an etymology note, the OED says the usage comes from “the name of a character, William Collins, in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.”
In the 1813 novel, Mr. Collins, an insufferable snob who panders to his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, expects to inherit the estate of his cousins the Bennets. While visiting them, he condescendingly proposes marriage to Elizabeth (as a favor to the family!) and is refused, only to propose successfully to Charlotte Lucas two days later. As he’s leaving, he pompously conveys his gratitude to his hosts and says he’ll soon be sending formal thanks in a letter.
In Chapter 23 Austen writes, “The promised letter of thanks from Mr. Collins arrived on Tuesday, addressed to their father, and written with all the solemnity of gratitude which a twelvemonth’s abode in the family might have prompted.”
Austen herself didn’t call such a letter a “Collins.” The term wasn’t recorded, as far as we know, until the early 1900s.
The OED’s earliest example is from the Aug. 27, 1904, issue of Chambers’s Journal. We’ll expand the quotation here to provide some background. In a column entitled “Talks With Girls: Letter-Writing and Some Letter-Writers,” Katherine Burrill gives the following advice, using characters from Pride and Prejudice as models:
“When writing to the ‘best Dear’ do not let your pens run away with you; do not, like Mr Bingley, allow your ideas to ‘flow so rapidly’ that you have ‘not time to express them;’ the lamentable result being that the ‘letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents.’ On the other hand, avoid Mr D’Arcy’s words of four syllables; no wonder his letters were long! The Rev. William Collins’ letters have become proverbial. When we do not call a letter of thanks for a visit ‘a board and lodging,’ we call it a ‘Collins.’ His letters are monuments of politeness and civility. Give poor dull Collins his due; if obsequious, he was nevertheless civil.”
The OED’s next example is from Lucy H. M. Soulsby’s Brondesbury Papers (1905): “Write your ‘Collins’ after every visit (if only for a night) next morning at latest.” (Miss Soulsby was headmistress at Brondesbury Manor House, a school for girls. We can assume that she considered “Collins” the proper term for well-brought-up young ladies to use.)
We found a couple of examples that illustrate the use of “Collins” as well as other terms for a thank-you note:
“A ‘bread-and-butter’ letter—the English call it a Collins, after the respectable gentleman so named in one of Jane Austen’s novels. There was no reason for her hesitation in opening it. A bread-and-butter—some say board-and-lodging—letter.” From In Cure of Her Soul, a 1906 novel by Frederic Jesup Stimson, an American writer and legal scholar.
And in Elizabeth von Arnim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April, Mr. Wilkins thanks his hostess in person, then reminds Mrs. Fisher, another guest, “that she and his wife must now jointly write Lady Caroline the customary letter of thanks for hospitality. ‘A Collins,’ said Mr. Wilkins, who knew what was necessary in literature. ‘I prefer the name Collins for such a letter to either that of Board and Lodging or Bread and Butter. Let us call it a Collins.’ ”
As we said above, the usage wasn’t very long-lived. The OED’s most recent citation is from 1940. The latest we’ve seen is from 1984, when the word was part of a clue in an Australian crossword puzzle.
As for those other terms, they both date from the late 19th century. Though the “board-and-lodging” version has fallen by the wayside, “bread-and-butter” is still used today.
Thee OED has no entry for the first version, but it defines a “bread-and-butter letter” as an “originally U.S.” phrase meaning “a letter sent to thank a person for his or her hospitality.”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from the December 1891 issue of The Chautauquan: “There is seldom more for a visitor to do than to arrange the flowers for the hostess, to send her a ‘bread and butter’ letter when one has left her house, and a present on Christmas.”
We’ve also found examples in newspapers of the 1890s for “bread-and-butter note.” In the following decade, the message was sometimes called simply “a bread and butter.”
As for the “board-and-lodging” version, we’ve found uses from around the same time. Here’s an example, in a dialog between cousins:
“ ‘I suppose you saw Mr. Hodder safely off these hills?’ ‘Yes; has he not written what my mother profanely calls his board-and-lodging letter yet?’ ” From A Family Likeness (1892), a novel by Bithia Mary Croker.