The Matchbox

Thanking in style

As we step foot upon the perineum that bridges The Year That Shall Not Be Named and 2021, it feels necessary to hand over first to Sylvia Townsend Warner for a lesson in how to say thanks for all the gifts, and then to Kennedy Lindsay for the polar opposite. May your Boxing Day be slovenly.

Born in 1893, English author and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels in her lifetime. She also had an unrivalled knack for crafting entertaining letters, and in 1946 penned this exquisite example to friend and fellow writer Alyse Gregory, in response to a Christmas gift which, if given to anyone else, would have elicited little more than a blank expression.


Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor's wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan't go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.

Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.


P.S. There is still so much to say...carried away by my delight in form and texture I forgot to praise the picture on the back. I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent.

Sylvia Townsend Warner | Letter to Alyse Gregory, 23 Dec 1946

Alternatively, should your mood be less friendly, here’s a template courtesy of Northern Ireland politician Kennedy Lindsay, who in 1975 returned a card to future Taoiseach of Ireland Garret FitzGerald, as follows.

I return your seasonal greetings card with contempt. May your hypocritical words choke you, and may they choke you early in the New Year, rather than later.

Kennedy Lindsay | Letter to Garret FitzGerald, December 1975

Illustration from More Letters of Note, in which this letter features. If you haven’t already done so, subscribe to this newsletter so I can send send it straight to your inbox, and please consider supporting it for a few pounds a month so I can dedicate even more time to this increasingly enjoyable project. Paying subscribers will gain access to a monthly ‘members-only’ email and my everlasting love. Hit the first button below for options, and whichever you pick, thanks for signing up x

Become a member