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Unit 28 – A Letter to a Friend

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds


The passage below is an extract from Foster’s Even Odder Irish Oddities, by Allen Foster.


The following ingenious letter was published in The Dublin Penny Journal of 7 June 1834, presumably a long time after it had been written. A newlywed young lady, who had to show her husband all the letters she wrote, composed it. She outwitted her husband and sent this letter to a close friend:

I cannot be satisfied, my Dearest friend:
blest as I am in the matrimonial state,
unless I pour into your friendly bosom
which has ever beat in unison with mine,
the various sentiments which swell
with the liveliest emotions of pleasure,
my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear
husband is the most amiable of men.
I have now been married seven weeks, and
have never found the least reason to
repent the day that joined us. My husband is
both in person and manners far from resembling
ugly, cross, old, disagreeable, and jealous
monsters, who think by confining to secure;
a wife it is his maxim to treat as a
bosom friend, ————— and not as a
play-thing, or menial slave, the woman
of his choice —————- neither party,
he says, should always obey implicitly,
but each yield to the other by turns.
An ancient maiden aunt, near seventy,
a cheerful, venerable, and pleasant old lady
lives in the house with us – she is the de-
light of both young and old; she is ci-
vil to all the neighbourhood round,
generous and charitable to the poor.
I am convinced my husband likes nothing more
than he does me; he flatters me more
than the glass, and his intoxication,
(for so I must call the excess of his love),
often makes me blush for the unworthiness
of its object, and wish I could be more deserving
of the man whose name I bear. To
say all in one word —— and to
crown the whole, ——- my former lover
is now my indulgent husband, my fondness
is returned, and I might have had
a Prince without the felicity I find in
him. Adieu! May you be as blest as I am un-
able to wish that I could be more


1. Based on evidence from the passage, why was the letter not published until ‘presumably a long time after it had been written’?

  • A      The husband forbade it
  • B      The humour of the writing was before its time
  • C      It was unremarkable
  • D      It contained a secret the writer didn’t want to publicise



2. ‘Maxim’ (line 15), is closest in meaning to:

  • A      Power
  • B      Control
  • C      Belief
  • D      Longing


Question 3 refers to the following additional information:

The above letter conceals a secret meaning. The key to unlocking it (in cipher) is to read the first, and then every alternate line only.


3. How does the cipher subvert the meaning of the letter?

  • A      By removing all the positive sentiments about the husband
  • B      By altering the implicit meanings of specific words
  • C      By changing which nouns the adjectives modify
  • D      All of the above
  • Answers:
    Q1: D
    We are told that the newlywed ‘outwitted’ her husband by sending this letter. It therefore obviously contains a secret which the writer doesn’t want the husband to find out. If the journal published it they would have had to publish the cipher too in order for the readers to understand the significance of it. This would have given the game away. We don’t know that the husband forbade her to publish things, just that she wasn’t allowed to send letters without him reading them.
    B and C are subjective answers and should be discarded immediately.

    Q2: C
    A maxim is a belief, aphorism or saying.

    Q3: A
    This question requires you to apply the cipher and look closely at the effect is has on words.
    The positive sentiments about the husband are all removed by the exclusion of every second line.
    The only word for which the meaning is subverted is ‘indulgent’. However, this word is part of a sentence that is excluded by the cipher, so this is not relevant.
    C happens once in the letter:
    My husband is
    both in person and manners far from resembling
    ugly, cross, old, disagreeable, and jealous

    The target of these adjectives changes from monsters to the husband.

    The closest thing to answer C happening a second time is ‘unworthiness’, which, with the application of the cipher, ceases to refer to the writer and refers instead to ‘the man whose name I bear’. Unworthiness is not an adjective though.

    Since this only happens once, and since the removal of positive sentiments in every second line plays a far larger role in the subversion of the meaning of the letter, A is a better answer than C. The answer cannot be D, since B is incorrect.

    Gamsat Sample Questions

    June 8, 2012

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