The ‘Nothing’ We Can Only Guess At

The art of letter writing may not be dead but it’s declined exponentially since the advent of email. So anyone’s efforts to communicate with others on paper are always of value. The letters of major literary and political figures are often collated and published for posterity but there will always be notes deemed too trivial to be worth our attention.

And here is a prime example just recently on sale at the market.

Field Marshall Sir Henry Evelyn Wood (1838-1919) was a distinguished British Army officer who won the Victoria Cross for rescuing a local merchant in India who had been ambushed by robbers and taken into the jungle to be hanged. He served in all the major hotspots in the British Empire, being made a Field Marshall in 1903.

Written on War Office stationery, the only date on this note is 5th May. It reads “My Dear Mr Chamberlain, I must, like Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used Up’ answer “There’s nothing in it”. Merci mille fois tout le même. [A thousand thanks all the same.] Yours Evelyn Wood”

‘Used Up’ was a comic play co-authored by Charles Dickens and Charles Matthews. The dramatic high water mark of the latter was his role as Sir Charles Coldstream in that very play. Although it is tempting to believe that this was in reply to an enquiry by future PM Neville Chamberlain, their chronology does not really overlap. It is far more likely that the intended recipient was Neville’s father, Joseph, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies from June 1895 to September 1903.

From a distance of over a hundred years, we have no way of knowing what the original question was. But it’s fun to guess. There’s “nothing” in what exactly…? Rumours of war with another country? A spat between the army top brass? Calls for independence in one of the colonies? Or something much more mundane like the War Office tea fund?

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