A voyeuristic pleasure in being privy to secrets drives many archival historians. After ploughing through bundles of faded letters reporting on wills and the weather, pigs and piles, what researcher’s heart would not thrill at the words: ‘Please burn this letter that no mortal eyes may read it’? Manuscripts may seem to offer the pleasures of the peephole but no serious historian would argue that personal manuscripts offer access to unvarnished, unmediated truth. Letters do not simply display our feelings on the page; they are compositions.
It was an 18th-century truism that the best letters were effusions from the heart. A long critical tradition praised those who captured the spontaneity of talking. ‘You see my letters are scribbled with all the carelessness & inattention imaginable,’ Alexander Pope claimed in a missive of November 1712. ‘My style, like my soul, appears in its natural undress before my friend.’ When Hester Piozzi wrote in 1788 that personal letters were ‘familiar chat spread upon paper’ she was parroting a line at least as old as Erasmus. Jane Austen, unsurprisingly, was mistress of the conventions: ‘I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of the letter.’
Emotion is the fuel of one of the most compelling documents a historian can hold – the love letter. Mary Hewitt, the young wife of a Coventry lawyer, kissed his letters when he was away and invited him to imagine her a Woman of Feeling languishing for want of him:
post days are all sunshine when we are to have a letter [in the] morning … I find a secrett pleasure ye night before when I lay me down in bed [that] … I shall hear from my dear before I rise next morning it makes me sleep ye beginning of ye night very sweet but towards morning my Ears are all attention to hear Molly come in with here is a letter from my master but if I see her come & no such news [expected] I give her a very sower looke & turn tother side & don’t care wther I gitt up or no.
Mary sighed like the heroine of a novel of sensibility, shrewdly dramatising her own responsiveness to hasten her husband’s return. The demands of courtship were changed irrevocably by the rise of letter-writing. As Robert Darnton has argued, ‘living cannot be distinguished from reading, nor loving from the writing of love letters.’ Today, extramarital affairs are most likely to be discovered by reading a partner’s emails or texts. In fact, having an affair and using any form of written communication at all is rank idiocy.
Long before Freud, Samuel Johnson suggested that the impression of artless intimacy given by letters could be a sham. ‘There is indeed no transaction which offers stronger temptations to fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse … A friendly letter is a calm and deliberate performance in the cool of leisure, in the stillness of solitude.’ All letters were to a greater or lesser extent works of art. As Toby Ditz concluded in a study of merchants’ letters in 18th-century Philadelphia, they ‘do not simply record or describe their surrounding economic and social reality (though they may well purport to do so); they “inscribe” or “rework” it.’ For Ditz, even the apparently pragmatic communiqué artfully underscored the straight-dealing character of the ideal merchant. All letters perform for an audience. ‘Scribal publication’ (copying by hand and circulating by letter) was common among early modern intellectuals. Most letter-writers of any literary stature were only too aware of the tradition of publishing correspondence. John Evelyn, for example, arranged his manuscript letter books to resemble a collection on the classical model.
The privacy of the letter was a vexed issue. Once cast into the mailbag it was lost to the sender but might never arrive: ‘I am very uneasy about the miscarriage of my letter’ was a common lament. In the 1680s, Anne Dormer, the unhappily married gentry wife of Robert Dormer of Rousham, relieved her feelings in repetitive, agonised letters to her sister, though fretting that they would fall into the wrong hands: ‘the fear of my letters not coming to you makes me not write of my affaires so freely as I would and has kept me from writing many times when it would be an ease to my heart.’ She knew that her husband would rage if he discovered she had been ‘writing and receiving private letters … he watches to read those I receive.’
Dormer was an unusually tyrannical husband, but the practice of censoring the letters of dependent family members was common, if resented. In the 1740s, the young bluestocking Elizabeth Robinson (later Montagu) was appalled to find that her mother had read and disapproved of a flippant letter she had written to her sister.
Nor cou’d I imagine that I was writing what anyone wou’d read except [Sarah] herself; if I had thought so, I give you my word, I shou’d have been much more reserved both in that and in the other letters I wrote to her … I shall write to her for the future as I preach to my Congregation, good wholesome serious sound matter, such as may please the eye of a watchful Parent.
Private letters were often read aloud in families, so the sensible watched their ps and qs. The length of the letter, the beauty of the handwriting, as well as the sprightly content could all be sources of comment. One might, like Emma Woodhouse, feel resentful about the letters of an accomplished acquaintance: ‘One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty times over.’ Some letters were intended to be referred to again and again. Pregnant women routinely drew up conduct letters for children yet unborn or still in leading strings. As one gloomy expectant mother prophesied in 1801, ‘My dearest child, When this is delivered unto you, the hand that writes it will be mouldered in dust.’ The content of these tear-stained letters tended to be secondhand, paraphrasing published conduct books, which themselves pretended to be personal in inspiration.
Letter-writing is an ancient custom but for centuries there was a caste divide between composition and inscription. The European nobleman would dictate his thoughts to his scribe, a man of lower rank who performed the mechanical task of writing them down. Only with the integration of these two practices did letter-writing become truly personal. The 18th century’s claim to have been a high summer of letter-writing in England and France is based on a series of linked factors: a tipping point in literacy levels, dramatic commercial expansion, which demanded the movement of people across nations and colonies, and the sophistication of the postal services organised by two highly bureaucratic states. The social and cultural implications of all this are explored in two magisterial new books, each based on a decade of research. The different spin the authors put on developments is captured in their titles. Dena Goodman’s elegant study, Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters, charts the way literate and privileged (though not necessarily noble) French women colonised letter-writing, which was simultaneously ‘inscribed into the meaning and practice of modern womanhood’. Susan Whyman’s The Pen and the People is a celebration of democratisation, showing how important letter-writing became to middling and even some plebeian English men and women.
The key gauge used to measure literacy rates across large social groups is the ability to sign a marriage register or a witness statement in court. It is an ambiguous test: many learned to read before they could write, but some may have recognised only the letters in their own name. David Cressy’s research on England suggests a gradual, if uneven, climb in male sign literacy, from 10 per cent in 1500 to 45 per cent in 1714 and 60 per cent in 1750. Female sign literacy lagged behind male, but rose steeply from a shockingly low base of 1 per cent in 1500 to 25 per cent in 1714 and 40 per cent by the mid-18th century. This general trend obscures distinctions of rank and discrepancies between town and country, north and south. By the later 18th century, English noblemen, gentlemen and merchants had long been literate; 95 per cent of shopkeepers possessed basic literacy, but the vast majority of agricultural labourers still could not sign their names. Sign literacy in Catholic France was less common than in England. Female literacy in France climbed in the course of the century from 14 to 27 per cent, but continued to lag behind male levels (48 per cent by 1789). Despite this, Goodman argues, Frenchwomen’s accomplishments as letter-writers were seen as evidence of the wonders of French civilisation.
Whyman investigates those who possessed a more demanding level of literacy than the mere capacity to produce a signature: the ability to write a letter. Her ‘epistolary literacy’ involves the ability to write coherent sentences, command the vernacular, grasp conventional forms and handle the technologies of quill pen, ink and paper. Epistolary literacy often derived from unofficial sources: unlicensed itinerant teachers and local scribes, published and homemade copybooks, family collections of letters used as models, literate individuals who taught their kin at home, and auto-didacticism. Hard to read ‘secretary hand’ (associated with scholars) was replaced by looser, faster italic (believed to be easier for ladies), which itself gave way to a flowing cursive or copperplate. Thus handwriting became a classless idiom. Just as British ships ruled the waves, ‘England was establishing an empire of handwriting.’
Letters are redundant without a distribution system. A national postal system was comparatively late to arrive in Britain compared with continental Europe. The Royal Mail was reorganised in the 1660s, with letters carried on six main post roads, radiating from London, where secretaries of state could censor the mail. From the 1680s, the London penny post managed up to ten deliveries a day and was a wonder of Europe (a letter posted at 8 a.m. could be delivered by 10). At mid-century, Ralph Allen of Bath introduced the cross posts and provincial post offices (no longer did a letter from York to Shrewsbury have to make a costly trip via London), creating a truly national system. In the 1780s came John Palmer’s high-speed mail coaches: toll gates stood open, fresh horses champed at the bit, and the news-hungry rushed to their doors at the thundering approach of the mail. The postal service introduced new deadlines and rhythms into English national life. John Tucker, a Weymouth stone merchant, orchestrated his business around deliveries: ‘My exertions are all timed in what I call the long post between fryday night and Tuesday night, that no letters may remain unanswered that of necessity require it.’ Thrice-weekly London newspapers, like the General Evening Post, were timed to catch the key mail coaches out of the city – that was why newspapers had the word ‘post’ in their titles.
A way with written words was an asset in the world’s leading commercial nation. ‘When Merchants … and Men of … Considerable Offices’ sought apprentices, John Ayres’s Tutor to Penmanship claimed in 1698, the first question asked was ‘is he anything of a Penman?’ Literary competence may not have been necessary to stoke a furnace or make a bonnet, but it could secure a livelihood in scores of clerking, accounting and middle management positions in trade, retail, manufacturing, transport, government bureaucracy, the professions and commercial agriculture. Parents saw literacy as an engine of social mobility, and Whyman tracks it through the archives of educationally driven families. Thomas Langton, a Lancashire merchant (who traded flax, iron, timber, tobacco, rum, sugar and slaves), demanded proficiency from his schoolboy sons in the 1770s and 1780s. ‘Endeavour to improve in your writing which is a great advantage to a person in trade … Let me therefore remind you of it, and do not scribble.’ He drove them both hard. ‘Mr Hornby tells me his son Thomas is very much improved in writing and accounts. I would not have him surpass you therein.’
The literate smallholders, labourers and semi-skilled workers Whyman has unearthed also used letters to find work and conduct relationships. As a Yorkshire bridle-maker cooed in 1787: ‘ah Jenny when will the long wish’d for Morn appear that brings you to these Longeing Arms.’ For Whyman, letter-writing changed the way people thought, repetition fostering the refinement of independent opinions. The letter and the mail coach were as much a part of the burgeoning public sphere of political debate as coffee shops and clubs. Certainly, the Home Office believed so when they spied on the letters of radicals in the 1790s.
The voice of the ordinary female letter-writer is muted in The Pen and the People, silenced by a relative scarcity of surviving correspondence. The literacy gap between the genders goes some way to explaining the dearth of letters from maids and milliners, seamstresses and spinners, but many were just destroyed: families had less need to keep women’s letters for legal and financial reasons and seem to have been less inclined to treasure them for the instruction of posterity. Self-censoring, modest women may even have consigned the lot to the fireplace.
Sex was more important than rank in determining epistolary competence in the 17th century. My own research confirms Whyman’s impression that even in the early 18th century, unstructured, ungrammatical, phonetically spelled letters were common among genteel women whose menfolk could write like Erasmus. The classical grammar school education of elite boys set them up for ‘a lifetime of polished letter-writing’. But the gender gap in proficiency was closing by the 1770s. In the middling and gentry families I have studied, letter-writing was fundamental to the management and provisioning of households, the maintenance of kinship and the nourishing of social networks. And all these tasks fell overwhelmingly to women. Letter-writing was less an exercise in stealthy Romantic creativity than an inescapable chore.
Goodman’s study is a cultural history of the ‘lady of letters’. From 1660, French cultural theorists drew a distinction between letters and other kinds of writing, linking the former to ladies of birth. ‘Whereas all writing had previously been considered primarily a male occupation, letter-writing now entered the repertoire of cultural practices that these elite women were expected to master, even as it was assumed to flow effortlessly from their nature.’ French critics drew an iron distinction between the female letter-writer and the man of letters. Both the academies and the salons (dominated by women from the 17th century on) connected print publication with men. France’s celebrated Republic of Letters was populated by men of common birth, whereas its female letter-writers came from a higher social class. Published women writers were in a minority even in the case of that most feminised genre, the novel. ‘Among women more than men, the gap between the ability to write and being a published writer or author grew … The practice of letter-writing expanded to fill this gap.’
When female correspondents were painted by men (Fragonard, Boucher and Schall) they were depicted reading rather than writing letters. The paper quivering in their graceful hands was a billet-doux, proxy for the absent suitor. The emphasis was on women as vessels of feeling, even erotic potential, representing the eternal feminine rather than the modern author. Letters strewn about a pretty dressing-room were mere emblems of literate status – rarely was the correspondent depicted quill in hand, generating thoughts of her own. Goodman contrasts this with three portraits of active letter-writers by female painters: Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s Comtesse de Cérès (1784), Anne Vallayer-Coster’s Portrait of a Woman Writing and Her Daughter and Adélaïde Labille-Guiard’s Portrait of a Woman (1787). The last of these shows a thoughtful and composed woman in silver grey, writing as we can plainly read to ‘mes enfants’. Goodman’s favourite, she shimmers on the cover of the book, fixing the audience with a level gaze. Her intelligent self-possession seems to support Goodman’s thesis that while letter-writing was supposed to contain female authorship, women could escape these bounds, using their letters to become teachers, child psychologists, philosophers, critics, poets and historians.
The ability to write a natural letter which seemed to capture the sparkling spontaneity of French femininity was a skill that had to be acquired. By the 1760s, the education of a fashionable girl was overseen by her enlightened mother: all these Sophies and Manons were taught to ply the pen either at home or at a newfangled school. They received voguish education-through-play, and carried on an emotional, moral and tutorial correspondence with Maman during their convent years. Mothers encouraged and criticised their daughters’ epistolary efforts and no doubt read them aloud to unwary visitors. Correspondence helped mothers and daughters tolerate their first separation and built a conduit through which they could traverse the inevitable barrier of marriage. It was not for nothing that Madame de Sévigné’s Letters to her Daughter was a favourite model for aspiring writers.
Goodman’s central claim is that French femininity was forged at dainty writing desks, which became common from the 1740s. Ladies showed their mastery of what Mimi Hellman calls the ‘work of leisure’ in flawless writing at tiny tables, showing exquisite control in a ‘choreography of the quill’. It is no small matter today to sit at one of these delicate desks without knocking it over or barking your shins, but in plentiful petticoats, unwieldy hoops and frilled sleeves, letter-writing was a feat of trained elegance which testified to the ultimate refinement of the French. The fashionable lady’s desk – one variety was called the bonheur-du-jour, another the secrétaire – was crafted from a marquetry rainbow of tropical woods and equipped with an armoury of quills, inks, azure or white paper, personal seals and porcelain inkstands and wells (a popular version came in the shape of a laughing Buddha whose belly held the ink). No lady’s desk was complete without a secret drawer in which to hide valuables and letters. A place of privacy is central to Goodman’s conception of the autonomy of the letter-writer. The secrétaire guarded a lady’s secrets and advertised her claim to thoughts of her own. Private spaces, private property and private thoughts were interconnected. These links were forged by English letter-writers too. Scorched by her mother’s surveillance of her letters, Elizabeth Robinson was punctilious about the privacy of her correspondents. ‘You need be under no terrors about my letter case,’ she reassured her sister, ‘for I keep yr letters in my Bureau & read them over, then answer them & then I lock them up in a drawer sacred to them where no flattery false spelling or folly dares to approach.’ Goodman concludes that letter-writing emerged as the primary site of female reflection on subjectivity and society. The writing desk is the ‘furniture of the Modern Self’.
These two studies epitomise the strengths of two different national traditions of historiography. The originality of The Pen and the People lies in the cavalcade of writers disinterred from 60 collections in provincial archives, and used by Whyman to reclaim a vanished social world. Only by one claim was I unconvinced. The argument that ordinary letter-writers determined the evolution of epistolary fiction is thought-provoking but the only evidence for it is Samuel Richardson’s famous advisory committee of amateur critics. Becoming a Woman, meanwhile, is distinguished by the brilliance and clarity of its driving argument. My only doubts concern that argument’s destination. I am sceptical about the existence of such a thing as ‘the Modern Self’, a single, uniform identity tied to a historical epoch. However, scaling back the rhetoric, Goodman’s view of French letter-writing as a key site of identity formation turns out to be not so different from Whyman’s idea that the English letter was a tool of independent thought. Both are plausible claims, even if they fall short as motors of a single, decisive shift in European history.
Letter-writing was not only a new way of fashioning the self, it was becoming a universal necessity – as both books engagingly show. French desks often had a miniature globe as inkpot, a celebration of the reach of letters. Goodman’s letter-writer was an indoor creature who withdrew to her cabinet to commune on paper with her friends and to monitor her children, but her missives sped from her house to scurry across France, and even beyond. Letters build community out of absence. They were a crucial form of networking for women, to whom so much institutional life was closed. One of Whyman’s most accomplished correspondents, the vicar’s wife Jane Johnson (author of the lost classic The History of Miss Clarissa of Buckinghamshire), imagined herself the queen of a giant network: ‘I Dreamed last night (Arachne like)’ that ‘I was metamorphosed into a spider as big as the full moon, & sat upon a Throne in the Centre of a Web of my own spinning, as Large as Lincolns-Inn-Fields.’