Do Not Scribble

Amanda Vickery

  • The Pen and the People: English Letter-Writers 1660-1800 by Susan Whyman
    Oxford, 400 pp, £30.00, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 953244 5
  • Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters by Dena Goodman
    Cornell, 408 pp, £24.50, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 8014 7545 0

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.

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