On Epistolarity (and Materiality)

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In the midst of several archival visits and reviewing the primary literature for my thesis, these last few weeks have been absorbed by meditations upon the epistolary form. As eighteenth century-ists and historians, we are well accustomed to working with collections of familial letters, yet our reflections upon them (myself included) are more often than not limited to their elucidating potential for our own topics of enquiry. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that letter-writing is and was a discrete literary form as well as a physical and material object, embroiled in narratives of transportation, gift culture and subsequent conservation by the recipient. Accordingly, I was particularly struck by the considered approach adopted by Temma Berg’s work on “The Lydia Clerke Collection”, a series of letters addressed to, but predominantly not written by, Lady Lydia Clerke. Berg published the letters in her 2006 book, The Lives and Letters of an Eighteenth-Century Circle of Acquaintance, a text which is remarkable for its sensitive and innovative approach to its material. Berg’s follow-up article ‘Truly Yours: Arranging a Letter Collection’ (Eighteenth-Century Life, 35:1 (Winter, 2011), pp. 29-50) describes in detail the reasons for Berg’s relatively radical editorial decisions – including the text’s lack of footnotes and decision to group individual series of letters in the form of novels, with titles such as ‘The History of Lydia Clerke, Written by Others‘.

What I found particularly striking were Berg’s thoughts upon wanting to preserve the original order in which she had found the letters when collating her source material:

“Ideally, to preserve the arbitrariness of their sequence, I would have liked to publish the Lydia Clerke letters as I found them: a sheaf of letters stacked in a box and arranged alphabetically by sender, so that readers would have the pleasures and frustrations of organising letters to their own satisfaction (as I had). But would I be able to find a publisher who would agree to published my book as letters in a box?” (Berg, 2011, p. 38)

Though ultimately Berg decided upon a traditional book format to ‘stress the novelistic qualities of the letters’, I find Berg’s attention to the materiality of her sources vastly compelling. Berg’s desire to preserve the trace of the archival hand, and to reproduce the experience of holding, shuffling through, and reading the letters first-hand, only emphasises how important the material qualities of these objects should be to our readings of them today, not only as literary sources for contemporary correspondence on an array of topics, but as the physical objects of a shared relationship between two or more people.

Whilst visiting the Denbighshire Record Office two weeks ago, I was looking through the correspondence between Sarah Ponsonby and her close friend and neighbour Mrs. Parker of Sweeney Hall, when I noticed that the so-called ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ used specially commissioned seals which read ‘Plas Newydd’, the name of their cottage in which they enacted their remarkable form of rural retirement.


Letter from Sarah Ponsonby to Mrs. Parker. DD/LL, Denbighshire Record Office, Ruthin.

It struck me that the the seal was essential to the whole performance of the letter – which employed nomenclature and labelling as a means by which to designate the letter as part of what Nicole Reynolds has called the ‘cottage industry‘ of Plas Newydd, a thriving network of material, social and intellectual production. However, if I had only paid attention to the contents of the letter, the nitty gritty job of deciding whether its contents told me anything ‘useful’, I may not have even noticed the seal’s existence, and as such, my whole reading of the object would have been different.

Such meditations are obviously limited by the nature of cultural history, which can require us, magpie-like, to pluck as many corroborating resources as we can find from relevant source material. Furthermore, my own background as an art historian predisposes me towards the material and the visual, more so than contemporaries in related historical disciplines. Nevertheless, I feel increased attention to the intersections between epistolarity and materiality can only shed light upon a genre of primary material upon which we rely so heavily, yet seem to use and understand in only a few senses.



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