What Letters Did, What Letters Do

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I am surrounded by letters on all sides. Our project, ‘Material Bodies, Social Identities: Embodiment in British Letters c.1680- 1820’ funded by the Leverhulme Trust began in February 2021. Our aim? To explore descriptions of everyday experiences of the body in the context of the communities of family and kin, friendship and faith. What role did discussions about the body play in the dynamics of social relationships? How did women and men understand the nature, extent and limits of their body, and its role in the construction of the self and social identity?

The project examines fundamental issues relating to who we think we are and how we connect with one another as embodied and feeling people. These are questions of concern to many disciplines in the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences: the relationship between selfhood and the body, the nature and historicity of the ‘embodied mind’ and ‘corporeal thinking’, the constitution of embodiment from a physical body that is both biological and social, the nature of experience as mediated by both language and corporeality, and the way that different forms of communication build human intimacy and connectedness. I believe that in situating our research in specific historical contexts, the discipline of History offers compelling answers to these questions.

The visceral power of these scholarly questions struck me during two unconnected events in 2020: the loss of my father in February and in March, the beginning of lockdown in England due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the application for ‘Material Bodies, Social Identities’ was being assessed at the Leverhulme Trust, and these two sets of events unfolded, a selection of the eighteenth-century letters at the heart of this project took on a new life.

The correspondence in question is a pile of twenty-one British letters, written by men and women between 1726 and 1790. Gathered during research trips to archives in the UK and north America, my photocopies of these letters are assembled in a neat pile on my desk. The originals, though, vary hugely in size, materials and especially the handwriting. One is so carefully written it looks laboured. Its author – a middle-aged spinster – complained of an ailment that impaired her hand, but she strove to hold her hand steady to impress her male friend and colleague. Another looks like it was dashed off without a care. This jaunty young writer teased her new sister-in-law and apologized profusely for her haste. In a third letter, a husband writes to his wife that he fears he has offended her. He has completely filled the sheet of paper but squeezed into the margins his salutation ‘in Tenderness of Affection … thy Loving & Faithful Husband’. As any scholar of historic letters will tell you, the letter is always shaped by generic convention and formulaic expression. Yet spend any short amount of time sifting through such letters, and you sense individual character, witness interpersonal conflict and feel deeply held emotion spilling out.

The shortest letter can mean the world. I have another pile of letters, written during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and sent to me from my father. Some are tiny notes on the back of business cards. ‘Good Luck! Dad xx’, reads one. Others are longer: reporting from a coffee shop or a holiday, reflecting on the weather, and referring to the ‘cheque enclosed’. In each one there is a brief encouraging message. ‘Keep smiling’. ‘Take it easy as best you can!’ ‘Weather not good but it’s great to be alive anyway!’ Formulaic and conventional? To be sure. But no less meaningful as expressions of a father’s love for his daughter, a heartfelt emotion conveyed in brief notes which moved her. You can take my word for it.

Letters mean through their very material presence as well as through their words. These hotchpotch scraps of paper connected us while he was alive, and they continue to do so even after his death. Crafted by him, they have a physical and affective afterlife with me.

Historic letters can do this, too. For my Mum, my Dad’s funeral in March 2020 sadly marked an astonishing moment: the beginning of both widowhood and isolation in lockdown. Luckily, we have many ways to keep in touch: we spoke on the phone every day for six months. But a phone call is not material. It can touch but it is palpably not a physical presence. I wanted to send my Mum letters, but after daily phone calls, what could I possibly have left to say?

So I began to repurpose the eighteenth-century letters I had been collecting. Those twenty-one eighteenth-century letters are the ones that I sent to my Mum, every 3 weeks, between March 2020 and April 2021. They introduced her to eighteenth-century handwriting and manners of epistolary expression. They prompted me to give time to these letters, when a multitude of other things have pulled me away from research. They gave us both something new to talk about on the phone. Their content – their words – is not ‘about’ us. The expressions of emotion in the letters are not mine. The reports they contain are of people and places completely unknown to my Mum. Poignantly, the requests to write back she could never fulfil. Yet the sending of these letters was an act of care, as we both well understood. Their material presence formed a connection. It brought me to her. And when she spoke about them on the phone, it brought her to me. Even now, though visits have resumed, I continue to send the letters. Mum saves them in a special folder she chose for this purpose: a new archive with new meanings.

Our Leverhulme project is about what letters say and what letters do. What do they say about people’s bodies and minds? What do they do for people’s bodies and minds? And how did discussing bodies and minds through letters keep people connected? Because we know that they did – and do.


2 thoughts on “What Letters Did, What Letters Do”

  1. I have never felt tempted to respond to a blog before but your post so resonated with me. But first, I send you condolences on the loss of your father. My own dad died suddenly at work (back in 1993), and sadly there were no opportunities for goodbyes. Instead, I too, have a small collection of precious notes which usually had been left on the kitchen table, hastily scribbled onto whatever scraps of paper were at hand, often the back of an envelope..’have a good day’, ‘keep smiling’ and ‘chirp up chicken’ along with comments about the weather or quips about a current boyfriend. You can appreciate how precious these papers are.
    In January 2020 I finally started my PhD journey. But, like you and many thousands of other people last year, soon became geographically separated from my mother. Again similar to you, the letters which I am using for research quickly proved to be an additional bond between us, providing fresh (non pandemic related) conversation. Instead, our daily calls were full of discovery and intrigue as together we speculated on the lived experiences of the author and her extended family, identifying parallels between their joys and anxieties and our own. My mother became determined to broaden her own contextual knowledge and this she continues to do. Post lock down, her enthusiasm remains infectious, and proves a key source of motivation for my research. Although our calls may no longer be quite so lengthy or even daily, every one starts with her asking ‘what were in the letters today’?
    I apologise for this rambling reply, but its hugely thought provoking to consider how ‘my’ C19th letters, originally written by women in a bid to maintain familial ties and provide comfort, 150 years later continue to do just that.

    1. Thank you so much for this. It is remarkable how our similar our experiences of/with letters has been. I wish you luck with your research, and hope your mother’s enthusiasm continues unabated!

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