‘Nearly but not quite’ is perhaps the way to summarise what is happening with regards to publication of the WWW website complete with all data. We have been promised and promised and promised access to the beta-version by HRI, so we can make sure it is all joined up properly and works as it should before publication. However, it seems that a series of in themselves minor problems have held matters up. We should have had it at 1 July, but now 1 August has come and gone! But can’t be helped.

So this week’s blog is alas not about the beta-version of the website, but instead the perennially interesting topic of correspondences and their relationship to letters. Are there features of correspondences that cannot be discerned in individual letters, that is, one-off letters that exist by themselves and are not part of a set of (epistolary) exchanges? Thinking about this helpfully starts with some examples.

The examples of one-off letters that first came to mind in thinking about it are: an 1890s letter from a New Amsterdam bank manager to David Forbes senior acknowledging a payment in of cheques; a 1780s letter sent from a young lady on a ship in Simon’s town to an acquaintance in nearby Cape Town conveying the news that she is en route to India; a 1946 letter to Lovedale Principal Shepherd from a ‘concerned citizen’ commenting on the riots that had then-recently occurred; a 1900s draft letter from accountant Tom Voss in Pretoria to a small firm in the gold-mining industry saying he will visit them to review their accounts.

These examples are all indubitably letters and bear nearly all the definitional hallmarks of such, bar one. What they lack – if it is a lack – is that none of them were written with the expectation of response. Indeed more the reverse, these letters indicate something of a closure and foreclose the likelihood of response. The cheques were paid in, thank you. I am paying my social dues by informing you of my arrival in your area and telling you where I am going. There is something untoward happening and you should attend to it. Here is the information you need to prepare for my visit.

They also lack another key feature of correspondence, seriality. Or rather, they lack seriality in the strong sense of being one of a number with others coming before and after it and marking its occurrence of having been written and sent in a temporal order. In a letter-series, all are linked by not only time-sequence but also by an unfolding epistolary relationship between a writer/reader and their reader/writer in a turn-taking sequence, but not so with one-off letters. They may nonetheless have seriality in the weaker sense of being curated in a sequence, an order, by virtue of the way they are classified and placed or located in an archival collection. This may be by reference to date or some other factor, although often such things end up in ‘miscellaneous’ end-parts of collections and tipped in higgledy-piggledy.

Thinking about this now the other way around, by contemplating features of correspondences that do not apply to one-off letters, what comes to mind? Immediately, this raises (in my mind at least) relationship in the strong sense of the word. That is, yes, a relationship of a kind was involved concerning the bank manager and David Forbes, the young lady and her Cape Town acquaintance, Thomas Voss and the firm employing him to audit its accounts, the Principal of Lovedale College and the concerned citizen. However, this appears different in kind from, say, the very large number of letters exchanged over time from the Hemming children to their adoptive mother Ettie Stakesby Lewis and to each other, and the hundreds between Arthur Brown and Effie Hemming, both before and after their marriage. The correspondences here lasted for 30 or 40 years and more, as did the relationships involved, and with these letter exchanges occurring before, between and after the very many face-to-face meetings and cohabitations that were involved.

But is this a matter of degree rather than a difference in kind? After all, there are many formal receipt letters from bank managers to David Forbes, the contents of the one extant letter from the young lady shows that the writer and her addressee had on occasion met, Voss audited the accounts of the firm in question on a number of occasions, and Shepherd received letters and visits from many concerned people over the lengthy period of his principalship. It could be said that the relationships here did persist over time. However, there is something about the relationships in question that is indeed different.  This turns on matters of affect and connection.

The names of the bank managers came and went, the point was the formality of the letter sent from the manager of the bank. The young lady’s letter is an expression of a formal politeness between people in the same broad social circle, and the point was to indicate polite expression rather than something any deeper. The concerned citizen wanted to make his mark, this was the point and not any idea that Shepherd would act on his specific anxieties. Voss specified a date to do the work he was employed as to do, and the person who he wrote to was just the administratively-correct person to be told this. Something distinctive characterises all four of these letters, then, which is that they are highly formal and they are entirely performative – in themselves they do the business that their content is concerned with, and they are not about response and exchange or affect or connection but about statement.

Thinking about this the other way around and starting with correspondence suggests another difference, in addition to these points about relationship. This concerns duration. Seriality involves a temporal (usually, but sometimes some other marker) order; duration concerns the longevity of the exchanges as a set. What is involved here can be helpfully explained by reference to the letters from bank managers to David Forbes, which are the closest of my four one-off letters to being marked by relationship and duration, although they still lack the response aspects of ‘actual correspondence’.

Certainly there are many formal letters certifying that deposits had been made sent by bank managers to David Forbes; certainly there are many such letters from the manager of the New Amsterdam branch of the Standard Bank. There is a serial aspect to these letters, then. However, they were triggered by an incoming deposit, rather than by any exchange overture from David Forbes to the writer  or any personal relationship, and there are literally dozens of names signing them either as the manager or on behalf of the manager. So taking seriality here to indicate either relationship or duration would be to misunderstand and misread the character of the letters concerned. They are one-off formal letters triggered by an external event, and albeit that they occur in time and at different times, they do not indicate correspondence or duration or relationship.

These thoughts about correspondence and one-off letters are beginning ones and there is certainly much more to be written about this. The topic will be continued in forthcoming blogs.

Last updated: 5 August 2017


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