Do men and women write different kinds of letters?
Do men and women write different kinds of letters? Certainly the well-known Victorian novelist Charlotte Brontë and her husband Rev Arthur Nicholls thought so. The said Arthur Nicholls thought that the letters his new wife wrote to her long-term friend Ellen Nussey were incendiary: they dealt with ‘dangerous stuff’ because indiscreet and personal in what they said both about the writer and other people. Thus in her letter of ?20 October 1854 to Nussey, Brontë wrote ‘Arthur has just been glancing over this note – He thinks I have written too freely about Amelia &c. Men don’t seem to understand making letters a vehicle of communication – they always seem to think us incautious… Be sure to follow a recommendation he has just given – ‘fire them’ – or ‘there will be no more.’ Such is his resolve. I can’t help laughing – this seems to me so funny, Arthur however says he’s quite ‘serious’ and looks it, I assure you…’
Then in a letter of 7 November 1854 to Nussey, Brontë added, ‘All this seems mighty amusing to me: it is a man’s mode of viewing correspondence – Men’s letters are proverbially uninteresting and uncommunicative – I never quite knew before why they made them so. They may be right in a sense. Strange chances do fall out certainly. As to my own notes I never thought of attaching importance to them, or considering their fate – till Arthur seem to reflect on both so seriously.’
There are two things going on here, then. One is discretion and indiscretion and what would happen if things in letters that were written ‘freely’ came into wider circulation, a possibility that had obviously increased when Brontë became a celebrity of considerable fame. The other is this idea of men and how they wrote letters and that this dId not involve using them as vehicles of communication, by which she seems to mean not communication as such, but communicating in ways that were ‘free’ and about persons, which is what she sees ‘us’, that is, women, doing.
Does the distinction that Charlotte Brontë draws bear out regarding the letters that are part of the WWW collections? Are there different patterns of letter-writing for women and for men in this South African context? A definitive answer to this must wait on the conclusion to the project. However, thinking broadly about the tens of thousands of letters that have been considered thus far, there seems little appreciable difference between how white women and men in South Africa write their letters. In Brontë’s terms, they all write like men!
That is, overwhelmingly the WWW letters are ‘business-like’ in the sense that they do not concern themselves with personalities, relationships, affect or interiority, but rather engage with practical matters in hand, and this occurs even in letters written in moments of trouble, joy or other strong emotion. The conventions drawn on are that the expression of such things should be ‘mannered’ in the sense of relying on conventions for how great feeling can be expressed in spare and restrained ways. There is no sense that these conventions were gendered in the way supposed by Arthur Nicholls and Charlotte Brontë.
And Ellen Nussey ignored the injunction from Nicholls to ‘fire’ Charlotte Brontë’s letters to her, by the way.
(Charlotte Brontë Selected Letters, edited by Margaret Smith, pages 237-38 and 240-41)
Last updated: 18 March 2016