Familiar names in unfamiliar places: networks & connections

Familiar names in unfamiliar places: networks & connections

Many people who research and write on letters are concerned with specific letter-writers or correspondences or perhaps particular collections, such as of a family. Doing so inadvertently places boundaries around the network of exchanges, and so of persons, represented in the letters concerned. An example concerns a postcard album I bought some years ago, containing about 40 picture postcards.

These were written by a woman living in the north-west of England. Initially she sent them to the young man she was in love with, who was in the trenches in France during World War I. Subsequently they married and had two children, and the postcards over this later period concern their wedding, births of children, holidays, birthdays and arrangements for other festivities. Mainly they were written to keep in touch when apart and make arrangements to meet, but the feature of note here is that the network of people they reference is perhaps surprisingly small: primarily each other, immediate family and a small number of friends. But of course, this observation is based on postcards which were kept primarily for the pictures on one side of them and not for what was written on the other; and the woman concerned will have written many other things, including Christmas cards, birthday cards, notes, letters of an official character, and perhaps also correspondences with friends or family members living at remove. Her postcard album is fascinating, but is probably just one segment of the much larger pattern of her writing letters and their cognate forms.

One of the joys of working with letters and related documents of life on an industrial scale within the WWW project is that, while similar boundaries obviously exist regarding specific sets of letters or collections, because so many of them come under the purview of project research, overall it is a case of busting the frontiers. The threshold for inclusion is simply that the letters should be by people who were white and have been written in or about South Africa. The net as a consequence is cast very wide and hauls in many and varied epistolary stuff.

One result – there are many more – is that familiar names are sometimes come across in unexpected places – what might seem ‘real’ boundaries when particular letters and collections are focused on can dissolve when many more are taken account of. However circumscribed someone’s letter-writing may be by the niceties of attending to the interests and concerns of the particular person being written to, when they write to someone else it is different, and also they may appear in other people’s letters in different kinds of circumstances than might be guessed at from their own letters, and also glimpsed in a different light character-wise as well. The networks of connections in their lives can suddenly zoom outwards in scale, and not only encompass unexpected activities and persons, but also enable the person concerned to be viewed in a more three-dimensional way. A simple example to  indicate some of the ramifications.

Olive Schreiner is an interesting letter-writer (www.OliveSchreiner.org). While occasionally her letters are thundrous or deeply engaged with working out ideas, they are mainly concerned with the everyday fabric of life and its happenings. Being who she was, the mentions of other people in her letters are many and varied. But what they do not do is turn the light on her, apart from in a shadowy or mirror-image kind of way, for generally she is much more concerned with the other person she is writing to than she is with herself. Her appearances in other people’s letters or in published work are all the more interesting, then.

Some of these glimpses are provided in extracts that appear on the website of the Olive Schreiner Letters Online, but one that isn’t contains the observation that a group of friends had gathered and had played the Ouija board, with Schreiner being an enthusiastic participant. The woman who Gandhi described as nearly a saint and WT Stead referred to as a ‘hyena in petticoats’ playing the Ouija board and roaring with laughter! Surely not!

Of course on one level this is banal and inconsequential. But on another, it is a useful reminder that people are generally neither saints nor devils, that social theorists and commentators can have robust senses of humour and enjoy sending up their friends, and that they will have engaged in many activities that their own letters never mention because of the way these are focused and who they are written to.

Last updated: 22 September 2016


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