Figuring it out – Inventories, figurations and letters to Robert Godlonton

Figuring it out – Inventories, figurations and letters to Robert Godlonton

Andrea Salter, University of Edinburgh

Please reference as: Andrea Salter (2014) ‘Figuring it out – Inventories, figurations and Robert Godlonton’s letters’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness/news-and-blog/blog/figuring/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. One recent aspect of the Whites Writing Whiteness project’s research has involved us mapping in a provisional way the contents of a number of archival collections. This has involved using detailed inventories (where these exist, although they often don’t) to identify and visualise the flows and gaps in flows of letters as these play out over time in specific collections. The purpose is produce ‘figurations’ of their contents – the work of Norbert Elias on figurations, de-/re- civilizing processes, habitus and the established and outsiders is providing the broad framework of the WWW research (see ‘Thinking with Norbert Elias’ at Elias characterises figurations over time as akin to a dance – no one dancing at the end was there at the start, people drop in and out, but the dance was continuous over time. Something very similar exists in the large letter collections the WWW project is examining over the 200 year period from the 1770s to the 1970s the project is investigating. An visualisation of this, drawn from the Findlay Family Collection, Cullen Library, Johannesburg is shown here:


2. So what exactly does ‘figuring it out’ mean? The process is detailed and entirely data-driven, and is based on the particular details of specific collections.

3. The WWW project has recently produced letter figurations of a number of collections. Some of these are connected to the publisher, editor and politician Robert Godlonton [1794-1884], often referred to as ‘moral Bob’ because of his sententious racial views. One is a small collection in the UK, the other a much larger collection in South Africa. These collections are overwhelmingly of letters written to rather than by Godlonton and they show the close connections between personal and business letter-writing, such that in this case making such distinctions is inappropriate.

4. The first collection, the Cape Colony Letters collection (in the Bodleian collections, University of Oxford), is of just under 200 letters and has a detailed inventory. The largest group of letters it includes are those from Godlonton’s nephew, friend and business partner Robert White. Both were major players in Godlonton, White and Co, focused around printing and publishing in and around Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape (see:

5. The second collection is much larger and contains over 1800 items, overwhelmingly letters to Robert Godlonton, and from over 500 different correspondents (and is archived in the Cullen Library in Johannesburg). The majority of these wrote just one or two letters; but there is a notable concentration of letters written from a handful of main correspondents, with some names overlapping both collections.

6. There are two practical matters with conceptual implications which have arisen in the context of constructing these figurations of letter-writings, which it is worth commenting on.

7. Firstly, it has been much easier to produce figurational data for the Cape Colony Letters because the content of these have been worked on in detail; any puzzles or issues of authorship, for example, have been settled by reference to the details of, not just the letter in question, but others too. But although we have done the same thing with the much larger Godlonton collection with its equally detailed inventory, this has been more difficult because many classificatory issues arise which content is needed to resolve, but this has not yet been worked on.  Work for the two collections is at a different stage, for logistical reasons. However, the differences have thrown into relief just how much understanding of ‘simple’ matters of form (author, addressee, date) depends on content and that each letter ‘makes most sense’ as part of a chain of letter-writing. So although there are now figurations for both, and these look fairly similar, one of them has the ‘hidden’ feature of a good degree of certitude, while the other contains equally ‘hidden’ uncertainties and puzzles. And ‘hidden’ here has the meaning that the way the data is represented is not amenable to showing such things – we would if we could!

8. Secondly, as already noted there are significant differences in the size (c200, c1800) and make-up (20+ correspondents, c500 correspondents) of these two collections. Regarding the larger one, from reading, even reading in attentive detail, its inventory (130+ pages), it is not possible to gain a sense of who the main correspondents are and over what period/s of time. There is just too much detailed, item by item, information to be able to grasp this without summarising analytical fork (the figurations). Sometimes it really does seem that ‘less is more’ in terms of the ability to comprehend the overall contours of collections.

9. WWW work on Godlonton’s correspondences is ongoing, and another report will follow when work on the content, as well as the structure, of these letters has been completed. The existence of detailed inventories for these collections (and for a number of other collections) has made it possible for us to drawing up figurations. However, by no means all collections have inventories, and in such cases our databases of information on their contents will in a sense form ‘the inventory’ from which figurational information will be provided. Whether or not there are differences between these different ways of ‘figuring it out’ remains to be seen, and we will also be blogging on this too at a later stage. But what is clear is that ‘figuring’ in the way outlined here is an extremely useful way to get a handle on the shape of collections and correspondences, especially regarding the very large collections.

Last updated: 25 June 2014

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