Formal letters

Formal letters 

The previous blog  commented on an 1847 letter from Mr Smith to Mrs Townsend, a letter that verged on being an inventory or stock order. It had the structural features of a letter – as letters are currently understood to be – but was focused on reporting something very specific and with a response to it neither called for nor implied by its content. There were aspects of letterness there, but also those of the different genre of orders, lists and inventories.

The two letters commented on here were both written to a well-off Eastern Cape landowning farmer, (William) Dods Pringle. A widower, Pringle married Harriet Townsend in late 1848. His property was in the Baviaans River valley, near Somerset East and in the Cradock and Bedford area. The letters concerned are clearly letters and display most of the characteristics of letterness – but, there are some interesting complications respecting both of them.

The first letter of May 1842 is from Civil Commissioner (local administrator) Phillip Marillier and is in fact a ‘covering letter’. That is, it was written for the sole purpose of explaining that an attached letter from a third party was addressed to Marillier but actually ‘meant for’ Pringle.

Civil Commissioners Office
11 May 1842


Having been directed by the Acting Secretary to Government to acquaint you with the contents of the letter received by me from him, dated 2 May 1842, respecting the Bechuana Chief Damon, I have the honour to transmit herewith a Copy of the said letter.

I have the honour to be
Your obdt Sevt
PR Marillier
Civil Commissioner
[Pringle Cory 10,6635; 11 May 1842]

The content here is elliptical – while the accompanying letter was ‘respecting’ Damon, Marillier’s provides no details, including why Pringle was involved and was being written to. And in so far as the secondary literature is at all helpful, it indicates that Damon and his people in fact lived on someone else’s farm at Riet Kloof. Also, if there was any response intended or required, this inheres in the content of the Acting Secretary’s letter, not in this one from Marillier. Note also that Damon is characterised in specific ethnic terms, not ‘race’ ones in any direct sense. In fact the letter ‘covered’, from the Acting Secretary to Government, is also extant and perusal of its contents thrown some light on these matters.

This letter to Marillier is dated 2 May 1842, and in it the Acting Secretary, Henry Hudson, conveyed a message from the Governor, another degree of removal. The message was that Pringle should be told to inform Damon that he and his people could stay on the land they had occupied since 1833 so long as they ‘conducted themselves in the proper manner’, but that the land would not be actually granted to them. That is, they could stay ‘on condition’, but they could not own the land.

The second letter to Pringle for discussion is dated 10 January 1857 and is from Charles Scanlan. It is more firmly within letterness territory, as its content is directly addressed to and concerns Pringle. It too is highly elliptical, but not because there is another ‘missing’ letter as above, but because it is reporting on two matters which by implication had been carried out on behalf of Pringle as its addressee.

January 10 1857

D-W- Pringle Esq

Dear Sir

I send you herewith the amount for the year 1856 Mrs Hockly’s Estate and My Cheque for the balance £7-15-“- I had to get the whole of the end of the House covered with iron as the ?grass had all decayed

With kind Respects and Compliments of the Season

yours[sic] Truly
C Scanlan
[Pringle Cory 4,6192; 10 January 1857]

The first item in this letter indicates that Charles Scanlan was dealing with an Estate and through his letter, which had enclosed the now absent cheque, was paying over the balance of money due from this. However, the relationship of Mrs Hockly and Pringle is not specified, for of course both Scanlan and Pringle knew this (she was his mother-in-law and in 1857 living near him on one of his farm properties; he also held her general power of attorney so he could do business for her). The second item concerns the management of property repairs, and by implication ‘the House’ mentioned was part of the Hockly Estate. These two matters are detailed ‘full stop’: Scanlan’s letter then ends, as its business was completed. For the record, Mrs Hockly owned a number of properties in Cradock, and derived an income from the rental of these (plus an annuity from her father’s Will). No response to Scanlan’s letter is implied or requested, because his letter is itself a response. That is, it was part of an ongoing set of exchanges between him as a Cradock agent and property manager and Pringle as his client acting on behalf of Mrs Hockly, and it is Scanlan’s response to requirements or requests made of him.

Both of these letters are, in their different ways, formal letters. Marillier’s is well written in grammatical and related terms, that is, the terms of governmentality. It is entirely formal, however, and has no content of its own; it exists just to ‘cover’ its enclosure. Scanlan’s letter is missing some punctuation, its use of capitals is rather haphazard, and it was perhaps dashed off by Scanlan. Both are highly performative in character. Marillier’s is directly so, by being attached to the letter it ‘covered’, while Scanlan’s is a sign off-on his performance of a number of linked business matters.

Last updated: 23 August 2015


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