Part I: Letters, proper and real

Part I: Letters, proper and real 

In discussion following a recent seminar paper, someone commented that the letters I’d been talking about – from the early 1840s and between the Eastern Cape business-woman Harriet Townsend and the Cape Town merchant WJ Smith – weren’t ‘proper letters’. Yes, they had dates, a personal address from one person to another, were written to bridge absence and separation, and so on. But… But they were, well, business-like and rather impersonal, and it seems that for some folks ‘proper letters’ can’t be like this.

So what are ‘proper letters’ like, then? After some email exchanges, a suggestion was that one well-known ‘proper letter’ starts and then ends in the following way: “…I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul… …A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.” Although the names of the addressee and the writer/signatory here are unstated and implicit, this letter has personal address, communicative intent, and was penned in complicated circumstances of separation and absence. However, what it has that the Townsend and Smith letters do not is the expression of a high degree of affect and considerable competence of expression. The Townsend/Smith letters are a correspondence over time concerned with expediting ongoing practical matters. The letter by Frederick Wentworth to Anne Elliott I have quoted from here was written in extremis and was a one-off, with talk, presence and togetherness as a consequence of it having been written, and then read, replacing writing, absence and separation for these two characters from Jane Austen’s novel, Persuasion.

For many people, this is a proper letter, then – but of course it is not a ‘real’ one. It is a fictional letter, one of the most famous letters in fiction. But for some folks, it and others like it have come to stand for what proper letters should be like, contra the millions of improper but very real ones, like the letters I had discussed which sparked off this conversation. While the ‘business’ involved can be many and varied, ‘real letters’ are considerably more often like the practical Townsend/Smith ones and rarely emotionally molten or well-written. But it is the others, the ‘proper’ ones, that are the draw for most scholarly attention, with knock-on effects for mis/understanding the genre of letter-writing. However, there is more to it than this, when considering something so complex and multifaceted as letter-writing. Watch this space!

Please note: This is the first instalment in a three-part series. The other two parts follow on 21 and 28 January and continue the debate concerning what makes for a ‘real letter’ and whether notions of the real are still defensible given the representational character of the genre. 

Last updated: 14 January 2016


Recent Posts