Part III: Telling apart: on ellipsis and letters real and fictional
Part I of this three-part discussion (Letters, proper and real) explored some ways in which the prevailing idea of what a ‘proper letter’ is like has been influenced by fictional or otherwise highly literary letters. It counterposed this with the humdrum, elliptical and business-like character of ‘real’ letters. Part II (Letters real (but not ordinary)) continued the discussion around Jane Austin’s ‘real letters’, having referred in the first blog to her famous fictional letter in Persuasion, written by the character Captain Frederick Wentwood to the novel’s protagonist, Anne Elliott. Here in Part III, the role of elliptical references that are made or not made in letters is drawn into the discussion.
Captain Wentworth’s letter – or rather Austen’s – concerns a momentous and life-changing matter and is highly polished and filled with affect and consequence. Austen’s ‘real letters’, however, and as many critics have complained over the years, are replete with everyday and humdrum ‘little things’, as she refers to them, as well as the artfulness that what she calls ‘my wits’ provide her with. This is because little matters and her wits are generally all the grist for the epistolary mill she has available, because the occurrence of ‘weightier things’ to write about were rare in her life.
But if as Austen suggests ‘real letters’ too can be, and often for humdrum reasons need to be, artful and involve the writer’s wits, then wherein lies the difference from the artfulness of ‘fictional letters’? Indeed, can’t a stronger argument be made, that the epistolary is ‘by nature’ a representational realm, and so notions of the real and of referentiality have to be given up? Yes to the first part of this question, but no to the second.
Writing is of course a representational medium, as is talk (etcetera, etcetera) and letters, particularly in correspondences, have strong heterotopic features produced in common by the contributors. But – and as Austen’s letter of 9 December 1808 discussed in Letters real (but not ordinary) points up – these representations are of something. They are representations of people, of events, of communications in letters, as well as of anything else Austen’s wits went to work on. Even if the fictional letter by Captain Wentworth is thought to be ‘pure representation’, it nonetheless relies on there really being persuadable people, lovers parted, misunderstandings, anxious moments, happy resolutions, and also that letters are written about all these things. No social life, no events, no people and relationships = no letters. The stubborn referentialities of the epistolary form require respectful attention and their combinations of factional and fictional aspects to be fully analytically recognised.
My first engagement with fictional letters brought me up face-to-face with Austen’s early but posthumously published epistolary novel, Lady Susan. A Women’s Studies friend and colleague was retiring. For her retrial event, because of her long-standing interest in the work of Jane Austen, I decided to write an account of the foibles of then-contemporary Women’s Studies/academic feminism through producing a spoof of Lady Susan. I did so, and enjoyed writing it as well as ruffling some feathers when presenting it because, like its originator text, it made some amusingly critical points as well as seriously celebratory ones. In doing so, an issue arose I had not anticipated.
The inevitability of writing the fourth-rate compared with Austen and wincing about this was par for the course, obviously. The unanticipated difficulty was dealing with the recalcitrance of the form or genre of the epistolary novel versus epistolarity. To explain.
The epistolary form as it appears within, or in this case composes, a novel is not ‘the letter’ but something shaped by the genre-needs of novel-writing. That is, everything the reader needs to know and that is required for moving characterisation and plot forward has to be present within such letters. This makes for an unwieldy clunky kind of letter-writing because it leaves no ends untied and nothing unsaid. In particular, it excludes things of that elliptical character which earlier in these linked blogs I proposed was one of the hallmarks of ordinary real business-like letters, and key to their emergent and in media res aspect. To make ‘a novel’, I concluded, it is necessary to unmake ‘a letter’ in this particular respect.
Consider again Frederick Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliott: it contains everything needful, nothing important is left unexplained, it does not exceed what is required, everything pans out. There is nothing in it that cannot be understood by the third-party reader. How very unlike Jane Austen’s ‘real’ letters! These are filled with the minutiae of other lives in other times and places and to which we third-party readers are always outsiders even when, perhaps especially when, an editor interrupts our readings with footnoted information about this, this, this, this, also that.
However, read on their own and without an editorial voice instructing readers about what things purportedly mean, Austen’s letters come across very differently. What shines through, captivatingly, is their embeddedness in a small world of people and events, the specificities of time and place, the crucial importance of the particular relationships and feelings that existed between the letter-writer and her addressees. They have a strongly emergent and dialogical character, for things happen, social life and relationships within it change, and the view given on such matters is strongly shaped by the particular relationship of the parties to such correspondence. The effect is one of uncertainty – readers simply do not know what everything means, and editors are not time-lords who can recover the long past, but they can intrude between a text and a reader in sometimes discomforting ways.
Also there are things that readers now can know about even the most distant and, in our terms, mysterious aspects of past epistolary writings, for the ellipses speak, even if in terms such that we cannot entirely grasp the references being made. This can be best explained by contemplating, not the absences in the shape of the things that are not told about, but the presences in the form of the inscription of the things taken-for-granted as already known in common and so not needing to be spelled out in letters.
So what does the presence of absence signified by elliptical references mean, and why are such ellipses so significant in epistolary terms? They signify both a world known in common and also that a letter in a correspondence is a part of something ongoing and in most cases not reducible to the letters alone.
Of course, there are sometimes correspondences between erstwhile strangers. Prisoner letters and those between other penfriends, for instance, come under this heading; and in these everything needful needs to be explained (while recognising that sometimes the people involved might at some point arrange to meet). One-off business letters too come under this heading, so that when I want to challenge my tax bill, my letter to a tax inspector contains all the information this official will need to reconsider my claim.
However, regarding both examples, once correspondence is happening then I do not need to explain the same details in every letter I write, but can make elliptical reference to earlier communications. In addition, these examples are both similar to and different from the epistolary fictions discussed earlier. They start without ellipses, but as the exchanges unfold so things which are known in common come into being and such references may be made. Epistolary fiction remains driven by ‘outside’ and the requirements of plot, characterisation and dénouement; life ordinarily lacks such clearly propelling externalities and ‘real letters’ are consequently ad hoc and circumstantial in their unfolding.
These exceptions, then, return to and demonstrate the rule. But what is the rule of ellipsis and how far does its remit run? Succinctly, ellipsis signals the ‘interrupted presence’ aspects of letter-writing, that each letter and from both ‘sides’ of corresponding is one ‘moment’ in a sequence of moments before and those after than of now. Now and the epistolary present is not hermetically sealed off from the epistolary past and future.
So far I have written about epistolary sequence, but of course there is life and its one damn thing after another sequences outside of letter-writing, including in other letters, but also in the rest of life’s persons, situations, events and relationships. In this ‘rest of it’, actual presence can and often does exist between correspondents. Some hundreds of letters from Jane to Cassandra Austen, but tens of thousands of hours over a forty-two year period of sharing the face-to-face together. And similarly so with most of the letters and letter-writers in the Forbes, Findlay, Pringle, Schreiner-Hemming, Moffat, White-Godlington and other collections discussed elsewhere on the Whites Writing Whiteness website.
Thus the rule. How it runs is unevenly and with complexities and counter-tendencies. Unevenly: even epistolarly communications to complete strangers can contain elliptical references, although these will not be known in common. Complexities: what is and is not elliptical in a matter of context and time, and readers now may not appreciate that then some wider reference and shared knowledge was being indicated. Counter-tendencies: by no means all letters or other epistolarly communications to our familiars contain such references, it is not just epistolary novels that lack them.
Can ‘real letters’ and ‘fictional letters’ be told apart, then, and if so by what means? Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. With difficulty. Thinking about the elliptical references in them helps think about this.
Last updated: 28 January 2016