Reasons and excuses for not writing letters

Reasons and excuses for not writing letters

Mary Moffat nee Smith (1795-1871) experienced a call to the missionary field as strong as that felt by the man she married, Robert Moffat. She was born and brought up in Dukinfield, near Manchester in the north-west of England. Her parents the Smiths were market gardeners who were also deeply involved in local Congregational chapel circles. The Moffats became central figures in LMS missionary activity in Southern Africa, in particular due to their establishment of the key Kuruman Mission Station, and they also achieved fame in Britain as well because of Robert Moffat’s role in translating the Bible into Tswana. However, for most people now she is known about mainly because her eldest child Mary married David Livingstone.

There are 54 long and extremely interesting Mary Moffat letters in collections held in the Cory Library in South Africa, as well as what is referred to as a journal of her voyage to South Africa in 1819, but which is in fact two different documents filed together. There are also many more of her letters in the Zimbabwean National Archives.

These letters, currently being re-read, show Mary Moffat to be a mistress of the excuse for not having written sooner. Almost every one of her letters contains comments to this effect, with an inventive array of reasons provided for why she had not done so. Of course there are many more things in her letters than this. She is, for instance, a fount of information about the Kuruman Mission Station, about a small goings-on of her family, friends, acquaintances and various local people. And when in Britain on furlough, her letters have much detail about chapel circles and speaking circuits. However, what lodges in the mind, the thing that rises to the surface, are the inventive excuses. These are quite fascinating, perhaps because made with so little self-consciousness.

This might not seem very notable. However, sometimes the delays are of a year or two years or on occasion even three years. And even when shorter, a delay sometimes involves her missing writing a birthday letter to her daughters at school in Britain by anything up to six or eight months. To excuse this by, for instance, having been busy or having a bad headache, might seem very cavalier. One factor to reckon with here is that while Robert was lost in translation, she had full responsibility for running the domestic side of things including for the Station and the many children who lived in the household, not just her own, and was frequently run off her feet. In addition, it also needs to be taken into account that ‘opportunity’, a word she frequently uses, for sending letters did not often present itself. So if something happened that led to her missing such an opportunity, like a passer-by travelling to a small town many miles away where there was a postal service where her letter could be left, the next one could well be a year or so down the road.

Last updated: 31 March 2016


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