The epistolarium & South African letters

The epistolarium & South African letters

“Individual sets of correspondence reveal the personal passions of their creators, but when set beside, and intertwined with, the letters of multiple correspondents – when a few hundred letters become a few thousand – larger patterns of dependence and exchange surface.” (Lindsay O’Neill (2015) The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World University of Pennsylvania Press, p.2)

The concept of the epistolarium, as explained in a blog two weeks ago, is something I developed in order to theorise the shape, but to an extent also the content, of remaining sets of letters. To this key term, later work added ideas about letterness and epistolary intent, the epistolary gift, the epistolary pact, performative letters, counter-epistolaria, the writing laboratory and the scriptural economy.

For a number of mainly logistical reasons, this work has discussed many letters, but has done so using individual sets of correspondence, like the letters of Olive Schreiner to many people, Robert White’s letters to his uncle Robert Godlonton, or the many but finite number of letter-writers in the Forbes letters. In a sense this is clearly the best choice, for how an epistolarium shapes up is a product of those who contribute to do it and their interrelationships, and so will differ for different sets of connected letter-writers. But issues arise, for it is not quite so simple.

To take an example, the letters written by James Henderson, Principal of Lovedale College, include letters to family and friends as well as about the college and various other appointments he held,. They are certainly different from the many letters of Robert Shepherd, who succeeded him, and so how the epistolarium in each case is configured varies. But – and here’s the rub – they appear in each other’s letters, and also some of the people each of them is in correspondence with are also in correspondence with the other. There are rarely walls around an epistolarium, the letters come and go, and people know each other across boundaries.

This is the case across the sets of letters considered in the WWW research, for they can all be connected up. Starting in the 1770s and 80s and working through to the 1970s, points of connection and overlap can be found. They are in this sense exemplary of histoire croisse, something which has been discussed elsewhere in the WWW webpages.

The premise on which the WWW project has been based is that that, because people’s lives are connected in these ways, and because the porous character of epistolary communication adeptly registers change, there are likely to be shared patterns that develop over time across the complexities and differences. And if there are, then project research has also been concerned with whether these might perhaps add up to something distinctive about white letter-writing in the South African context.

Another way of expressing this is that, as well as thinking about and theorising the epistolarium in terms of particular correspondences, it is also important to do so concerning the tens of thousands of letters overall that the project has been concerned with. What do they add up to? What patterns are there? What processes of change have occurred over time? What ‘larger patterns of dependence and exchange’, as the quotation above has it, are there?

These larger patterns that surface have been discussed in The Racialising Process (Stanley 2017) and are concerned with the following matters:

  • Formation of the colonial state
  • The creation of labour
  • Work ‘per Kaffir’
  • Racial categorisations
  • Performative letters
  • Civility and appropriateness
  • Silences and what is not ‘seen’

The analysis of them indicates that they do indeed add up to something distinctive about the long-term processes of change in South Africa, hinging on racial typification, categorisation and regulation. This is ‘the racialising process’.

Rather than repeating this discussion, readers of the blog are recommended to the book and in particular to its Chapter 10, which considers each of them in detail. The reverberations will now be followed, by considering what the consequences might be for how the concept of the epistolarium is to be understood in the light of researching long and big.

Firstly, in thinking about letters in the long-term over hundreds of years, and at large-scale in terms of thousands of letters, has the concept of the epistolarium been stretched too much? Is it now so big as to be coterminous with social connections and therefore not very useful for thinking about letters as such?

To state this in more specific terms, are the first four points in the list above almost independent of letters, unlike the last three points? Considering the discussion in the book now, the links with letters are in fact spelt out with detailed examples, so perhaps always foregrounding the evidential basis in the letters is one helpful response. But another point here, one less easily accommodated, is that the idea of the epistolarium includes variations, differences and complexities between how different examples are configured and shaped. The list above is of broad patterns, but it does not engage with these variations and complexities, which are in fact importantly present across the letters.

Secondly, there are issues in thinking of such larger patterns in network terms, as O’Neill’s extremely interesting discussion of Early Modern British letters does. Is thinking in a network framework helpful?

Doing so displaces attention from the letters and places it more on the connected people, while the idea of the epistolarium is specifically concerned with epistolary exchanges, and not individual persons. Also networks are finite and have temporal as well as other boundaries, whereas tracing epistolary communications through letter collections and the epistolariums these reveal shows clearly that figurational relations in letter exchanges, rather than the connections of particular persons, are the ontological basis. An example here commented on a number of times in WWW webpages concerns the Findlay epistolarium, with flows of letters continuing unabated from the 1770s to the 1950s. Obviously none of the people writing letters at the start were doing so 180 years later, but the epistolary exchanges continued.

So is it possible to have it all? This is a million dollar/yen/euro/rand question. However, the only possible response is that large numbers of letters should certainly be considered in research and by as many researchers as possible. And in doing so, different analytical strategies need to be explored, and their strength and weaknesses, possibilities and problems, focuses and limitations, discussed and debated among epistolary scholars. At some point the question can be answered, but at the moment it is a case of research, research, research.

Last updated:  16 March 2018