Who writes a letter? Love to all of you folks from Umquaka

Who writes a letter? Love to all of you folks from Umquaka

Who writes a letter may seem self-evident, especially when there is a signature and there is no need to doubt that this person communicated what appears in the letter. But it is not always so simple, as with an example which has been the subject of much thought since first coming across it.

This long letter, addressed to Kitty Forbes, is dated 11 July 1886 and has the address of Athole on it; its content is a message from Umquaka, who had been Kitty’s nursemaid when she was younger and still worked for the Forbes family; and her name appears at its sign off, with ‘love to all of you folks from Umquaka’. An open and shut case, then? That is, if it has signature, address, and communicates from one to another assuming, and indeed in this case insisting on, the propriety of response, then there may seem to be no problem, no issues in saying it is indeed a letter by Umquaka. But it is not quite so straightforward, there are complexities, as reading it will indicate, with part of the text transcribed below.

The content quickly moves from an introductory first sentence to news from Athole to comments on Kitty in England to waiting for the post to people who have not written but should to re-thatching the farmhouse to Fred and more and more and more. It’s rather like a rapid conversation from one-side, but with many references to the interlocutor’s part. In the midst of the opening sentences, it becomes clear why – ‘ you say that I never write to you, but you know very well I can’t read write or read’. This raises questions of who is writing in the literal sense of penning this letter. It goes on to say that Umquaka would have written previously, but Mrs Straker was too busy, and that Mr Phillips ‘offered to write for me’ but she didn’t like to accept.

Various other members of the Forbes family and the wider household are accounted for. David Forbes senior, Kate Forbes, their daughters Kitty, Nellie and Madge and son Dave were in Scotland together with James Forbes senior, younger brother of David. Their son Alick had died from typhoid while they were away. This left the youngest Forbes son Jim under the watchful eye of his aunt, Kate’s sister Sarah Straker, who was also in charge of the Athole farm-estate.

There is some small information in the letter itself, in the form of two in-passing references that were mistakes, providing clues because of the way the letter was written at points and then needed to be unwritten because of these small but consequential mistakes around the older and young Jims. One is, ‘How is old Jim?… I know Jim will not write to him me’, where the writer has slipped up regarding Umquaka’s spoken words and initially thought the second Jim was himself not writing to his uncle, but then realised it was not. The other is, ‘…I would not write to you. James J Big Jim’s time will soon be up now…’, where another confusion occurred as to which Jim she was referring to.

From being spoken by Umquaka to being written by young Jim, many pronouns needed to be changed to make it into a letter from one person, Umquaka, to another, Kitty, rather than how it was said. This was one person, Umquaka, talking to another, Jim junior, saying things for Kitty and about others. Added to which, the language this was spoken in was probably Tswana and not English, so multiple translations were needed. These are from Tswana to English, from talk to a written text, and from something said to Jim about and for Kitty, to something directly addressed to Kitty.

So, who writes? The epistolary intent (she kept trying to get a letter written) and communicative fount(her news, her inquiries) was certainly Umquaka’s. The amanuensis and translator aspects are Jim’s. So ‘who writes’ depends on what the defining components of a letter are seen to be, and how much or how little it might be thought that Jim changed things in carrying out the levels of translation involved.
There are other fascinating aspects of Umquaka’s letter, in particular concerning what she says/writes about whiteness, but many other things too. The discussion will continue – with the full transcript – in a Trace that will appear in due course..

11th July 1886

My dear Kitty

Tis the first time I have written to you. When is your ma getting the Doctor? here we are all quite well and happy. I hear from your Mama that you are begining to like England. I am waiting every post to hear when you are coming back you must come down as nice as when you started… …I have written to you this time but I dont know when I shall be able to write again you say that I never write to you, but you know very well I cant write or read. We are comencing the house to thatch it and how would you like to be here when the house is all pulled about its a good thing you folks are not here while the house is all pulled about.

… Well Kitty since my house broke I dont sleep nicely of a night I am so frightened I cant get one to mend it for me I hear that fellow that broke my house is coming back I mentioned it to Fred about getting some one to mend it for me but he has not done so…

… I would have written by last Sunday up at Mrs. Strakers, but she was too busy she told me she was going to write her letter on Sunday as she had so much to write about. Mr Phillips offered to write for me but I dont like to let a gentleman write any letter for me… …Very much thanks for the letter shoul you must not get tired of writing to me I am not tired of thinking of you all. Aunt Sarah is very good to me here and she always wants me to go there but its too far for me to walk but she does everything for me if I only send up to her… … How is old Jim? I heard he was very sick from Stoffie Bresler they write to him all right and I know Jim will not write to him me You must learn fast with the fiddle so that you can play me some songs when you come back to Athole…

… How are you all getting on write and tell me. I think of all of you but when I I think of your ma I don’t think I shall see her again, she must not come back thin but as fat as when she left here I suppose you don’t eat there like you did here that will make you thin and white… …But it is a good thing I cant write to you Kitty, as because I would not write to you. James J Big Jim’s time will soon be up now for him to come home I will be very glad to see all of you come back again. Every wagon Fimfy sees he thinks it is your waggon coming back because he thinks very much about Davie but Fred is always teasing him and tells him Davie is never coming back and of course he believes it… … love to all of you folks. from Umquaka [7/229]


Last updated: 27 April 2017


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