Letter-writing and its rhythms

Letter writing and its rhythms

There has been occasion to re-visit the more than 5000 letters extant by Olive Schreiner and provided in full transcripts as part of the Olive Schreiner Letters Online. This has been an oddly eye-opening experience. I was directly responsible for transcribing the large majority of them, and involved in editorial activity for the whole set, but re-reading a great many of them after a lengthy interlude puts a whole different perspective on them. They are almost strangers to me, although in earlier times I lived and breathed them and had large chunks of them rattling around in my head such that I dreamed them as well as worked on them in daylight hours. Now, I am surprised at the amount of work that was covered, the detailed accompanying editorial apparatus, and above all the startling insights provided by the letter contents. These are to be expected perhaps, but what wasn’t anticipated is that a greater appreciation of questions of temporality has occurred.

A particularly noticeable aspect of this is that there was a regular rhythm to much of the letter-writing that Olive Schreiner engaged in. This was connected to ‘the posts’. It was shaped by when the letters were delivered, usually to somewhere near where she lived for collection; and then later connected to an outward-flow, when replies and new letters were collected, usually from the same place. This might be a weekly turnaround, or more or less frequently. With overseas post, it was reliant on ships and their sailings for much of her life-time and was more spaced out. Such rhythms have been observed previously, of course, What there hasn’t been much reflection on is how this impacts on content, other than suggestions I have read that it encouraged repetitions across letters to different correspondents. But this hasn’t happened with Olive Schreiner’s letter-writing, with numbers of letters being written on the same day, but with their content not showing signs of overlaps. Of course all the letters written on any one date may not have survived, and if the greater number were to be found, there might be repetition. But among those that are extant, what comes across is the specificity of her address to the recipient, and of detailed content along with it.

Last updated:  11 February 2022