Unwritten letters and the epistolarium

Unwritten letters and the epistolarium

 The topic of letters imagined, thought about, planned, but never actually written, is (rather oddly) something not yet featured in discussing WWW letters and related documents. What follows are some brief opening thoughts.

Having been constrained to take a break from many things during the recent month-long period when broadband etc was not available where I live, books were returned to, actual paper copies, and old favourites were re-read. First on the list were the wonderful novels of Barbara Pym, an English fiction writer of the postwar period who died in the 1980s. Many actual letters which are written and read by an array of their characters feature across Pym’s eight or nine published novels, as also do another group of possible letters that they thought about but which never reached the stage of words on paper – apart from in the novels themselves, of course. But they play important parts in their narratives. It would be too strong to refer to this as their plots, because the small-scale nature of Pym’s interest as a novelist lies in the wry humour of the minutia of everyday life and its very small concerns. An unwritten letter example comes from Some Tame Gazelle, where the protagonists are two ageing sisters, Belinda and Harriet Bede. At a juncture in events, Belinda imagines writing a letter to the wife of a (rather ridiculous) man she has loved for many years; but as soon as she does so realisation breaks in that this would never happen, that it was not possible for it to be written or sent within the framework of her life as it had played out. Nothing happens here in one sense, for there are no actual events; but something important in fact happens in more subtle terms.

Interiority and intentionality can be readily accessed in reading as well as writing fictions, for the author is as a god in having access to all things and able to configure these as they so choose. Such things are much less easily available in the rest of social life, sometimes even for the person whose interiority it is. Of course, present-day readers and researchers can read about what has not been written if this is a topic within something that has been written. But in the case of WWW research, this is very infrequently indeed, so infrequently as to be almost totally absent, because of the kind of letters these are. They are overwhelmingly concerned with the world of exteriority and materiality and deal with the business of everyday life and expediting it. My favourite is couched in terms of ‘I send you a pig’s head, please send me by bearer a wagon load of corrugated iron’. Gaps in sequences of letters can often be spotted, where letters have been lost or destroyed or are otherwise absent. But these are cases where such letters have actually existed at an earlier point in time. The unwritten letters, intended but never actualised, remain as ghostly absences/presences.

This half-life stems from the fact that, while unwritten letters do not figure through the prism provided by WWW letters, clearly they do still exist in a sense. This is because they are part of common knowledge about letter-writing, that some letters just never get written down because of a wide variety of sometimes mundane and sometimes less so reasons. And certainly they do figure in terms of how the epistolarium should be understood, because in analytical terms they are a significant absence/presence among the different aspects collected under this key analytical term.

Last updated: 22 December 2022


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