A place for everything and everything in its place?

A place for everything and everything in its place?

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘A place for everything and everything in its place?’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/a-place-for-everything/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. It has become a truism that, yes, of course letters have spatial properties and do so to a high degree. They are written in one place, and read in another; absence and travel is involved because a letter is sent from one person and place, to another person in a different place; and these are often seen as definitional properties of the genre. By and large, and making large generalisations, the focus of analytical attention has been on absence between people, on the ‘moment of writing’ and the ‘moment of reading’, and much less on the epistolary movement between these. Yes, envelopes, stamps, post offices and such are mentioned in the academic literature, but there has been relatively little work on the ontological specificities involved. There are, however, some curious and interesting things going in ‘between’, and also concerning what ‘between’ is and the kind of travels that epistolary exchanges might entail, that would repay closer attention.

2. Take addresses and the tacit assumption that letters go from one place to another, with both having the stable properties known as ‘an address’ that a letter-writer and their addressee live (fairly permanently) or reside (less permanently) at. Tell that to David Livingstone, in March 1841 sending a letter addressed just to ‘Mr Allen, Cape Town’; and while he grumbled that Cape Town had 24,000 inhabitants, it was still delivered OK (Family Letters vol 1 p.32). Also, in South Africa as in many other countries, while people came to have addresses with stable properties, their letters in the 1840s were, and in the 2010s still are, sent to a somewhere or something which is ‘de-placed’: a collection point like a harbor-master’s or magistrate’s office, a shop, and latterly Post Office Box Numbers.

3. It is also important to remember the travels that letters take, starting with their in-built time travels. The ‘moment of writing’ is always separated from the ‘moment of reading’, for time has passed from the occurrence of one to another. But. But when someone reads a letter, it is always read ‘in the present tense’, either literally or figuratively. Opened and read, the reader reads the writer as though writing what they write as the reading of it unfolds, and they do so each time a reading takes place, with these times tightly sealed together at the ‘moment of reading’. Time has passed AND it is always the moment of writing in the moment of reading. Curious, that.

4. Take also the phrase ‘each time a reading takes place’ and the slip from the language of temporality to that of spatiality. What about re-phrasing it as ‘each place of a reading takes time’? Livingstone knew a thing or two about this as well. Each stop on his interminable journeyings, and he invokes the time that the place permits, lamenting he is unable to finish writing what he wants or should, for the place runs out, it ends because he has to move on to another place, where he will write again once ‘between’ them has been traversed. ‘I have no other opportunity to write previous to setting off towards the North’ (Family Letters vol 1 p.38) might be the leitmotif, not just a passing comment.

5. ‘Between’ was not for the faint-hearted, and in an epistolary sense Livingstone bottled out. Setting out for the mission station he was to join at Kuruman (direct from Cape Town, this is 620 miles and 1,000 kms), on 30 March 1841 he wrote to his parents and sisters from Cape Town and then just once on 19 May 1841 from Port Elizabeth (this is 660 kms and 410 miles from Cape Town; and 550 miles and 890 kms direct to Kuruman), but with silence after that until he arrived and wrote a letter dated 29 September 1841 from Kuruman to them. Livingstone travelled by ox-wagon, a long slow journey taking his gear and provisions for a year and an entourage of servants. However, in a spatial epistolary sense, how different his journey was from the ‘same’ but much longer journey undertaken in 1879, also by ox-wagon but with goods and provisions for a family of seven and a bunch of drivers and cooks, by Bessie Price nee Moffat, in her case travelling to the mission station at Molepolole, now in Botswana.

6. Bessie Price was married to the missionary Roger Price. She was a younger daughter of Robert and Mary Moffat and brought up at Kuruman, the mission station for a very large area; and she became Livingstone’s sister-in-law in 1845 when he married Mary Moffat the younger, Bessie’s oldest sister. In the later 1870s, Bessie and Roger went on furlough (an extended period of leave, with the mission station run by others while they were away) when they took their three older children to Britain to attend school there. At the end of 1878, the Prices with their four younger children returned. Maternally assiduous and a regular writer of letters to her children when apart from any of them (unlike her own mother three decades earlier), a flow of letters ensued, including on the Prices’ journey back to their home in the environs of Molepolole. [Molepolole was established as the main centre for the Bakwena people under Sechele, with the old centre being Nitsweng, although both new and old were given the same broad name by the Prices, who moved their location as Sechele did so; Molepolole is in the now-Botswana and some 50 kms from Gabarone.]

7. The table below shows something of what Bessie Price’s epistolary ‘between’ consisted of and also the multifarious complications that can exist regarding place and where letters are ‘from’.


8. There are 23 letters from Bessie Price to her older children shown here, written between January and the end of July 1879. 16 of them have multiple dates (which stand over different dated sections within ‘a letter’ as this was posted) and just 7 have a single date, as shown in the first column. The range of dates these letters contain, shown in the second column, is also noteworthy, ranging from 2 to 29. So far, this may look as though time is the supreme organiser – BUT, this is an artefact of how the table has been constructed. So now, think place, and remember that often what heads a letter is place, followed by date. Or dates.

9. ‘Oppy’ – the opportunity to post, or to hand letters over to someone who would at some point be able to do this – is often mentioned in Bessie Price’s letters more generally as well as in these particular ones. As she waited for ‘oppy’ to occur, instead of starting new letters each time, which was very regularly, that she wrote to her children, she continued the earlier writing under a new date. Among other things, this lends her letter-writing a particular flavour, for she is able to comment back and forth, because all ‘letters’ since the last opportunity were available to her to glance over.

9. Starting with the first two letters shown in the table: while Bessie Price was on the ship ‘Balmoral Castle’ she wrote 2 letters to her younger children with 16 dates between them. The ship was itself a ‘between’, always on the move between places. However, in addition, between embarking and final arrival was a port of call, a place where the ship halted to take on board water and provisions. This was St Helena, where post was collected and left, being deposited and collected by the smaller faster mailships that called there. It was in fact place – the absence of place and therefore no ‘oppy’, the presence of place and therefore ‘oppy’ – that led to these multiple writing times, and the end of one letter, and the start and completion of the other (when the ‘Balmoral Castle’ arrived in South Africa).

10. Another even more notable example concerns the letter featuring a multiplicity of 11 or more places, many of them ‘between somewhere and somewhere else’. This ‘between’ is in fact elastic and actually covers a number of different locations within this ‘between’. This is signalled by the 29 separate dates, with sometimes a ‘between X and Y’ covering dated entries written at a number of stops over a period of time but accorded the ‘same’ general place or lack of it. There was no ‘oppy’ because there was no place where the sending of letters could be arranged, and nor did the Prices meet with passing opportunity, also between, which often took the shape of a travelling trader who would eventually deposit their letters at a place from which post was collected. Place, its complications and its lack, then, underlies the multiplicity of writing times here.

11. The period of around month in Port Elizabeth between 17 March and 12 April was for the Prices not so much dead time as a ‘no-place’. They were there because the arrival of a ship into Algoa Bay would deliver many of their goods (the same reason Livingstone had been there earlier). When this happened their things would be loaded onto the wagons and the journey northwards would commence. Paradoxically, in experiential terms this was a ‘no-place’ and a massive ‘between’ and it was breaking up the real business in hand, which was their journey home.

12. ‘The sand river near home’ is another example of a covering term for something more fractured in terms of place or at least space, for these is less spatial constancy than using the same term implies. This also applies to ‘Molepolole’, the place from where the last 5 letters in the table were written. This looks quite certain and single, a large town, the centre for the Bakwena. However. But.

13. There are 5 ‘actual letters’ that are placed as written in Molepolole. These include 16 dated sections of letters but – seemingly – just one place of writing, although this singleness and certainty is made complex once letter-content is taken into account and place fractures into places. In one sense yes, indeed, Molepolole is a spatial certitude, and it was the place where the Prices lived and the location of their mission station; but in another, it signals different places covered by the same name. This included an old abandoned town, a ‘between’ where the king had built a European house of brick, a number of areas of habitation, the locations where the king and other grandees lived, and on an edge the domicile of the Prices.

14. What this raises is something very curious. A considerable but telescoping granularity of place is a notable feature of letter-writing ‘between’: there are various carefully distinguished ‘betweens’, but also sometimes different ‘betweens’ are glossed by the name assigned to just one of them. However, in a demarcated named place in which local knowledge could have provided more specific detail, a general gloss is used and the telescoping stops: Molepolole.

15. Clearly there are aspects of Bessie Price’s letters that are highly specific, and also even when people now travel long distances ‘between’ is rarely so long and so grounded as it was for the Prices. However, contemplating this sub-set of 23 Price letters as a special case raises some interesting aspects of place, its consequences and complications, and these can be used to think about letter-writing more generally.

16. In particular, there are analytical ramifications of epistolary scholarship giving priority to issues of temporality, when the absence that letter-writing is founded on is at least as much a matter of place as it is of time. It is not a matter of ‘everything in its place, and a place for everything’, of course, but it is the case that place is not a subordinate presence in the place/time relationship, but an active partner and sometimes a dominating one.

David Livingstone (1959) Family Letters, 1841-1848, and 1849-1856 (2 volumes, ed. and intro. I. Schapera) London: Chatto & Windus.

Last updated: 23 December 2017