Reading Between the Lines: Correspondences

Lady With Her Maidservant Holding a Letter, by Johannes VermeerA workshop on eighteenth-century journals and letters set out to examine how these personal documents can be used to enhance our understanding of literary lives and texts. Costanza Scarpa reports on the conference, which was hosted by the Department of English Studies at Durham University, in association with the North East Forum in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Studies

The “Reading Between the Lines: Eighteenth-Century Journals and Romantic Letters, 1740-1830” conference suffered some disruption at the start. It appears that around twenty cows chose the morning of the conference to meander leisurely on to the main railway line between London and Edinburgh, delaying both speakers and delegates. However, this minor setback, which prompted some reshuffling of the programme, reflects the expansion of the North East Forum in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Studies (which previously only involved Durham, Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland universities) to include guests from York, Lincoln and as far south as Cambridge, and as far north as Edinburgh and St Andrews. The cows had trotted off by 10 o’clock, allowing everyone to arrive just half an hour behind schedule.

As an eighteenth century aficionado, it was very exciting to recognise the names of people whose work I had read in the process of writing my undergraduate dissertation last year, and even more so to hear them talk. Moreover, the wide variety of authors, diarists and letter-writers covered broadened my horizons and if anything made me wish the dissertation I am writing this year could be a bit longer.

“The workshop considered the significance of journals and letters both then and now – not just as means of recording and communicating, but as methods of self-narration”

The workshop considered the significance of journals and letters both then and now – not just as means of recording and communicating, but as methods of self-narration, providing the freedom to explore different subject positions in the performance of a written identity. Richard Terry kicked off the proceedings with a talk on Laurence Sterne’s letters, which skilfully highlighted the literary nature of letters, and the continuity of discourse between letter-writing and literary creation, a theme which would resonate throughout the day.

Sterne was aware that his letters might be published in the wake of his success, nor was he alone. Gillian Skinner pointed out that Fanny Burney edited her diaries in the knowledge that they might be read, going as far as destroying material she presumably considered incriminating in some way. Helen Maria Williams Helen Maria Williamswrote letters specifically for publication, exploiting the radical potential of the letter as a conscious form of historiography, Amy Culley suggested. Susan Manly noted that Maria Edgeworth, on the other hand, disapproved of the publication of letters specifically because she thought it changed the nature of letter-writing, as people wrote both in the hope and fear of private documents being made public. Such concerns regarding the split between the public and private spheres, and indeed the ethics of publishing ostensibly private documents, pervaded the discussion. Jane Rendall, the conference’s keynote speaker, delivered an extremely interesting lecture on the letters of Elizabeth Hamilton, Eliza Fletcher and Anne Grant, noting that above all such bodies of correspondence are shaped by the concerns of their editors.

One of the highlights of the workshop for me was the talk by Pamela Clemit, who is one such editor. It was a particular pleasure to hear her speak of the value of letters, and Godwin’s letters in particular (she is the editor of the ongoing, six-volume scholarly edition of William Godwin’s correspondence), because of her obvious expertise and knowledge of the subject. I especially enjoyed her recounting of Sir Percy Florence Shelley’s comment on Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters to married-man Henry Fuseli, for whom Wollstonecraft had conceived an ill-advised passion, as “rather in the style of the Minerva press”. (Lady Shelley and her husband had those letters destroyed.)

All in all, the day proved a valuable source of wide-ranging and thought-provoking talks, followed by equally stimulating discussion. I was very glad to have attended this event, and enjoyed the variety of authors covered, and their many idiosyncrasies in both their letters and diaries, skilfully discussed by experts in the field.

“Reading between the Lines: Eighteenth-Century Journals and Romantic Letters, 1740-1830” was co-convened by Professor Pamela Clemit and Dr Gillian Skinner of Durham University. A second report on the conference is available here.

About Costanza Scarpa

Costanza Scarpa is currently completing an MA in Literary Studies at Durham University. She wrote her undergraduate dissertation on Mary Hays and the conflicting proto-feminist discourses in Hays’s letters and her epistolary novel, The Memoirs of Emma Courtney.


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