Reading Between the Lines: Letters and Literature

Young Woman Reading a Letter, Jean RaouxA 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. Michael Plygawko 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.

“Reading between the Lines: Eighteenth-Century Journals and Romantic Letters, 1740-1830,” a one-day workshop hosted by the North East Forum in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Studies, set forth on 23 June 2012 with three declared intentions: to explore how letters and journals of the period were used, to investigate and to theorise their usage for modern research, and to question the point at which a letter becomes a journal (and vice versa). As the conference developed, however, two further prominent points of discussion emerged: the first regarding the ethics of examining private letters, sensitively handled by Sarah Wootton, the second regarding potential issues that arise when treating letters and literature as discrete categories.

Frances Burney (1752-1840), frontispiece to her Diary and letters (1842-1846)The connection made by Gillian Skinner between Fanny Burney’s depiction of the actress Barsanti, and the appropriation of individuals through letters into a socially constructed web of relations, painted a suggestive image of how women were incorporated into the public eye. Whereas in Skinner’s paper an actress is integrated into society, in the conference’s keynote lecture, delivered by Jane Rendall, literary women sought the domestic, self-controlled space of the letter in order to comment on a social circle of reviewers from which they were excluded. For these female literati, Elizabeth Hamilton, Anne Grant and Eliza Fletcher, private correspondence was a way of interacting uniquely with publicly authorised discourse in the Edinburgh Review, the Quarterly Review and Blackwood’s Magazine. Leigh Wetherall Dickson’s discussion, in turn, of George Drummond’s journal as simultaneously private space and externalised displacement of emotion addressed to God, highlighted the constructed nature of this literary mode.

Such concerns were to emerge later, in Oliver Clarkson’s adept analysis of the link between text and letter in one of Wordsworth’s famous “spots of time,” drawing upon Coleridge’s letter to his wife, dated 14th January 1799, and the skating passage in a 1798 version of The Prelude. Clarkson analysed the “letter’s capacity to offer Coleridge a linguistic terrain in which to undergo a process of transformation”: he highlighted the writer’s ability to “breathe imaginative, almost metapoetic” elements even into prose, poetry’s ability being, for Clarkson, at times to absorb a “network of sounds and impulses.” These networks, Clarkson argued, are able to skew the seemingly referential correspondence of a letter both to reality and the highly mediated frame of a poem, allowing Wordsworth to respond to the “poetry of a letter as much as [to] reality.” Clarkson’s reasoning suggests that the skating episode can be seen also as a “coalescing of textual spots [in] letters and reality.”

“a blend of autobiography and fiction that really compels the disentangling of fact from what might be imagination”

Reality, and whether letters can and should be treated as real, was the starting point for Penelope Wilson in her paper, “Letters in a Scottish Medley: Elizabeth Bond’s Letters of a Village Governess (1814).” Working alongside Rosemary Wake, Wilson uncovered what she described as an “unexpected treasure trove” in a text for which Copac lists only seven extant copies in the UK. The epistolary nature of this work, which contains “embedded correspondences” within “the narrative framework” is complicated by the censorship of presumably real information. According to Wilson, Bond deals “with a blend of autobiography and fiction that really compels the disentangling of fact from what might be imagination.” Bond’s attempts to establish verisimilitude indicate a strong commitment to truth and value in how she signals the presence of the imagination. Wilson couched the breaking of this commitment in terms of a tension between real authority and the attempt at times to disguise truth.

Tristram Shandy

The interaction between reality and mediation can be interdependent with that between public and private. Richard Terry, for instance, set in the conference’s first paper a tone that rightly refused to reduce literature and letters to mutually exclusive categories. His analysis of the Jenny passages of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Sterne’s own correspondence indicate how “even if Jenny enters the novel independently, the fiction and the lover [Kitty]” blur. And yet reality, in this instance represented by a letter, is imposed by scholarly interventions that seek to uncover Sterne’s private correspondence.

Reality in letters is also a phenomenon of a text appropriated in a critical canon, viewed through the lens of sustained intentionalism, an issue at stake in Helen Williams‘s presentation of digitised Sterne resources. The intricacies of digitisation and the accessibility of such items raises important questions regarding the senses in which literary and public afterlives of material artefacts can acquire their own value as public relics that reflect upon literary output.

A letter from William GodwinNowhere was this concern more evident than in Pamela Clemit‘s uncovering of the material value ascribed to the letters of William Godwin. Letters which began as gifts, or gestures of approbation, move in the nineteenth century to the status of collectors’ items. Numerous such letters, for instance, were subjected to the commodification of celebrity handwriting. Once they entered publically accessible archives, they obtained a cultural significance, and were made more widely available in transcriptions, catalogues and biographical narratives.

Narrative, then, was implicit throughout many of the papers. The conference revealed how journals, letters and poetry constitute a liminal space between life and art, generating in turn the ability to present the self to the self, and to posterity, as a Byronic ‘being more intense’. The becoming of a peculiarly literary self may have given way in the question and answer sessions to the historical specifics of its applications. No paper, however, was ever far from the value of letters for writers who often try to force into being their own aestheticised vision of reality.

“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 Michael Plygawko

Graduating with a first class B.A. in English Literature from Durham, Michael Plygawkohas been offered research council funding and a college scholarship to read for an M. Phil. in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 2011-12 he received Durham’s J. R. Watson Prize and a Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship for Academic Excellence. He is the founder of the international journal, Durham English Review.

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