Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, ISBN: 9780199532445; 300pp.; Price: £32.00
University of Texas – Pan American
Date accessed: 1 October, 2023
The title of Susan Whyman’s The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660-1800 suggests two potentialities at once: The Pen and the People indicates a comprehensive study of popular letters and letter-writing practices during the long 18th century (1660–1800); yet the subtitle, English Letter Writers, implies focused and discrete analyses of specific letter writers. In other words, I had to recalibrate my expectations somewhat in reckoning the title of the book because the book is not so much about letter writing as a popular phenomenon during the long 18th century as it is about individual letter writers and the ways in which they acquired and expressed both literacy and literariness. The tension between the focus on the individual case study and the drive toward an expansive scope works sometimes to the study’s benefit, sometimes to its detriment.
The book is composed of three parts. Part one, entitled ‘Creating a culture of letters’, offers an introduction, a chapter on creating the letter, and a chapter on the postal system; part two, ‘Creating a culture of literacy,’ contains a chapter on rural and laborer letter writers, and one on middle class letter writers; and part three, called ‘From letters to literature,’ offers a chapter on the relation between letter writing and the epistolary novel, one on letter writing and literary culture, followed by a conclusion.
The study is an important one insofar as Whyman has recovered exemplars of 18th-century middle and underclass epistolary writing. She demonstrates throughout the study ‘how people from the lowest strata engaged in mainstream epistolary culture’. (p. 9) Prior scholarship of letters and letter writing during the long 18th century has been dominated by work on aristocratic and literary figures, but Whyman has dug out of the archives collections of letters of non-elite families, focusing her book on 15 of them. The distinctiveness of Whyman’s study is indeed that the author ‘introduces readers to an unknown group of ordinary writers’ (p. 15). The book is exceedingly well researched; and, of course, as with her prior Sociability and Power in Late-Stuart England: The Cultural Worlds of the Verneys 1660-1720 (1), the archival work is first rate (demonstrated, for instance, by the details of her archive contained in the appendices). The book uses ‘large caches of correspondence’ (p. 5), which is vital considering her goal of characterizing an extensive historical swath of a 140 years; it is also commendable since too many studies of epistolary writing are marred by attempting to draw too broad generalizations from too few samples.
The introduction to the book offers a key term around which the remainder of the book will revolve: ‘epistolary literacy’. Epistolary literacy includes the material dimensions, linguistic skills, and conceptual abilities of a letter writer, including elements learned through a variety of non-formal training methods; hence, epistolary literacy means far more than simply the ability to write one’s name. The term is quite useful, defining the specific ways in which letter writers during the long 18th century learned to engage a culture of letters without any formal education, as well as defining the repertoire of abilities that every letter writer needed.
Chapter one, ‘Creating the letter: how to acquire epistolary literacy,’ emphasizes how people acquired epistolary literary though non-formal means: ‘we must look for unofficial sites and methods for acquiring literacy’ (p. 24), writes Whyman. Such methods include instruction from local scribes, the epistolary literacy parents passed onto children, and what children learned simply by corresponding with family members. The chapter begins with a verbal portrait of a young man preparing to write a letter. It is indeed a colorful way to relate the physical, material, and abstract elements that go into letter composition, although it adds little new insight into the mental or physical conditions of letter writing. Curiously, even as Whyman makes it clear that formal means of instruction in epistolary literacy such as letter-writing manuals were not essential and that her young man has no letter-writing manual at hand, she quotes from letter-writing manuals in her portrait and refers to illustrations from them. The chapter concludes with a comparison of children’s correspondence of four families: three merchant families and the elite, educated Evelyn family. However, the purpose of the comparison – to contrast the letter writing of the gentry with that of the middling sort – is not sharp, and one is left with the impression that the letter-writing practices between families of differing social rank differed little.
Chapter two, ‘Sending the letter: the Post Office and the politics of the mail,’ charts the development of the 18th-century post through 17th-century reforms, discusses alternative delivery methods, and emphasizes the importance of the post to the development of a popular culture of letters. The rather rosy picture of postal efficiency given in the introduction – where Whyman quotes the gushing praise of Jane Fairfax from Jane Austen’s Emma to the effect that not a letter in a million is lost – is here counter-balanced by a sharp sense of the post’s limitations as Whyman examines complaints about the system. In many ways chapter two is a pro forma chapter included to set the stage for the core of the book – chapters three and four –which offers analysis of recovered underclass and middle class letter writers.
Chapter three, ‘Letters and literacy: farmers and workers in northern England’, ‘shows how persons with little formal education acquired and used letter-writing in their daily lives’ (p. 75). Five case studies of families and individuals constitute the primary evidence of this chapter, all letter writers working in rural areas. Whyman assesses in this chapter how letter writing served to satisfy a variety of social, psychological, and personal needs, especially the extent to which ‘rural literacy was needed and valued’ (p. 86) by individual correspondents. The author develops rich, detailed portraits of the letter writers, and convincingly assesses how and why those letter writers employed letter writing. Whyman ends the chapter with instructive challenges to scholarship of literacy by reflecting on the specifically epistolary literacy of farmers and other manual laborers.
Chapter four, ‘Letters of the middling sort: confronting problems of business, religion, gender, and class’, serves as an accompaniment to the prior chapter on the letters of farmers and manual laborers, incorporating case studies of the letters of four families. Whyman points out that the possession of epistolary literacy was in many ways a marker of the middling sort, insofar as many more letters of middle-class correspondents survive compared to those of manual laborers. Analysis of specifically female letter writers in chapter four offers a useful complement to James Daybell’s work on 16th- and early 17th-century women letter writers in that the letter-writing practices of Rebekah Bateman – her deferential letter-writing style and use of a specifically ‘gendered’ rhetoric (p. 138) – resemble those of women writing two centuries before. Analysis of the letters of the Follows family of Suffolk, a Quaker family, shows convincingly how a non-conformist family relied on correspondence in the face of persecution, but Whyman also highlights the spiritual dimension of letter writing: ‘A truly Christian letter might … become a means of grace’ (p. 144).
As with chapter three, the contexts and characterizations of the correspondents highlighted in chapter four are rich. (There are a number of black-and-white plates that also help bring the letters and contexts alive.) The ‘mini-biographies’ (p. 16) Whyman constructs in chapters three and four are in some ways an inevitability, required to set context and clarify relationships among correspondents; yet one sometimes wonders in these two chapters if the mini-biographies are there to aid analysis of letters, letter writing, and epistolary literacy or if the letters are in the service of the mini-biographies: there are stretches in the chapters where the topic is neither letters, epistolary literacy, nor even basic literacy, but consist instead of biographical narrative. Now, this does not make the case studies any less compelling; however, chapters three and four end up being less successful overall as examinations of letter writing than they are as analyses of basic writing skills, general literacy, and 18th-century family dynamics where the primary material on which analysis is based happens to be letters.
Whyman’s observation that ‘The ordinary act of letter-writing underpinned ... literary pursuits’ (p. 163) crystallizes the arguments of chapters five and six, where the author highlights how middle class letter writers explored letter writing as a means to engage and write literature. Chapter five, ‘Letter-writing and the rise of the novel: the epistolary literacy of Jane Johnson and Samuel Richardson’, concentrates on how Jane Johnson, the uneducated wife of a Buckinghamshire vicar, exercised her epistolary literacy to interact textually with Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novels, principally Clarissa (1748), and who had chiefly moral concerns at core in doing so: included in Jane Johnson’s correspondence is her own ‘The History of Miss Clarissa of Buckinghamshire’ (p. 180), which is largely autobiographical in nature and, of course, is in imitation of Richardson. Jane Johnson, Whyman argues, had answered the call of Richardson himself, who encouraged his readers to engage his novel by soliciting contributions to his serially published work. Whyman also examines the poetry of Johnson in chapter five. What is unclear in this subsection, however, is the cause-and-effect relationship: clearly having specifically epistolary literacy allows Johnson to engage epistolary novelist Richardson, but how specifically epistolary literacy encourages her composition of poetry is far less apparent. Whyman’s statement that ‘Letter-writing offered Johnson a training ground for composing other types of literature’ (p. 188) is simply too vague (and generic) to be compelling.
In chapter six, ‘Letter-writing, reading, and literary culture: the Johnson family and Anna Miller,’ Whyman continues her appraisal of letters and literature. The first sections of the chapter concern Anna Miller and her Bath literary salon. Miller used letters ‘to become a published author and to rise socially’ (p. 196) by printing her Letters from Italy (1776). Whyman then discusses in the last sections of the chapter Jane Johnson’s children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara’s epistolary literacy allowed her to engage literary criticism and compose private poetry, while Robert ‘used epistolary literacy to evaluate literature’ (p. 209), evident in the critical commentary contained in his letters, written in response to his reading.
As with chapters three and four, chapters five and six contain considerable biographical and contextual data; indeed, chapters five and six are almost overtaxed with detail. One also wishes Anna Miller’s surviving correspondence were thoroughly compared to her epistolary fiction: it would have been instructive to see if a cause-and-effect relationship could be discerned – the cause-and-effect relationship absent from analysis of Jane Johnson’s poetry – that one’s epistolary literacy determines or enhances one’s participation in literary culture ; or, in Whyman’s words, that ‘letter-writing was ... a crucial training ground for entering the mainstream world of letters’ (p. 163). The critical point of chapters five and six seems to be that letter writing is related to ‘higher’ literary endeavors. Again, it is a generic conclusion. The significance of chapters five and six is rather in the recovery of letter writers such as Jane Jonson and her children, who were by no means important literary figures, who existed on the margins of literary culture, but who nevertheless demonstrate a sincere and abiding engagement with literature through the practice of letter writing, and who do indeed represent participation in a popular culture of letters. Recognition of Jane Jonson’s semi-autobiographical ‘The History of Miss Clarissa of Buckinghamshire’ is alone enough to recommend chapter five as an illuminating chapter.
The book ends with a conclusion, which consists essentially of summary of the preceding chapters. There are no links forged to tie her scholarship to other scholarship of the letters and letter writing of the long 18th century (or with epistolary studies of earlier or later periods), and Whyman seldom looks forward to how the remarkable cache of letters she has recovered may be subject to further analysis – at least the future directions analysis of 18th-century underclass and middle class letter writers might take, since the letters she has recovered are extraordinary documents clearly worthy of further investigation. Indeed, it might have been productive to look forward to the development of popular epistolary literacy in the 19th century, and to indicate what the letter writers she has analyzed can tell us about the continued expansion of a popular culture of letters.
Whyman has also bookended her study with references to the period under investigation as the ‘golden age of letters’ (pp. 5, 228). This old saw is still regularly employed in literary and historical criticism, yet the phrase ‘golden age of letters’ is neither critically useful nor even accurately descriptive: the ‘golden age of letters’ suggests a qualitative measure – that the letters of this period were superior (although how they are superior is never addressed in the book) – when the phrase at best rather signifies a quantitative measure: that more letters were written (and printed) than ever before due to increases in literacy along with other social, economic and cultural phenomena. ‘Golden age’, moreover, suggests a teleology, implying that earlier epochs of (presumably) iron- or bronze-age letter writing were somehow aesthetically or otherwise deficient. Hence, the phrase ‘golden age of letters’ becomes bleached of real analytical value since it contains little critical meaning; it becomes instead a rhetorical flourish and convenient shorthand to mark off the historical territory under investigation.
But this is not to focus on the essence of Whyman’s book and to recognize her study as a valuable one when it comes to the recovery and analysis of the epistolary literacy of a specific group of letter writers. Whyman’s aim, in fact, is to ‘harness letter-writing practices to the service of studying literacy’ (p. 9) in investigating the correspondence of several popular letter writers. This is the strength of the book. Indeed, the book might have incorporated the term ‘popular epistolary literacy’ in the title: even though ‘popular epistolary literacy’ as a title lacks the punch of The Pen and the People (as well as its revolutionary implications), this is the most accurate description of what this book is finally about.
- Susan Whyman, Sociability and Power in Late-Stuart England: The Cultural Worlds of the Verneys 1660–1720 (Oxford, 1999).Back to (1)
I wish to thank Gary Schneider for his thoughtful review of my book. It gives me the opportunity to extend the important debate about the impact of English epistolary culture in the long 18th century. The Pen and the People is the culmination of two decades of thought and published work about a wide range of epistolary topics. My goal was to set the democratisation of letter-writing against the backdrop of broader developments: the expansion of postal services, the rise of literacy and educational opportunities, shifts in literary culture, improvements in communications, and economic growth. The book looks at a wide array of letter-writers, observes their practices in the context of social and economic developments, and shows how all three were interconnected in webs of epistolary networks. I believe that it answers three basic questions that I asked of 63 hitherto, unknown family archives: why did people write letters, for what purposes were they used, and what impact did they have on individuals, their families, and the wider society?
The answers to these questions enabled me to uncover the hidden, personal worlds of middling and lower-sort men and women who have been excluded from previous epistolary studies. I did not think this would be possible when I started work on my book ten years ago. Like other scholars, I assumed that large archives of letters written by people below the rank of gentry simply did not exist. I decided to challenge this myth by searching the underused resources of local record offices. Much to my surprise, I found a feast of neglected manuscript sources that allowed me to radically extend the evidence of letter-writing into the middling and lower classes. The Pen and the People grew out of these new-found riches. It contains case studies of letter-writers from different regions with diverse occupations, religious beliefs, and social status. Archives in the north of England were particularly rich and implied the widespread availability of informal schooling that accompanied the region’s industrial development.
The book itself builds sequentially from an overview of the material conditions that enabled letter-writing, to an examination of labouring and middling-sort writers, and finally to a study of the relationship of letters to the development of 18th-century literary culture. Each chapter moves chronologically and traces the rise of a popular epistolary tradition. As Betty Schellenberg has noted: ‘This tradition in turn parallels – indeed, enables – the first stages in the emergence of a middle-class culture defined by well-developed literacy and self-consciousness about personal identity and class affiliation’.(1) Thus the scope of the sources matched the breadth of the topics covered and allowed me to enter a number of significant debates.
To achieve transparency and to make my arguments explicit for readers, I carefully laid out my research methodology in Appendix I (pp. 232–5). Readers can see how I selected my sample, and why I focused on in-depth case studies, rather than a kaleidoscope of thematic fragments. I am delighted that Gary Schneider found them ‘compelling’, and that he focused on my mini-biographies of letter-writers and their relation to the analysis of letters, letter-writing and epistolary literacy – a new cultural category that I discuss below. In fact the inter-connections between these elements is exactly what I set out to demonstrate.
Naturally, the gender, rank, occupation, location, and faith of letter-writers had a major impact on the types of letters they composed and the patterns of letter-writing practices that they adopted or resisted. Unfortunately, most epistolary studies lack the sources needed to describe the personal lives and relationships of specific letter-writers. This can become a problem when scholars use letters in their work, and many researchers have discussed the problems of interpreting them with me. It is natural to become overwhelmed by the detail and fragmentary nature of information found in letters. Likewise, anyone can use a letter to extract topical quotations or defend an argument about letter writing. But this usually shows what the passage means to the historian, not what it meant to a particular writer at a specific time and place. The magic genie that makes insightful interpretation possible is, of course, deep contextual knowledge of the lives and writings of both correspondents. Then, the social relationships between them can be insightfully described. Only with this data in hand, can scholars determine why letters were written, for what purposes, and with what impacts on society.
Thus I chose to work only on archives that contained data necessary for such an analysis. My letter collections lay sheltered inside a supportive web of other types of documents over several generations (a requirement for my using them as case studies): birth and death records, marriage settlements, wills, genealogical sources, account books, diaries, journals, school books, copy books, writing exercises, reading records, and original stories and poetry. They show that letter-writing was but one of many interconnected acts of writing with common language, sources, and compositional patterns. This interweaving of sources enabled me to show that after 1750, there was an epistolary moment when real letters and literature became closely intertwined. The presence of these documents also made my mini-biographies possible. More important, when the lives of real people are linked to long runs of letters and replies, case studies become not just examples, but develop into experiments. As Filippo de Vivo notes: ‘Examples confirm a hypothesis through accumulation … Experiments allow us to change a particular interpretation’.(2)
This passage allows me to enter a recent debate initiated by John Brewer about the uses of micro-history to gain new points of view through a commitment to a realism that lies beyond the confines of positivism. Brewer shows the close perspective, space, and historical distance of micro-histories and their potential to shed light on larger topics.(3) My deployment of micro-history to discuss ‘macro’ themes expresses my theoretical perspective about how to write history at a time when grand narratives have been found wanting. The book’s biographical narratives and descriptions of processes like letter-writing reflect my judgment that the most effective use of intimate letters is from an experiential point of view. Of course, different sources are most appropriate for different methods; nor is micro-history limited to discussion of the ‘small’. As de Vivo contends: ‘To identify micro-history with the size of its object is a common misconception … What is small is the metaphorical distance between subject and object arising from close observation’. In practice, sharp focus can be combined with long-range vision.(4) Like Brewer, I believe that micro-history ‘is best understood as the commitment to a humanist agenda which places agency and historical meaning in the realm of day-to-day transactions, and which sees their recuperation as the proper task of the historian’.(5)
The fruits of this methodology may be seen in my arguments about two important topics: the development of the post office and the rise of popular literacy. I thank History Today and the BBC for recognizing the importance of my work on the history of the post office – especially concerning the neglected 18th century. Indeed, how can one understand the topic of letter-writing without knowing how letters were sent? Personal comments about the post office, often deleted in printed letter collections, show that the Royal Mail had altered the rhythms of daily life long before the 19th century. By 1800, a service created to censor mail had become a private necessity and a public right, extending across the nation and enhancing independent opinions of all strata of society. In this new context, as Anthony Fletcher notes, Jane Fairfax's remark in Emma about the wonders of the post office, finally makes sense.(6) The development of the Royal Mail made the democratisation of letter-writing possible by the end of the 18th century.
The spread of letter-writing or ‘epistolary literacy’ to middling and lower-sort writers is perhaps the most important finding of the book. This new cultural category allowed me to approach the measurement of literacy in a way other than name signing. Using epistolary literacy as a framework for the book, I was able to qualitatively measure and compare the basic skills of different letter-writers. The results of these assessments forced me to reconsider the prevailing orthodoxy that there was little growth in popular literacy after 1750 – a period of surging economic growth and proto-industrialization.
I hope that my work will stimulate a new interest in the study of literacy, which was incredibly productive in the 1980s, but lay relatively dormant thereafter. In the last two decades, literacy percentages of 60 per cent for men and 40 per cent for women have been automatically repeated in secondary works. It is time to reconsider these numbers in light of new studies of the letters of paupers and prisoners, and my own masses of family correspondence written by people in villages without schools. The Pen and the People explains how basic literacy was developed through a wide range of makeshift strategies, intermittent, informal schooling, and support from community and kin.
It is my hope that readers of this review will consider and discuss these findings. They paint a new picture of popular culture and suggest that epistolary literacy had economic, social, and political impacts on society. My work also maintains that a deeply embedded epistolary ethos contributed to the shape of a literary culture marked by the cult of sensibility, use of literary reviews, and the rise of the novel. My next project will extend the subject of popular literacy into the nineteenth century and analyse its relationship to the history of schooling and self-education, as well as social mobility and class formation.
I also invite readers of this review to examine the tables in Appendices II–VI (pp. 236–53), which list locations, call numbers and contents of archives used to write the book. Other tables give biographical information about letter-writers, and list the letter types, social relationships, and uses of letters by different families. Finally, the principal subjects that people wrote about are noted for each collection. My hope is that researchers will use these tables to locate correspondence that will be useful to their work. Scholars of class, religion, and gender will find a great deal of helpful material. There are many more books to be written by using documents in these archives. I look forward to their appearance, and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this online forum.
- Betty A. Schellenberg, ‘Review essay: enlightenment and the writing self in eighteenth-century Britain’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 73, 2 (2010), 287–94, 291.Back to (1)
- Filippo de Vivo, ‘Prospect or refuge? Microhistory, history on the large scale: a response’, Cultural and Social History, 7, 3 (September 2010), 387–97, 392.Back to (2)
- John Brewer, ‘Debate forum: microhistory and the histories of everyday life’, Cultural and Social History, 7, 1 (March 2010), 87–109, 88, 99–100; de Vivo, 388.Back to (3)
- de Vivo, 387.Back to (4)
- Brewer, 87.Back to (5)
- Anthony Fletcher, ‘Review’, History (forthcoming). I thank Fletcher for sharing this with me.Back to (6)