By the time you read this, I shall be far, far away.
This may be a dramatic epistolary cliché but it also encapsulates a fascinating truth about the act of letter writing itself. A writer and a reader talk, but in a lonely sort of conversation, long delayed, tenuously yet intimately connected only through language.
There’s something special about a letter, that tangible, private gift of words written to a familiar someone. Letters can give us a strange power to say things we think or feel that we might not dare to speak out loud in public, to invent shadows of ourselves to speak for us. E. B. White sent a whimsical love letter to his pregnant wife “written” by their dog Daisy: “I know White so well that I always know what is the matter with him […] — he gets thinking that nothing that he writes or says ever quite expresses his feeling […] White didn’t seem to be able to tell you about his happiness, so thought I would attempt to put in a word.”
But ’twas not always thus. Letters have not always been a private place for two to converse across slow time and far distant space. This flexible power and personality grew not out of the words of great men of letters, but from a far more humdrum source.
Throughout history letters have taken many forms, from religious epistles to official legal petitions to coldly factual scientific treatises. Many of them were carefully composed for public consumption, with an eye to enhancing social influence, even if through our modern eyes it seems that we could tell from men’s epistles “what the verye thoughts of their hartes were.” Historically, letters have often followed a certain literary style and rhetorical structure. They were not particularly spontaneous even if they were love letters—privacy was not assured and the language had to pass muster. These letters of the early past, by notable scientists, soldiers, spies, politicians, royalty, artists, and authors, fascinate us for what they can tell us about the tumultuous, important events of history. We may read of the actions and reactions of history’s great men through their letters.
The Casual Correspondence
When we mourn the lost age of letters, however, it is hardly ever the lack of formal business correspondence we have in mind. In the words of John Donne, “more than kisses, letters mingle souls/For thus, friends absent speak.” The kind of letters we love are more wildly expressive, more emotive, more inward than outward, full of people and the personalities they express through language. At some stage, people started to use letters to confide in close friends and to play with different versions of themselves.
It’s the ordinary letters of those hardly notable at all that are perhaps the most astonishing when it comes to self expression and rich linguistics. These are the familiar, everyday domestic letters between friends and family, nothing of political importance. They tell of relationships, new births and deaths, social doings and newsy gossip, material wants, a seemingly dull and uninspiring small world.
It’s no surprise that from early modern history, it was overwhelmingly women who were writing these kinds of informal, quotidian, quietly revealing letters, whose feminine duty it was to keep up social bonds through correspondence with family and an extended network of friends and patrons. Women wrote letters in between the business of keeping a house, as a way of exploring their own spiritual lives and perhaps as an escape from an otherwise restricted and unvarying society.
These letter writers also, in amongst the family news, came naturally to talk of more human emotions—bitter disappointments, difficult confessions and unexpected joys, the sometimes unfiltered internal thoughts and concerns of voices that are too often discounted as trivial. As James Daybell notes, the “private” act of writing letters, a “technology of the self” as Michael Foucault put it, made it easy for ordinary people to develop a self-awareness and an identity of themselves with a rich interior, emotional life, in a secluded mental space. One needed to withdraw physically from daily life for reflection.
A Ladylike Hobby
This writing of familiar letters for keeping in touch with others became so central to the world of women that the epistolary genre came to be viewed as a peculiarly feminine endeavor. Letters “were the perfect vehicle for women’s highly developed art of pleasing, for in writing letters it is possible to tailor a self on paper to suit the expectations and desires of the audience.” A woman might be a friend, a mother, a sister, all of which required a different kind of letter, a different kind of public face. The writing of pleasant letters was a ladylike, harmless hobby that tended not to involve women in the true literary business of men.
In effect, women, going about their daily duties, invented the modern personal letter as we know it.
This is not to discount the many significant, delightful, affecting letters written by men who may have had more worldly subjects to talk about. But Daybell and others note that the letter developed a more personal, private and introspective form because of the ways women were writing letters, using informal styles that were conversational and spontaneous, more like speech. This was different from the structured styles of the past and was one of the major linguistic contributions women made to the epistolary genre.
Spoken conversation, spontaneous and synchronous, gives you all the paralinguistic cues you need to interpret speech, cues that are lost in the technology of writing. We tend to think of the written word as formal, impersonal, or grammatically more complex than simple speech —in other words, book talk. But as letter writing developed, its written form started to get up close and personal with speech, and just as lively and vibrant. As Jane Austen wrote in 1801 to her sister Cassandra:
I have now attained the true art of letter writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.
The Public Personal Letter
It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, the humble letter was not really private. In the middle ages, women’s letters were dictated to scribes and edited for improved language, not to mention borne by messengers (some of whom were probably nosy). This made women unwilling to go too deeply into private, personal matters, knowing that letters could be read by many others. The struggle between public and private was real and early writers were well aware of this.
In the seventeenth century it was common to teach girls from noble families how to read but not to write. Women persisted in writing anyway, creating linguistically messy letters that would make a pedant blush.
As more women of higher social status became literate, they were able to write their own letters which afforded them a bit more mental privacy, a relative luxury. Even then, letters were precious things, if not published for a wider audience then certainly shared and circulated. “Please burn this letter,” cautioned Victorian practitioner of the epistolary arts (and wife of Thomas Carlyle), Jane Welsh Carlyle, to her close cousin Jeannie, “I mean don’t hand it to the rest—there is a circulation of letters in families that frightens me from writing often—it is so difficult to write a circular to one.”
Perhaps it was the very lack of momentous subjects to discuss that led to women looking more inward to their own thoughts in their letters to their confidantes, or even engaging in language play, creating codes, slang, emotional cues, and other linguistic innovations with their ongoing correspondents. ““Ym raed Yssac,” wrote Jane Austen playfully to her 8 year old niece, in which every word was spelled backwards “I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey… Ruoy Etanoitceffa Tnua, Enaj Netsua.” This kind of natural language playfulness would hardly have been common before the advent of the modern personal letter.
Letters were not considered literary at the time, ephemeral as they were. And yet as women’s letter writing became more widespread from the seventeenth century onward, it gave rise to the popular epistolary novel, usually led by heroines, reflecting how women used letters in real life. Women’s letter writing likely influenced the introspective psychological themes of emerging sentimental novels. Indeed, women, at first writing anonymously to avoid the stain on their reputations for such an unladylike endeavor, began to compose their own novels—like Jane Austen herself.
The DIY Literary Education
There was a certain freedom allowed to women, given that their activities were often viewed as trivial, but only to a certain point. The many obstacles to literacy education for women accounts for the many creative “bad” spellings, grammar lapses, and lack of attention to epistolary norms that so horrified educated men of their day and led to the popular impression of young women as inferior minds with inconsequential interests. The hermit of Amherst, Emily Dickinson, a wonderfully intriguing letter writer, seemed wryly aware of this lack of formal instruction, politely apologizing for her lapses in a letter to Thomas Higginson, but without any intention to stop writing because of it:
A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent, there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.[…] Of our greatest acts we are ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life. To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests. . . . You will excuse each that I say, because no one taught me.
Many women letter writers chafed against, and even subverted, the socially imposed rules of feminine behavior, while appearing to comply. In answer to her brother’s disapproval of her wayward epistolary style, Emily Dickinson playfully parodied the language of female submission: “I’ll be a little ninny—a little pussy catty, a little Red Riding Hood, I’ll wear a Bee in my bonnet, and a Rose bud in my hair, and what remains to do you shall be told hereafter.”
By the nineteenth century, public advice, instructive manuals, and etiquette guides for the upwardly mobile tried (mostly in vain it would seem) to correct women’s more emotionally exuberant letter writing behaviors. It was now seen as a duty, not just a ladylike accomplishment, for women to be able to pen a ‘beautiful’ letter of good taste with just the right amount of sincerity. This was a world where women were not even to think of, much less express, any unpleasantness, any angry or self-indulgent thoughts or indeed any emotions at all that would disturb others who happen to eavesdrop on her letters. Godey’s Lady’s Magazine warned readers “not to tell family secrets in their letters, not to complain of their little hardships, and not to describe themselves as miserable and ill-treated, when they are only hysterical and impatient.”
What Letter-Writers’ “Mistakes” Reveal
Of course, some women must have been blithely breaking all these rules naturally, not just in what they talked about but how they talked about it, to be so widely cautioned in regularly reprinted how-to guides against letter writing conduct most unladylike. As the personal letter was on the cusp of moving from a public, collaborative act to an intensely private expression of the inner self, writers told their news in the playful and sometimes even coded vernacular language that grows between sympathetic minds. The language of letters had already become as informal and emotional as spoken language.
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It was all these unfiltered “mistakes” in women’s letters that now allow us to see the natural language use during these more literate eras where spoken language records are not available. Terttu Nevalainen’s research on women’s letters in Early Modern English shows that even with limited freedom, educated women were just like their modern counterparts today, at the forefront of linguistic change. Just as young women popularize linguistic innovations such as vocal fry and uptalk now, Nevalainen finds evidence from women’s letters that in the early period, women led language changes in Standard Modern English that we find fairly unremarkable now: for example, “you” replacing “ye” in the sixteenth century; or the use of “one” as a prop word, such as in “the letter I wrote is a long one.”
In spite of the many social restrictions on the epistolary arts, it was women who helped lead the way, transforming letters into precious long distance looks into the private minds of others.