Whyman, Susan E., the Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660-1800

By Emery, Victoria | Parergon, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Whyman, Susan E., the Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660-1800


Emery, Victoria, Parergon


Whyman, Susan E., The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers 1660-1800, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009; hardback; pp. xi, 348; 34 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. 30.00 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 9780199532245.

Susan E. Whyman's book is the outcome of a ten-year study which examines in detail the letters, literacy, and letter-writing habits of English people below the social level of gentry in the long eighteenth century. Starting with the discovery of extensive and largely untapped family archives, Whyman devised a qualitative methodology for their analysis and a cultural category 'epistolary literacy', which allows her to explore a broad array of practical, intellectual, familial, and spiritual concerns without losing the coherence of her study. Epistolary literacy encompasses 'material and intellectual aspects of ... correspondence' including 'layout, spelling, and grammar ... content, originality, and literary techniques' (p. 9), features which allow for comparison of competencies.

The book is in three parts, with six substantial chapters. Each section draws on case studies of individuals and their families, bringing to vivid and nuanced life the story of their letter-writing and its impact. Whyman bases her analysis around three general questions: 'why were these letters written, for what purposes were they used, and what kind of impact did they have on the lives of writers and their families?' (p. 10).

Part I, 'Creating a culture of letters', gives the background conditions for epistolary literacy with chapters on acquiring literacy (sometimes in the absence of formal schooling), and on the rise and reorganization of the Royal Mail, and various ways around it (carriers, personal delivery, franking by members of Parliament etc.).

Part II, 'Creating a culture of literacy', includes a chapter on farmers and artisans in northern England, which is perhaps the true revelation of the book. When the wheelwright (later mill owner) Jedediah Strutt and his sweetheart Elizabeth, a housekeeper, corresponded during their courtship 'their letters were studded with references to Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and the Bible' (p. 97). Chapter 4 looks at the 'middling sort'--mainly the mercantile class--with an emphasis on the interrelationships of business, religion, gender, and class.

Part III, 'From Letters to Literature', takes us through to the end of the century, and across the divide between personal letters and literary critique. Chapter 5 covers the relationship of letter writing to the epistolary novel and an extended case study of Jane Johnson, wife of an Anglican cleric: 'She read both print and manuscript materials for both instruction and entertainment. …

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