Introduction 2. 'Anxiously Yours': The Epistolary Self and the Culture of Concern

By Hallett, Nicky | Journal of European Studies, June-September 2002 | Go to article overview

Introduction 2. 'Anxiously Yours': The Epistolary Self and the Culture of Concern


Hallett, Nicky, Journal of European Studies


Deare Mother, I haue receaued two letters from you, the one sent by one that come ouer. I desire you to haue great care in the letters you write, & neuer send any but by the post: you indorse the letter to mee & put the name of a gentleman, my frend, upon the back also, so yt if the letter had fallen in to the handes of Protestants you had undon him. So I desire you to be verie wane in sending letters, & what you write, the persequetion is great, & is lyke to be greater.

This letter was received in 1623 by Anne of the Ascension (Anne Worsley, 1588-1644), the Prioress of a Carmelite convent in Antwerp, in the Spanish Netherlands, one of a series of foundations established specifically for English women who had withdrawn to live in northern Europe during periods of Protestant persecution.1 It was sent to her by a priest,2 reminding her of the urgency of carefully addressing her correspondence during a period of danger for Catholics in England. The possibility of peril that this letter suggests may seem to relate to a special situation of time and place, arising as it does from specific nationalistic, devotional and ideological conditions at a time of reform -- yet its anxieties reach into the very heart of the epistolary genre.

If the letter arrived almost 400 years ago, its culture of expressiveness is not a million miles away from current quotidian anxieties clustered around that familiar and homely clunk of the mail-box, that. flip of letter onto mat, the quick scan of the envelope for clues (postmark, handwriting, style of typescript) -- all raising tension in the recipient (sometimes pleasantly anticipatory) as the letter arrives, maybe unheralded but specifically addressed, into an otherwise enclosed domesticity. The apprehensions it invokes began some time before, in the writing (Will I achieve the right tone? How will my letter be received?), the sending (Will it arrive, passing through many, anonymous, unconcerned hands, across distance, maybe into the mouth of a waiting dog on the other side of the letter-box? Did I use sufficient stamps? Is the post-code correct?), the reception (Will I be understood? Will it be properly read? (3)): for letters come out of, and into, anxiety.

Letter-writers wish to convey matters truthfully, ostensibly without the leisure of the novelist; and they want reassurance by return: 'It seems even ages of time since I have seen a line from you, which makes me fear you are not well [...] I am much in pain for your long silence; we hear nothing but ill news [...] (4) This set of concerns -- unique as they may seem to an individual -- come between, and are shared by (but maybe with different origins or effect) those named at either end of the letter-writing process. It is an anxiety that does not occupy, to the same extent at least, writers of those non-specific readers of other texts. It is these preoccupations that define the letter as a literary genre apart.

Letters, crucially, are of the moment. They (seek to) capture and convey the concern of their writer, what is paramount in her mind right then. If it is not urgent, after all, why write? And these are gestures, crucially, into and out of absence, of a meaningful (wish you were here) variety, or drawn with relish out of separation from which new perspectives of loved ones can only then be achieved:

Here I am in your country [...] and in the country of your language [...] Spain is you, you, you [...] I love Spain passionately! [...] never have you seemed so vivid. I feel like a person who has gone into a house whilst the owner is absent. (5)

So wrote Violet Trefusis to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, revelling in her foreign, familiar geographies, from an intimate distance. Here, even meetings do not remove the need for certain letters. 'When you come on Thursday, bring me a letter', writes one of the secret lovers in Carol Ann Duffy's poem; and the lover does just that, passing it surreptitiously in the presence of a husband. …

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