I was fortunate to be invited to give a paper at the interdisciplinary symposium: “What is a letter?” earlier this month, by the organisers, Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig and Caroline Socha.
It is hoped that the papers presented will be published and meanwhile there are full details of the programme, including abstracts, available from the symposium blog. Rather than try to cover the main programme here, I thought I would mention a few side shoots from my experience there. One such is a mind map produced (after I’d had to leave) which I think does a good job of summing up concisely some of the themes raised. For me, many of the issues that are often raised in Literacy Studies appear here; such as materiality, social practices and text trajectories, albeit sometimes expressed with different terms.
A highlight of the extra-mural activities for me was the invitation to view some of the special collections of the Bodleian library. We were introduced to some of the most interesting items by the Keepers, headed by Chris Fletcher. The most fascinating letter for me was one written by John Evelyn to Samuel Pepys. Of course these are the two most celebrated diarists of their age (if not for all time) in England, but what was salient at this point in their correspondence was their interest in naval affairs. Evelyn was a board commissioner, concerned with sick and wounded sailors as well as prisoners of war while Pepys was clerk of the acts to the Navy Board. Evelyn’s letter, written apparently while he was indisposed, included this marvellous sketch of the Dutch fleet making a raid up the Medway in June 1667. This map (pasted into a book into which such letters have been collected) is so marvellously detailed it includes a key to the ships and even details of sandbanks.
An event I missed at the end of the conference was a workshop on letter locking by Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, Oxford) and Jana Dambrogio (Conservator of special collections at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). From talking with them earlier, I know they are interested in many of the historical practices concerning, for example, folding letters to go through the post when envelopes aren’t available. Jana had shown me how letters were folded in the Soviet Union during WW2. Here is another kind of example of folded letter.
I’m certainly sorry I missed that workshop.
My own contribution was a paper about writing Edwardian postcards. There is a short illustrated summary here.
A couple of other papers at the symposium also drew upon an earlier work from the Literacy Research Centre, the book Letter Writing as Social Practice, edited by David Barton and Nigel Hall.