The basic techniques for this can be blunt and simplistic. Sign-offs, for example, are surprisingly crude. When someone wishes you “all the best”, they are making a generic, replicated statement of affection, which is in itself essentially meaningless – but its removal would be significant. Similarly, if you routinely sign off your personal e-mails with two kisses, a reduction to a solitary “x” would seem hostile. By negotiating such clumsy conventions, correspondents construct a mutually acceptable structure, albeit a basic one, in which to interact.
The eighteenth-century letters that I read in the course of my own PhD research are often dull, dry, stiff and formal. The vast majority are matter-of-fact business exchanges which succumb to all the unimaginative conventions of eighteenth-century letter writing. The correspondence archives of Enlightenment Edinburgh bookseller John Bell, for example, are dominated by business invoices, and the details of orders and deliveries. A long day in the archive can be considerably enlivened, then, by the discovery of some creative or literary flair, or even the faintest trace of a story: for example, a hastily scribbled note from a Robert Trotter Esquire of George Square, requesting that two “new comedies” be delivered to him at home as “a cure for the heart ache”. From a mere scrap such as this, especially on a particularly boring day, the imagination can run wild.
The breakdown of Bell’s relationship with the London bookseller John Murray, a man with whom he corresponded almost entirely through letters, is also fascinating to trace from its warm and intimate peak to its frosty denouement. In 1774, Murray becomes exasperated with his counterpart’s absent-mindedness, and he adopts an occasionally passive-aggressive tone. He wishes Bell well on a new publication, adding: “perhaps you would have done as well had you confined yourself to one London publisher – any of the three would have done.” He signs off this letter with a particularly naked plea for Bell to “Command any services here & believe me to remain, Dear Sir, your affectionate, humble servant”. Two months later he uses the unprecedented sign-off “very sincerely yours”; but shortly afterwards, their relationship has clearly soured, and any meagre correspondence between them takes the form of generic, impersonal business invoices. The epistolary structure remained essentially the same, but the tone became hollow and cold.
It is the subtlety of letters – their hints and traces of intimacy and emotion – that can make them so powerful; and I am struck by the power of epistolary dialogue to drive a story. And it is not a dialogue like any other. It is a less immediately reciprocal form of communication. Unlike the listener in a face-to-face conversation, readers cannot use their physical responses to encourage or discourage their correspondents. Nor can they interject or contribute to the conversation at will; they are bound by the structure of the message that the writer intended.
Nevertheless, letters resemble “real life” interaction in the sense that they generally have to adhere to certain mundane formalities before the more intimate exchanges can occur. A show called Letters Home, part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, explores this idea beautifully. Unlike site-specific theatre company Grid Iron’s previous work, which made the settings of their performance a distinctive feature of the drama, Letters Home uses empty spaces and non-specific locations to transport the audience to this imagined epistolary place, where dialogue flows freely and the facts of geography and physical distance are secondary to the stories of love, longing, and loss. The epistolary form allows for the primacy of language, in all its agile glory.
In Letters Home, stage directions are few, and perhaps the most effective part is when the audience listens, blindfolded, to disembodied voices, the dialogue alone driving the story. In the drama, each correspondent waits patiently for their turn, as layer upon layer of intimacy is added, each correspondent responding to the boldness of the other in revealing their feelings, and revealing hints and traces of a wider story along the way.
The weaker parts of the drama, though, are spoiled by attempts to counteract the supposed limitations of epistolary dialogue. Ham-fisted stage decoration and absurd over-acting are particularly distracting in one of the four segments, a clumsy attempt to obviate the criticism of a straight dialogical drama as “dull”, a symptom of the director’s lack of trust in the audience’s imagination. But, more pertinently, the whole suffers from the unnatural insertion of context and background. Sections when the characters on stage are addressing not each other but the watching audience, making sure that we understand the context of the scene, are jarring.
Of course, letters are “limited” in some crude sense. Unadorned and contextless in the archive, their meaning can be unclear. Performed theatrically on stage, they offer only a partial picture of a wider story. But while the insight they offer isn’t complete, it is rich, deep, and extremely valuable. Letters act as a powerful imaginative spur, an inspiration to explore the epistolary place that distant correspondents have created, and to construct a story from its fragments.
Phil Dodds | @PA_Dodds