Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Alison Searle: "Emergence & Interaction"

Alison Searle
Anglia Ruskin University

Letters: Emergence, Interaction, Transcendence

1> Virginia Woolf, commenting on Dorothy Osborne’s letters, observes that had she lived in another century she would have written a novel. The spiritual concerns of Richard Baxter’s devotional treatise, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, are informed by his affection for and correspondence with his congregation in Kidderminster during the Civil War and, in turn, have important parallels with his later manuscript and published letters to various women amongst the English gentry. These examples raise the issue of cross-fertilisation between genres: here, more specifically, I wish to explore the various ways in which the letter fed into, or flowed out from, other genres such as the printed epistle, the novel and the devotional treatise. In mid-seventeenth-century Britain letters were becoming an increasingly popular form of self-expression and communication. In this paper I will analyse various aspects of the letter as a genre, focusing on its emergence, its interaction with other genres and the seductive promise of transcendence which it embodied. Letters inevitably raise the issue of audience or reception: is the letter directed to the addressee, to the one who receives it, to those who read it, or to the numerous individuals who may later peruse it in printed form? Such ethical concerns cannot be adequately treated within the constraints of this paper. Rather, I will pursue a gender-inflected analysis of the letter as a genre in mid-seventeenth-century Britain, focusing on the letters of Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple, and the correspondence of the Puritan minister, Richard Baxter, with Katherine Gell, Jane Jones and Anne, Countess of Balcarres.

2> Kevin Pask has argued that the 1650s represent a key moment in the development of the private letter: a new concept of intimacy or interiority; and, paradoxically, the emergence of ‘literature’ and the ‘public sphere’ as viable intellectual and social concepts. He situates the letters of Dorothy Osborne at the centre of his argument: they demonstrate ‘a new level of literary accomplishment brought to the exploration of self and intimacy. In these texts a new kind of public suddenly begins to articulate its own distinctiveness.’
[1] In an observation akin to that of Virginia Woolf’s, Pask suggests that Osborne’s letters ‘mark a sea change in literary history: the genre of the familiar letter discovering its potential as a mode of intimacy that will mark the new conceptual universe of literature.’[2] Brigitte Glaser makes a related, though slightly different, point in her analysis of the self and autobiographical forms of writing in the period. ‘The experience of civil strife, of familial and domestic upheaval, possibly of exile and the threat of poverty, and undoubtedly of great uncertainty and fear surely amount to ample reasons for a preoccupation with the self.’ Glaser is uncertain whether to attribute the rise in autobiographical genres ‘to a personal crisis in the individual writer’s life or to the general contradictions and instabilities of the time,’ but she is positive that the political turbulence of the period forced writers to ‘revaluate their existence’ and suggests that autobiographical writing in a variety of genres (including the letter) may ‘have been motivated’ by the desire of writers ‘to reconstruct their existence and to rebuild their shattered or stunted lives.’[3]

3> Letter-writing was a fraught practice for individuals during the Interregnum and Restoration in Britain: theoretically it can be construed as an experience simultaneously limiting and liberating. A person’s gender, or their political or religious beliefs, could impose significant constraints on their freedom of action and ability to communicate with others, depending on the domestic situation they found themselves in, or the government that happened to be in power at a particular time. Writing letters offered the opportunity to circumvent the constraints of patriarchal power (whether this was at the level of the family or state) and to forge relationships or influence others through a personal medium with potentially powerful resonances in the public sphere. But it could also implicate one in a communication network, a physical trail of words forging interpersonal commitments, which was dangerously open to interpretation as rebellion against familial authority or political subversion. These inherent tensions acted as a catalyst for the threats, fears and upheaval which Glaser captures so vividly in her analysis.

4> Such intersections between the personal and the public find poignant expression in Osborne’s letters to Temple. In a moment of despair she draws a direct correlation, observing that her heart is ‘like a Country wasted by a Civill warr, where two opposeing Party’s have disputed theire right soe long till they have made it worth neither of theire conquest’s, tis Ruin’d and desolated by the long strife within it.’
[4] This is a famous instance but the affinity between the public ‘contradictions and instabilities of the time’ and ‘personal crisis’ can be demonstrated in the lives of other women justifying Glaser’s general observation. Jane Jones, a correspondent of Richard Baxter, was married to a minister who was evicted from his position as Vicar of King’s Somborne and Rector of Elvetham in 1662. However he later conformed and at the time Jones wrote to Baxter in 1676 he was Rector of Heveningham and Vicar of Ubbeston.[5] Jones was therefore within the fold of the Established Church when she wrote. Like Osborne she was confronted with a political and religious crisis in the public sphere which threatened her love of ‘Beauty and ordre’ and precipitated a personal spiritual predicament that prompted her to write to Baxter. In 1675 ‘being Alarumed by the face of things that the romish Religion was Braking [on] us like A Deluge I streight concluded that trying times were Approacheing.’ The reference here is probably to the coming Exclusion Crisis, and concerns about the Catholic beliefs held by Charles II’s designated successor, James, Duke of York. Serious illness had brought her to the ‘Brinke of Eternity.’ She feared that the ‘pitt had binn Ready to shut its mouth upon mee as I was musing I found A great Reluctancy Against that Darke silent Dormitory which turnes its inhabitant to Loathsome Rottenesse and Putrification.’ In a previous interview with her, Baxter had ‘Most Courteously granted’ permission to write. She frankly reveals her doubts about Puritan doctrinal beliefs concerning the relationship between the Father and the Son in the divine plan for human salvation, along with her ‘selfe detestation’ for entertaining such thoughts. She concludes: ‘S[i]r you will perceive by what I have written that I am upon the wrack my heart and Life my thoughts and Actions are almost nothing but contradictions Among them selvs.’ Like Osborne, though the contours of the personal and emotional situation were different, Jones traces the impact of public events which engender private distress and communicates this in epistolary form to Baxter her ‘Souls Anatomiste.’[6]

5> Seen from this perspective the letter occupied a liminal space between personal and intimate spaces and the public sphere broadly defined. This positioning had both political and generic implications for Osborne and Baxter’s epistolary praxis and the manuscripts they produced. Sara Crangle notes that in the seventeenth century ‘the letter came to frame both internal, private, as well as external, public space.’ The act of inscription itself implies readership and Osborne and Temple wrote at a time when ‘there was an increasing demand for the publication of private letters’; they feared exposure not only to their families, but also ‘a very conceivable exposure to a much larger audience.’
[7] Osborne’s letters offered her the opportunity to communicate, fostering a relationship that could lead to the public act of marriage. However, they were also an inescapably material object that rendered her vulnerable to the perpetual surveillance and antagonism of her father and brother. This becomes apparent, for instance, in Osborne’s observation that her brother had attempted ‘soe severe a search’ for her correspondence with Temple in order to learn ‘to what degrees’ their friendship had grown thinking ‘hee may best informe himself from them.’[8] It is evident that Osborne was constrained in very particular ways by her gender. In a patriarchal society her father, brother and other family members exercised a degree of power that threatened at times to limit, or entirely obstruct, the freedom and opportunities for communication that letter-writing promised. Similarly, despite Baxter’s considerable authority and influence as a male author and pastor, his refusal to conform to the Restoration Anglican settlement (1662) defined him as a religious dissenter. His convictions placed him in a vulnerable social and political position that in many respects mirrored the limitations Osborne faced within her male-dominated domestic environment. He could no longer converse freely with international scholars and there was always the possibility that his letters would be opened, or that fraudulent epistles would be written in his name, with the intention of having him convicted as a political dissident. His epistolary manuscripts are thus, in important ways, as adversely shaped by the threat of surveillance and exposure as Osborne’s.[9]

6> However, while the liminal position of letters between public and private spaces can be viewed as negative from a political perspective, it can be seen as a most positive development from a literary angle. The flexibility and indeterminacy of the epistolary genre facilitated its interaction with other literary forms and enabled it to act as a catalyst in the development of new genres, especially the novel.
[10] The public presence of women’s letters and later of women writing epistolary novels can be seen in the fact that the letter was the first genre to be effectively feminised (controversial, disparaging or inaccurate as this categorisation may have been).[11] Pask observes that the ‘vitality’ that Osborne brings to her letters anticipates the transformation of the term literature and also of conceptions of the public sphere. By embracing ‘the domestic and quotidian’ and valorising prose as a medium of expression her letters bring ‘into the public agora that which was previously shrouded in the privacy of the household.’[12] This is supported by Crangle who follows Woolf’s definition of letters ‘as a form of literature...distinct from any other’; she insists on treating Osborne’s ‘ a narrative’ and Osborne ‘herself as an author.’[13] Crangle offers a persuasive analysis of the intimate audience shaping Osborne’s letter-writing;[14] this is further complicated by the fact that her manuscript letters were published for a general readership several centuries after she wrote them.

7> When considering Baxter’s correspondence, the relationship between manuscript letters and other genres is more pressing and contemporary. His devotional classic, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1651), focusing on the duty of believers to meditate upon heaven, was written as a result of his experiences as a Civil War chaplain and may in some senses be viewed as an extended pastoral epistle to his congregation at Kidderminster (from which he had been separated by the war). His primary extant correspondence with a woman, letters sent to Katherine Gell in Berkshire during the 1650s, overlap in important ways with his treatment of tender consciences susceptible to doubts, fears and a lack of assurance of salvation in A Christian Directory (1673).
[15] But the most obvious example of the way in which Baxter’s correspondence with women fed into other genres can be seen in his letters to Anne, Countess of Balcarres, and her daughter. In ‘The Epistle Dedicatory’ (25 August 1661), which frames his published work The Mischiefs of Self-ignorance, and the Benefits of Self-acquaintance, Baxter represents the Countess as a model in the art of self-examination.[16] A postscript follows (1 November 1661) which demonstrates that for Baxter print did not have its own decorum. Having heard that the Countess is ‘under the afflicting hand of God’ he pens her a pastoral epistle – identical in style to those he sent in manuscript to other women – seeking to give comfort and closely identifying with her affliction as ‘Your Brother and companion in tribulation, and in the Kingdom and Patience of Jesus Christ.’[17] The movement from the Countess’s patronage of him as a preacher, to offering pastoral counsel, to publication in print and the desire to spiritually nourish a wider audience through the written word is seamless and, for Baxter, unproblematic. In a similar way he incorporated his letters to the Countess’s daughter (seeking to convert her back from Catholicism to the Protestant faith of her childhood) and to Barbara Lambe (the wife of a Baptist minister), alongside many others, as documentary evidence constituting discrete narrative units within his autobiography.[18]

8> In the seventeenth century letters held out an inherent and seductive promise to embody a type of communion that transcended the limitations of space and time. The physical distance they implied could be liberating for women: Katherine Gell for example was willing to write to Baxter of her spiritual struggles because she was ‘altogether astranger’ to him.
[19] However, the attraction of this epistolary medium, whether deployed in manuscript or print (as Baxter did in his postscript to the Countess of Balcarres), was double-edged. It provided the opportunity for the development of an otherwise impossible relationship in the case of Osborne and Temple; it enabled Baxter to continue to provide pastoral counsel to men and women throughout Britain following his suspension from public ministry within the Church of England in 1662. But this theoretical ‘transcendence’ of the letter as a genre was in many senses illusory or at least constrained by the sordid realities of patriarchal power, for Osborne, and the coercive cultural discourses of the Restoration state for Baxter. The complex interpenetration of public and personal spheres in the medium of the letter was both enabling and prohibitive: it fostered an amorous relationship, provided the opportunity for extensive pastoral influence and encouraged a form of prose discourse that fed into and generated other genres, including ultimately the novel. It also exposed its practitioners to surveillance and, in Baxter’s case, to potential imprisonment. The publication history of both Osborne and Baxter’s letters is complex and varied, but it further demonstrates the liminal position of the letter between public and personal spaces and the critical role played by diverse audiences in the interpretation and appropriation of correspondence in early modern England.


[1] K. Pask, ‘The Public Sphere and the Concept of Literature,’ Criticism, 46.2 (2004), 243.

[2] Pask, ‘The Public Sphere and the Concept of Literature,’ 243.

[3] B. Glaser, The Creation of the Self in Autobiographical Forms of Writing in Seventeenth-Century England: Subjectivity and Self-Fashioning in Memoirs, Diaries, and Letters (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag, 1999), 27-28.

[4] K. Parker, ed., Dorothy Osborne: Letters to Sir William Temple, 1652-54 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 160.

[5] N. H. Keeble and G. Nuttall, Calendar of the Correspondence of Richard Baxter (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Vol. 2, 187.

[6] Dr Williams’s Library (DWL), MS 59.III.204-205. I am grateful to the Trustees of Dr. Williams’s Library for permission to quote from the manuscripts in their possession.

[7] S. Crangle, ‘Epistolarity, Audience, Selfhood: The Letters of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple,’ Women’s Writing, 12.3 (2005), 434.

[8] Parker, ed., Letters, 119.

[9] R. Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae (London, 1696), II, 441.

[10] This, of course, has been well-documented in research into the origins of the novel and, more particularly, in explorations of the epistolary novel. See for example J. G. Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982); T. O. Beebee, Epistolary Fiction in Europe, 1500-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); K. A. Jensen, Writing Love: Letters, Women, and the Novel in France, 1605-1776 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995); J. Bray, The Epistolary Novel: Representation of Consciousness (London: Routledge, 2003).

[11] Again this is a commonplace in literary scholarship. See for example J. Daybell, Women Letter-Writers in Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); M. A. Favret, Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); E. C. Goldsmith, ed., Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989); R. Perry, Women, Letters and the Novel (New York: AMS Press, 1980); S. Wiseman, Conspiracy and Virtue: Women, Writing and Politics in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[12] Pask, ‘The Public Sphere and the Concept of Literature,’ 252.

[13] Crangle, ‘Epistolarity, Audience, Selfhood: The Letters of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple,’ 435.

[14] Crangle, ‘Epistolarity, Audience, Selfhood: The Letters of Dorothy Osborne to William Temple,’ 436-40.

[15] See J. Brouwer’s argument in Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory: Context and Content (Cambridge University PhD Thesis, 2005).

[16] R. Baxter, ‘To the right Honourable Anne Countess of Balcarres, & c.,’ The Mischiefs of Self-ignorance, and the Benefits of Self-acquaintance (London, 1662).

[17] Baxter, ‘To the right Honourable Anne Countess of Balcarres, & c.: Postscript’.

[18] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae.

[19] DWL, MS 59.V.216.


Alison Searle is a postdoctoral research associate on the James Shirley Project at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. Her research interests include seventeenth-century British literature; trans-Atlantic Puritan literary traditions; theories of the imagination; the relationship between literature and theology; and the epistolary genre. She has published articles on Shakespeare, John Bunyan, Richard Baxter, Samuel Rutherford, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

APPOSITIONS: Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature & Culture,, ISSN: 1946-1992, Volume One (2008): Genres & Cultures

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