On William Wordsworth’s birthday, Pamela Clemit explores the importance of missives in the Romantic era
On 14 May 1800, William Wordsworth and his brother John set off to walk from Grasmere in the Lake District to Gallow Hill near Scarborough in Yorkshire. Their sister Dorothy began a journal “of the time till W & J return … because I shall give Wm Pleasure by it when he comes home again”. She ended the first entry at nine o’clock that evening: “Oh! that I had a letter from William!”
Two days later she walked three miles to Ambleside to collect the post: “No letters! … I had many of my saddest thoughts & I could not keep the tears within me.” On 18 May there were “letters from Coleridge & Cottle”; but on 20 May, again, “No letters!”
On 24 May she found “a letter from Wm”, and wrote back after dinner. On the next day she found another letter from Coleridge. By Tuesday 27 May she “expected a letter from Wm”, but it did not arrive until Friday. In the following week, the walking and waiting were resumed. She received a letter from Coleridge and answered it, but there was “No letter, no William”.
When William finally returned at the end of the week, “We were busy all day in writing letters to Coleridge, Montagu, Douglass, Richard.”
Such emotional dependence on letters was not unusual in the Romantic era. Why did Dorothy Wordsworth value them so much? Imagine a world without email or the telephone. When people wished to talk to each other and were far apart, they communicated by writing on a sheet of paper, which they sent through the post. The post, in Voltaire’s words, was “the consolation of life”: “those who are absent, by its means become present.”
In the early 19th century, interpersonal communication over distance had a scarcity value. Nowadays it’s inescapable.
Even in the slow lane, expectations were high. When the philosophical anarchist William Godwin went off to visit the novelist Charlotte Smith, a family friend, in April 1805, he wrote to his second wife Mary Jane Godwin on the evening of the day he left: “The first thing I think of … is to write a letter to the sympathising & matured partner of my fire-side, & to present to her a little journal of my impressions & sensations.” Letters stood in for a larger conversation. They allowed intimacy to be preserved at a distance – an intimacy sometimes more intense and with different qualities to that available face-to-face.
Writing letters took an effort. They were usually written on single sheets of paper folded in half to create four pages. The middle section of the fourth page was left blank for the address. If more space was needed, the author would write across the top and bottom of the fourth page or would cross-write, adding vertical writing on top of pages of horizontal writing, creating a chequer-work effect. The sheet would be folded with the flaps tucked in and sealed, and the little package sent through the post. The envelope and adhesive postage stamp were not introduced until 1840.
Postage was expensive and usually charged to the recipient. Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells the story of the poor people around Keswick, who longed for news of distant loved ones, but couldn’t afford the postal fee: “They therefore were in the habit of going to the post office, and saying, is there a letter for me? Which when they had looked at the direction, they laid it down again, and went away, satisfied from having seen the handwriting of the relatives, of their locality at least, and that they lived.”
Letters are compositions, however spontaneous they may appear. They are not only intended for someone else to read, but are a mode of self-presentation. Form matters. When a letter was the only means of communication across distance, it was important to get it right, even if this meant writing it out several times before sending it. Letters were creative labour, not a casual pastime.
In each case the writer makes an effort to gratify a particular individual. They have focused their attention on that individual for a good deal of time, perhaps several hours. The value that the letter conveys is the value of regard. Regard is an attitude of approbation. It can take many forms: attention, acceptance, respect, intimacy, love, friendship, sociability. The more attention bestowed in the writing of the letter, the greater its value to the person on the receiving end.
A letter-writer goes beyond the grant of attention: they also seek to transmit a signal which is crafted uniquely for the recipient; a kind of gift. The gift brought with it an obligation to reciprocate. Most letter-writers were self-conscious about this obligation and worked hard to fulfil it. John Keats wrote to his younger sister Fanny in 1817:
Let us now begin a regular question and answer – a little pro and con; letting it interfere as a pleasant method of my coming at your favourite little wants and enjoyments, that I may meet them in a way befitting a brother.
We have been so little together since you have been able to reflect on things that I know not whether you prefer the History of King Pepin to Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress – or Cinderella and her glass slipper to Moor’s Almanack. However in a few Letters I hope I shall be able to come at that and adapt my Scribblings to your Pleasure.
Claire Clairmont, on the other hand, took her stepsister Mary Shelley to task because her letters were not sufficiently attentive to her own: “Your letters to me are very curious – they always seem written as if mine to you have never been received and you had not an idea of what was passing in my thoughts.”
Letters need not convey information in order to be welcomed: regard is a good in itself. Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler, 152: “The purpose for which letters are written when no intelligence is communicated, or business transacted, is to preserve in the minds of the absent either love or esteem.” To criticise Jane Austen’s letters for their limited subject matter is to miss the point. “Expect a most agreable [sic] letter,” she wrote to her elder sister Cassandra in 1801, “for not being overburdened with subject (having nothing at all to say) I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end.” Repeated exchanges of “important nothings” create the thrill of a secret bond: “we, the formidables”.
The misery caused by the failure of regard can be seen in Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters to Gilbert Imlay, her faithless lover. “You have, by your tenderness and worth, twisted yourself more artfully round my heart, than I supposed possible,” she wrote to him. But Imlay (the recipient of 76 letters) dropped the ball. His infrequent replies dwindled to notes – “only half a dozen hasty lines, that have all the rising affection of my soul” – and then silence. Wollstonecraft spiralled into “continual inquietude”, which ended in two suicide attempts.
In Godwin (to whom she wrote 146 letters over a briefer span) she found a man after her own heart. As she gained assurance that “the writer loved me”, her words began to tumble over each other: “I am overflowing with the kindest sympathy – I wish I may find you at home when I carry this letter, to drop it in the box – that I may drop a kiss with it into your heart, to be embalmed, till we meet, closer Don’t read the last word – I charge you!”
Tuning the signal to the partner’s needs was a constant challenge. “Is that the right style for a letter?” Godwin wrote to Wollstonecraft in June 1797, the day after leaving her in London, pregnant and alone, to visit the Wedgwood family at Etruria Hall. She was buoyed by his promptness and replied approvingly: “I find you can write the kind of letter a friend ought to write.” But by the middle of the month she felt he was slipping: “Your latter letters might have been address [sic] to any body.”
The absence of letters, when expected, was always a worry. “No letters from England!” Coleridge wrote to his wife Sara from Germany in November 1798. “Through the whole remaining day I am incapable of every thing but anxious imaginations, of sore and fretful feelings.” He was right to be worried. The letters from England, when they came, communicated the illness and death of his baby son Berkeley. The news was made worse because Sara and Coleridge’s friend Thomas Poole withheld it: Berkeley died in February 1799 but Coleridge did not find out until April. In delaying their letters, Poole and Sara had broken an unstated pact of trust. Letters were signs of life, and disruptions in reciprocity could mean the worst.
A letter held over for long enough could change its meaning. On 15 September 1797, Mary Wollstonecraft’s old friend, the Irish radical Archibald Hamilton Rowan, wrote while in exile in America to congratulate her on her marriage to Godwin: “I rejoice most sincerely that you have such a companion, protector & friend.” On 17 November he added a further paragraph to the letter in a shaky hand: “This [letter] has been lying by me and the last papers announce a melancholy event – and have you so shortly enjoyed the calm repose I hoped you were in possession of. I hope the report is false: if true, let this convey my condolance [sic] to Mr G.” Wollstonecraft had died on 10 September, shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Mary Godwin (later Mary Shelley).
Breaks in the chain of reciprocity highlight the multiple meanings carried by letters. They were not only a means of conveying news, but reaffirmed family and social connections. “How comes it that I hear from none of you?” wrote Coleridge to Poole in November 1798. “Am I not a Friend, a Husband, a Father?”
They brought people together, strengthened family relationships, and helped to build social networks on which everyone depended. Who needs the Internet?
Pamela Clemit is Professor of English at Queen Mary University of London and a Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. She is the General Editor of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford, 2011-).
First published in Idler issue 71.