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The Epistolary Pact, Letterness, and the Schreiner Epistolarium

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 27, Number 2, Winter 2012
pp. 262-293 | 10.1353/abs.2012.0013

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The feminist theorist and writer Olive Schreiner was also a prolific letter-writer. Contra Lejeune and pro Altman, an exploration of Schreiner’s 4,800+ extant letters throws interesting light on the idea of an “epistolary pact” that marks the reciprocity and exchange at the core of correspondence, its “I and You” character.

To a great extent, this is the epistolary pact—the call for a response from a specific reader within the correspondent’s world. Most of the other aspects of epistolary discourse . . . can be seen to derive from this most basic parameter.

—Janet Gurkin Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form

How does it come I never never hear from you. The last letter I had was when you sent me that lovely little poem—the last thing you ever wrote. Do write & tell me of you all. / I never forget you / Olive.1

—Olive Schreiner, Letter to Ruth, 18 Apr.


Olive Schreiner (1855–1920), an English-speaking South African by birth, also spent considerable periods of time in Europe.2 A feminist writer and social theorist who achieved world-fame, she published a raft of novels, essays, and theoretical treatises, and also many shorter writings in magazines, journals, and newspapers.3 From the early 1880s following publication of The Story of An African Farm until the Great War in 1914–1918, she was one of the world’s most famous women. Her publications had huge sales and were quickly translated into most major languages, receiving much public and particularly feminist and socialist attention, including from readers in China, Japan, Austro-Hungary, and Russia, as well as the Americas, and European, Scandinavian, and Nordic countries.

Around twenty thousand of Schreiner’s letters were extant at her death, many (but not all) obtained and destroyed by her estranged husband and biographer, Cronwright-Schreiner, after completion of The Life of Olive Schreiner and The Letters of Olive Schreiner.4 These volumes have been extensively criticized, starting in 1924 when family members described them as his novels about his wife (Stanley and Salter 7–30). They are inaccurate regarding many basic aspects of Schreiner’s work and activities, and contention is treated as fact, while the letters are bowdlerized on a major scale, being frequently cannibalized by piecing together parts of several letters into a composite and in many more instances extracted to just banal snippets. Although the problems have been known for a long time, these two publications have proved—because of Cronwright-Schreiner’s destruction of many sources—a difficult obstacle for Schreiner scholarship.5

The Olive Schreiner Letters Project (OSLP)6 is researching, analyzing, and has published the complete 4,800+ extant Schreiner letters in full and accurate transcriptions.7 Our analysis of the letters explores the major concerns of Schreiner’s theorizing,8 and also the “letterness” of her correspondences—by which we mean the shifting boundaries of “the letter” and the porous boundaries between it and cognate forms or genres, while also recognizing that the fundamentals of the letter form are highly resilient. In addition to Schreiner’s analysis of political events and social circumstances,9 we are concerned with what an examination of this large body of letters can contribute to a theoretical understanding of epistolarity and its complex character.10

In this paper, we focus on what Schreiner’s letter-writing practices can contribute to understanding how “letterness” is deployed, and in particular the light thereby thrown on the idea of an “epistolary pact”11 that marks the reciprocity and exchange at the core of correspondence.12 Lejeune’s ideas about an “autobiographical pact” have proved a powerful way of thinking about how to conceptualize autobiography.13 However, while letters are an autobiographical genre in formalist terms, Lejeune does not specifically discuss them. We argue here that paying analytical attention to letters and letterness challenges some core aspects of the autobiographical pact. In particular, the letter with what Altman pinpoints as its ingrained assumption of reciprocity—its call for a response—directly challenges Lejeune’s conceptual frame in respect to its focus on the synonymy of “I” as the author, the narrator, and the protagonist, and its exclusion of “You” as the addressee, reader...

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