- The Culture of Epistolarity: Vernacular Letters and Letter Writing in Early Modern England, 1500-1700
Historians, whether political, literary, or social, have long used letters as one of their major sources of information, but it is only relatively recently that an [End Page 958] interest in the letter as a generic form has developed. To be sure, some literary historians had turned to the letter-writing manuals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to establish a lineage for the epistolary novels that became so popular in England in the years after 1700, but very few scholars looked at any great quantity of actual letters in an effort to establish the boundaries and conventions of the genre. It is this task that Gary Schneider has set himself, in the process reading upwards of 40,000 (mostly printed) English letters dating from the late fifteenth to the end of the eighteenth century.
In accomplishing this task Schneider immediately runs into a problem of definition. The sheer variety of writings that may be called letters is staggering. The sort of letters found in the state papers constitutes one large class; private letters sent by individuals make up another. But should one also include works like The copie of a letter sent out of England to Don Bernardin de Mendoza, propaganda trumpeting the defeat of the Armada which, despite the title, was never sent at all? Or the newsletters, written by professionals, to be circulated in manuscript to the news-hungry well-to-do? In other words, does the letter have to be authentic? Was it ever sent? Was it even intended to be sent? Similarly, what should one make of letters, like some of Petrarch's, which the author edited for publication long after the original occasion that had called them forth? Yet all of these last, however, partook of the power of an authentic letter: that is, they claimed a personal, perhaps intimate, knowledge of the events being described, and a careful examination of the rhetoric employed in them makes clear just how the epistolary form could be deployed to establish some sort of truth. These intimacies help to explain why manuscript newsletters survived as long as they did and why the epistolary novel took hold.
Schneider solves the problem of definition by being as inclusive as possi-ble. The early chapters of his book look at the anxieties occasioned by letter exchange — letters, after all, might be deceptive, might be intercepted and read by the wrong parties, might even be made embarrassingly public — and at the ways in which social customs and epistolary strategies mediated such anxieties. As the book progresses, Schneider turns his attention to specific forms of letter-writing, in particular to those intended to transmit information, especially news, that growing passion of the seventeenth century. The last two chapters discuss the intersection of print culture and the practices of letter writing. How were the persuasive powers of the epistle, whether a personal letter or a state letter, whether fictional or authentic, translated into print? And, finally, what occasioned the expanded market for letter collections, first of the politically explosive correspondence of King Charles I revealed in The King's Cabinet Opened, then of posthumous letters like the state papers printed in Cabala, finally of fictional collections verging on the novel of the sort represented by Aphra Behn's Love-letters between a noble-man and his sister. In the course of his analysis, Schneider notes that the culture of epistolarity in early modern England altered over time, in part because communication became both easier and cheaper, in part because the exigencies of civil war in the mid-seventeenth century made intrusions into the private politically defensible, in [End Page 959] part, too, because an expanding interest in other people's personal lives, and especially those of writers and statesmen, encouraged publishers like John Dunton to issue letter collections to titillate this new public.
While the enormous amount...