Unopened Letters, and the Secrets Within


Ellen Smith, University of Leicester

We are pleased to share this blog by Ellen Smith, runner up in the 2020 SHS Postgraduate Prize.

Several times during my research project, on family life in British India during the long nineteenth century, I have reflected on how privileged I am to read, almost daily, personal letters of the past. I feel a rush of adrenaline every time I read a sentence that feels personal, or sometimes, if I am lucky, intimate.

And so far I have been very lucky. Many secrets, written into the pages of these sources, have revealed themselves to me. I have peered into the homes of British men and women as they informed relatives back in the metropole about the highs and lows of their marriages. I have read the words of bereaved mothers and fathers detailing their grief over burying their infants in India, as they made plans to return to Britain. I have ‘listened’ intently to the cries of joy that news of the post brings, knowing that these letters were bittersweet – they brought the greetings of old friends but also represented the fact that they would probably not meet or see each other again for years. However, so many of the letters of civil servants, missionaries and soldiers living and working on the Indian subcontinent were also lost at sea, unread, and left unacknowledged. Missionary wife Catherine Wilkinson, then in Odisha (previously Orissa) with the Baptist mission, wrote aptly in a letter sent back to England of these circumstances of nineteenth-century long-distance relationships: ‘Shall I tell you how often I thought of beloved friends at home with whom I had taken sweet counsel, how oft I sighed and wept and longed to hear from you, who does not know that hope deferred maketh the heart sick’ (my emphasis).

George Goodwin Kilburne (1839-1924), Penning a Letter [Oil on canvas], undated (Wikimedia Commons).
As important as these narratives are to my research, I find myself ever more aware of my position as a reader and researcher, and the possible ethical implications of my research. What right do I have to read this incredibly emotional material? Would the writers of these letters and diaries have wanted a twenty-first-century readership? Would they even have imagined that someone like me would be poring over their letters… and finally responding to them, not with pen and paper but electronically on a laptop? This kind of dilemma can be associated with ‘crossed’ letters, a technique used in some instances for secrecy. By transcribing letters that are difficult to read in this way, it is possible that historians and archivists are going against the writer’s wishes for privacy. Similarly, when I found a letter in an archive a few months ago, still sealed in its original envelope, unopened for whatever reason, I became anxious about asking the archivist to cut it open and reveal its contents to me. Perhaps, I told myself, the one hundred year rule, that many historians and institutions abide by, makes the continued use of such sources acceptable. Yet how can the historian in such instances remain ‘objective’, however tricky that term is, when they, whether they liked it or not, had been drafted into the contract in place between the writers and receivers of correspondence? What the letter is actually saying gets muddled within what the historian, now in conversation with the long dead writer, feels it is communicating. Though to an extent, no matter what the circumstances, opened or unopened, the historian is always bringing an element of their subjectivity to the understandings they have surrounding a primary source.

It is important that intimate letters, sealed or otherwise, are not avoided, even in light of these methodological issues. What is to say that these correspondents never contemplated the future readers of their writing? Kate Madeline Farran, for instance, knew exactly what the India scrapbook she crafted in the 1910s would later be used for: ‘With colour and pen / I study men / Depicting the fate of nations / If your coat is brown / I’ll dot it down / For future generations’. Furthermore, if particular source materials of a more private and personal nature are avoided, it is possible that historians will repeat the silencing of nineteenth-century women who specifically wrote on topics pertaining to the family and the home. By overlooking this sensitive genre of writing, out of discomfort or unease, we are suppressing the expression of the female voice, and denying them a place in the historical record. As historians we also need to identify problems that could and do arise when using certain sources, and actively seek out solutions for them. Ethics reviews form part of the solution at an institutional level. Yet historians can implement certain practices to make their research and writing on a daily basis as a whole, more ‘detached’. It was concluded at the one-day conference held at the University of Leicester in May 2019 entitled ‘Epistolary Bodies: Letters and Embodiment in the Eighteenth Century’ in relation to The National Archives’ ‘Prize Papers Project’, that a tactic of ‘close reading’ should be applied, where the historian carefully considers the source from varying perspectives and thoroughly embeds those perspectives in good scholarship.

What I have come to learn though, following years of reading and writing about the letters of imperial families, is that the most fascinating insights occasionally come just at the point when they trigger an emotional response. When we pity, sympathise with, trust, or distrust the writer of a letter, we can start to imagine how the intended audience would have felt or responded and thus begin to make sense of the impressions that the writer was hoping to make. In the words of Helen Rogers, imagination, or ‘feel[ing] the past from the inside’ can help make the men and women we study ‘come alive on the page’.

Whenever we act on our own emotional responses and instincts in research, by incorporating them into academic writing, we must do so with caution. Shying away from thoroughly engaging with these kinds of sources, however, is not the solution, rather it is all part of the unpredictable experience that is epistolary history.


About the author: Ellen Smith is a Midlands4Cities AHRC DTP PhD student at the University of Leicester in the School of History, Politics & International Relations. Her research is focused on the strategies that imperial families used to cope with mobility and distance whilst living and working in the British Empire.

2 responses to “Unopened Letters, and the Secrets Within

  1. Was very interested to read about your reactions to working with letters, from trepidation to the adrenaline rush! Wondered if you’d read Annette Farge’s ‘The Allure of the Archives’? A significant influence on Carol Steadman’s ‘Dust’, and an enjoyable read about the emotional and ethical aspects of archive research. I’ve just read Vyvyen Brendon’s book ‘Children of the Raj’ which draws on letters from and to children, sometimes very sad: there’s a diary entry from a Dr Fayrer, off to Calcutta in 1859: ‘Little Bob was asleep in his cot, I would not wake him. I did not see him again til he was in the fifth form at Rugby’. Discomforting to read indeed.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Kate. I’m very pleased you were interested in my response to the ethics of reading letters. I have not read Annette Farge’s work so it will be useful I’m sure as I continue to think about archival material. Yes, Brendon’s book is fantastic! She uses very poignant sources and I enjoyed thinking about the British Raj from the perspective of children. Thanks again Kate – much food for thought here!

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