Lindsay O’Neill. The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World / Diana G. Barnes. Epistolary Community in Print, 1580-1664

Lindsay O’Neill. The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. viii, 264p. ill. ISBN 9780812246483. US $47.50 (hardback).

Diana G. Barnes. Epistolary Community in Print, 1580-1664Material Readings in Early Modern Culture. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. xii, 250p., 11 ill. ISBN 9781409445357. US $99.95 (hardback).

The myriad of personal papers surviving outside the archives of official power, in homes, in the forms of diaries and letters, have informed historical, cultural, social and literary works over the recent years. Part of this resurgent interest, particularly for the early modern period and the eighteenth century, was a particular attentiveness to the materiality of letters, on the one hand, and on the other, the importance of epistolary networks. Whilst the latter have been explored in some detail in the context of literary and social networks, wider epistolary networks that link the local and the global, and the constant and the ephemeral, have not been studied carefully.

In The Opened Letter, O’Neill investigates convincingly how various kinds of networks in the British world were established and maintained during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Network theory, technologies of communication and transport, stylistics and socio-geographical analyses provide the underpinning of O’Neill’s analysis of over 10,000 letters. The letters were by John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont (1683-1748), William Byrd I (1652-1704), Sir Hans Sloane, 1st Baronet (1660-1753), Cassandra (1670-1735) and James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744), Nicholas Blundell of Little Crosby (1669-1737) and Peter Collinson (1694-1768).

Whilst the case studies are socially homogenous, they unveil a useful range of the “meta-phenomena” of networking in British society at the time. These letters, read and re-read, transcribed and copied into letter books and finally archived, reveal the complexities of networks that studies on epistolary communities have hitherto underestimated. O’Neill identifies (and visualises) overlapping and connected networks based on social and economic exchange (grounded in self-interest and interdependence) across local and global socio-economic worlds. She integrates the constant networks existing between (extended) families and friends within the ephemeral networks such as ones seeking social assistance or contractual relationships—O’Neill’s vast archival material indicates that these networks often overlapped. She makes an argument that possibly the classification of epistolary networks into voluntary, contractual and institutional associations would have been increasingly more useful for the middle to the end of the eighteenth century where the public and private overlapped on different and complex levels. These interpersonal, social and economic associations “nurtured communal ties as much as a sense of individual identity” and “tied together informal networks that stood outside state or institutional control” (8). The end of the period under investigation then saw the rise of institutional and contractual networks that however were still based in some ways in personal associations but grew geographically beyond the local boundaries. The more the world expanded geographically, the more correspondents relied on letters. The changes that O’Neill identifies clearly and carefully are the changes of style in letters. Whilst letter-writing manuals informed contractual and institutional epistolary exchanges in some ways, the feminized language of friendship became increasingly important, in particular, as “bonds of friendship also implied bonds of service” (152).

The achievement of the book lies in the very careful but lively stylistic analysis of letters and in an impressive mapping of various epistolary networks connecting the local Yorkshire to the global colonies. The choice of archival material from a mainly elite and male section of society is problematic though and should have been addressed as such in the premise of the study. Nevertheless, this is an important and well-written study that will inform literary, historical and sociological studies of the period with new insights and detailed analyses.

Diana G. Barnes pays attention to the idea of feminisation of epistolary exchanges in her book by looking specifically at the figure of the Secretary, at the stylistics of Charles I’s The Kings Cabinet Opened (1645) and Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters and Philosophical Letters (1664) but comes to a different evaluation. In opposition to the eighteenth century, Barnes suggests that the seventeenth-century feminine epistolary discourse was seen as “a differentiating and specifying term in a public discourse” (75). Public, not private, then implied gossip and political controversy (see Chapter 4), a label that Margaret Cavendish, for instance, sought to contravene by contributing with her epistles to contemporary philosophical and scientific debates: “She uses epistolary form to represent the conjunction between letters as the refinement of civilised speech, writing and well-ordered society.” (195)

Similarly to O’Neill, Barnes understands letters as community-building forms of communication, though her material is not restricted to manuscript letters. In fact, the “new republics of letters” were based on and created by epistolary exchanges in print. Letters, even the familiar letters, in Barnes’ study then have concrete political and social functions particularly when printed and thus widely disseminated. “The familiar letter was,” argues Barnes, “a recognised site for thinking about civic codes, civility and appropriate social behaviour” (2). Whilst the familiar letter changed in style, form and tone, it remained across the period under investigation, a genre embedded in an “inherently sociable discourse” (202). As these “new republics” were imagined and often virtual, they were also exclusive: “each republic of letters imagined holds unfamiliar others at bay” (202). Barnes’ study precedes O’Neill’s in chronology. Perhaps it is possible to concur that the globalisation of the world and republic of letters moved increasingly towards the cosmopolitan?

The wide scope of epistolary material poses a methodological problem which is not really addressed. Indeed, Barnes looks at model letters, fictional letters and actual correspondence ranging from documents from the Caroline court to the those belonging to the Restoration, and closes with Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She also does not theorize the idea of community as such, which for the early modern material that she has chosen is crucial, particularly because there was a difference in epistolary communities created and maintained through the circulation of manuscripts or printed letters (see the work of Michelle O’Callaghan).

These reservations aside, Epistolary Community in Print, 1580-1664 is a thorough study for students and academics interested in the early modern letter-writing tradition. Barnes is especially good at looking at non-canonical material and contributes lucidly to the debate on the “gendering” of epistolary discourses and communities in the seventeenth century.

Nicole Pohl
Oxford Brookes University