Monday, June 17, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Blog Week 24 - L for letters

I could have written about Quaker letters under E for epistles but that is the official side of Quaker communication. As a historian (and, let's face it, gossip) I am more interested in the unofficial  - in letters written between friends as well as Friends - which often give a truer, because more unguarded, view of what is really going on beneath the smooth public surface.

The early organisation of the Society of Friends was based on letters. Hundreds were sent to and from Swarthmoor Hall, home of Margaret Fell and her family, giving encouragement and support both moral and financial. The majority of these letters survive in the Swarthmore manuscripts, held in Friends House Library in London. Letters were the foundation of the networks between family members and between travelling ministers at home and abroad which sustained Quakerism in the succeeding centuries.

Catherine Phillips
18th century Friends often wrote earnestly to other Friends in almost wholly religious terms. They sometimes took the time to copy out their drafts neatly, correcting spelling and adding and subtracting words and phrases, but when in a hurry this could not always be done so we are left with errors, crossings out and much more mundane post-scripts. Writing to Richard and Patience Chester in 1769 Catherine Phillips ends with the following post-script My Cousin pressed forward wth his usual diligence & speed we got to Dimchurch ye Evening we left you and he reached Home ye next day about 11 o’clock ye next morning – had I not been afraid of making him uneasy if he waited for me at Dunstable I should not have chose to have let my Frd P.C. after kindly coming to meet me have returned alone to Dunstable in a Chaise, but I saw he was in too great a hurry to be stopped ... Upon reviewing the foregoing I find that I have indeed committed many blunders but I cannot well spare time to transcribe.
In another letter, mainly about her health, to Priscilla Farmer Catherine concludes Had I strength I wd willingly put ye foregoing in a better dress but I continue very languid & weak I got to Meeting yesterday with considerable difficulty... My Love to all as due. Don’t shew any Body this scrole [scrawl].

Extract from a letter from Samuel Fothergill to Mary Pemberton
One of George Dillwyn's notebooks
It is not only historians that find these letters helpful. Letters that were particularly valued by contemporaries were frequently copied out and kept in commonplace books or journals and this may be the only form in which they surv.ive. Although it is usually the serious religious letters that are treated in this way, with any extraneous material removed, sometimes these valued letters can be quite personal.  The letter which Richard Shackleton of Ballitore in Ireland wrote to Catherine Phillips in 1757, telling her of the sudden death of her close friend and travelling companion Mary Peisley Neale just three days after her marriage, is a case in point. He begins, It’s laid on me by a common  Friend of our’s to send this Messenger of Sorrowful tidings to thee. A Scene has opened little expected by us which as I know will nearly affect thee, as it has us, I am at a Loss how to begin to relate it, and then gives a detailed account of Mary's illness and death before concluding Such was the latter and last end of our Dear Friend concerning whose excellencies I need not enlarge to thee, who not only hast been more a Witness, but art a better Judge of them than I. Catherine obviously did not keep this letter to herself as I have seen several copies in libraries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Matthew Boulton
Informal letters written by non-Quakers can also give an impression of Friends from the outside. One of the most striking examples of this that I have seen is a letter written by Matthew Boulton to his daughter about the death of William Phillips of Redruth, the husband of Catherine Phillips. Boulton knew William Phillips as a business associate as they both had mining interests in Cornwall but he obviously valued him as a man. Writing to a colleague Thomas Wilson in August 1785 he says But alas we have had a sudden & melancholy change in the death of our worthy, good, sincere, Benevolent, hospitable, Charitable, usefull, spirited, good humourd, Religious, pleasant & kind friend, William Phillips. So many adjectives witness, I think, to an unusual depth of feeling.

Today when we communicate more by email or text or through Facebook than by letter, have we lost a way of networking, of encouraging and supporting one another in the things that are eternal as well as in the everyday and of revealing ourselves as we really are?

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