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women's letters, literary culture, rhetoric


Until recently, early modern letters, and women's letters in particular, have been neglected as a source of information about early modern life and literary culture, although they have much to say, especially about the manuscript culture of which we now have become aware. In the 1990s, scholars began to cross the traditional disciplinary lines between literature and history and examine letters for indications of social and linguistic interrelationships and of personal artistry. Scholars of historical pragmatics now are treating issues such as how forms of address shifted across time; Lynne Magnusson is completing a book that explores early modern Englishwomen’s letters with regard to how the prose signals complex social and power relationships; Linda Mitchell and Carol Poster’s forthcoming essay collection examines letter-writing manuals and their influence; and James Daybell’s recently edited collection, Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450–1700, contains essays on specific Englishwomen’s letters from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, considered within their varied social and cultural contexts. In these works, not surprisingly, the focus is on the words used in the letters, the rhetorical models, the rhetorical conventions, and letters’ contribution to our wider understanding of the writers’ lives and of early modern culture. Other than a few works which I will consider later, little yet has been published about the material aspects of early modern manuscript letters. As an archival scholar and a critic, I would argue that those of us who interpret letters need to learn to read beyond the words, and I would like to start that discussion by exploring some of the material aspects of manuscript letters, and particularly women’s manuscript letters, that may be meaningful. This essay might be considered a primer on materiality.