Those of us working with letters are keeping a sharp lookout for the reception and circulation of letters composed by women – things like annotations, forwarding, copies in handwriting other than the authors’ own, and printed editions of the manuscript originals. Thanks to the seventeenth-century ‘intelligencer’ Samuel Hartlib, who regularly opened and interacted with his friends’ mail, we’ve got lots of examples.
Hartlib and his extensive intellectual network used letter-writing to exchange and amass a body of miscellaneous knowledge that might be used for public as well as private good. Operating an unofficial postal service for his diverse contacts gave Hartlib the opportunity to read many of their letters (with their permission) and make copies for future reference.
The Hartlib Papers reveal that he made several interventions in the letters of Dorothy Moore, a devoutly Protestant Anglo-Irish widow who, along with their mutual friend the Scottish minister John Dury, was a member of Hartlib’s inner circle. While Moore would eventually marry Dury, it was Hartlib who did the most to preserve and disseminate her writings.
All but 1 of Moore’s 52 known letters are amongst Hartlib’s papers. Most are in her own handwriting; she does not seem to have ever dictated to a scribe, but 12 of her letters survive only in copies made by Hartlib and his scribes. We see Hartlib interacting with Moore’s letters on multiple levels: he kept her letters to him, transcribed or instructed his scribes to make copies of her letters to others, corrected the scribal copies (either against the originals or by making what he considered improvements), and arranged delivery of Moore’s original letters.
According to the collaborative ethos of the Hartlib circle, it was no crime to read each other’s mail – even when the contents were by our standards private, as in the following example.
Dorothy Moore in Rotterdam to [Katherine Jones in London], 13/23 January 1645. Scribal copy revised by Hartlib. Hartlib Papers Online 21/7/5A
beyond [m]y intentions and Contrary to my resolutions the Lord hath ordered my stay heere till now; and by that meanes, hath given Mr Dury full opurtunities to discours of our Covenant of friendship, which att last is come to this, that hee speaks soe plaine, as I can noe longer pretend ignorance nor stupiditie […]’
Moore apparently had no problem with Hartlib and his scribes reading the letters she wrote to her kinswoman Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh about the halting development of her relationship with Dury. But there was a line and sometimes Hartlib crossed it. When he put one such letter into print without asking Moore’s permission, that was going too far. This was her response (in her own handwriting):
[Dorothy Dury in Rotterdam] to Samuel Hartlib in London, [the week before 12/22 June 1645]. Hartlib Papers Online 3/2/143A
‘Good mr Hartlib
I thought I could never haue receiued from you a iust grownd of quarell; but […] how doe you thincke I am able to beare your printing of that rude indigested paper written to the Lady Ranalaugh? which I profess I had not time to read once over before I sent it: alass! it must needs discredit the matter which might convincingly and powerfully be handled concerning the intention of Christans in maryage: […] I am in zeal of publick hurt hartily angry with you […]’
Moore’s objection to publication is not on the grounds of her letter’s personal content (which Hartlib had anonymised), but its unpolished style, which Moore claimed did not do justice to the wider issues at stake and thus fell short of benefitting the public on whom Hartlib had foisted it.
Hartlib’s various interventions in Moore’s letters furnish several layers of reception in manuscript and print, within and beyond their correspondence network. They reveal Hartlib’s tireless efforts to preserve, modify, and transmit potentially useful information and also how Moore as an author shared his ideals yet sought some control over how her writing was circulated.
Images are from M. Greengrass, M. Leslie, and M. Hannon, ed., The Hartlib Papers, published by HRI Online Publications, Sheffield (2013) [available at http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/hartlib] and are used with permission and thanks.