My first RECIRC blog post explained Why we’re glad Samuel Hartlib read other people’s mail. This, my final post,* is about manuscript letters that have gone missing – whether lost in transit, lost to posterity, or available only in scribally revised copies – and so cannot be read as originally composed and sent, if at all. How do we take account of what no longer exists? And how do these circumstances affect our understanding of the contemporary reputations of female correspondents in the Hartlib Circle?
Several surviving letters in the Hartlib Papers attest to delivery hazards at sea and to the former existence of many more letters than are currently preserved in this or related collections. Even before the Anglo-Dutch Wars, maritime battles and prize-taking brought about the loss of letters and other writings or goods, as well as loss of life. Writing from Rotterdam on 2 January 1645, John Dury informed Hartlib in London,
‘now wee haue receiued no letters this weeke, because the packeth hath beene (as wee are informed) intercepted by the Kings fregat at sea taking it out of the packet boat. The thinges which yow mention were sent unto me heretofore by Taylor are lost, because hee was taken at sea & killed, & his shippe & goods are brought into Oestende; so that I haue not yet receiued the Coppies of my epistolary discourses’ (Hartlib Papers 3/2/84A).
Privateers were another problem. Henry Oldenburg, in Saumur, began his 19 January 1658 letter to Hartlib with a catalogue of letters received and expected, and a guess at what may have prevented one delivery:
‘I cannot but continue my hearty thanks to you for the exactnes of your care about these letters; of all which […] I now find but two (which yet is enough) wanting; videlicet that single letter from My Lady Ranalaugh, which once already I haue mentioned to you, and that other, wherein you say to haue inclosed some verses of My lord Broghill, which I suppose the English at Dunkirk haue had the satisfaction to read for us, by reason of the packetboat lately intercepted by their pirats’ (Hartlib Papers 39/3/5A).
One strategy for circumventing such problems was to send letters on multiple ships bound for different ports, where acquaintances could collect and forward them. On 12 August 1655, Dury wrote to Hartlib from Frankfurt that ‘Frantz Balde […] aduises to send not by Antwerp but by Amsterdam Also & there is Isaac Balde his Brothers Son who may bee made use off to that effect that all may not go through one Channel of Antwerp’ (Hartlib Papers 4/3/117B).
In other instances, the tracking system was insufficient. Writing from The Hague on 13 August 1643, Dury reminded Hartlib, ‘I desired yow in my last to lett me know the skippers name by whom the packets are addressed usually unto me: for then I can giue Charge to enquire after them what is become of them which now I am not able to doe’ (Hartlib Papers 2/10/11A).
These examples vividly illustrate how letters sent between Britain and mainland Europe could be lost en route – the flip side to what Leigh Penman’s provenance research has revealed about subsequent losses from and the chancy preservation of an assortment of documents which, having passed through fire, multiple appropriations and reorganisations, are now known as the Hartlib Papers.
What has any of this to do with the reputation of female correspondents? Many letters still surviving in this collection mention female-authored letters that are no longer extant. Oldenburg’s letter to Hartlib quoted above states that a letter composed by Lady Ranelagh had gone missing, and that this was the second time he had mentioned to Hartlib its non-arrival. The implication for Ranelagh’s contemporary reputation is that Oldenburg very much wanted to read what she had written. This and similar references also serve to remind us that Ranelagh, Dorothy Moore, and literate women across the early modern period wrote and sent countless more letters than have been preserved to the present day (or are mentioned in surviving sources).
In our work on the Hartlib Papers, Evan Bourke and I have recorded the former existence of 37 letters by Ranelagh and 43 letters by Moore. We have been able to identify these as distinct letters on the basis of details found in extant letters (the sender, addressee, time of writing or delivery, and sometimes subject matter of lost letters) and on the basis of existing copies of letters whose sent originals no longer survive. Copies of Moore’s letters made for or by Hartlib were often revised by anonymous scribes and again by Hartlib himself in the process; and five of Ranelagh’s letters exist only in scribal copies in German, having been translated by Peter Figulus. These transcriptions, annotations, and translations are themselves instances of reception in which a variety of individuals who were not the addressees collaboratively disseminated female-authored letters. While these interventions limit our access to the writers’ own words, they expand our knowledge of their wider circulation and perceived value for different audiences.
By contrast, those letters that existed only as originals – sent but never received, or received but not apparently preserved by recipients and later archivists – are well and truly lost, unless they wash up somewhere unexpected. But it is only by doing systematic quantitative reception research that we know they ever existed. Letters that we know have gone missing can be counted amongst their authors known works and, most importantly for RECIRC, can be counted as receptions because contemporaries recorded their engagement with them. In some cases, we have not been able to identify particular letters mentioned, as in the Oldenburg passage, which does not specify the addressee, date, or subject matter of Ranelagh’s letter. Another copy may even survive. In such cases, we record the reception as a reference to an unspecified work by the female author in question.
Knowing about specific lost letters results in more than regret that they have not survived. This information allows us to reconstruct more fully and analyse more precisely Ranelagh and Moore’s places within the Hartlib Circle as a social network and as a correspondence network. It allows us to see to more fully (though not completely) who was writing what about these women and their letters, when, and where – that is, the extent, quality and chronology of their contemporary reception as recorded in surviving sources, and how their letters and reputations got around. From our reception data we can see who was mentioned alongside whom – Ranelagh and Moore quite often appear together, sometimes in company with queens, female courtiers and scholars – and the proportions between references to female authors as people and references to specific or unspecified works (letters or otherwise) written by them. Some of our findings have already been published and others are in progress.
We are seeing clearly that when a woman’s letters (or other writings) are lost it does not mean she has lost her reputation (good or bad). From the Hartlib Papers alone we have captured receptions concerning more than 80 lost female-authored letters, which have not been taken into account in previous scholarship but did contribute to their senders’ contemporary reputations. As we all know, reputations can take on lives of their own, circulating beyond an individual’s own writings and often not in direct response to them. For RECIRC this is an advantage. Our reception data for female authors does not entirely depend on the survival of their works.
* In October I am starting an Irish Research Council-funded Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship here at NUI Galway to write a monograph on Dorothy Moore’s correspondence.
Bourke, Evan, ‘Female involvement, membership, and centrality: A social network analysis of the Hartlib Circle’, Literature Compass, 14.4 (2017), 1-17.
Coolahan, Marie-Louise, ‘Reception, reputation, and early modern women’s missing texts’, Critical Quarterly, 55.4 (2013), 3-14.
Penman, Leigh T. I., ‘Omnium exposita rapinae: The afterlives of the papers of Samuel Hartlib’, Book History, 19 (2016), 1-65.