To The Letter

An exhibit at the Folger Library looks at the art of correspondence in Elizabethan England.

December 28, 2004|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

After 400 years, the letters have turned brown and become brittle. They almost seem to be returning to their bark origins. The talk in them is of recipes and love, muscle aches and household accounts, and the occasional royal conspiracy. Every grease spot and inkblot, every broken seal and crumbling bit of ribbon reveals much and conceals more.

There are roughly 80 of these missives showcased in Letterwriting in Renaissance England, an enchanting exhibit running through April 2 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

"I've always loved letters," says Heather Wolfe, the Folger's curator of manuscripts, who put the exhibit together with Columbia University professor Alan Stewart. "They're so tangible. The letters in this exhibition allow us to see part of Shakespeare's time that we can't see in any other way. They convey more of a sense of daily life and daily speech than does the literature of the period."

The exhibit took 2 1/2 years to mount and highlights documents in the Folger's collection. It is organized into four sections: writing, sending, receiving and preserving letters.

The first of the exhibit's many surprises is that writing by hand was quite different in the 16th century than it is today. In one hand, the writer held a quill and in the other hand, a penknife, for continual sharpening of the quill.

"Writing was a two-handed operation," Wolfe says. "It was physically arduous and messy, and sometimes people weren't well enough to write."

Consider, for example, the letter that George Talbot, the sixth Earl of Shrewesbury, dictated on Oct. 10, 1580:

"Wife, I have received your several letters and am at this present so troubled with pain and stiffness in my hand that I cannot write myself. ... "

Nor was letter-reading an activity for the dull-witted, given the wildly idiosyncratic spelling of the times. What, for instance, could Great Britain's King James I have had in mind when he wrote "quhiche" and "quhairof"? Nope, not "quiche." James apparently was trying to gussy up the very prosaic "which" and "whereof."

Letter writers and readers also had to wrestle with the social distinctions conveyed by their missives. As an example, the curators cite the high price of paper, quhiche was imported from the continent and therefore was expensive. But it was an insult to try to save a few bob by tearing a sheet in half.

In addition, the precise location of the letter-writer's signature communicated worlds about the respective status of sender and receiver. William Fulwood, a 16th-century merchant, set down the rules for signing letters:

"The subscription must be done according to the estate of the writer, and the quality of the person to whom we write: for to our superiors we must write at the right side in the nether end [bottom] of the paper ... and to our equals we may write towards the midst of the paper ... to our inferiors we may write on high on the left hand."

Thus when the great poet John Donne wrote a letter to his former boss, Sir Thomas Egerton, seeking his help in being released from prison, Donne's signature is so low it practically falls off the page.

Donne, who had a well-deserved reputation as a womanizer, had secretly married Egerton's teenage niece. Problems with her family ensued and he was briefly jailed. The poet met his bride, Anne More, when he was 29 and she was just 13. They were married in 1601, when she was 17.

Donne was released from prison, and eventually reunited with his wife, but Egerton's enmity meant that Donne was virtually unemployable for years and had to seek handouts to raise his family. The marriage lasted until 1617, when Anne died after giving birth to the couple's 12th child. Donne was devastated, and never remarried.

These developments seem presaged in a March 1, 1601, letter to Egerton, in which Donne laments "the sickness of which I died, yes, that I began in your Lordship's house, this Love."

A piece of embroidery floss attached to the exterior of the letter was a sign that the contents were personal. But even letters purportedly about business could hint at more private attachments.

For instance, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, wrote to Elizabeth I on Aug. 3, 1588, to update her on the condition of the royal army. But Leicester was one of the Virgin Queen's most intimate "favorites," and the tone of the epistle is hardly that of a man to his monarch. "Your most sweet majesty," he calls her, and "my most dear Lady."

The earl also places a pair of eyebrows over the word "most" - which he spelled "moost." The curators say this is a playful acknowledgement of one of the queen's pet names for Leicester, whom she called her "eyes."

Floss wasn't the only outward sign of a letter's contents. Often, the seal with which the letter was glued shut contained the family crest, and that was nearly as personal as a signature.

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