Enlightenment Correspondences

On 26-27 June, thirteen specialists on letter writing from the UK, Europe, Canada, and the US, and a loyal and enthusiastic audience from as far afield as Finland and Australia, gathered at Ertegun House for a two-day workshop on Enlightenment Correspondences.  It was the culminating event in a year-long series organised by the TORCH Enlightenment Correspondences Network, as well as a launch event for the Digital Correspondence of Catherine the Great Pilot Project.  A British Academy/Leverhulme funded pilot, this project aims to make fully available and searchable the full corpus of letters written by Catherine, making known to scholars and to the broader public a famous yet neglected letter-writer of the eighteenth century.

One highlight of the weekend was a visit to the new Weston Library, where the letter-hungry were regaled with manuscript and print epistolary artefacts from the long eighteenth-century.  We observed the strokes of the pen, the folds, and the sealing wax left by the very hands we had been discussing and imagining throughout the two days; we compared first editions and early translations with the current state of the texts as we know them today.  All participants left reinvigorated by this direct contact with objects that so frequently remain only virtual in the modern age of digital communications.

One of the conference’s successes lay in its interdisciplinarity: the ubiquity of the epistolary form in the eighteenth century can only be accounted for when scholars are willing to blend history and literary studies with philosophy, politics, economics, archival studies, and art history.  Workshop participants enjoyed following their favourite letter writers into discourses and fields that people of the Enlightenment were much more comfortable mingling in than we are today.  We were also reminded, however, that any epistolary journey is not without its pitfalls: the epistolary world of in-jokes, covert allusions, meta-discourse, ciphers, and trickery is no place for the naïve, and we shall all henceforth be cannier and more Enlightened readers of eighteenth century letters.

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev