Online Conference. Quills and Characters: approaches to women’s letters, 1660-1860

1-2 September, 2023

Letters were at the heart of eighteenth-century literary culture. The first novels were written in letters, capitalising on their ability to show us a character’s inner thoughts. Published collections of letters promised readers insight into the private worlds of the first celebrities, or carefully cultivated posthumous reputations. Reputations could also be lost, however, as letters found their way into the wrong hands, and the dangers of misplaced, forged, or intercepted letters provide fertile imaginative ground for many writers. Manuals taught letter-writing as an art form, advising on the necessary equipment, handwriting, style and content to mark all occasions. Adjacent to the world of print, vast quantities of paper, ink and time went into creating and maintaining communities through letter-writing. Letters joined people across distances, functioning as social glue: fostering friendship, sealing courtships, strengthening familial ties, and sharing knowledge. In addition to passing on news, gossip, and gifts, women’s letters introduced and vouched for people, sought promotion, issued invitations, or facilitated business. They were the forms through which congratulations, thanks, or condolences were conveyed, their paper standing in for both reader and writer at different stages of their journey.

Today, manuscript letters provide a seemingly unending resource for understanding women’s lives: for piecing together their social networks, fleshing out their biographies, exploring their self-construction, and uncovering the information they valued and shared. Letters are crucial tools in the feminist recovery project, but like the recovery project itself, they are unruly: abundant, scattered across the globe, incomplete, unreliable. Their physical forms invite questions about how they were put together, where they have been, and why they were kept. As snapshots of often inaccessible lives and cultural moments, they are filled with references we must work to decode. The digital turn has heralded transcription technology, and online databases have brought collections of women’s letters previously locked in archives to a wider audience than ever before, providing powerful new research tools to scholars.

On 1 and 2 September 2023, Chawton House will host a two-day online conference to mark the end of the Quills and Characters exhibition. It will bring together scholars working on letters to share their projects and approaches, and to consider both the possibilities afforded by the digital world and its limitations.

Keynote Speakers: Professor Nicole Pohl & Professor Kathryn Sutherland

20-minute papers are invited on the following topics, with pre-fabricated panels and alternative formats welcomed:

  • Women’s correspondence networks
  • Women writers and their letters: famed and forgotten
  • Using letters to construct biographies
  • Letters and education
  • Constructing alternative histories through letters
  • The relationship between manuscript and print
  • Epistolary novels / letters in literature
  • Letter-writing manuals / letters and politeness
  • Letters & material culture
    • Writing tools: paper, pens, ink
    • Handwriting
    • Conservation
  • The postal system
  • Working with archives
  • Digitisation projects and technologies
  • Transcription methodologies
  • Letters and public engagement in museums/heritage organisations

Please submit abstracts (300 words) with a short bio, including time-zone, to Kim Simpson: by 23 June, 2023.