English Graduate Students Revisit the Lost Art of Correspondence

English Graduate Students Revisit the Lost Art of Correspondence

Posted: November 25, 2013

Graduate students in Ann Colley's ENG 615: Nineteenth-Century British Literature class have been reading the selected correspondence of Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens.

The student have also been thinking about British nineteenth-century letter writing—not only considering the letter as a distinct genre of writing, but also learning about the letter as a physical object.

“Students need to be aware that letter writing is as important a genre as fiction, poetry, and essays,” said Colley, SUNY Distinguished Professor, English.

At the beginning of the course, Lisa Berglund, chair and professor of English, talked to the students about how letters would have actually looked. She gave lessons on how a quill pen was shaped, how ink was made, how the correspondent filled the paper, and on how the letter was folded, addressed, and sealed. In the early 1800s there were no envelopes.

"Innovations like Twitter and smart phones are profoundly changing our relationship with written communication," said Berglund. "It is important for students of literary history to recognize that technology has always influenced the way we create texts, whether that technology is a tablet computer or a quill pen.”

Colley also instructed the students about the frequency and costs of postal delivery as well as the history of the Royal Mail. The students were also given the the opportunity to transcribe and edit nineteenth-century letters. Throughout the course, instead of assigning papers, Colley asked students to write letters based on the various kinds of correspondence they had been reading. These were written as if the students were writing and posting letters in the 1800s.

View images of some of the letters composed, folded, addressed, and sealed by the graduate students.

Photos: Stacy Creech

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