Dr Carys Brown is a Junior Research Fellow in History. Her research focuses on eighteenth-century England; her particular interests include the social impact of religious difference and the history of children.
Not many of us write personal letters these days. There are many ways to communicate with friends and family instantaneously, and for free, without troubling the postal service. During this strange period of separation from many of our loved ones, video calls have proved an especially popular way to stay connected, allowing us not only to speak to one another, but to see each other, play games, even sit around the dinner table together. Through such technology we appear to be just about as “in touch” as we could hope to be without actually touching one another.
Despite all this, I’ve been garnering an increasing animosity towards video conferences. I know I’m not the only one who sometimes feels disconcerted, even dispirited, after a Zoom call. As a recent New York Times article explained, ‘there’s a reason video apps make you feel awkward and unfulfilled’. Our brains can struggle to read social cues through the delays, blurs, and other distortions that appear on live video streams, which perhaps explains why video calls are so tiring. But I also think post-Zoom gloom is stimulated by the confusing abstraction of conversing with disembodied people, shrunken to the confines of a small laptop screen. Somehow they just don’t seem real.
Wind back 300 years, and we’re a long way away from the world of the video conference. For those with literacy skills in eighteenth-century England, letters were the principal means of distance communication. Archives of wealthy families from this period are full of correspondence between husbands, wives, parents, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends, and a particularly fine collection can be found among the papers of the Buxton family of Norfolk, now held in Cambridge University Library.
The Buxtons were substantial landowners in Norfolk, and enjoyed political influence in the area throughout the seventeenth century. John Buxton, head of the family in the early eighteenth century, showed more interest in amateur architecture than politics: he rebuilt the family’s manor house at Earsham, redesigned parts of Channons Hall (where the family moved in 1721), and built a new home, Shadwell Lodge, in the late 1720s. These architectural projects often featured in his correspondence, but he and his family also exchanged letters merely for the sake of keeping in touch. Full of references to an apparently happy family life, these are some of the most enjoyable and charming letters I have read. This fond epistle from John Buxton to his son, Robert, dated 15 May 1722, is particularly heart-warming:
Dear Robert [age c.12]
…I hope betty [age 8] takes care to oblige you, George [age 6] I know is an old friend, & Jack [age c.5] & Leonard [age c.3] I dare say are governable take care Sarah [age 7] does not tire you this hot weather with Running, I want much to see you together & to tell you all how much I love you, your most affectionate father
As this note – somewhat resonant with our own strange times – illustrates, written correspondence was central to this family’s relationships when they were physically apart. When the eldest child, Robert, went away to school, his siblings kept up a determined communication with him that maintained and perhaps strengthened their mutual affection. Even before they could write themselves, Robert’s younger brothers and sisters sent him messages via their parents’ letters. In an amusing letter dated 4 December 1722, John Buxton informed Robert that his six-year old brother, George, ‘says he loves you better than Xmas Pye’. In September 1724, eleven-year-old Elizabeth Buxton dictated an entire letter for her father to scribe to Robert, telling him that nothing could make her more desirous to learn to write for herself ‘than that I may have the pleasure of telling you when we are from each other how much I love you & how often I think of you’. The following summer, when the girls were finally learning to write, her younger sister, Sarah, wrote in a large childish hand ‘tis one of the greatest pleasures in the world to me to tell you how glad I am to hear that tis but six weeks afore I shall see you and dear George’.
These letters give a perhaps misleadingly rosy picture of family life in eighteenth-century England. The survival of such correspondence from this period is often the product of centuries of careful curation by wealthy families, who sometimes dispensed of any letters that portrayed their ancestors in a less-than-flattering light. There is little reason to think that this was the case with the Buxton papers, but we cannot be sure, and there are certainly examples of other families who were rather less harmonious. Furthermore, such letters at best only give an insight into the family lives of the well-off. Poor and marginalised members of society are much less frequently represented in collections of correspondence, and while their families were not necessarily any more or less affectionate, the structure of their lives was very different.
For these reasons, I do not wish to use the Buxton letters to make any general observations about how eighteenth-century families managed physical separation. My point is primarily personal, rather than historical. It’s not just the content of these letters, but also their existence as material objects, that makes them so engaging; the chance to view them is one of the most pleasurable aspects of my research. The past – and people in the past especially – can seem quite abstract, but there’s a tangibility in ink on paper, facilitating a sense of connection that can’t quite be found in print. When I visit archives, I still find it incredible to think that I’m sitting in front of documents that someone produced, with their own hand, 300 years ago. It’s an emotional and somewhat ahistorical reaction, but for me it makes the past as present as it can be.
Our friends and relatives are not 300 years away, but for many of us they are currently out of physical reach – just as we will be for the historians of the future. Video conferencing allows us to do and say so many things, all at the click of a few buttons. But as I’ve been looking back through my archival notes and photos during lockdown, I’ve been wondering whether a few well-chosen words, carefully scribed on real paper, might in a small way bring us that sense of immediacy that, paradoxically, is lacking in our digital selves.