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The Lost Art of Elizabethan Letter-Writing, Step 1: Make Inke

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page C01

When young Lewes Bagot wrote to his father to apologize for his "uncivill kinde of behaviour," he signed the letter low on the right-hand side of the page. It was the custom when this letter was written, sometime around 1610, to show humility and deference by the position of the signature. The lower down, the lower the station of the writer, whether a subject writing to his sovereign or a repentant son to an angry father.

"Letterwriting in Renaissance England," an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is far more fascinating than its title, or a cursory survey of its contents, suggests. The curators have approached letters not as sacred historical objects but as practical ones. They are interested in ink and paper, how to fold a letter, how to mail it, and what it was like when there were only two forms of communication in life -- face to face, and through the mail.

Thomas Trevelyon's "Carry-Tale," circa 1548, is part of an exhibition on writing letters and delivering them in Shakespeare's day. (Folger Shakespeare Library Via AP)

"We have a much stronger sense of the materiality of letter writing," says Alan Stewart, one of the exhibition's two curators. "We're used to studying the texts, but we wanted to show what they looked like, what it was like to write a letter."

And so we learn the recipe for ink, which according to a family album requires "a quart of snow or raine water, and a quart of Beere vinegre, a pound of galls bruised . . ."

Bruised galls?

"It was an excrescence off oak trees," says Stewart.

"Produced by insects," adds Heather Wolfe, Stewart's co-curator.

Details like this dampen one's first impulse to take in the exhibition as an exercise in nostalgia for the great lost art of letter writing, killed by the vulgar invention of e-mail. While the curators argue that letter writing may be the most important literary genre of Shakespearean times, most letters were purely functional. Manuals were printed to teach proper epistolary style, and some of these included what we would call form letters: examples to be emulated or, if you lacked imagination, copied outright. Even letters with a deeply personal purpose could be cribbed from books such as "The English Secretorie." Lewes Bagot, for instance, might simply have borrowed, or rearranged, that book's standard petition letter "from a sonne to hys displeased father," which began, "If floudes of teares sealed with hard and bitter sighes . . ."

"It was a language of copiousness," says Stewart. "Letter writing is the basic tool of their education. They are taught rhetorical examples as students, but then they use them for their whole life."

It's a paradox. Paper was expensive, and the process of writing was slow and tedious. Yet so many letter writers cleared their throats, rhetorically, for paragraph after paragraph, before getting to the heart of the matter. At times, the exhibition seems to argue that far from being an era of more intimate, handwritten communication, the Elizabethan age was strangely impersonal, as if human beings were fashioned not from some deep, inner, authentic stuff, but from templates and rhetorical pattern books.

Part of this may be the impression left by the letters that survive -- the ones people thought were worth preserving -- which were saved for historical, political or practical reasons. So when a deeply personal voice breaks through, it is all the more powerful. A rambling 1619 letter from Lady Anne Townshend to her son has no literary merit whatsoever -- there's been a storm, I'm fine, there's smallpox nearby, so-and-so just died -- but it's moving proof that life then, as now, is all about the busy little stuff.

There are myriad byways in this exhibition. The curators look at the mechanics of mailing a letter, and how the development of a postal system went hand in hand with the development of effective central government. Before the Royal Post became the standard for mailing private letters, correspondents had to rely on ad hoc systems of private letter carriers. And it took decades for the Royal Post to develop from a series of spokes -- a network of riders and inns along main roads -- emerging from London, into a system that could take anyone's mail anywhere.

"The Royal Post came into its full force during times of crisis," says Wolfe. "In the same way as the Pony Express did during the Civil War."

The exhibition also includes two letters left unopened (despite all the temptation) since King George I wrote them in 1724; a series of letters by John Donne written to his very vexed father-in-law after the poet eloped with the man's daughter; and pages from a book teaching the patient scribe how to write in ciphers. There's also a letter from Robert Dudley to Queen Elizabeth I, with little squiggles over the two o's in "moost" (spelling has been much standardized since Dudley's time). They were meant to be eyebrows, a coy reference to Dudley's role as her eyes and ears.

But it's not the celebrity letters that make the strongest impression. The curators aimed at the gritty craft of writing, and they have succeeded at teaching things of interest far better than they could have with a room full of famous signatures. That would have confirmed only what we already know: that the Folger Library has an invaluable trove of impressive documents. "Letterwriting in Renaissance England" goes further, and makes better use of the collection.

Letterwriting in Renaissance England is at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, through April 5, 2005. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free. Call 202-544-4600 or visit www.folger.edu.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company