University of Sussex

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On burning, saving and stealing letters

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 19:06 authored by Margaretta JollyMargaretta Jolly
Most people do not keep the letters or emails they receive, let alone copies of their own; the very idea can strike one as hubristic. But these exchanges can have dangerous afterlives. Some letters are sombrely preserved, even sent to archives and editors, while others are disposed of equally seriously. Burning a letter describes many literary denouements for that reason. Destroying a personal letter is especially associated with love or family gone wrong, just as the preservation of personal letters is typically a woman's task. Archiving, publishing or even simply analysing letters is therefore a delicate business, traversing the correspondent's relationship with other relationships between editor, publisher, archivist and public reader. Those new layers of negotiation, as I discovered when researching my book on the role of letters in contemporary feminism, ironically requires writing more letters and emails. How do we balance individual need for privacy, or conversely, for public attention against collective interest for education, for political change, for amusement? Rather than rehearse now long-standing battles about the aesthetic potential of communicative forms, I wish here to reflect on what the publication of letters may tell us about their peculiarity as life writing how the ethical dilemmas raised by the acts of preserving and collecting letters are bound up with the wider conflict in life writing between the obligation to truth and the obligations of trust. The burned letter highlights the significance of the letter as a material object, and why it may feel dangerous to let it survive its original function and context. Feminist critics have wished nevertheless to save and make public personal letters, and editors wrestle with ethical questions as well as with letter writers, owners and their inheritors in compiling letter collections. Epistolary publication, like letter writing itself, is ethically hazardous because it involves relationships of difference, power, and desire.


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Lawrence and Wishart



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  • Centre for Community Engagement Publications

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  • Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research Publications

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