Monday, 18 May 2015
Microblog Mondays: Worlds of Letters
I've been reading the collected novels of Jane Austen the past couple of months. It started out as a mission to find an offbeat wedding ceremony reading for a friend, but she turned out to be easier to please than I supposed, and chose one before I had a chance to get through all the books. So now I'm just reading for my own enjoyment. Somehow despite being an avid reader my whole life and studying mainly British literature in university, I never read Jane Austen.
There is a lot to appreciate and enjoy in Jane Austen's novels, as I'm sure many people have personally experienced. One thing I found myself noticing in her books was the role of letters. Specifically, the way letters were written and read reminded me of the blog world. torthúil has been an important part of my life the past two and half years, as have many other blogs I've encountered. At several points I've thought to myself: What did people do before blogs? I have many supportive people around me IRL, but still, the blog has helped a lot through some critical times.
It was interesting to read about people's lives in 1700s England and see parallels that made me think that despite the very recent technology that enabled blogging, it is not entirely unique in the history of personal letters. Here are a couple of things that I noticed:
Some letters were no doubt intended only to be read by one person, but most often in the novels, they are read multiple times, often to several people at once, and discussed. I have written a few "old fashioned" letters in the past (it was long time ago) and still keep up email correspondence with a few people, though not as much as I used to. But I always wrote those letters and emails with the intention that they'd only be read by one person. To write a letter that you knew would be read by several people would really be more like writing a blog entry than a personal letter, I think.
Of course there is a key difference in that letters weren't ever anonymous, (I don't believe?) and blogs can be. Although in the case of the blogs I regularly follow, I often forget that they are anonymous. Unless the writer makes a point of saying that they are omitting certain details, I don't think about it much at all, other than to acknowledge to myself that I am only ever getting one side of the story (but again that would be true even if you were talking in person). Obviously anonymity does matter for many reasons, but on the other hand every identity is authored in some way. There are people in real life who know my name and vital details but they don't know anywhere near as much about me as the people who read torthúil regularly. So really, which identity is more "anonymous?"
The other piece I found interesting was the rules around correspondence between men and women. One was that it was inappropriate for a man and woman to carry on a private correspondence unless they were engaged. I think (not 100% sure about this one) that it was OK for them to correspond if the letters were going to be shared. But to carry on a "secret" or private correspondence unless you were fiances was not allowed. And if the engagement was broken, then each party was expected to return all the (love) letters.
I compared the situations described in the books to today's social media and my thought is that the rules were a very good idea. Now I've never really been through a breakup, so I'm not sure what the contemporary etiquette is, though I think people are usually expected to return each other's gifts et cetera (someone weigh in here?) But do we have agreements about what happens to electronic correspondence, photos, etc.? Again I haven't experienced it personally. But I think that would be a very important topic to discuss for anybody dating in the electronic age. We now have video chat, sexting, social media: and all that stuff is a heck of a lot harder to "return" (the word barely applies) than a packet of letters. There are also opportunities to do some deeply nasty things such as sharing intimate photos and information on public websites to shame an ex (there are websites especially dedicated to this kind of humiliation). Are people setting boundaries around this stuff when they begin a relationship? If not they could learn a few things from Jane Austen!
There you go: a few random observations connecting our world to Jane Austen's! Any other readers of Jane Austen out there? What do you most enjoy? Any other observations connected our technological communication to less technological pasts?
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