Esther Masham and John Locke: A Study in Epistolary Silences by Susan Whyman, writer

by Susan E. Whyman
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In 1722, Esther Masham, a 47-year-old Essex spinster, was copying letters into a book. On the first page she inscribed the title: 'Letters from Relations & Friends to E Masham, 1722 Book 1st’. Her preface on the next page was apparently straight-forward:

'The reason why the following Letters are collected in this manner, is done purely for my own diversion and amusem't and not with any view that they may become the entertainment of others. I do it to rid my self of heaps of papers y't would ... be useless to others after me & to prevent their becomeing Pye papers, serving to set up candles, or at best being made thread papers. Such Letters--as I think by being kept may do prejudice either to ye writers or my self I commit to the flames. By doeing this I preserve to my self ... the Pleasure of reading again the Letters of Relations & friends gone before me as well as of Liveing absent ones. It makes me reflect on passages of my past Life & it serves [to] divert some Melancholy houres of a Solitary Life. These Reasons I hope are sufficient to satisfie ye Curiositie of any into whose hands chance may hereafter bring these Papers tho' not designed for Publick view but only for my private satisfaction'.

Readers familiar with women who copied and preserved their family history will find few surprises in Esther's aversion to publicity, or in her private life, marked off clearly from the public world. At first glance, the letter book seems to tell an unadorned tale of the lives of an Anglo-French Huguenot family through 143 letters (45 in French) written between July 1686 and August 1708. The largest number of correspondents were aunts, cousins, and friends, but there were also 12 lively letters from John Locke, replete with intimate nicknames and private jokes. Again, this is not surprising, for Locke spent the last 13 years of his life with the Masham family at Oates in Essex, and the book probably escaped destruction because of his letters.

A Locke biographer published a few extracts in 1876, from what he claimed were two volumes of Esther’s letters. After years of neglect the letter book was sold in 1939 to the Newberry Library, where it was tracked down by Maurice Cranston. In 1948 Cranston transcribed Locke’s letters in the Newberry Library Bulletin, and they were included by E.S. De Beer in his 8 volumes of Locke’s correspondence. Two additional letters from Esther to Locke are found in the Bodleian's Lovelace papers. They show her less controlled everyday writing, in contrast to the album’s formally presented epistles. Esther’s unpublished letter book is important, not just as a material record, but as a lens to illuminate wider issues that have been the subject of debates: changing attitudes to authorship in terms of gender and class; the construction of personal identity; and the definition of private and public space at a time when print technology was challenging handwritten communication. Yet the letter book has been neglected, and its compiler remains unknown.

Esther’s preface, in fact, despite its apparent clarity, is not entirely convincing. Why, for example, did she feel the need to provide seven different reasons for creating her book, followed by a defensive apology? Her virtuous list of motives is, of course, a convention found in the prefaces of other women writers. Yet Esther’s final sentence confesses that her intentions may be defeated, and that commendable ‘private satisfaction’ may give way to the abhorred ‘Publick’ view. These are signs of a rhetorical strategy that fit accepted gender norms, but was underpinned by doubts. They indicate that Esther was living at a time when attitudes to public authorship were undergoing change. Women were revising their own ambitions and society was altering what it would allow.

A myth had arisen since classical times that letter writing was a distinctly feminine genre in which women excelled. But a corollary to this axiom was that virtuous women did not publish their writings. Concepts of feminine modesty, morality, and reputation had traditionally precluded any thought of publication. Silence and obedience were natural attributes of a virtuous life. Learned ladies, on the other hand, were bemusedly mocked. ‘”Whatever learning a girl acquired”, cautioned, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, “should be concealed as though it were a physical blemish lest it aroused envy and hatred”’. Conduct books helped women to accept gendered roles, and class norms operated in a similar fashion to protect gentility. Elite women, like Lady Mary, knew that ‘it would have been to declasse to print’. On the surface, women’s lives were hedged with restrictions buttressed by education, religion, and the law.

Of course women had long found solace in writing what Ezell calls ‘closet texts’, and feminist scholarship has reclaimed a wealth of women writers. Yet if traditional norms were working properly, their audiences would have most likely been limited to ‘God and the author’. In this conservative framework, contemporary definitions of the terms ‘public’ and ‘private’ were perceived as stable and clear. Esther’s doubts about the privacy of letters are, nonetheless, a signal that a broad spectrum of attitudes toward authors and readers had developed over time. This spectrum challenged the old dichotomy of public and private spaces and invited women to employ various strategies to enter the world of letters. Although Esther did not admit it, she was using her letter book to negotiate her own entrance into this world.

I now ask the reader to look between the lines of Esther's preface and to find unexpressed motives for creating her book. I believe that in the act of copying letters, Esther was readdressing them to a new audience, which was larger than she admitted. Although letters have often been viewed as simple transparent texts, Esther's book forces us to reconsider whether they are indeed 'windows into the soul' or highly crafted pieces of artifice and convention. By asking what Esther included, what she left out, and why, I will show that her letter book was carefully constructed to tell a specific story about her family and their relationships with Locke. Social conventions hindered her from speaking out herself, but she could tell her story through other people’s letters. Esther had a practical agenda, which she accomplished. In doing so, her epistolary silences were perhaps more important, than the intentions outlined in her preface. They warn readers to probe carefully into Esther’s social and cultural context, her family background, and the larger world of letters of which she was a part. When Esther and her family are placed in their historical framework, these silences become laden with meaning. Fortunately, the letter book enables the creation of a database with information about writers, recipients, contents, and epistolary manners, like forms of address and 'humble services'. We can also construct two family trees showing Esther's French and English families from her letter book and Locke’s correspondence. The letters have been supplemented by wills, memoirs, genealogies, county and city histories, literary works, pamphlets, and periodicals. Clearly, letter collections as a genre lend themselves easily to a combination of statistical and narrative analysis.

As we place Esther’s letter book in its historical framework, we note that it was created at a time when print technology was challenging hand written communication. Our own experience with E-mail reminds us that people exchange ideas in historically specific situations, and English letter writing has its own history. I have argued elsewhere that a convergence of factors led to a flourishing ‘culture of letters’ in the long eighteenth century (1660-1800). Since letters were central to basic forms of discourse (the newspaper, the periodical, and the novel), epistolary analysis can offer new ways to look at eighteenth-century culture. It is not surprising that the first novels were epistolary, nor that they rose after the Restoration in 1660. Increased levels of literacy and wealth were creating a vast national supply of letter writers and readers. The demand for postal service and the development of the post office after the Civil War meant that stable communications were possible for the first time. In the face of expanding trade, war, empire, and the break-up of village life, people were experiencing new patterns of mobility and separation. More social transactions were occurring with those who were physically absent. This led to changing views about space, time, and distance. Letter writing now became a part of everyday life for ordinary people. Sarah Cowper, for example, in the early eighteenth century, would ‘Read the Spectator and Scribble” every morning from 8 to 12. This ability to communicate gave new writers a growing sense of power. The result was a cultural shift in the structure of communications, and the social relationships that they produced. Esther’s album offers a concrete example of these trends and raises general issues about letters as historical and literary evidence.


In 1691, John Locke (1632-1704) came to live at Oates , a Tudor manor house in Essex, 25 miles from London. Drawings locate the two rooms in which he worked next to a turreted tower. The household, staffed by 10 servants, included Esther's father Sir Francis (1646-1723), her step-mother Damaris Cudworth Masham (1659-1708) age 32; Damaris's young son, Francis (1686 -1731), age 5; Esther's eight brothers (when they were on leave from service in the wars against France), and Esther (1675-1728), age 16. In 1685, Esther’s stepmother Damaris described her as ‘a Girl…that speakes not yet a Word of English’. In 1697 they were joined by Francis's tutor, the French Protestant, Pierre Coste.

Before Locke came to Oates, he had been living in London lodgings after years of continental exile. Denied his old place at Oxford, he was suffering from asthma in the city. The Masham's invitation suited him for many different reasons. One of them related directly to Esther and her brothers. ‘For a man who based theories of knowledge on domestic experience’, notes one observer, ‘what better place to live than in a bilingual household with young children’. Locke came on his own terms, paying a pound a week for himself and servant, plus 1 shilling for his horse. For 13 years, the family crowded together accommodating themselves to Locke's many visitors and possessions. They included his writing desk, a specially constructed chair, a telescope, botanical specimens, a great porous stone through which all water he drank was filtered, and his 4,000 books-- 'big books, great sets of leather folios weighing a stone or more a set'. In 1692 at Christmas, the house was so crowded that Esther had to lie 'in a servants chamber and bed in the passage to the Nursery'. Clearly, Esther lived in close proximity to the great philosopher.

The Masham family came from Yorkshire, but William Masham, a London merchant increased the family fortunes, and by 1621 his descendants had bought both Oates and a baronetcy. By 1690, Esther's father represented Essex in Parliament. Despite his court connections, however, he never found a husband for Esther. His deceased first wife Mary, Esther’s mother, was the daughter of Sir William Scott, Baronet and Marquis de la Mezangere. Sir William had befriended the future Charles II in exile and became a naturalized Frenchman seated at Rouen. We do not know where Esther spent her early childhood, but it was somewhere in France. In 1686 when she was 11, she noted ' I had been come out of France about a yeare or more'. She may have been in Rouen to attend her French grandmother's funeral or, more likely, she was living there with French huguenot relations. There is no mention that the revocation of the Edict of Nantes had taken place on Oct 8, 1685, or that her journey to England was most likely a flight from religious persecution. This is the first instance of her epistolary silences, but the letters reveal how religious faith, anti-French sentiment, and war affected Protestants on both sides of the channel. Esther's aunts and uncles who had married in France formed three large interconnected families. The de Drumares and Le Gendres in Rouen were proud of their offices and wealth. But because Esther's aunts and female cousins remained staunch Protestants, they lived in fear of reprisals. Two of Aunt Le Gendre's daughters in France were forced to go to mass. Her two sons were in England in the 1680s, and they fled to Holland before returning to France.

Esther's French kin wrote of friends in hiding, confiscation, forced church attendance, and painful separations. One cousin Catherine de Drumare had settled in London rather than change her faith. When her mother died, she was the only child that was not at the funeral. As Esther copied each letter, she was constructing a family portrait that expressed her family’s pain. Despite enforced silences during wartime, Esther sent news, gifts, and books, especially those written by Locke. Aunt Le Gendre enjoyed reading that ‘beau livre’, the Essay on Human Understanding. Her comment shows us that women were members of the republic of letters, and that circulation of texts was wide and deep. In return, French kin sent Esther 'keys' explaining characters in Madame Scudery's books, for they knew Scudery and other writers. They respected Esther’s place in the world of belle lettres and acknowledged her intimacy with Locke. Her own letters, they suggested, were a most important link between the French and English families. Since Esther’s preface tells us that she pre-selected the letters that she copied, it is not surprising that they were extremely flattering.

All of Esther’s letters from French kin were not just complimentary, they were marked by different notions of politeness. Because she often placed French and English leetters side by side, we can easily see cultural differences in letter writing. For example, the French used more complex forms of address, and more numerous lines of farewell. They left large deferential spaces between salutations, text, and signature, which Esther replicated. Compliments were integrated throughout the text, indeed some letters contained nothing else. The French used far more lines to append humble services to fewer people. In contrast, English writers tacked on compliments at the end. English 'humble services' appear to be leftovers from continental usage that showed status, networks, and manners. Even Esther’s sister-in-law Abigail Masham promised never to use 'formal insincerity', as was common where she lived at Court. English writers employed the terms ‘love’, ‘duty’, and ‘service’, in contrast to French compliments. Thus Esther's brother asked her to send his ‘duty’ to his parents, and his ‘kind love and service’ to all others, 'when it is either due or may be expected'. A polite English person knew how and when to use compliments, which were an instant sign of breeding. The more intimate the writer, the less polite one had to be, but no one rule was possible. It was the subtle adjustments that counted.

Esther also received loving English letters from her eight brothers. Two of them had been educated in Caen, but all of them now lived in England. Totally bilingual, they slipped automatically into French in mid-sentence, if they were discussing delicate matters. One brother died in St Helena as a chaplain to the East India Company. The others served in the English army against France and struggled to find good posts. Their letters aboard ship or from camps in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, and Flanders capture the plight of younger sons, the immense importance of letters, their fears before and after battle, and the social impact of the French Wars. They offer scholars a wealth of material on the subject of masculinity. We see young soldiers fighting their own former countrymen, trying to fit into accepted gender roles that stressed bravery and manliness. Underneath the bravado, however, they reveal sensitivity and fright. They speak movingly in gendered voices about isolation, war, and letter writing.

Locke's own correspondence mentions two of Esther’s brothers: Charles and also Henry, who had met the philosopher in Holland, volunteered in Flanders, and returned with William III to England. In 1698, during a short period of peace, Henry slipped into France to collect legacies due to Esther and her brothers. He was entertained regally by kin and a friend, Monsiuer Gale (Galle). Gale was banned by court order from the Le Gendre's house, for it was assumed that he was responsible for their aunt's 'being still a good Protestant, as well as her daughters'. At Paris, Henry searched at least twenty stores for a book Locke needed--Theopraste with a key. Locke later used it in several published works and it was listed in his Library. Henry stayed in his cousin's tents at their army camp and observed Louis XIV and the deposed King James of England review the troops. Henry’s hurried departure was occasioned by his fear of being taken as a spy. He found trunks left in France by Esther filled with her rotting linen, presumably her dowry, and sold them all for a pittance. It is in the context of Esther's fear for her brothers, the threat of war against kin, the uncertainty of her legacy, and her lack of a dowry, that we must read and interpret her letters.

Only Esther's youngest brother Samuel outlived his father. Profiting from Sir Frances's court connections, he secretly married Abigail Hill, Queen Anne's favourite, and became 1st Baron Masham. The brothers' loving letters give the impression that she, not Sir Francis, was the center of the family. Letters from young English cousins begging Esther to join their ladies' club show that she had female friendship networks in London as well.

But the jewels in Esther’s epistolary crown were Locke’s twelve letters starting in 1694. When we add her two surviving replies found in Locke’s papers, we see an affectionate relationship between an elderly bachelor and an intelligent young girl. The letters were written mainly during summer, when dry weather enabled Locke to be in London. The forms of address were imaginative or showed intimacy: She called him her John. He used nicknames and dimunitives derived from French and Spanish romances, including his favourite Dib or Dab from Landabridis--meaning a lady love or mistress. Once he was 'of all the Shepherds of [the] Forest ... Yr Most humble & Most Faithfull Servant, Celadon the Solitary’ (from Astraea), but most often he was simply 'Your Johannes'. The letters showed deep affection and revealed a tutor/student relationship that confirms Locke’s interest in child rearing and education. His metaphors were just what he thought a young person would like, with references to sweet foods--cream and strawberries, cherries and brandy, to weather, music, romances, and above all books. Locke used wit and raillery, but never harshly, and showed tenderness and love. Together the pair dug in the garden, observed nature, attended church, laughed at the minister's foibles, sang songs, told jokes, and devoured books, especially the bible. We see him buying Esther books of increasing difficulty, teaching her to love the bible: in short moulding her behaviour in accordance with his Some Thoughts on Education. He presented a copy to her in 1695. As in other gentry families, girls often became students of tutors who had been hired for boys. In this case Esther would have had guidance from both Locke and his translator Pierre Coste.

Esther’s letters to Locke also dwell on her pretended and conventional jealousy of other women: a widow and a visiting duchess. Surprisingly, her step-mother Damaris is never mentioned. In fact there is not one letter from her father, Damaris, or their son Francis, though she was often separated from them. If it were not for the humble services sent to Damaris from French kin, one would never know that a stepmother had been installed at Oates in 1685. Because of this epistolary silence, we must supplement Esther's own letters with other documents to find information about Damaris, her father Sir Francis, and their relationships with Locke. We know from Locke's own letters, that he and Damaris met in London when he was advising the Earl of Shaftesbury. At that time, she was 22 and he was 49. In fact, before he took up residence at Oates, they had been in constant correspondence for ten years. From 1682 to 1688, she wrote Locke (Philander) over 40 intimate letters signed Philoclea. They contain an intense mix of philosophy and theology, rationality and emotion, and are 'uncommonly like love poetry'. Damaris and Locke discussed novel philosophical views that he held, but had not yet published.

Damaris has been alternatively described as 'fair and intolerably Witty’, moody, melancholy, and provocative, and the 'first bluestocking'. Brought up in the all-male world of a Cambridge College, where her father Ralph Cudworth was master, Damaris became a publicly known learned lady. In a world that scoffed at such women, Locke prized her. His views about her remarkable mind are often quoted. While Locke was at Oates, she wrote two philosophical essays in a debate with Mary Astell against Platonism, publicly disowning her father's views, though she had earlier defended them. She called for women's education along with Astell. But her belief that experience and reflection rather than innate ideas formed the origin of human knowledge linked her publicly with Locke. Recent studies view her as a serious, unappreciated philosopher and theologian. There has been much speculation about Locke's relationship with Damaris. An opponent maliciously called him 'the governor of the seraglio at Oates'. What scholars do agree upon is the fact that she was 'closer to Locke than any other human being'. Locke's letters and accounts show how intricately their lives were enmeshed. He managed her financial and legal affairs, bought her books, lace, and rings, had their portraits painted, and was involved in the minutiae of her domestic life, even ordering food and supplies.

But I want to emphasize the public intertwining of their lives and ideas and the effect this must have had on Sir Francis, young Francis, his tutor Pierre Coste, and Esther. After Locke's death, a myth grew up about the couple's idyllic life of the mind. Even at death, Damaris was reading Locke psalms. Yet Esther was at his deathbed too. In contrast to other sources, her eye witness account insists that Locke died on a close stool and that he closed his own eyes. Esther ‘heard him say the night before he died, that he heartily thanked God…above all for his redemption of him by Jesus Christ’. Damaris was apparently so upset by his death that she reprimanded Esther in her grief. Yet in Locke’s will, Esther received a only perfunctory 10 pounds for mourning. There was no memento, nor book, nor any money, though Locke knew she needed a dowry. Sir Francis was left ten pounds and some furniture from Locke's rooms. In fact, Locke’s will was dominated by his affection for Damaris and his desire to make her independent of Sir Francis. Moreover, Damaris and her son received Locke's most intimate possessions. To Damaris went his rings, her choice of his books, and 10 pounds for the poor to give 'as she sees fit ... and not account to anyone for the same,' a symbolic statement of her independence. Her son Francis received L3000, portraits of Locke and Damaris, cherished silver legacies, Locke's silver screen 'to preserve the eyes in reading', and his clock. Finally, young Francis and Locke's cousin Peter King each received half of Locke's vast library. In secret letters, Locke instructed his executors to keep all of young Francis's moneys free from his father's control. 'If decency had not forbidden it’, Locke admitted, 'I should have put it into my will myself'. Less than a month after Locke's death, Esther's brother writing from Lisbon knew every detail of the will. He was ‘surprized when I heard he had left y[o]u only ten pound to buy y[o]u mourning’. I had thought’, he remarked, that ‘you had been more in his books’. Surely Esther must have thought so too.

There is little written evidence of why Damaris married Sir Francis. In the absence of a proposal from Locke, only her marriage made it possible for her to live with him. Scholars have universally found Masham passive and uninteresting. His 'birth, marriage, and friendships', one wrote, 'qualified him for a place in political life that his personal achievements did not perhaps merit’. In a vast sea of Locke's papers there is little mention of Sir Francis, though Locke writes disapprovingly of his business dealings. Sir Francis died in 1723, four years before Esther, and assigned her L2,000, after debts. With the state of his finances, it would be surprising if there was any money left for her. By this time Esther was approaching 50 and unlikely to marry. Locke’s own correspondence, however, reveals at least one ardent suitor, Thomas Burnett of Kemney, a cousin of Archbishop Gilbert Burnet and a friend of Leibnitz. Burnett confided to Locke that her ‘transcendent qualities…wold charme any That is even lesse suceptible off impressiones from femelle perfectiones then my self.’ Locke had already commissioned their wedding gift when Sir Francis turned down the offer, causing embarrassment to Esther. A cousin later inquired about her "Dutchman', possibly Arendt Furly, son of Locke’s friend from Rotterdam, Benjamin Furly. In 1701-2 Arendt was a guest at Oates, and. 'the young Hollander fell more into the company of Esther, daughter of Sir Francis Masham, along with Shaftesbury, and Von Limborch's son’. This implies an elite circle of young intellectuals, of which Esther was a part. In 1722, she looked back on her life, and began to transcribe her letters. They contain valuable material about internal family relations, including those of stepfamilies, about which there is little written. Nevertheless, it is Esther’s epistolary silences that provide the most important clues about how she wanted society to perceive her, her views regarding authorship, and her definition of private and public space.


In light of Esther’s family history, we can now view her album as the construction of her personal identity as she saw it. Although she used other people's words--she told her own story in a way that preserved her modesty and fit accepted gender roles. I wish to argue that Esther had an epistolary agenda, which she accomplished. First she wanted to present her own version of the history of the Masham family. This story would not be subsumed under the glaring publicity of Locke’s and Damaris’s relationship. Nor would it be linked to that of Queen Anne and her sister-in-law Abigail, that 'dirty chamber maid' vilified in satiric verse. Though Esther included none of her own letters, she annotated those of others with a flood of marginalia and footnotes. Each note was a little biography that described the life of a beloved family member. When linked together, they create a Masham family tree. Second, Esther wanted to privilege her father's first little-known family. Her educated and cultured relations were good Protestants. She took pride in her brothers and felt their anguish far from home, fighting against kin, portionless like herself, and displaced from family. In the end, she would lose seven brothers, most of them in the service of England’s empire. By choosing only complimentary letters, she placed a positive spotlight on herself and her father’s first family. Third, in a time of great anti-French sentiment, she wanted to reveal the sufferings of her French relations, especially their sacrifices for Protestantism. Finally, Esther wanted to highlight her intimacy with Locke and his high estimation of her character and intelligence.

She accomplished all of this on her own terms in a way that did not violate the norms of gender and class and which defined her notions of public and private space. As Ezell’s Social Authorship has shown, ‘our definitions of “public” and “private” sit awkwardly with...the readership of manuscript texts’. We usually ‘use “public” in the sense of “published” and “private” in the sense of “personal”’. But early modern manuscript culture by its very nature was ‘permeated by “public” moments of readership, when the text was circulated and copied’. Though not available for purchase by readers, the text engaged in a ‘“social” function’, and was public in that regard.

Esther was creating her album at a time when circles of manuscript culture were still prevalent. In fact, she and other women like were her living 'at the crossroads of public and private, manuscript and print'.

In this context, it is not surprising that for Esther, having a ‘voice’ was not associated with print. Women like Esther would have seen no social cachet in a literary career and viewed the manuscript as a more natural and prestigious mode than print. As recent studies have shown, the emphasis on print has obscured the fact that manuscripts not only coexisted with print, for many they were the preferred and safest way to circulate one’s ideas. They were also economically competitive, requiring no initial high investment and more like ‘a bespoke trade: one-off or several copies could be done on demand’. In contrast, print technology was often linked with distorted and bad copies, to say nothing of corruption of texts and the misrepresentation of authors. The experiences of Katherine Phillips and Lady Mary Chudleigh bear witness to this fear, whether or not they were involved with their own publications. The psychological resistance to computers and email when they were first introduced suggests that we are once again at a crossroads, when the epistolary genre is central to categories of public and private communication.

But if print was not an option, Esther and women like her found ways to make their books acceptable to themselves and others. As Hobby demonstrates, women used a ‘repertoire of devices’ to make their writing a ‘modest’ act. Esther’s strategy in this regard was to become an editor of other people’s writing. This tactic suited her character, as well as her times. It was, nonetheless, an astute way of obtaining agency and control over what would be known about herself and her family. Once we understand this, the conventions and apologies of her obligatory preface make sense. We see the same principle constantly at work in the writings of other women, some using many of the same words. Lady Mary Chudleigh, for example, claimed that her poems were written ‘for the innocent amusement of a solitary life’. I believe that in copying her letters, Esther was taking steps to 'publish' her book, in the contemporary sense of the term. Though a printed work was not intended, Esther did not deny the possibility that it might be placed in the public sphere. She was a typical representative of an age that spent much of its leisure time copying passages into commonplace books, journals, and diaries, as well as letter books. Indeed copying was ‘almost universal among the educated’. Jardine assures us that copying was viewed positively as an 'attempt to give meaning to the scattered incidents of an individual life’. To copy had ‘richer connotations than mere reproduction, imitation, or mimicry in our modern, generally derogatory sense’. The copier was aspiring ‘to a meaning which might in itself be carried forward to become, in its own turn, the basis for future emulation’. Esther knew that once a letter was freely copied, it could reach a wider audience, regardless of intent. She had just engaged in that very process by duplicating mail addressed only to her.

In this time of transition and ambivalence towards publication, most people expected to encounter a spectrum of audiences and Esther was not an exception. At one end of the spectrum lay a letter written to a single addressee. It could soon move effortlessly through multiple readings and copies to include family and friends. Circles might then become more widespread and specialized, spreading, for example, to the court or the republic of letters. At the far end of the spectrum, manuscripts were printed publicly, with or without the author’s name, and with or without their consent. By 1737, Alexander Pope had broken with tradition by contriving to have his letters published while he was alive. But the mass audience at the spectrum’s extreme end was still abhorred by most writers, especially when people cited were still living. Thus Katherine Phillips complained, perhaps disingenuously, that she could not ‘so much as think in private’, but must have her ‘imaginations rifled and expos’d to play the Mountebanks, and dance upon the Ropes to entertain all the Rabble…and to be the Sport of Some that can, and Some that cannot read a Verse’. With this wealth of options, it was and is difficult to know which type of audience was intended for any one text. In Esther’s case, though her book was designed to remain a family heirloom, I believe she foresaw a larger group of readers. Why else would she bother to add notes that explained how people were related: facts that she already knew? And why write a preface to the reader, if there was none?

The belief that Esther was attempting to ‘publish’ her book is strengthened when we look at her album as a material object. Esther clearly had a printed book in mind when she created it. She started by making an ornamental title page. Then she wrote a preface, numbered her pages, added margin and footnotes, and helpfully appended an index. Once she started copying onto the blank pages, I believe she saw herself as an author. There were many authorial decisions to make as she looked back on her life, a time when many people organized their papers. The letters had to be carefully read, sorted, selected, and arranged in a readable manner. Some letters had to be burned for the protection of friends and family. ‘Had the thought of Doeing this come into my head sooner’, she admitted, ‘I should have preserv’d some Letters I greive I have destroy’d’. Other letters might have just a few offending passages, which could be rephrased or omitted. Esther was at perfect liberty to edit her own letters and to give them new shapes. Without the originals, there is no way of documenting exactly how much liberty she took. We do know, however, that when Mary Wortley Montague compiled and transcribed her Turkish letters into an album, she labeled them ‘copies’, though they were extracts from lost journals and revisions of actual letters. ‘The letters’, notes her biographer, ‘are neither actual nor artificial, but something of both; altogether they are virtuoso letters in which she exploited her rich opportunities’. The authenticity of Esther’s letters leads us to a final motive that convinced her to ‘publish’ her book. In 1722, Esther knew that Locke's letters were being sought for publication. Three English collections had already been published in 1708, 1714, and 1720. Calls for 'authentic' material had been made for future editions and more works would appear to meet market demand. Living as she did in close connection to Locke’s publishers and the London literary market, she was aware of developments in the publishing world tied to the decline of patronage, the rise of commercial values, and changes in licensing and copyright. Amidst current claims of the piracy and forgery of texts, this quiet spinster possessed authentic handwritten letters from the great philosopher. Moreover, they showed her intimacy with this famous man. But the method in which she chose to use them stood in stark contrast to the path taken by her stepmother.

Unlike Esther, Damaris flouted norms of gender and class in regard to Locke and her own writing. In contrast to her stepdaughter, she wanted to participate in the intellectual arguments of her day. 'Perhaps you may see me in Print in a little While', she wrote Locke in 1685, 'it being growne much the Fasion of late for our sex, Though I confess it has not much of my Approbation because (Principally) the Mode is for one to Dye First'. Perhaps Damaris was alluding to Anne Killigrew’s recently published poems. ‘At this time’, she continued, ‘I have no Great Inclination That Way…But I am not without some Apprehensions that I am to do so in A little Time’. Soon pregnancy, she realized, would keep her ‘settled in for a Pretty while’.

In the 1690s, Damaris did indeed decide to anonymously publish her work. She plunged into the middle of a public debate between John Norris, Mary Astell, and Locke. In 1695, Mary Astell published Letters Concerning the Love of God, which many thought to be by Lady Masham. To prove it was not, Damaris 'rushed into print' with a fierce rebuttal entitled Discourse Concerning the Love of God, which many assumed was by Locke. Astell waited until Locke's death to publish her own response The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England. Damaris passionately replied to it in her widely read Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Virtuous or Christian Life. Clearly Damaris occupied a different place on the spectrum of attitudes to authorship than Esther.

In her preface to Occasional Thoughts, Damaris made conventional apologies to cover her bold actions, but added unconventional qualifications. She had written it ‘some Years since, not without the thought that, possibly, it might be of farther use than for the entertainment of the Writer: Yet so little express Intention was there of Publishing the Product of those leisure Hours…that these Papers lay by for above two Years unread’. It was only after friends judged them ‘capable to be useful’, that she sent them into the world. ‘I shall not repent the Publishing them’, she declared, if she could lead ‘one single Soul into the Paths of Virtue’. In a strong personal defense she added that ‘Modesty or Fear of Displeasing any’ should not deter publication. Damaris’s attitudes to authorship and publicity differed from those of Esther, and her public notoriety extended to her relations with Locke. Damaris and Mary Astell both claimed public spaces for their ideas. Even though Damaris did not sign her work, her behaviour shows that norms were changing. Surely Damaris and Esther were cut from different cloth.

Yet although they used different strategies of authorship, both women were viewed by others as having intellectual gifts. We see this clearly in seven intimate letters from Locke's translator, Pierre Coste to Esther. They force us to once again reconsider Esther’s motives. Coste and other huguenots have received enormous credit for introducing continental ideas into England and English ideas into France. Coste was made a member of the Royal Society in appreciation of his role as a translator. A confidante of Locke, he became an elite member of the republic of letters. Esther’s album reveals the fact that she and Coste had their own close epistolary relationship. Like Locke and Damaris, the pair exchanged books and had intense discussions about classical writers, especially Horace. Coste wrote to Esther about his work, sent proofs, and asked for her comments. Just as Locke and Damaris were intellectual soul mates, so Coste addressed Esther as if she was a learned lady.

A friend of Coste's commented on their friendship shortly after Damaris's death: Though Coste had lost an excellent friend in Lady Masham, he still had 'so near a relation and friend of hers left in ye same degree of friendship and as capable of it as she was'. In a rare outburst of authorship, Esther underlined this complimentary passage that referred to her talents. Esther’s aspirations may have been more modest than those of Damaris, who wished to participate in intellectual debates. Yet I believe Esther wanted an audience larger than her own family; one that did not already know the facts set out in her footnotes. At the end of her life, this solitary spinster had no descendents to carry on her memory or enshrine her reputation. Her letter book would accomplish that task.

Coste and Esther shared another bond. They had both been left out of Locke's will. The correspondence of Pierre Des Maizeaux reveals disagreements between Coste and Locke arising from alleged criticisms by Coste in his translations. In 1720, a preface to a collection of Locke's papers publicly castigated Coste for 'blackening' Locke's character. Yet others disagreed. Charles de la Motte in Amsterdam, for example, thought Locke's treatment of Coste was shocking. Esther's letter book subtly confirms these tensions, though as Anne Goldgar notes, we have no evidence describing their quarrel. Esther would have been one of the few witnesses to such a dispute and she would have known about allegations against Coste. Her album, nonetheless, presents Coste in a positive light. At the time of Coste’s letters to Esther, a new edition of Locke's letters was being published. Coste refers to the fact that Esther had seen it. He had heard, he wrote her, that it contained only complimentary and boring Latin letters, and though he had made suggestions, his advice had not been followed. It seems that Esther had many reasons to reveal Coste's letters. Not only did they identify her as a learned lady with a place in the republic of letters. In contrast to other letter collections produced by a rampant commercial press, her letter book offered authentic manuscript letters that had never been seen before. It proclaimed her ownership of Locke’s letters and her place in his life. It also shows us that female agency might be achieved in subtle and indirect ways.

In addition to revealing contemporary perceptions of authorship, Esther’s letter book raises general issues about the use of letters as historical and literary evidence. Her album, and letter collections generally, can help us make connections between what might be called 'big' and 'little' history. As we face the loss of grand theories and meta-narratives, this becomes even more important methodologically. Historians and literary critics must find ways to integrate the great and the ordinary, so that micro-studies may be placed in a wider context and impart larger meaning. Because letters are themselves links in an ongoing chain, they show patterns over time and reveal networks. If you read letters of important people, their friends and family will creep in. And if you read letters of ordinary people, luminaries shall surely appear. When Esther is placed in the larger world of Locke, Damaris, and Coste, her simple life expands. At the same time, her letters place Locke the man, in her world, showing his personal relations, his frailties and strengths, and the impact of his last will. Everyday experiences found in Locke's letters take on added dimensions when viewed from Esther's perspective.

Personal correspondence, as a genre, frequently presents the great and the ordinary as they coexist and interact side by side. In 1704, Locke told Anthony Collins how much he enjoyed their correspondence. They might discuss truth and friendship or ‘descend to a brush or a curry-comb, or other such trumpery of life'. Locke felt blessed ‘in such a friend, with whom I can converse and be enlighten’d about the highest speculations, and yet be assisted by in the most trivial occasions’. This included Collins’s intense interest when reporting a purchase of shoe buckles for Locke. A day in Locke's life when he wrote nothing but letters may have been a day of importance for his ideas. In fact, Locke's great works abound with familiar examples of domestic life. They often start with a question arising from daily experience followed by careful observation. Sometimes they are written in the first person in present tense and invite reader response, as in a letter.

For example, Some Thoughts on Education arose from real letters to two perplexed parents. The letters proposed new educational methods based on actual domestic situations. 'How many of these situations were witnessed by him', wrote John Yolton, 'or whether he actually was able to apply, or to get parents to try, the methods he recommends, we do not know'. Letters to and from Esther and Damaris's son Frank, however, show this very process in action. When Damaris and Sir Francis allowed Locke to instruct both their children according to ideas in Some Thoughts on Education, he was able to put theory into practice. Thus when Locke instructed young Frank, he combined sternness and affection. He lured him into learning by requiring effort in return for praise. 'Assure [Frank] that I love him very much', Locke wrote Esther, 'but I expect to heare from him some news of what he saw or observ'd at the Assizes’. He was instructing the boy in the same art of careful observation that he used in his own writing. As Locke observed Frank, he was documenting his theory that knowledge is gained experientally by the senses, making its mark on the mind as on a tabula rasa.

Francis's reply to Locke reveals a child, not yet seven, trained to think and observe: I went ... on the bench, which was very full, and heard the Judges speech ... I thought it was a very noble office to be a Judge, but not a very easie one. I think it is a serious thing to condemn people to death. I saw some burnt in the hand & some in the cheek. I thought it very moveing to see the poore prisoners when they were condemned fall down upon their knees beging pardon or transportation. When my Lord gave sentence he said, since you have lived as the Theif who was crucified with our blessed Saviour I hope you will repent like him at your deaths'. Surely this 'little' incident gives us data about attitudes to 'big' topics like crime, education and law, as well as Locke’s social relationships and their effects on his work.

In a similar fashion, Esther’s album helps us to see larger national trends regarding the development of letter writing. Because it is bilingual, her book highlights cultural differences by presenting French and English letters on the same page. As we examine them, we observe different notions of politeness at work. This case study suggests that though France and England borrowed epistolary models from Renaissance courts, letter writing evolved differently in the two countries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries, classical and French manuals were duly copied and followed in England. By the 1680s, however, English letters overflowed with complaints about flattery and ceremony, including those made by Locke. In 1704 he warned Anthony Collins that he would not send him ‘anything that looks like a complement’. Write to me, he begged, ‘with as little ceremony and scruple as you see I use with you’. The desire for more natural forms of self-expression was evident as a culture of politeness developed. English gentry wished to cease 'sending young gentlemen...into France to learn manners…They come back fool as ever, imitating the French mode with so much affectation...that in derision we Englishmen are justly styled apes of the French'.

These feelings were linked to cultural differences regarding politics and religion, as well as social relationships. In the aftermath of the Whig Glorious Revolution in 1688, constant continental wars fanned the flames of English hostility to French absolutism. Lawrence Klein has shown how this anti-French sentiment was connected to sociability and politeness. French foppishness and exaggerated manners became symbols of all that the English detested. Yet, the English desire for French refinement still coexisted beside a hatred of French dominance. 'We are the nation they pay the greatest civilities to, and yet love the least', wrote a French observer. 'They condemn, and yet imitate us'.

These anxieties were clearly evident when it came to letter writing. It is not surprising that unlike French epistolary culture, English letter writing became focused on the family, not the corrupt court or effeminate salon. After 1700, English epistolary imitation of French models became less prevalent. The advent of more commercially oriented letter writing manuals and the spread of letter writing to the middling sort hastened this trend. By the mid-eighteenth century as imperial power grew, British epistolary culture was increasingly shaped by the trading classes. Their confident, flowing, copper-plate hand was now imitated by others. Eventually it would become dominant around the world.

This national comparison reminds us that letters are not simple, transparent texts. They come in many states--originals, drafts and copies in letter books or collections. Often they tell the same story from different points of view. Let no one who reads a familiar letter conclude that there is a simple correlation between content and 'reality'. Even transcribers like Esther, formulate a pose and erect a screen in order to present the self positively. Sometimes they leave out pertinent material but furnish clues; other times they exaggerate or tell a white lie. In fact, letters are sometimes windows into the soul marked by truth telling and sometimes highly crafted pieces of convention. Usually, they are a blend of both.

It is generally accepted that we must analyze letters in the context of their literary and historical culture. Less apparent is the necessity to listen for epistolary silences. In Esther’s case, omissions provide signals that attitudes to authorship were changing, along with notions of public and private space. Gaps in her evidence make us reconsider what was a publication and who was an author in her time. Instead of simple dichotomies, a spectrum of motives, authors, and audiences has been found. Esther and Damaris occupied different positions on that spectrum, though both were elite women. While gender and class norms were extremely important, they were also undergoing change.

It is impossible to discover how many people actually read Esther’s album after she created it. Locke’s biographer Fox Bourne, however, read it before 1876. ‘Esther Masham’, he remarked, ‘has nearly as important a place in Locke’s biography as Lady [Damaris] Masham herself’. After reading the same letter book, A.C. Fraser thought that Esther was ‘Locke’s favourite companion’. ‘Locke’s admirers’, he continued, ‘owe something to Esther Masham’. In her book ‘the fresh and lively details of the most commonplace incidents…make the family, with Locke as its principal figure, live again’. We also know that Esther was known to the antiquarian Philip Morant, Rector of St.Mary’s Colchester and fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, when he published his The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex in 1768. After describing Oates, he glossed quickly over the life of her father, Sir Francis. ‘His daughter who outlived him’, noted Morant, ‘was a lady of great accomplishments’. His view of Esther was the very one that she had constructed for herself. Though we will never know for certain, it is possible that Morant had read her letters as well. Our own reading of the letters is yet another chapter, in the ongoing history of Esther’s life and reputation. Although she never published anything in the modern sense of the word, she has now become an author, after all.


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