'Paper Visits': The Post-Restoration Letter
	As Seen Through the Verney Family Archive by Susan Whyman

by Susan E. Whyman
download PDF

The Verneys were an upper-gentry, Buckinghamshire family with a passionate interest in letters. The family amassed one of the the largest continuous archives for seventeenth and eighteenth-century England. Over 100,000 items spanning twelve generations include more than 30,000 personal letters from the 1630s to the mid-eighteenth century. The preservation of the archive, however, was no accident. Each generation taught the next to docket, catalogue, and protect letters, because they knew their importance. Part of the Verneys' strength lay in their silent, beribboned documents. Indeed, Verney history was passed on to each generation through letters. In the process, the family self-consciously used their documents to construct individual, dynastic, and social identities.

The Verneys' post-Restoration letters were influenced by a convergence of historical factors: the expansion of literacy and communications, the quest for self-expression and privacy, pressures upon the fragmented patriarchal family, and the importance of London and party patronage. The rise of a polite, literate culture that emphasised manners was of critical importance. The way the Verneys wrote, discussed, and used their letters confirms that letter-writing was an historically-specific practice with both constraining and liberating effects. Epistolary form and content led to self-exploration, but it also forced obedience to a social code. This duality enabled letters to meet a mix of personal, family, and social needs. It also produced a tension between freedom and constraint of which the Verneys were aware. Their comments about this tension show how real persons resolved debates about naturalness and formality in letters. Thus, this essay sheds light on cultural and literary issues, as well as the Verneys' polite social code.

The Verney archive also confirms that a culture of letters evolved after the Restoration. Letter writing flowered in this period, as it did in classical and Renaissance ages. By the late-seventeenth century, letters permeated periodicals, newsletters, essays, and romances, while epistolary works were written long before Richardson's Pamela. "A letter to a friend" was a vehicle for anything in print, while the first newspapers were batches of letters. As French letter collections flooded the London market, English publishers issued imitations. Robert Day estimates that "something like one million volumes containing epistolary fiction were offered to the public between 1660-1740". The Verneys owned many publications containing letters, including Roman classics, Voiture's works, and letter-writing manuals. They also read the first periodical with letters to the editor, the Athenian Mercury, and then passed it on to friends.

The Verney correspondence clearly demonstrates that letters were becoming more important in both qualitative and quantitative ways. No longer reserved for diplomatic, scholarly, and mercantile use, more people were just 'scribbling'. By 1720, the literacy rate was about forty-five per cent for men and twenty-five per cent for women. For London women, however, it was nearer forty-eight per cent. The Verney archive reflects these trends, for daughters' letters show recent schooling, and there are few marks instead of signatures on deeds. Yeomen and merchants write with ease, while the family uses language with grace and skill. It is not surprising that the epistolary novel rose to prominence following this period. This study provides scholars with an historical interpretation of this genre.

The Verneys had lived in Buckinghamshire since the thirteenth century. By 1620, Sir Edmund Verney, a royalist courtier (1590-1642), made Claydon House his home. He died serving the king during the Civil War and left his parliamentarian son Sir Ralph (1613-96) in debt. At this point, Sir Ralph fled to France with his two sons Edmund (Mun) and John. There they learned letter-writing skills from Monsieur Claudius Mauger, who later authored epistolary manuals in London. Thus, we can look at the works of both sons and their tutor at various stages of life.

In 1653, Sir Ralph returned to England and spent the rest of his life rebuilding the family estate. He sought moderation in politics and religion and abhorred "court compliment". Yet Sir Ralph knew the importance of sociability. "Tis a happiness to keep a fair correspondence with all your neighbours", he wrote, and longed for harmony within his own family. Like the Pastons, Sir Ralph "set more by his writings and evidences than he did by any of his moveable goods". It was he who started the tradition of preserving family letters for he "regard[ed] every scrap of written paper as sacred". Sir Ralph's criteria for preservation were broad, and rather than destroy a document, he cut holes over confidential items. His domination over the letters expressed his belief in the patriarchal family as the center of society and a microcosm of the state. Sir Ralph's own writings were short, reserved, and avoided flattery. Restraint also marked the letters of his second son John (1640-1717). John inherited Sir Ralph's estate and baronetcy in 1696 after the death of his elder brother Mun and Mun's two grown sons. John had served twelve years in Aleppo as a Levant Company trader, followed by twenty-two years as a London overseas merchant. But in the fluid environment of the 1690s, he transformed himself into a country squire. By 1703, he had become a Viscount and in 1710, he entered Parliament as a Tory.

John's life was shaped by writing and reading and he spent hours upon his letters. Cousin Pen Stewkeley noted this trait, chiding: "...you do not love to sit without a book or a pen in your hand". John's careful penmanship and balanced page lay-out reflected an obsession with order. Sir Ralph had taught him to docket letters, but John took new steps to regulate the collection. He reread letters, identified unnamed people, and updated the lives of those cited in the margins. At the same time, he compiled a directory of English baronets. A passion for order, writing, and genealogy, thus, converged in his letters.

Like John Quincy Adams' son who forsook 'the vile family habit of preserving letters', John's son Ralph showed little interest in letter-writing. Not so, however, the large, extended family of kin, inlaws, and friends, who loved to write letters. Nephew Ralph Palmer was a good example for "when... writing", he admitted, "my pen is never weary". Dependents wrote respectfully to the family head. Yet they expressed themselves openly, reflecting a growing autonomy in social relations.

The Verneys' correspondents were a diverse throng in terms of age, rank, religion, and occupation. The family wrote to and received letters from nobility, gentry, professionals, merchants, bankers, artisans, shopkeepers, farmers, and servants. When they are indexed by computer, the letters unveil a dynamic blueprint of the Verneys' social and political networks. Women and the middling-sort wrote a great many items, while Londoners dominated the correspondence, revealing the growing importance of the capital. Because of the letters' range and number, they have been called "truly representative of their age". They indicate that a "received standard English" was spoken by people of quality, similar to that of Restoration plays. Unlike literary works, the letters show varied degrees of familiar unstudied diction.

Clearly, the archive tells a valuable story about the past. We see that family history is a slow, developing narrative created as each letter is added to the archive. More chapters are appended to the story over time, as mail is opened and answered. The letters reveal generational continuities, along with changing values and hidden passions that are lost in quantitative records. Because the documents are organized around the family head, one gets multi-dimensional views of topics. The reader gradually grasps the rhythms of daily life. Attitudes to politics, children, illness, fate, and death reveal the evolution of ideas and behaviour.

The Verney letters also show personalities and relationships through spacing, address, style, and penmanship. Characters are uncovered further by decoding unspoken anxieties and interests. Thus, Aunt Adams' constant references to her friends' maids revealed her own fears of losing her servants. She often bought food for John, because she loved to eat. In contrast, Aunt Gardiner sent information, which betrayed her passion for gossip. These examples of decoding show that individuals constructed their own characters. "Should you doubt that you exist, you have only to write a letter", noted Joyce Carol Oates. "A personality will immediately define itself in the act of writing". Yet scholars have questioned Oates' assumption of "truth telling" and stressed the constructed character of personal accounts. The Verney archive confirms that letter writing was a self-conscious art and allows us to observe the social code underpinning letter-writing conventions.

In order to uncover these norms, let us enter the Verneys' muniment room and observe epistolary form and practice. Other family collections including the Wentworth, Hatton, Leeds and Godolphin, Egmont, Blenheim, Coke, Portland, LeNeve, and Trumbull Papers have been systematically examined for the following criteria: paper, handwriting, spelling, outside address and title, stamps, docketing practices, franks, inside spacing and layout, margins, salutation, forms of address, closure and signature, use of a language of courtesy, and references to letter writing. Quotations from these documents which are strikingly similar to the Verneys' may be found in the notes. Normally, paper was coarse with untrimmed edges. Hand-writing was bold and clear. Writers left one side blank, apparently for social effect, but they turned the page sideways and crammed farewells into the margin. The family head or secretary, made file copies or saved drafts studded with corrections. Then the paper was folded, sealed and addressed. Finally, each copy was docketed according to date, name, and topic.

The Verneys and other families wrote three types of personal letters: informal to intimates, sociable to friends and acquaintances, and contrived or artificial for patronage purposes. Writers were trained to use formulaic cliches in all sorts of letters, including requests for money and thank-you notes. They normally sent friends 'humble services', wished them "joy" at births, and encouraged them to be ready for their maker at death. Even familiar letters had a planned format. In 1685, Lady Mary Stanhope was instructed to reread letters, list headings to answer, and preselect compliments. The Verneys were generally more informal, but even daily reports from son to father had a conventional structure. After an inquiry about health, John confirmed receipt of the last letter, repeated its directions, and reported tasks completed. Next, he wrote about financial and legal matters, gossip and social events, domestic and foreign politics. The Verneys were informed about these topics at a sophisticated level. Letters were short and to the point, for the family wrote as worldly practitioners, not intellectuals or theologians. Only men used Latin quotations, but London women were often more informed about politics and society.

Health, money, and favours were mentioned most often; next came worries about safety, travel, politics, and relationships; then joys were shared about births, deaths, and marriages. Not surprisingly, letter writing was constantly discussed. Yet sometimes it was unsafe to write. In 1686, Sir Ralph's nephew John Stewkeley warned him: "Tis dangerous writing news...but...you shall certainly have all I may safely write". Often it was suggested "your name not be set to your letter". The Verneys disciplined their pens and decoded hidden meanings. Yet some things were easier to write than say. Aunt Gardiner hated to beg for money in person and would "rather let my pen ask it". The proper way to write a letter was prescribed through education. In France, John had learned politeness by constructing letters to reflect the recipient's age, gender, and rank. As an aid, Mun owned Le Secretaire a la mode and de la Cour. Both boys were forced to write regularly to family members, who sternly evaluated their progress. When John returned to England, Sir Ralph trained him to write two returns for every one received. John's Levant travels taught him the value of family letters, for he received none for two and a half years due to problems with the mail.

Upon John's return, a schedule was enforced which taught discipline. Sir Ralph's "constant letter day" was Tuesday, although he often wrote to John daily, even when they both were in London. John's writing day was Monday to meet Sir Ralph's carrier's schedule. As with visits and gifts, reciprocity was required. Letter writing was not a casual affair, for the receiver paid the postage and failure to respond was a breach of conduct. Hence, John's nephew was upset when he found himself 'a letter in your debt'. If one did forget to answer, apologies were sent. In extreme cases, one might request that letters be returned. Obviously, when letter writing forced observance of norms, it strengthened dynastic and social controls. Yet letters played a multitude of roles, some of which also liberated the individual. All epistolary functions were shaped by the demands of polite society, along with dynastic and individual needs. Because teaching polite manners was a major purpose of letters, the Verneys' social context must be considered. The family lived in an age that was concerned with the human being as a social animal. Processes of social exchange like letters, visits, and favours were viewed as a fundamental basis of society. The harmony produced by these reciprocal interactions nurtured a stable order. The elite also acknowledged an intimate link between outward manners and status. Lineage became less important as a determinant of rank, while shared behaviour, including letter writing, increasingly afforded entry into elite society.

Polite conduct was most clearly observed in the art of conversation, which was intimately tied to letters. By 1715, The Gentleman's Library found conversation 'a point of such importance, that upon it depends the whole course of young gentlemen's lives and manners'. Letter-writing manuals had always described letters as 'conversation between absent friends'. Although writing was not the same as conversation, the Verneys accepted the analogy. Thus, John believed that "writing is talking at a distance", and Aunt Gardiner wrote to him because: "I love to converse with you...." Others compared letters to social calls, where conversation was bound to formal rules. Ralph Palmer called his letters "paper visits", while John was begged to "visit [Elizabeth Baker] with letters".

But epistolary conversation was not just comforting, it disclosed one's breeding and status. The ability to speak politely through letters was a critical proof of gentility at a time when cultural competition with France led to a concern with refinement. In practice, letters served as a badge of membership in elite society. 'The writing of letters has so much to do in all the occurrences of human life', declared John Locke, 'that no gentleman can avoid showing himself in this kind of writing....His pen...always lays him open to a severer examination of his breeding, sense, and abilities than oral discourses'.

Locke's restriction of this principle to males was no accident, for although Verney women wrote many letters, earlier generations lacked training. After not writing on an important occasion, Elizabeth Adams admitted: "I being sinc abell of my ill riting and speling is the real cose of my long silence...." Plagued by phonetic spelling and disconnected sentences, women of Sir Ralph's day referred to their efforts as 'imperfect', 'impertinent', or "not worth paying for". However, the letters of the next generation of women and servants stand in elegant contrast. In 1694, John's daughter Margaret wrote to Sir Ralph with easy grace to show 'how diligent I have been at my business'. And in 1699, John's black servant from Guinea wrote an elegant courtesy letter. Its only rival was a similar epistle from John's country cook.

Everyone's letters were scrutinized for signs of proper manners. Even Aunt Gardiner, the oracle of politeness, had to readdress a letter because she knew Sir Richard Temple 'likes to be writ with both his titles'. It was even more important to properly honour the receiver. "I have no business to discuss", John wrote Aunt Adams, "but I send this as in good manners and duty bound to...tender you my humble services". When Cousin Jack Nicholas forgot to wish John joy of a son, he was said to "forget all manners and good nature".

Polite correspondence not only taught manners, it stabilized family relations. The letter is often cited in connection with the novel, which developed themes of family and friendship. Yet its role in linking real fragmented families has hardly been noticed. Nor has there been an awareness of its connection to gentry sociability and residence patterns. The eighteenth-century family has been characterized as more close-knit than its predecessors, but the fact that its members were frequently apart has been overlooked. Because the Verneys spent up to nine months in London, kin were in constant motion. Husbands, wives, children, and lovers were torn from each other by the peripatetic nature of city and country life. Sir John Busby and his lady were "like buckets in a well; as one goes up the other goes down between town and country". Furthermore, many a mother like Mary Lovett was forced to leave a new-born babe. Verney women were particularly affected, spending more time in town, but retaining country-house duties. Moreover, after the Restoration, the Verneys no longer married neighbours, but had wider family horizons. Thus, John's children lived in far-flung country houses from Essex to Ireland.

After the Civil War, the patriarchal family also experienced economic fragility and internal divisions. Letters helped the family head to maintain cohesion. Aunt Adams called her letters "paper messengers", for they linked her to others. And for John's third wife Elizabeth, letters made "a new life...When I think of you", she wrote, "I go to my letters". John's daughter Margaret yearned for the post, and thought no charge too great to bear for 'the happiness of your company'.

Letters also were an accepted method of maintaining social networks. Because people's chances in life were dependent upon connections, an alliance with the Verneys was of critical importance. The right to correspond was a public display of this link, while the form of address and frequency of letters revealed one's relative place in the Verneys' networks. Permission to write regularly was an honour, which was only given to intimates. Thus, after John inherited, cousin Kitty Stewkeley asked him to "give me leave to enquire after your health". Cousin Nancy Nicholas was one of John's luckier correspondents. She wrote to John every week, even when she had no news and was always told about family events. When Nancy died, her daughter sent John a note in hopes that "you will not wholly lay aside your correspondence with our family". She did inherit her mother's powerful privilege, as if it were a legacy. In contrast, Aunt Adams felt her status had declined, when she was not told about a new child.

Letters also eased anxiety about death, illness, and poverty. The Verneys were a stoic group and often repressed emotion. But even Sir Ralph and John used the post to alleviate fears. Letters brought news of safe journeys and relief about sickness. When her mother was too ill to write, Cary Stewkeley endured 'a thousand frights and fears', while nephew Palmer wrote John: "All your healths are so valuable...we can scarce bear silence with Christian patience". Aunt Gardiner thought letters eased everyone's problems. "Tis the comfort of this life", she wrote, "to hear of those we love".

If letters comforted the receiver, they provided a vehicle of self-expression for the author. Thus, letters also had liberating effects. Writing has been described as a psychological process which brings self-exploration and the means to relate oneself to society. Many factors encouraged the Verneys to use letters in this way, including the Protestant focus on individual redemption and self-examination. Writing gave the Verneys occasions to develop narrative skills, while its pauses, unlike speech, offered time for self-reflection. In the Verneys' patriarchal world, collective needs were paramount, leaving few private spaces for individual release. This made the relatively free outlets provided by letters even more crucial to the Verneys. This was especially true for women, who had fewer alternative forms of self-expression than their male couterparts.

Letter writing has been seen by some as a particularly feminine form of self-expression: a life-line for cloistered women, who were isolated from public life. In fact, Verney men and women used letters for a wide range of purposes, not just cathartic release. As an activity, letter writing was prized by both sexes, and was not considered an inferior form of leisure. It is true that women could write letters at odd moments in between domestic duties. And if writing books was considered unseemly for a woman, letter writing was acceptable. However, the Verney archive shows that letters were not a female compensation for boredom. Although Verney women used letters as a form of self-expression, they did so from a position of strength. Patricia Spacks has shown how letters enabled women to make sense of their lives. In her view, writing was a positive outlet, implying choice, responsibility, and autonomy. Moreover, as women wrote to other women, they created 'a mutually understood subtle transformation of male orthodoxies'. Consequently, letters became an acceptable method for acting politically, socially, and psychologically outside the family.

As Spacks maintained, Verney women used letters to exercise powers of observation, express ideas, and attain personal goals. Although financially dependent females had to couch missives in deferential terms, they regarded free articulation as a natural right. Housekeeper Elizabeth Lilly lectured Sir Ralph and John about their duties to fulfill country customs. Aunt Gardiner, on the other hand, loved to gossip and her political information was the best that John could get. Moreover, in matters of social protocol, women often tutored the family head. Like the supposedly harmless visit, the innocent letter was a place where women carved out niches of power. At different times they used letters to obtain freedom, authority, and psychological release. Sir Ralph's poor, but worldly-wise, London aunts begged for money and gave political advice in the same letter. Often, they coordinated their letters, pleading causes for one another. At other times they plotted against rival kin, like the best Whigs and Tories of their day.

Both men and women obtained cathartic release in epistolary outbursts of friendship. Like the Greeks and Romans, the Verneys thought of letters as bonds between close companions. A letter from John's daughter-in-law Catherine was 'esteem[ed]... as a very great instance of...friendship', while another friend to whom John wrote was in 'no way sensible how I merited so great an honour'. Some epistolary friendships were expressed in passionate terms. Kitty Stewkeley told cousin Pen: 'Every moment [I] surpass myself by loving you a thousand times more than I did'. Usually the Verneys were more restrained, but both sexes openly asserted affection.

Yet because letters were so highly prized, they also created tensions. Constant apologies and self-disparagement, though formulaic, revealed anxieties about writing. One problem was that letters were so very often lost. Restoration England was still marked by unsafe roads and vehicles, highway crime, and tampering with the post. Nosy gentry families like the Shuckboroughs were known to 'open all letters that comes to their hands'. These factors led to a feeling of helplessness. To prevent loss, the Temples of Stowe and the Verneys sent duplicates of important letters via carriers, coach, and the post. Luckily, the Verneys' carrier took letters for free, although this was illegal.

Not surprisingly, fears of lost mail emerge in every archive. In 1697, 'the northern post boy was tied to a tree...his letters opened and...exchequer bills taken out'. Twice, John's annuity to his uncle Tom was lost. Tom was surely guilty of understatement about his missing money: 'In this deplorable age', he noted, 'letters may sometimes halt by the way'.

On the other hand, receiving too many letters was also a problem, since postage was paid by the recipient. Like the Verneys, Scroop Egerton, 4th. Earl of Bridgewater and Buckinghamshire's Lord Lieutenant, kept accounts of every penny spent on stamps. The cost of letters was not insignificant: the Verneys paid 5s. for 500 sheets of paper which they bought in reams, while a bottle of ink ranged from 1.5s. to 3s. More important, postage expenses mounted as scribbling increased. Until 1711, one page cost 2d. up to eighty miles outside of London, and Sir Ralph constantly complained about charges. When John entered Parliament in 1710, his free franking privileges reduced costs. Prior to that time, he wrote to friends only once a week.

Luckily, the Verneys were masters at manipulating franks and received them from many friends. Since franks could be used only for legislative purposes, one had to know their owners' locations. Thus, in 1699, Cousin Nancy Nicholas feared to use Lord Russell's franks, noting: ''Tis not proper when the Parliament men are in London to frank papers out of the country'. When Parliament ended or friends died, writing often ebbed.

Eighteenth-century postal innovations enhanced service and led to an increase in use. This trend was part of a nationwide growth of communications in response to commercial and financial pressures. The easing of laws limiting religion and speech led to a booming publishing industry, which in turn prompted postal reforms. There was also a great hunger for information. Indeed, it is hard for twentieth-century readers to understand how acutely news was craved. Nancy Nicholas in the country was aware of her need. 'Us mortals are in the state (not of innocence), of ignorance', she admitted, 'if London did not afford us some news'. Letters not only satisfied curiosity, they stimulated self-growth. John's daughter Mary confirmed this fact as she thanked him for his letter: 'Our persons are confined to a narrow compass, so are our understandings, for we hear nor see any new thing. A line from your Lordship is our greatest entertainment'. As letters linked the Verneys to the wider community, they again had a liberating effect.

In practice, letter writing was both a controlling device and a process offering individual freedom. The tension between the two is most apparent in letters written to meet patronage needs. Normally, the Verneys' personal letters used informal language and style. Sir Ralph voiced his hatred of 'letter[s] of ceremony' and desired those written 'without compliment in a more friendly strain....' Sir Ralph's brother Tom ascribed the Verney hatred of 'hypocritical ways' to his 'father's great care'. Clearly, the Verneys wished to construct their own civilized identity. As Mun observed, they longed 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'.

By the 1700s, these views complemented Britain's growing military and commercial ascendancy over France. They reflected a wish for a 'natural way of speaking' evident in eighteenth-century, English letter-writing manuals. Mun's comments also revealed a fear that French politeness might corrupt English masculinity, cloud gender boundaries, and lead to foppish effeminacy or emasculation. Thus, an earlier desire for French refinement was replaced by an assertion of British manliness.

Still, in order to meet social and political needs, John had to write fawning letters requesting favours from noblemen, Tory politicians, and influential patrons. He received similar requests from his own clients, especially after entering Parliament. Thus, John was asked to request a ship captain's aid because 'he loves to have letters from great persons'. Others begged John for jobs, church livings, or the Queen's touch against illness. Frances Luttrell thought that John's letters to him showed a magnanimous 'esteem for the little man'. Luttrell was a respected gentleman, whose deference in no way lowered his status. It merely showed that he knew how to write a proper letter to someone whose interest he desired.

John's fawning patronage letters on his own behalf began as a response to Whig/Tory politics. Upon first standing for office, he wrote scores of circular letters asking for votes from freeholders. He penned them 'without compliment', for, he admitted, 'I'm not good at that'. But after losing three elections, John revised his letter-writing style. Highly-edited drafts show labourious efforts to reformulate speech and do his 'devoirs'. 'I don't love to send letters', he admitted, 'that may be thought rugged'. By 1700, John had acquired a language of courtesy, through which he flattered influential people. In a letter to Tory Lord Henry Bertie, he admitted he was unknown to their family head, Lord Abingdon. But, he declared, 'by post I'll kiss his hands with a letter', for because the Berties knew Sir Ralph, they might befriend his son.

John used similar tropes which evoked body gesture and polite manners to William Cheyne, 2nd. Viscount Newhaven. Cheyne was the leader of the Buckinghamshire Tories who chose John to stand for Parliament in 1710. 'As long as I live I shall record your favour in my heart', John declared to William Bromley, Secretary of State. Bromley, who was a relation by marriage, might aid the career of John's son. In short, whenever John needed help, he repressed his normal pride and used the tropes of patronage.

Yet even the Verneys' courtesy letters were not as servile as continental models. They resembled samples in the best-selling manuals of John's old tutor, Claudius Mauger, who came to London in 1676. Having taught sons of English gentlemen in France, he knew his market well, and his practical models met British tastes. Like Mauger, the Verneys used polite forms of speech, but avoided French etiquette regarding spacing and address. The Verneys refused to place inflated titles in huge letters at the top of the page. Nor did they insert five inch spaces or put cringing signatures at the bottom of the paper.

Finally, only a small portion of their letters used fawning language. The Verneys never wrote slavishly to intimates. Moreover, males increasingly rebelled against social constraints that were considered overly refined. John told his wife Elizabeth not to bother sending services: 'Its only a matter of form', he noted, 'and serves only to fill up letters'. By 1713, his son-in-law Sir Thomas Cave foreswore reciprocity: 'I don't desire our correspondence should be so formal', Thomas wrote, 'as letter by letter'. Even with outsiders, there were limits to John's servility. Hence, he let a prized tenant go rather than send '...under my hand...a fawning letter, that I thought it too mean for me to purchase his stay upon such terms'. These comments displayed his manly honour and his refusal to resort to affectation. Furthermore, the Verneys were acutely aware of the tension between nature and artifice, truth and compliment. Sir Ralph's close friend Dr. Denton vowed he wrote 'not to flatter', for his praise was 'no compliment...but really true'. Trusted Nancy Nicholas also swore that she wrote 'without compliment or lying'. It was vital to differentiate between the two at a time when patronage underpinned social practices. As the Verneys wrote different kinds of letters they made this distinction and constructed their own balance between candour and ceremony.

Clearly, the Verneys used letter writing to meet their personal, dynastic, and patronage needs. Moreover, because letters pervaded every aspect of life, they influenced the family's corporate personality. By writing, rereading, and saving records, each generation took part in the construction of a cumulative family identity. Their letters functioned both as truth and myth. They were the Verneys' history, biography, and memoirs, to be drawn upon over time in order to strengthen survivors. In 1866, an unopened letter from Mun to John written 200 years earlier was found. 'It seemed almost like a breach of confidence to open it', noted Lady Verney, but the family gathered to read it, 'that it might be done under the shelter of the family conscience'. Long after their genesis, the letters kept functioning as a legacy, shaping, not just reflecting, a family ethos. The fact that Verneys still live in Claydon House and that letter collection continues is significant. We see that the way the Verneys used writing and the attitudes they held about written records affected their family history.

The importance that the Verneys attached to letters bears a lesson for historians. Through letters, we can see how individuals coped in a society based upon lineage, custom, and manners. We can uncover a family's social code, and note whether they accepted or evaded its norms. Through letters, we can watch the rise of a discourse of politeness and note how gentility was instilled. We can see how people brought stability to their lives by constructing networks, maintaining friendships, and communicating with absent loved-ones. Through letters, we can watch how people dealt with anxiety, illness, and isolation. We can see how they found means of self-expression, personal development, and even power, in a patriarchal environment. Through letters, we can see how people obtained the patronage that determined one's place in life. The development of the letter went hand in hand with the promotion of social values, as well as individual identities.

Literary scholars have long used epistolary collections and criticism to describe the eighteenth-century intellectual world. Now historians can use letters to create cultural studies that embrace social and political themes. Far from being a marginal genre, letters can show continuities and change that usually lie hidden from view. Like the Verneys, we too can use 'paper messengers' to proclaim our vision of the past.

for all anotations, please see download PDF