Texting: 1760s style

When I first began teaching, I taught Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela to my 3rd-year, eighteenth-century lit class. I’ll admit that it has never been one of my favourite novels, but I worked very hard to make it a favourite for my students.  I failed.  The entire class took an immediate dislike to the heroine, and, cynical readers that they were, they exposed the “Shamela” in Pamela long before I had them read Fielding’s rollicking parody.  Although my student readers distrusted the “virtuous” Pamela, what really caused their laughing derision was the style of the novel–the fact that it is often “written to the moment” (in the present tense, where the action occurs concurrent with the writing).  Thus, as readers, we are treated to exasperating (or comic) moments where Pamela sits in bed, writing a letter as her master approaches her room to ravish her.  Her letter, paraphrased, goes something like this: “oh! my master is outside the door; oh! I see him peering through the keyhole–I hope he doesn’t have an extra key; oh! the key is turning in the lock; oh! he approaches the bed; oh! he grabs my leg; oh!….”  Often, these letters end abruptly as Pamela conveniently faints.

“Why doesn’t she put down her pen, get out of bed, and grab something heavy to hit him with?”  This, or some variation of this question, was asked repeatedly by my students, who sat shaking their heads in disbelief and muttering about the passive stupidity of eighteenth-century women–not the response I was hoping for.  The next year, I tried again with this novel.  And then, faced with the same bitter disappointment expressed by my students, I quietly dropped Pamela, her virtue, and her pen from my syllabus.

Fast forward a decade.  I am on sabbatical, and while I’m away, our department has hired a young, incredibly bright McMaster PhD to teach my courses (and others!).  Over the year, she has proven herself to be a creative, innovative, and firm instructor.  She has been fabulous, and I wish we could keep her.  Last fall, this young Professor K bravely put Pamela on her syllabus– “ah, the crazy optimism of youth,” I thought to myself, and hunkered down with my own work, keeping one slitted eye on her progress with the novel.  .  .  .  .  .  Her students liked it!  .  .  .  .  .  . Granted, they didn’t LOVE it, and they also astutely read Pamela’s virtue as a sham-like mask; but, they were not at ALL exasperated by the “writing to the moment” that often precludes self-preserving action.  It was almost a non-issue.

While I recognize that Professor K just may be a much finer teacher of Pamela than I am (she does LIKE the novel, after all), it also occurs to me that significant changes have occurred in student culture in the last 10 years–changes that suggest Pamela‘s time might finally have come.  Prof. K’s readers of Pamela are part of a culture that, itself, “writes to the moment.”  These are the students who are attached to their smartphones and addicted to “texting.”  In class and during visits to my office, these students reluctantly disengage from their phones, a supreme act of will and self-control for those who are used to constantly documenting and sharing the ephemera of their lives.

For several years, I’ve been intrigued by but dismissive of text culture.  However, this winter I finally got my own smartphone, and I am beginning to understand my students.  As I become used to wandering the stores and taking pictures of odd things (Justin Beiber’s face on Christmas ornaments!) to send quickly and immediately to my sister, with “really?” as the only comment; and as I take pleasure in her texting documentation of the step by step process of shopping for the perfect sheets for my niece, I get a glimpse of my students’ need to text during my class–to send off a quick note to friends, sharing the brilliant witticism eloquently articulated by their professor (at least, this is what I choose to imagine they’re doing, rather than documenting yet another of my malapropisms or odd observations).  I even understand the need to text to someone who is also IN the class–adding a kind of marginalia to my spoken text that may or may not augment the original, but is nonetheless attached to it.  My irritation with those who run into me on the sidewalk and my derision at those who wander blindly into traffic is muted by my own experience of texting while walking the dog (complete with photo taken and texted–yes, again to my sister–of mandatory “dog-at-fire-hydrant” picture to PROVE to her that I really was texting while walking……. ). Thus, I imagine that for Professor K’s students, with their practised and prolific texting, Pamela’s constant documentation–sometimes at the expense of action–was not at all strange.

I’ve been thinking about texting and Pamela as I’ve been reading the Montagu-Bath correspondence.  Reading an epistolary relationship can be a frustrating experience, a bit like watching a mini-series and missing great gaps from each episode.  Letters are a substitute for physical proximity, and they function a bit like a body stand-in.  The physical presence of the letter marks the physical absence of the letter writer.  Thus, for example, while Montagu and Elizabeth Carter maintain a lively and prolific correspondence when Montagu is at Sandleford or London and Carter is at her home in Deal, when they are both in London together (often for months at a time), there is a gaping hole in the letters that can only be filled with the imagination.  Sometimes letters to other folk contain information about Carter and the activities she and Montagu share while in the same city, but these sporadic mentions are teasers that whet the appetite rather than satiate the hunger for uninterrupted plot.

There were many occasions during their four-year relationship when Montagu and Bath inhabited the same physical space–at Tunbridge Wells or Bath; when he visited Montagu and her husband at Sandleford; when, in the summer of 1763, they were part of a party that toured the continent.  During these times, there are holes in the correspondence, and a great silence replaces the busy chatter; during these times, to turn the page from one letter to the next is to jump months in a second.  The winter of 1762 is different, though.  In the winter of 1762, during much of the London Season, Bath and Montagu were both in London, and they saw each other almost every day (It seems that Mr. Montagu was in Newcastle for much of this time).  However, the usual epistolary emptiness that results from proximity is filled, here, by a flurry of paper.  The Montagu-Bath correspondence includes a whole series of “notes” that were exchanged between Bath and Montagu during their shared time in the city.  These are scrappy little notes, written by one and sent by servant to the other, who sometimes quickly replied and sent a new note back with the same servant.  They include invitations to “take the air” together in the morning, or to take dinner together in the evening.  They include questions about whether one or the other will be at Mrs. Somebody’s card party that evening, or will be attending church in the morning.  They include quick comments on current events, books, mutual friends (and not-so-much-friends); and they include queries about and advice concerning the health or illness of one or the other.  They are often repetitive, with a variant of one note appearing again–often several times.

Unlike the full letters– which are usually scrupulously dated–these scraps are almost impossible to organize and order.  They are dated “Saturday,” or “Twelve O’clock,” or “Monday evening.” And sometimes, they bear no identifier at all.  The Huntington library has filed them in two groups–one for each writer, and has noted on each letter that its date is “c1762.”  While this lack of fixed order is frustrating for the scholar in me, it is rich and exciting fodder for the imagination.  It seems clear that while on some days, they wrote one scrap to each other, on others they wrote several; and I try to imagine the order of those scraps: does the scrap containing Bath’s gratitude for Montagu’s presents and medicine follow later on the same day that he’s complained of illness in the morning?  Does his worry about her coughing so much in church and being so pale at dinner follow the scrap where he expresses his hope of seeing her at church “this morning”?  Or are they two completely different church experiences?

Reading these scraps is a lot like rereading my own texts or instant messages, where the order can get confused and the short-hand can create a mystery concerning the original subject.  A commitment to letter-writing (especially letters written with the frequency of Montagu’s) suggests a desire not just for communication and contact, but also for a life witnessed by others, even when that life is rather solitary.  But these scraps, whizzing around London from one house to the other, punctuating instead of replacing face-to-face time, suggest a desire for that kind of immediate witness to experience that we express in our texting and tweeting today.  And, like phone texts, these scrappy notes seem, to me, somehow more intimate than the longer letters.  Perhaps this is because I imagine that the more formal letters were often subject (as were so many “private” letters throughout the century) to a more public reading. And these scraps don’t seem to lend themselves to that kind of process. Or perhaps this is because of my own experience with various kinds of electronic correspondence: where things like “Twitter” are brief and very public notes, and emails are longer and can be both more intimate and more formal, it seems that texts are both brief and more intimate.  I text those I know well (and those proficient at reading “auto-correct”); and I would feel it an odd invasion of my phone were I to receive a text from someone I didn’t consider a good friend.  Similarly, while formal invitations and notes regularly moved through the eighteenth-century city, these hurried, undated, and immediate notes seem, like the texts of today, an expression of a need for constant contact, constant witnessing, constant connection.

In moments of whimsy, I imagine a time-warp that drops Montagu and Bath in 2012; and while much would be unfamiliar and overwhelming to them,  I imagine their sheer delight in discovering the smart-phone.  I imagine the constant pings and pops and vibrations as their texts zip back and forth through the ether, without the need for servant carrier; and I imagine their immediate comfort with this oddly familiar experience that bridges the gap of 250 years in a second.

5 comments on “Texting: 1760s style

  1. Sonja Boon says:

    just happened upon this ‘post’ by Robert Darnton:
    http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/mar/18/blogging-now-and-then/

  2. [...] the author of this post on student response to  Pamela suggests that students now might be more comfortable with a central character who documents [...]

  3. zugenia says:

    I like Sonja’s suggestions; I think there are many possibilities to use current forms of social media to consider and teach the way different kinds of writing were woven into 18th-century social life. I made an off-hand remark a couple of years ago in an undergrad lecture on Pope about how anyone who uses Twitter should appreciate the economy of the heroic couplet, and at the students’ request, started tweeting a daily Pope couplet for the duration of the semester.

    (Also love the shout-out to our very own Professor K—she is awesome, isn’t she?)

    • jlmag says:

      Hi Zugenia—thanks so very much for taking the time not only to read my words, but also to comment–I really appreciate this. And I lOVE your Pope Tweets–I might have to steal this idea–but I’m not sure I could keep it up EVERY day–WOW–you deserve a medal. A.K is unbelievable spectacular. I was into campus today, and was greeted by my lovely colleagues who lamented the fact that she can’t stay…….the students ADORE her. We’ve been so very fortunate:)

  4. Sonja Boon says:

    loved it, and I think you’re spot on… I wonder if there might be a way to create a ‘texting’ version of sham/pamela somehow? you know, like the farcical but very funny facebook jane austen:http://www.much-ado.net/austenbook/. Wouldn’t that be a fabulous student project? I once had my students ‘reframe’ the Marquise de Sevigne’s letters to her daughter in contempary language, using contemporary situations but evoking similar moods, responsibilities and obligations. We did it in blog format, but it could be done on facebook, or even as a bigger assignment, I think.

    Do you do these letters with your students? Because I think you could have some amazing discussions.

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