Alison Searle's primary research interests are Renaissance drama and nonconformist and dissenting cultures in the 17th century. Her first book - 'The Eyes of Your Heart': Literary and Theological Trajectories of Imagining Biblically - developed a biblical theory of the imagination. She is currently working as an AHRC-funded research associate on the Oxford University Press's edition of the Complete Works of James Shirley; on an edition of James Shirley's play The Sisters (1642); and, with Johanna Harris, on a complete edition of the correspondence of Richard Baxter. In this post Alison discusses Baxter's correspondence.
Alison Searle on the correspondence of Richard Baxter
Letters in many ways seem obsolete as a functional form of communication in an era of e-mail and text-messaging; as a fictional device or a premise for pedagogical interaction they still flourish. This can be seen in the recent publication by Gabrielle Donnelly of The Little Women Letters, which takes as its point of departure the discovery of the letters of Josephine March in the attic of an Islington home by her great-great-granddaughter Lulu Atwater. A cosy read - it explores the gap between the New England of Louisa May Alcott's imagination and the fictional present of four young women in North London - Jo's epistolary voice acts as a comforting and challenging influence upon her descendant. The letters themselves are given a talismanic material presence - hidden in a dusty attic, forgotten amongst the relics of family memorabilia - and are read secretly and slowly by Lulu, who keeps her discovery to herself until the end of the novel. More self-consciously literary-critical in scope and ambition is Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen. Mimicking Austen's own letters to her niece, Weldon exploits the genre of the letter at multiple levels, creating an epistolary fiction that is a cross between a novel, literary criticism, pedagogical tract and historical or cultural reconstruction.
This self-awareness as to the literary artifice and potential of the letter as a medium of communication has not simply emerged at a point in time when we send and receive less 'snail-mail' than earlier generations of communicants. John Donne, in a frequently quoted verse epistle to the diplomat Sir Henry Wotton, notes:
Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,
For thus, friends absent speak. This ease controls
The tediousness of my life; but for these
I could ideate nothing which could please.
Over the past five years I have spent much time reading in and around the correspondence of a 17th-century contemporary of John Donne, the Puritan pastor and writer Richard Baxter (1615-1691). By any measure one of the most prolific and influential authors in early modern England, approximately 1300 of the letters Baxter wrote and received from the period 1638 to 1691 have survived; most are held in the archive at Dr Williams's Library in Gordon Square, London. Reading Baxter's correspondence challenges the elegant conversational model of epistolary exchange that Donne sets up. The tediousness of life is far from his experience; he is always commenting on his lack of time. Donne's verb 'ideate' - 'to form the idea of; to frame, devise or construct in idea or imagination; to imagine, conceive', with the aim of pleasing the recipient of his letter - can be instructively compared with the theory of epistolary exchange that develops in Baxter's correspondence with a missionary and minister working in North America, John Eliot. 'I did not give you my bold animadversions on your proposalls as necessary to our Concord, as if we could not live in brotherly communion on your termes: But only as a ventilation or enquiry after truth for our mutuall Edification'.
This concept of 'ventilation' is one that recurred frequently during the period from c. 1645 to 1660 and demonstrates that Baxter understood even seemingly personal exchanges with friends or colleagues as possessing a public dimension with a spiritual goal. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ventilation as: 'Free or open discussion of or debate upon a doctrine, question, or subject of public interest; the action or fact of bringing to public notice in this way'. Another possible shade of meaning is 'a stir or motion of the air; a current of air; a breeze', as used by Sir Thomas Browne in Religio Medici c. 1643: 'Whosoever feels not the warme gale and gentle ventilation of this Spirit [of God] (though I feele his pulse) I dare not say he lives.' The goal of the exchange is not to please the other person, but to publicly ascertain the truth of things and to edify - spiritually encourage or build up - one's correspondent. The network resulting from this kind of correspondence is different from both the exchanges of 'men of letters' such as Donne and Wotton and the 'republic of letters' - often premised on a tacit denial of creedal variations - practised by 'men of science' such as the network of the Royal Society centred upon Henry Oldenburg.
Baxter's letters overlap with both these types of networks in important ways. He counted amongst his correspondents the scientist Robert Boyle and the philosopher Henry More, for example; he treasured, like many devout believers in his era, the poetry of George Herbert; and he discussed his prolific publications - especially The Saints' Everlasting Rest and Aphorisms of Justification - with individuals from all levels of society including the imprisoned Earl of Lauderdale and the troubled Derbyshire gentlewoman Katherine Gell. But the concept of 'mutuall Edification' which Baxter sought in his epistolary communications with John Eliot had a radical, spiritual dimension that was (at least in potential) far more egalitarian and diverse than Donne's desire to 'mingle souls' with a select coterie of friends, or with the ambition to exchange information and the results of experimentation in order to further knowledge that informed the correspondence networks of the Royal Society. Any individual believer walking in step with the 'ventilation' of the Holy Spirit was able to offer mutual edification - regardless of their social status, creedal allegiance or gender. Baxter's correspondence network demonstrates that, while in many ways he was constrained by the cultural limitations of his era, his spiritualized republic of letters could incorporate London apprentices with very basic literacy skills and a female Baptist, Barbara Lambe, whom even the radical Arminian Independent, John Goodwin, had found too disruptive. Though Baxter had never met her, when he received her initial letter asking for his advice in dealing with her husband's melancholy, he responded:
There is a Connaturality of Spirit in the Saints that will work by Sympathy, and by closing uniting Inclinations, through greater Differences and Impediments than the external Act of Baptism: As a Load-stone will exercise its attractive Force through a Stone Wall. I have an inward Sense in my Soul, that told me so feelingly in the reading of your Lines, that your Husband and you, and I are one in our dear Lord, that if all the self-conceited Dividers in the World should contradict it on the account of Baptism, I could not believe them.
This epistolary breadth of vision and sympathy is as refreshing as Baxter's observation in his autobiography, Reliquiae Baxterianae, that she was 'an extraordinary, intelligent Woman'. It is interesting to consider whether electronic media can foster a similar kind of epistolary network - personal, but with a public dimension - that nurtures the integration of the intellectual, spiritual and emotional in the same way, and to what extent such networks are dependent on the maintenance of tight-knit communities characterized by a commitment to 'ventilation' and 'Connaturality of Spirit' with the aim of 'mutuall Edification'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]