The Missive in History and Historical Fiction by Bianca M. Schwarz | Guest Post
Introduction by MJ:
After reading A Thing of Beauty by Bianca, I thought to myself how many letters Sir Henry had written and thought that was one of the best touches of the book. I thought who better to ask than Bianca herself to write a little bit about their usage in the novel and in historical fiction in general. Read her post below to learn more about letters in history. Enjoy this awesome guest post from a knowledgeable writer.
As far back as the ancient Egyptians, the missive, and its grown up brother, the letter, have been the primary form of non verbal communication to those lucky enough to be able to read and write. Even the uneducated sent missives with the help of the town scribe, a man revered for his knowledge and integrity. The missive could be used to invite ones mother in law for dinner, conduct ones business, and to maintain a scientific and/or philosophical discourse between intellectuals. Written messages relayed military orders, and even the communication of state secrets was done through letters. Friendships, even love affairs, were built and maintained via written correspondence, and some famous letters have even been compiled into books. The very fabric of society relied on the missive.
The 18th and 19th Century are considered the heyday of the letter. Not only had literacy increased dramatically with the wide availability of books and newspapers following the invention of the printing press, but by then there were established mail carriers on roads and shipping lanes, ensuring prompt and safe delivery. In short, the missive, or letter, was the established form of communication between two parties separated by physical distance before the invention of the telegraph.
It follows, that letters and missives feature prominently in historical fiction. My character, Henry, uses letters to communicate with the stewards of his four estates, and his daughter who lives with his cousins family. He is also no stranger to the importance of secrecy, as it pertains to government communications. He was instrumental in creating a safe letter delivery system from London to high command on the Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. Correspondence is of great importance to him, since it is the only way for him to stay in control of his affairs. He spends a considerable amount of time on tending his personal and professional relationships via the letters he writes, and the brief notes he pens, communicate his needs and wants to his associates.
The writing and receiving of letters was also governed by rules of curtsy. If you received a letter from someone socially placed above yourself, it was considered extremely rude not to acknowledge the receipt of the missive by penning an answer. In my story, The Pearl, in the anthology Déjà You, when Aunt Milly doesn’t receive an answer to the letters she wrote to her young estranged relative, she grows suspicious and sends her nephew to investigate. In my upcoming novel, She Walks In Beauty, a part of the mystery is unraveled thanks to the unlikely tone of a missive and the post mark on it.
As a writer, I often use surviving letters written during the time my stories are set as inspiration and source material. These missives are now historical documents, providing a rare glimpse into how people actually spoke and lived at the time. But perhaps the most valuable thing you can glimpse from these letters, are the attitudes of the authors. The conflict in most of my stories arises from the gap between my characters needs and wants, and the societal restrictions placed upon them.
Today we have the telephone, text messages, and emails. But in essence it is all communication; the only real difference between a letter and an email is the speed and manner of its delivery.