Careful Hands, Epistolary Spaces: Review of The Opened Letter

Lindsay O’Neill, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

15272-1Social networks are having a moment in history. They are another approach to understanding how people came together either via proximity, social status, values, or goals, with the analytical focus on what serves as the bond in the relationship(s).[1] Social theorists have ascribed a 4-part process which entails a) similar people coming together, b) influence within these groups making its members more alike, c) people winding up in the same place, and d) shared space making people more alike.[2] In short, networks are primarily about building consensus. For historians, networks are “messy,” “fragile,” “fluid,” and disregard geographic boundaries.[3]

Lindsay O’Neill opens her study of social networks by noting that there is no record of any early modern figure using the word “network” to “describe groups of interconnected people.” Networks were made by individuals, but “they did not participate in them.[4] The writing and in many cases, careful preservation of letters marked the development of friendships and alliances. These early modern friendships, O’Neill argues, were comparable to “modern definitions of networks.”[5] The focus was not on the individuals themselves, but rather on the links between them.[6] These forged friendships—or networks—could be social, economic, or religious in nature. Networks could also be decentralized, fragile, and changeable. Networks could be social, evolve around kinships, intellectual connections, and business.[8] Individual networks often “feed off of” larger networks, but were created separately.[9]

O’Neill’s focus is on the smaller, personal networks, with interconnections carefully documented in letters either handled by the post office or “careful hands,” a friend or acquaintance. Weaving her analysis around individuals like John Davys, the Countess of Huntingdon, and William Byrd II, O’Neill describes the decisions that went into delivery. Post was frequently used by English writers, who were aware that their letters were susceptible to those who worked the post. In some cases, the writers took pains to write in code, replacing names or places with pre-determined terms or numbers. Letters were also filled with comments of those frustrated by an unreliable Post Office.[10] These letters transmitted news and gossip, connecting writers from their (frequently cosmopolitan) centers out to the peripheries of their worlds.[11]

By the eighteenth-century, of the writer noting where they were writing from provided a means to document the writer’s epistolary world. Writers were more mobile, and the letters connected writers and recipients to broader worlds. In tracing the origins of a writer’s letters on a map, O’Neill argues, it is possible to determine the boundaries of a writer’s epistolary world.[12] Highly motivated and mobile letter writers like Virginia’s William Byrd I took advantage of expanding opportunities to nurture the networks they created in these epistolary worlds, often writing multiple letters in a day in the hopes of catching the captain of a departing transatlantic ship.[13] Both the stability and the mobility of writers defined their networks. O’Neill notes that being “a stable epistolary link on the periphery could give one power in a network, even if mobile correspondents maintained more connections.”[14]

O’Neill’s meticulous study of hundreds of letters also includes renderings (using NetDraw Software) of the personal epistolary networks of John Percival, William Byrd I, William Byrd II, and Nicolas Blundwell, showing how letters can demonstrate the density of their connections between friends, relatives, social, religious, and business connections. She breaks down primary versus more marginal connections, in the case of John Percival, removing him from his own network to demonstrate the interconnectedness of his correspondents. Unsurprisingly, connections among kin tended to be the most dense, and friends and business correspondents within the writer’s network were frequently also connected with each other.

O’Neill’s primary concern is the texture of these network connections, but her book is an important contribution to the difficult task of tracing the production and distribution of knowledge. Among the book’s primary contributions are her demonstration of how letters changed hands and why that was important, and the idea of building and sustaining epistolary networks. Another important contribution the book makes is noting the fragility and change of these networks.  As noted above, networks have traditionally been seen as building consensus, which does occasionally happen. Nonetheless, it has made using network theory problematic for historians of religion, science, or other broad, transnational entities. The participants in those networks may share some common bonds, but do not necessarily develop a true consensus. O’Neill’s emphasis on smaller groups as existing alongside larger networks, the idea of mobility, and that networks can have different densities suggests ways historians might account for the consensus problem.


[1] Charles Kadushian, Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 13-4.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Lindsay O’Neill, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 5; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007; Michel Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St. Brieue Bay,” in Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge, ed., John Law (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 196-233.

[4] O’Neill, The Opened Letter, 3-6, 22-4.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 3-4.

[7] Ibid., 5-6.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 22-4.

[10] Ibid., 48-9.

[11] Ibid., 47-77.

[12] Ibid., 78.

[13] Ibid., 58.

[14] Ibid., 80-1, 84-6, 101-2.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Lindsay O’Neill, The Opened Letter « The Junto

  2. Pingback: Review of Informed Power, by Alejandra Dubcovsky « The Junto


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