F rom cuneiform to email, the history of civilisation is a jigsaw of documents. But the handwritten or even typewritten letter carries more than information. To hold a manuscript is to touch and see history, personal or national. The strokes of the pen or the keys amount to projections and confessions of personality, and so, on paper as in life, do the errors and corrections.
In History in Manuscript: Letters and Documents from a Distinguished Collection, Sotheby's presents a strong collection of historical documents that capture the hearts, minds, machinations and motivations of some of the most notorious figures in history.
For instance, Napoléon Bonaparte turned Europe upside down, but his most enduring words might be his quick note to Joséphine de Beauharnais: ‘I’m coming back in three days; don’t wash.’ A different urgency drives Winston Churchill’s habitual order in the margins of official documents: ‘Action this day.’
‘In a man’s letters you know, Madam, his soul lies naked,’ Dr. Johnson wrote to Hester Thrale in 1777. ‘His letters are only the mirror of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process.’
The doctor was being disingenuous. A letter is a performance on the page, whether courtly and flirtatious like Johnson’s repartee with his patron Mrs. Thrale, or cryptic and functional like the memos of Francis Walsingham, the snooper who created a private intelligence service for Elizabeth I. You never know who might be reading. In 1788, four years after Dr. Johnson’s death, Hester Thrale published her correspondence with him.
But even the most private letter is, like the staged confessions of a diary, written with an eye to posterity
The Epistulae of Pliny the Younger, written in the early first century CE, might be the first instance of letters written with publication in mind. But even the most private letter is, like the staged confessions of a diary, written with an eye to posterity. In the Gospels, Paul writes his Letter to the Ephesians from a prison cell in Rome; nearly two millennia later, Martin Luther King writes his Letter from Birmingham Jail in similar straits.
In a political letter, all manner of truths and lies are revealed about the natural processes of government and the private ambitions of the writer — even when, as with Montesquieu’s Persian Letters of 1721, the writer has never been to Persia and is writing what he subsequently realises is “a sort of novel” about the foibles of his own society.
Mary, Queen of Scots writes in French to her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother of France, pleading for a pardon for her uncle Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, whose family, the Guises, have fallen out with Catherine. The fluency of the French and Mary’s familiarity with Continental politics suggest Mary’s sophistication, but also her isolation as an outsider on the throne of Scotland.
South of the border, in 1594 Mary’s cousin Elizabeth I receives a personal letter from her former favourite, Richard Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The flirtatious tone that marked their early correspondence is gone — in 1578, Leicester infuriated Elizabeth by secretly marrying without her permission. Instead, Leicester enquires after the Queen’s health and asks for news from Court: the unspoken intimacy of an old friend who must speak as a servant of the throne, the paranoia and power-seeking of the courtier, now far from the nexus of power.
Two years later, in 1596, Elizabeth signs the orders for a younger favourite, Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to take the war to Spain. An English armada under Charles Howard of Effingham, the architect of the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1589, sails for Cadiz. The expedition will fail in its ultimate goal, robbing the Spanish of treasure from their South American colonies. The sacking of Cadiz and the looting of the Bishop of Lisbon’s library — its contents are given to the Bodleian at Oxford — will not arrest Essex’s decline at Court.
The ambitious Elizabethan’s book of manners was Castiliogne’s Il Cortegiano. Its English translation, The Courtier, was by Thomas Hoby. In 1566, Elizabeth knighted Hoby and sent him to Paris as her ambassador. His letter-book describes how, as he landed at Calais, a French soldier shot through the English flag in two places. He reports that he demanded and received an apology, but was not allowed to inspect Calais’ fortifications.
Elizabeth I's ambassador to France, Thomas Hoby died only three months after arriving at Paris. The brevity of his posting rendered him unable to test the observation of James I’s ambassador to Venice, Henry Wotton, that an ambassador is ‘an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’...
Hoby died only three months after arriving at Paris. The brevity of his posting rendered him unable to test the observation of James I’s ambassador to Venice, Henry Wotton, that an ambassador is ‘an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’. Political history, however, confirms that it is not always necessary for liars to travel.
In 1813, two years before Waterloo, Napoléon Bonaparte assures Jean-Jacques-Regis de Cambacérès, the arch-chancellor of the French empire, that he shares de Cambacérès’ desire for peace in Europe. Napoléon was the first modern celebrity, and his correspondence, written with an eye to gloire in the present and in posterity, describes the extraordinary arc of his career, from the young artillery officer defending his birthplace of Corsica from the army of France, the state that he will rule, to his final exile on another island, St. Helena, where the modern Caesar is reduced to playing cat-and-mouse domestic games with his jailer, the British governor.
Napoléon was a Romantic hero and villain. In the Romantic enthusiasm for individuality, the uniqueness of a manuscript became, like a lock of Byron’s hair or a memento of Bonaparte, a talisman of individual ‘genius’. A letter is a chapter in the narrative of personality — literally so, for the epistolary novel, which invented the form in the 15th century, reached a peak in the 18th Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749), Rousseau’s Julie (1761) and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses (1782).
‘The key to understanding these objects is the idea of very small, intimate objects that you can hold in your hand,’ says Dr. Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s specialist in English literary and historical manuscripts. ‘You’re touching something that was written in the hand of a great figure in history, and the objects themselves are often tied to great historical moments.’
Thomas Carlyle, who edited the letters of Oliver Cromwell and whose account of the French Revolution shaped A Tale of Two Cities, wrote that ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ Pliny the Younger would have agreed, but then, like Carlyle, he booked himself a place in the pantheon through his writing. And Carlyle’s day, the nineteenth century, was a golden age for the writing of letters and history, and the archives that preserve and feed them.
The self-consciously great men of Victorian exploration were as indefatigable on the page as they were in the flesh. Their correspondence reveals the tangle of imperial motives in Africa: the humanitarian campaign against slavery, the imperial need to control the Suez Canal, the commercial desire to make what Joseph Conrad called ‘no end of coin’, and heroic imperative to map the world and make a mark upon it.
In 1861, David Livingstone, three years into what will become a six-year odyssey, reports to Lord Palmerston on his efforts to discover the sources of the Zambezi expedition. In 1874, General Gordon, auditioning for his apotheosis in Khartoum in 1884, struggles to govern the Sudan. Its Egyptian proprietors are working against his anti-slavery edict, and the local fauna are hostile too: ‘the ants swarm… they go up the legs of your trousers and nip you in a most pugnacious way’.
‘The ants swarm… they go up the legs of your trousers and nip you in a most pugnacious way’
The explorers raised funding by public subscription and frequently wrote in the expectation that their letters would be printed in the British press, but their private correspondence exposes the human frailties. In 1860, John Hanning Speke, fresh from naming Lake Victoria and identifying it as the source of the White Nile, tells the geologist Roderick Murchison about his feud with Sir Richard Burton, the explorer and scholar whose own letters abound in criticism of the British Empire.
In 1877, General Gordon, who was also scathing in private about the empire he serves, invites Burton to criticize their fellow explorers, including the humanitarian ‘idol’ Livingstone and Henry Stanley, the American journalist who in 1871 tracked down Livingstone, then presumed dead, to a clearing near Lake Tanganyika.
Just over sixty years later, in October 1938, Sir Samuel Hoare, fresh off the plane from Munich, scribbles a secret and optimistic briefing for Lord Beaverbrook on the peace agreement that the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, has reached with Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, the French politician Léon Blum, out of office since the spring, writes his own more skeptical version for the Paris papers, and the anti-appeasement Brendan Bracken, MP composes his thoughts for Winston Churchill,
Two years later, in November 1941, Charles de Gaulle prepares a speech outlining his plans for the Free French Organisation, to be delivered to an audience of exiles at the Royal Albert Hall. In De Gaulle’s handwritten emendations to the typescript, we read history in the writing.
‘Nothing is inverted, nothing is distorted,’ Dr. Johnson wrote to Hester Thrale on the transparency of letters, ‘you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives.’