1. Introduction

The interpersonal interactions of individuals within the various discourse communities of which they are a part can tell us much about the construction and performance of social roles and identities in a particular culture during a specific time period. Yet mapping the associative links made by any one person over a lifetime is a difficult task. If you were to list all the people that you know now, and then were to add all the people that you have interacted with since childhood, your list, no doubt, would run to hundreds of names even if you could not recall all your past associations. Now imagine a sociologist, or a historian, or perhaps even a literary scholar, at some point in the next century, trying to map out your interconnections with the academic community, however such a community were to be defined, as well as with all the other social groups you may belong to, for the purpose of studying the social construction of a university professor in late twentieth-century society. Daunting as the task would be, it would be virtually impossible without letters, that paper trail of texts performing and documenting association and interpersonal discourse over a distance. I have, therefore, turned to the correspondences of Victorian women writers to examine the social construction of the entity named "woman writer" and more specifically, to inquire whether what we now call "networking" played a role in the formation and performance of their identities as writers and in their professionalization. Their correspondences are being supplemented by other cultural artifacts such as diaries, autobiographies, and biographies in my attempt to reveal the parameters of individual discourse communities as well as the intersections and overlappings of individual social networks with each other and with diverse other communities.

Reading the correspondences in this way is an immense undertaking, and one that would be perhaps unthinkable without computer technology. Since the correspondences of any one writer over a lifetime document hundreds of associative links comprising perhaps thousands of interpersonal transactions, and because each letter in itself may record many other interpersonal transactions performed or desired, the mapping of these associative links requires a reliable method of storing and retrieving data generated from the letter texts for first constructing individual social network profiles and then later for comparing them. Database programs have the capacity to store, order, reconfigure, and retrieve vast amounts of data. Hypertext theory and technology suggest new approaches to reading as well as representing epistolary texts. Together these technologies can assist in representing the social associations and affiliations of epistolary discourse. The hypertextual "Anna Jameson and her Friends Database," designed to reflect my approach to epistolary communication as well as to generate data for the mapping of Jameson's social network profile, is both what I hope will be a useful resource in itself and the first stage of my inquiry into the networking of early to mid-nineteenth-century women writers.

2. Anna Brownell Jameson

Along with some other women writers who achieved fame in the late 1820s through the 1830s, women like Harriet Martineau, Mary Howitt, and Mary Russell Mitford, Anna Jameson was one of the first women to make a reputation not as a novelist or poet, but as a multi-faceted professional writer who used a variety of genres and venues for her work. For this reason alone she makes a good starting point for my inquiry.

Anna Jameson, the eldest child of an Irish miniature painter, was born in Dublin in 1794, moved to the north of England as a young child and spent a few years there before settling, more or less for life, in London. She achieved public recognition (and notoriety) in 1825 with the publication of A Lady's Journal (better known by its later title, The Diary of an Ennuyée), a purportedly autobiographical although anonymous account of a love-lorn maiden who dies after wandering around Italy. It was, however, a purely fictitious work, although one based on Jameson's experiences as a governess travelling in Italy with her young charge, and, I suppose, a troubled rather than broken heart as she had recently broken off her engagement to Robert Jameson whom she later was to marry. When the author was discovered to be alive, well, and heart-whole, some of her readers felt hard done by. Jameson became famous, rather than infamous, as an art historian first of the private and public collections in England, then as the author of a series of commentaries on art which accompanied most Victorian travellers to Italy. She has a certain Canadian claim to fame for her Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, an account of her eight-month stay in Upper Canada in the mid-1830s, when she came to try to patch up her marriage with her husband Robert who had become a magistrate in Toronto. She was the first white woman to make the arduous trip around Lake Huron, the "rambles" of her book's title. Later, Jameson was one of the circle around Elizabeth Jesser Reid, the founder of Bedford College (1849), the first college for women run by women, and towards the end of her life she was instrumental in the founding and development of the Englishwoman's Journal (1858), widely acknowledged as the first feminist periodical in Britain. She died in 1860. Jameson's complete correspondence has never been published although excerpts and entire letters appear in the three biographies[1] about her, some letters can be found in other published correspondences, and her letters to Ottilie von Goethe edited by G.H. Needler were published in 1939.

An inveterate traveller, Jameson was an intermittent member of social groups on three continents. These were the intellectual and abolitionist community in New England, whom she met on her trip to North America; the expatriate artistic and intellectual community in Italy centring particularly around Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning; an aristocratic/intellectual community in Germany as centred around Ottilie von Goethe, Goethe's widowed daughter-in-law; a group in Paris mainly around Mary Clarke Mohl's salon, as well as the various overlapping political, artistic, literary, and intellectual circles in England. People, printed texts, and letters circulated between and amongst these intellectual communities continuously; it is this discourse web which I am trying to recover and map.

3. The Epistolary Text as Artifact and as Nodal Lexia

Figure A.17.1Letters are usually regarded as paper artifacts, that is, as textual records documenting the life of the writer, and as such, are valued by biographers, social historians, as well as literary critics if the letter writer is an "author." That is, symbolic capital accrues to letters based mainly on the symbolic capital of the writer or to the value bestowed on them as primary texts documenting social life at a particular historical moment. The publishing history of epistolary texts reflects these values. Once biography and epistolary texts parted company, letters have usually been published using one of three models: as the record of the friendship of the writer with one person, usually also "famous" (Figure 1); as the complete record (the "complete correspondence") of the friendships of the writer with many people, not necessarily famous (Figure 2); and as an overview (the "selected correspondence") of the writer's friendships with selected individuals (Figure 3). Figures 1-3 depict simplified network profiles which place the "famous" (letter) writer at the centre communicating with one or more people of varying degrees of relatedness (by blood, marriage, or intimacy) in a one-way transaction. I have used the word "friendship" deliberately because letters with strictly pragmatic aims, especially if they were brief ("notes"), are often omitted in published editions. Footnotes and other textual apparatuses are used for meta-textual purposes.

Figure A.17.2

More recently, the dialogic or collaborative nature of epistolary discourse has been acknowledged, and complete transactions – both "sides" of the correspondence – are being published, either on the one-to-one (Figure 4) or one-to-many models (Figure 5) although the primary focus still remains the writer with the most symbolic capital. Little or no attention is paid to the interactions of the other correspondents and samples of their transactions are supplied through the meta-text only if deemed "relevant." Given that Victorian letter writers with their improved postal and transportation systems were prolific correspondents, publishing the complete correspondences of any one writer is a monumental undertaking. Yet despite the decades required to produce such an edition,[2] it can still only inadequately capture the "rhizomatic"[3] aspect of epistolary discourse which is always an encountering of multiple discourses as humans and texts traverse the fluid structures of various social communities. I am speaking here only of the web of human interaction, and not of the epistolary text as being situated in relation to other textual fields, a relevant issue but one beyond the scope of this paper.

Hypertext, both theory and praxis, offers a way to read and publish epistolary texts, one reflective of poststructuralist ideas about discourse, texts, and culture and far more representative of the nature of epistolary discourse than conventional print publication can aspire to. As George Landow points out, "Electronic linking, which provides one of the defining features of hypertext, also embodies Julia Kristeva's notion of intertextuality, Mikhail Bakhtin's emphasis on multivocality, Michel Foucault's conception of networks of power, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's ideas of rhizomatic, 'nomad thought'"[4], all theories which have relevant and important applications to epistolary discourse. Landow also suggests that "as soon as one either abandons the notion of a single unique text" – here we could also substitute "unique correspondence" for "unique text" – "or else creates a web composed of smaller individual webs, such as one would do when creating a complete works of a single author, one discovers that amassing a set of local axial structures leads to a network structure. The important capacity of hypertext to permit the reuse of information inevitably creates such networked structures" (23). When an individual letter through hypertext becomes a lexia or block of text linked in a docuverse of correspondences, then the interpersonal and intertextual links of social networks can be discerned and retraced according to the reader's particular purposes. The emphasis shifts from the writer as "author" of the document to the letter text as " a dynamic network of discursive relations of which any material record can represent only a subset" (Moulthrop 1994: 303). This shift in emphasis better reflects my understanding of letters as communicative acts through which associative links are formed, consolidated, or dissolved, and where identity is constructed through performance and representation.

Figure A.17.3

A simple communicative model of Anna Jameson's interpersonal transactions (as recorded by her letters received and sent) might be represented in the following fashion (Figure 6)[5]. Jameson is placed at the centre of her social circle. Persons A, B, C, D, and E are placed in concentric circles according to their relatedness. Each line between Jameson and a person on the outlying circles (i.e. ABJ and B), or between people on these circles (i.e. B and D), represents interpersonal communication made up of epistolary and/or face-to-face transactions; each black block represents multiple links to other interpersonal webs in which Jameson is not involved. Conventional print publication at best would represent only the textual links to Jameson; the associative links among B, C, D, and E, let alone black block connections would be lost. But since electronic publication is unbound and hypertext offers various ways of configuring the relationship of texts one to another, associative linkages can be followed synchronically and diachronically although the network itself cannot be modelled diagramatically.

Tracing the associative links in this way can lead to some surprising discoveries. Let us suppose that Persons B and C in Figure 6 are also women writers; they are linked not only to each other but also to Person D who may or may not be a writer. Person D has the most links to others in Jameson's network; therefore, that person will have the most significance in terms of the network formation. Without mapping linkages in this way, Person D might very well be overlooked especially if he/she were not also a writer. Re-centring on Person D might reveal not only D's relations with other writers, but also Persons B and/or C's associations with other writers as well. A writers' network, then, would be made up of not only writers but also some individuals who, for whatever reason, are important nodes in the discourse community formation. It is also entirely possible that the discourses of Persons D, B or C with others might reveal more of Jameson's associative links, links not possible to recover from Jameson's correspondences now extant, since over a lifetime (and subsequently) many letters are destroyed or disappear from circulation. Modeled in this way, the recovery and mapping of the discourse network looks fairly straightforward apart from the sheer number of texts and associative links involved, but certain features of epistolary discourse also add complexity .

4. Social Conventions and Epistolary Discourse Features in a Letter Text

My analysis[6] of hundreds of epistolary texts from the nineteenth century as well as from other historical periods has led me to the rather surprising conclusion that the epistolary text functions more like a listserv and less like a private whisper in the ear than either we like to imagine or as it has often been described. The aim of continuing epistolary discourse is usually to lessen the interpersonal distance between writer and addressee by increasing intimacy. I am using "intimacy" here to signify knowledge of one another but not necessarily familiarity with one another. One of the ways of increasing intimacy, perhaps paradoxically, is to increase one's connections with the object's social circle. This paradoxical aspect of the move towards intimacy can be described as a letter's centripetal and centrifugal forces; these forces are manifest in Victorian epistolary texts in various ways.

Intimacy in a letter is regulated most obviously by two recurring features of the epistolary genre, the salutation and subscription. The greater the intimacy, confirmed or desired, the more affectionate the formulae and names used in these two parts of the letter. Their arrangement on the page is also significant. Social conventions, which are both period and culture specific, govern which forms are used to whom, and how names are to be used. In Victorian epistolary communication, people are not referred to by name unless the letter's recipient also "knows" the person either because the person has a public identity or because the recipient has met the person named. The representation of the writer's social circle, therefore, is dependent on the recipient's embeddedness in it, and is, at best, always incomplete. It might also be noted that the Victorian taboos surrounding names result in many dilemmas for archivists and editors; for instance, there is an abundance of letters using the salutation "dear friend" or "dear cousin," a rhetorical strategy with centripetal force designed to circumvent the conventions governing the use of given names. Naming strategies such as these are rather unhelpful designators for a later reader in the absence of the envelope! Salutations and subscriptions are centripetal in nature, although they can also be manipulated centrifugally to increase distance rather than lessen it. In cases where distance is to be emphasized, they are omitted altogether.

Because letters are poised between a past transaction, face-to-face or epistolary, and a desired future one, the body frequently refers in the opening to the previous meeting or letter. Or the opening might refer to an enclosed letter, written to the writer but sent for the addressee's perusal usually because the person is known to both the writer and the addressee, or sometimes because the writer of the enclosed letter has a public presence, that is, because he or she is "famous" and is therefore "known". In a letter written to maintain friendship/intimacy, the writer will frequently circulate news of people familiar in the social circles of the writer and reader. Centripetal and centrifugal forces are both at play. Just before the close of a letter, in the farewell section, a writer will often send greetings to the reader's family members (but in Victorian Britain only if the writer has met them), and/or to other intimate members of the social circle around the writer and the reader. While the effect of these greetings might appear to be centrifugal, the aim is centripetal because letters are used to maintain and consolidate interpersonal relations and social circle identity. Letter texts can, therefore, contain upwards of a dozen or so names each and they may document the circulation of letters no longer, or not known to be, extant.

Examples from Jameson's correspondence illustrate the complexities. Maria Jane Jewsbury writes to Jameson in 1830: "I heard from my friend Mrs. S.C. Hall, that you had done me the honour to mention me with such kindness." The three women (all published writers) are linked together; Jewsbury uses the connection centripetally to increase her intimacy with Jameson. In 1837, Jameson writes to Lady Byron from North America: "Your kind little note & Miss Murray's letter enclosed reached me." Once again, interpersonal as well as social circle consolidation is taking place, and two texts for which there may be no material evidence can be documented. In the same letter she continues: "I have just ... had the pleasure of seeing much of Dr. Channing," a "famous" person; then she asks, "Have you seen a great deal of Harriet Martineau?", more network consolidation, and goes on to say: "amongst the most valuable friends I have made in this new world is Miss [Catharine] Sedgwick," yet another published writer who will become, at least for a while, a member of the network. Thus, in 1839, Joanna Baillie (writer) begins her letter to Jameson by saying "I have heard of you by Lady Byron"; she continues, "I have seen your friend Miss Sedgwick oftener than once"; and she closes "pray remember me to Miss [Eliza] Murphy", a request with centripetal force as Eliza is Jameson's sister. These three letters contain more associations than I have quoted here. Tracking these people and their interconnections as documented in and by their correspondences, even when one individual is chosen as the focus, is virtually impossible without the electronic assistance of a relational database.

5. The Jameson Database

Figure A.17.4The design of the database reflects my conception of the epistolary text as both a material artifact and a communicative act, a single text representing one transaction in a collaboratively authored correspondence representative of multiple transactions, the whole of which is only a subset of the transactions ongoing simultaneously in multiple discourse communities. The database is made up of six tables whose relationship can be visualized through an "Entity-Relationship Diagram" (Figure 7). An author produces separate paper artifacts (letters); each letter is recorded in the LETTERS table. Each letter as an artifact is tagged with a reference number, the electronic ADDRESS of the letter as text. The address table contains bibliographical information. Letter texts are designated for and exchanged between individual recipients; letters constituting an exchange or transaction between two people are a correspondence; an author has multiple correspondences over the course of a lifetime; these correspondences are recorded in CORRESPONDENCES. As we have seen, letters refer to other people; thus, all the people mentioned in each letter are recorded in PEOPLE. Correspondents are described with BIOGRAPHIES, but since they move from place to place, I have separated out their ADDRESSES. LETTERS and PEOPLE, the two most important tables for my purposes, are linked through the reference number, an easy way to move between them. In the interests of efficiency and consistency, other relational links among the tables allow data to be entered into more than one file at a time.

The two main tables offer particular views of the letter texts. The LETTERS file records, whenever possible, the name of the writer, the name of the addressee, the correspondence name, the place and date of writing, the time span of the correspondence, and the reference number. All references to other letters in the letters, such as the enclosed letter from Miss Murray previously mentioned in the examples, are recorded as separate letters; the reference code simply refers back to the letter where it was mentioned. These I refer to as "shadow" correspondences, ones which may "come to light" one day. The letters table, therefore, offers a much fuller view of an individual's epistolary output than is usually available. The Jameson database records, at the time of writing, some 560 letters, approximately one quarter of which are shadow texts.

The PEOPLE table records the names of the writer of the letter, the addressee, the correspondence, and the date, and all the names of the people mentioned in the letter IF they are referred to in the context of personal interaction whether face-to-face or written. Charles Dickens, for instance, is not recorded if he is mentioned as the writer of a book; he is recorded if he is mentioned as interacting socially, an often difficult distinction to make. Excerpts from the letter documenting the names are also included as is the reference code. My conservative estimate is that there are over 1000 names in this file. Because this is the table I use to supply data for the network profile, a date recording the transfer of the information to the diagram, which my assistants and I now draw manually on paper, is also recorded. Helpful as the database is in recording and tracking data, it cannot represent the associative links graphically. Since a visual representation of these patterns is a necessity, I am now investigating how technology can assist with this phase of the work.

6. Subsequent Development

Since this paper was first presented, the "Anna Jameson and her Friends" Database has been expanded to include the correspondence of Harriet Martineau; hence it has been renamed the "Anna Jameson, Harriet Martineau and their Friends Database". Two additional tables, LETTERSHM and PEOPLEHM have been added for individual social profile graphing purposes, but the other tables are shared, an obvious saving of the duplication of records. As the result of collaboration with the Simon Fraser University Library, the database is now available through a web site maintained there at <URL: http://edocs.lib.sfu.ca/projects/VWWLP>. A simple search procedure retrieves information from the PEOPLE tables; hypertext is used to link information from the other tables, graphics, and other relevant sites. The database is continually developing and has become the centrepiece of a site named the Victorian Women Writers' Letters Project. Future plans include the addition of data from other women writers' correspondences, the representation of the individual social network profiles graphically, and eventually the electronic publication of the complete letter texts.


[1]  See MacPherson 1878, Erskine 1915, and Thomas 1967.

[2]  The Brownings' Correspondence (Kelly and Hudson 1984-) would be an example: thirteen volumes of a projected forty have appeared in as many years.

[3]  A term used by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and explained by Stuart Moulthrop as "the concept of a social order defined by active traversal or encounter rather than objectification ... a chaotically distributed network (the rhizome) rather than a regular hierarchy of trunks and branches" (Moulthrop 1994: 301).

[4]  See Landow 1994: 1.

[5]  Social network profiles are usually mapped in concentric circles, the immediate family circle being the smallest circle closest to the individual, the others reflecting the intimacy of the relation.

[6]  See Patterson 1995.


  • ERSKINE, Steuart (1915). Anna Jameson: Letters & Friendships (1812-60), London: Unwin.
  • KELLY, Philip, and Ronald HUDSON, eds. (1984-). The Brownings' Correspondence, Winfield, KS: Wedgestone P.
  • LANDOW, George P. (1994). Hyper/Text/Theory, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.
  • MACPHERSON, Gerardine (1878). Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson, London: Longmans.
  • MOULTHROP, Stuart (1994). "Rhizome and Resistance: Hypertext and the Dreams of a New Culture," 299-320 in Landow 1994.
  • PATTERSON, Katharine Bassett (1995). A Communicative Approach to the Epistolary Form in Letters of Victorian Women Writers, unpublished doctoral dissertation, U of Toronto.
  • THOMAS, Clara (1967). Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson, Toronto: U of Toronto P.