WRITING THE SELF: ‘The Letterbooks of John Evelyn’ (eds. Douglas D. C. Chambers and David Galbraith) and the Art of Communication

Douglas D. C. Chambers and David Galbraith eds., The Letterbooks of John Evelyn, 2 volumes (University of Toronto Press, 2014)

By Patrick J. Murray

The writer John Evelyn had a high opinion of letter writing and letter reading. In a missive to Charles Spencer dated 15th January 1692, he writes:

There was nothing I thinke more conducible to the Improvement of our Young Gent, be his aime whatsoever in the state publique or private Capacity, than an easy and natural style in writing Letters, nor any exercise by which he may better discover his abillities, or improve those who reade them: What should we have don without Ciceros, and the younger Plinies? To name no more, because they are incomparably the best, and of the Later Centuries, Erasmus, to this time: I am bold to affirme, that there is more good Learning to be gotten from Epistles than from all the rest of their Workes, more of the Soule, and most intimate thoughts, and deepest knowledge of the writers: St Cyprian, St Augustine, St Hierome, etc. of the Fathers, Calvine, Melanchton, Vives, Politianus, Grotius, Salmasius, our own countryman Ascham, etc. let not therefore the Aretines, Bentivoglios, Balzacs, Voitures, and the rest Transalpines and exotics, forever cary it away from England, where were the language Cultivated with that sort of Exercise and Conversation, I should not question, its being equal to any of the most celebrated abroad: […]

Before getting to the substance of this passage, there are a number of interesting things worth commenting on. At the stylistic level, Evelyn’s writing is littered with peculiar tics, including inconsistent spelling and arbitrary capitalisation. The sentence structure meanders haphazardly from the simple to the complex. He doesn’t use a period to conclude a sentence; while his frequent recourse to “etc.” to complete lists shows a propensity for contraction which wouldn’t look out of place in today’s 140-character world of Twitter.

Significantly, the idiosyncrasies of Evelyn’s writing are salutary for the way we view perceived errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar in our own time. Whenever great edicts are passed upon the perceived grammatical failures and mangled literacy of the current generation, suspicion should be our first reaction. Or at the very least scepticism, for as Evelyn demonstrates the potential vibrancy and invention of language in public and private forums is ill-served by circumscriptions on what is right and wrong. To attribute Evelyn’s erratic writing method to laziness, carelessness or even ignorance is to miss the point. Instead, what a close reading of Evelyn’s letters shows is that in personal communication, standardisation or adherence to external conventions are not especially requisite.

            Over and above such stylistic matters, Evelyn’s reflection on the positive effects of letters foregrounds how the epistolary medium may serve as an educational device, both for those who read them and also those who write them. Most conspicuous is the statement that reading “Epistles” inculcates some theretofore unknown knowledge or capabilities:

There was nothing I thinke more conducible to the Improvement of our Young Gent […] than an easy and natural style in writing Letters, nor any exercise by which he may better discover his abillities, or improve those who reade them.

In reading letters, so Evelyn’s analysis goes, we are able to see through the public identity of the letter writer to uncover something “real” or genuine about the author. At the heart of this notion is the idea that letters are in themselves insights unparalleled in other forms of writing by the same author. Reeling off a roll call of some of the most influential theological and pedagogical thinkers in the history of Western thought, Evelyn suggests that we might gain an insight into their inner workings through their letters, see “more of the Soule, and most intimate thoughts, and deepest knowledge” than we would otherwise be able to access. Such is the potential of letter-reading it can even surpass reading the rest of the author’s work altogether, imparting “more of the Soule, and most intimate thoughts, and deepest knowledge of the writers.”

            Underpinning the idea that perceptible in a writer’s epistolary oeuvre is an expression of their “true” self is the understanding that letters are unrestrained expostulations, inner narratives unencumbered by societal strictures – an inked-up id, if you will. Yet, this is a very paradigm which Evelyn himself abrogates. His notion that we can get to the “authentic” author through their letters is wrought with irony, especially when we consider Evelyn’s own literary output. For in his work, an extempore voice is hard to find. As a writer, he was adept at self-editing. Alongside his associate Samuel Pepys, he is primarily known for his diaries which chronicle London life through the English Revolution, the Cromwellian Protectorate and into the Restoration. However, Evelyn’s diaries are not simply accounts of perhaps the most tumultuous century in England’s history. They are also artefacts of a life recorded and redrafted. His diary, replete with meticulous self-edits and rewritings, evidences a mind constantly revising a literary image. Anachronism, achronological entry and conspicuous usage of secondary texts show that his famous journal covering sixty-six years of his life was the subject of continuous review and emendation.

This predilection for redrafting appears disconcerting to anyone who imagines diaries to be a direct, documentarian recording of a life lived. Yet, as Evelyn himself understood, to write down is to inscribe, and to indulge in personal forms of writing such as the diary involves setting down one’s experiences and also one’s physical, intellectual and emotional reaction to them. And such an axiom is as true of the Evelyn letter as the Evelyn diary, contrary to his own expressed opinion that letters are uncensored articulations of the “Soule”. According to Douglas D. C. Chambers and David Galbraith, the editors of this new publication of The Letterbooks of John Evelyn:

Unlike many earlier examples of the genre, Evelyn’s letterbooks were not intended simply as a documentary record or register of his correspondences. They were instead, in the words of James Daybell who describes the seventeenth-century evolution of the letterbook, “intimately connected with the construction of the self’ and akin to a form of ‘life-writing’.”

Among the many signs of Evelyn’s redrafting that are set out in the illuminating introduction is a telling addendum to one of codices which attests most forcefully to the author’s “construction of the self.” It reads: “This Booke Containes the Copies onely of severall Letters the most part of which are of no Importance, & therefore may be disposed of as Wast-paper. There are yet some of them which may be preserved but they are very few. Vanity of Vanitys, all is Vanity.” Here, Evelyn affects a degree of modesty, leaving it up to the reader to decide which letters are worth preserving. Yet, the very fact that Evelyn collected his correspondence in the first place is evidence of his own editorial influence. His editorialising was carried out with great care and attention. As the editors observe, the letterbooks are marked by a

sustained effort of copying, and of arranging, indexing, and annotating […] in a manner which alludes to printed collections of correspondences and implies that he conceived this as a form of scribal publication, albeit for an audience restricted to his family.

This selective process produces a wide range of types of letters, exhibiting the variety of purposes to which Evelyn employed his pen. In doing so, the letterbooks evidence how communication, even when tied to an ostensibly singular medium, affords the opportunity to present a diversified image of the self. Subtle alterations in his letter-writing style testify to a chameleon-like ability to project an image of himself that alters to suit the reader. Variation in language is perhaps the most obvious indication of the way he adapts his letters for a particular chosen audience: included in these two volumes are missives written in Latin, Italian, French, German, Spanish and English, alongside a liberal sprinkling of Greek for good measure. In the opening to a letter to Pepys dated 2nd September 1694, Evelyn condenses no less than three distinct languages (Latin, Greek and English) into his opening gambit: “Ecce iterum provocas me Beneficiis neque habeo ullum άντωρου (‘Look, you are challenging me again with favours, and I do not have any gift in return’) which plunges me into more and more debt.” In such polyglossia, we can discern Evelyn the linguistic swaggerer, parading his erudition before a close and similarly-learned friend.

Alongside this multilingualism is a variance in orthography. According to an earlier editor E. S. de Beer, Evelyn used several hands, changing for the writing occasion.[1] The handwriting used in his diaries, notebooks and marginalia vary, while that used for his letters changes depending on what language he is using. This diversity is emblematic of the multiplicity of Evelyn’s writing personas, with language and handwriting being tailored to suit the occasion.

Letterbooks John EvelynBeyond the self-editorialising of handwriting and language, the letterbooks are arranged in such a way to show how Evelyn fashioned communication for a diversity of uses. Accompanying the multitude of types of communiques, we have an attendant variety of Evelyns. For example, reprinted here are a considerable number of letters of recommendation which exhibit a judicious and well-connected Evelyn using his status to advance the prospects of a number of acquaintances, including the naval administrator Frank Hosier, the astronomer and poet Walter Pope, and the architect Christopher Wren. Elsewhere, expressed condolences are compiled alongside announcements of births, marriages and deaths, showing a compassionate side to Evelyn’s personality. Perhaps most interesting of all is what Chambers and Galbraith term “programmatic documents” – letters ostensibly intended for the prominent politicians or addressed to “Incognitu” which set forth Evelyn’s thoughts on the major political, social and cultural issues of the day. Addressing, for example, debates surrounding “the Court, Poperie, and Plots, Designes of introducing Arbitrarie Government etc.”, this latter typology is perhaps the most striking example of how Evelyn employs the discrete model of the letter, but modulates it for propagandistic purposes. Where letters of sympathy are imbued with a highly personal tone, these texts are in effect political manifestos intended for a wide audience.

As such, the letterbooks reproduced here exist within two ostensibly separate though in reality overlapping and interlinked dynamics. Primarily, they are personal missives between Evelyn and his many correspondents. However, in their collation and preservation by the author, they are also a record of Evelyn the letter writer, a literary self, fashioned for a wider audience beyond the enclosed one of the epistle, its writer and reader. They detail a range of epistolary engagements, friendships and professional associations. Many different sides of Evelyn’s character are articulated. In his letters to his most frequent correspondents, the diarist Samuel Pepys and the Countess of Sutherland Anne Spencer, we witness a considerate and occasionally conspiratorial friend (a letter dated November 2nd, 1688 discusses with Pepys plans for the advancement of the cleric and Royal Society member Thomas Gale during the period of Prince William’s coup d’état. In letters to his sons and daughters, we see a father by turns advisory and admonitory, passing on his faith in new forms of learning pioneered by the Royal Society as well as marriage counsel and also reflecting upon his children’s ill-health, death and funerals (only one of Evelyn’s eight children survived him).

Thus, Evelyn the letter writer was a many splendored thing, an author who utilised the potentialities of communication to convey the various sides to his character. Overall, reading Evelyn’s letters, there are striking similarities across the centuries in the way we interact, even in the face of an exponential increase in the means of communication. While for a 17thC correspondent, the multimedia technologies of the internet age were beyond reach, there is in Evelyn’s epistolary output a palpable sense of multiplicity that pre-echoes the diverse ways we interact online. In 2015, we are witness to a profusion of communicative means. Electronic mail is the most obvious innovation of the digital age, enabling immediate contact to all four corners of the globe (Wi-Fi permitting). And there are many other platforms for interaction across cyberspace – from social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and message boards, to more oblique forms of exchange such as newspaper comment sections, image sharing applications (Snapchat and Instagram), and audio-visual platforms (Vine). However, while the cornucopia of communication methods is as varied as it is consuming, the ways in which we use communication not only to engage with others but also to project an image of ourselves remain a prominent part of social interaction. In its exhibition of “the construction of the self”, Evelyn’s letters remind us how even in personal correspondence, we are constantly engaged in the process of manufacturing an image of ourselves to be consumed by a chosen reader.

One effect of the variety of communication methods available to us in the present century is that, much like the variety in Evelyn’s letters, it emphasises how the very act of communication is also a means of presenting ourselves. Comparing and contrasting popular social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for example, T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase “prepare a face to meet the faces you meet” springs to mind. Both are online platforms, much like an Evelyn letter to the Lord Chamberlain and an Evelyn letter to his wife are both letters. Yet, they can and are employed for different ends, and in doing so exhibit different facets of the same personality. Facebook in particular is generally used to engage and chat with friends and family in a relaxed atmosphere. LinkedIn, by comparison, has a more formal purpose, specifically the presentation of an identity to attract potential employers. This has an obvious effect on how we engage with such forums. The Facebook me – convivial, flippant, even a little gossipy – consciously differs from the LinkedIn me – proficient, rigorous and professional. For these platforms, we shape and edit an image of ourselves to accord with the “face” we are trying to project to a chosen audience.

Elements outside of the meat of the communication also assist in this regard, underlining how we don’t just interact when we engage, but we also project. While Evelyn’s letterbooks employed a particular language, style or orthography depending on the circumstance, online interactions come with profile pictures, likes and signatures, enabling us to display our own chosen image of ourselves in the digital world. Such autonomy of the self is perhaps unprecedented. Indeed, it is arguable such autonomy of the self is unprecedented. Where before engagement or interaction via technological means required at the very least one apparent interlocutor – a daguerreotypist for example – we are now able to upload a self-taken photograph online and get tweeting in a matter of seconds. Before, as it were, the mercury vapour would previously have even been poured.

Attending the diversity of platforms of communication now available to us are a whole range of conventions and proprieties to which we may choose to conform or which we transgress. Moreover, they afford a multitude of ways to express, engage and debate. Consequently, in the interstices between our communications, our varying faces are prepared, both consciously and unconsciously, by design and by habit. Evelyn’s work testifies how such shifts in conversational environments and the ways in which they entail a degree of self-fashioning are not exclusive to our own age. They are rather a key component of the very act of communication, as Eliot’s dictum notes.

According to Evelyn’s associate and fellow Royal Society member Thomas Sprat: “In Letters the Souls of Men should appear undressed.”[2] Yet, what this reproduction and rendition of Evelyn’s letters show is that letters are adorned, and carry with them an image of the self, constructed by the author. What is perhaps most striking of all is the way in which Evelyn seeks to camouflage his evident self-fashioning instinct. Tellingly, in his annotation cited above, Evelyn effaces his own agency as an editor: the letters “may be disposed of as Wast-paper” or “may be preserved.” This affectation enables the author to distance himself from a fundamental underpinning of the letterbooks – the fact they are chosen and compiled by Evelyn himself. Evelyn the letter writer is separated from the editor, on the surface at least. Again we might consider such an approach analogous to the way we use social media. Consider Twitter: tweeters are able to broadcast their thoughts and delete them as well. In addition, should we stumble across some moment of lucidity, we can pin our musing to the top of our profile page. By such means – deletion and emphasis – we are able to fashion our Twitter persona in much the same way Evelyn could include certain letters despite, at the same time, proclaiming them fit for nothing save the rubbish heap. Or, to paraphrase Sprat, dress his soul for the occasion.

As the editors of this fine edition observe, John Evelyn’s epistles exhibit, among many other impulses, his “desire to fashion himself as an agent of social and cultural mediation.” More profoundly, they show that between the seventeenth century and our own, very little has changed in the practice of communication – in interacting, and recording, collecting, and editing those interactions, we engage in a process of fashioning an image of ourselves for a selected audience just as Evelyn did centuries before.


  1. S. de Beer, “The Correspondence between John Evelyn and Lord Clifford.” Notes and Queries 174 (1938): 130-131.
  2. Thomas Sprat quoted in Tom Keymer, “‘Letters about nothing’: Johnson and epistolary writing”, The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson Greg Clingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 226.

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

We aim to be an accessible, non-partisan community platform for writers from Glasgow and elsewhere. We are interested in many different kinds of writing, though we tend to lean towards more marginal, peripheral or neglected writers and their work. 

Though, our main focus is to fill the gap for careful, considered critical writing, we also publish original creative work, mostly short fiction, poetry and hybrid/visual forms. 

Find us on: