Carriers of Closeness: the letters of Charlotte Brontë

…I am determined to write, for I should be sorry to appear a neglectful correspondent to one from whose communications I have derived, and still derive, so much pleasure (Smith 1995: II, 128).

Wikipedia

Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855) wrote these words to her friend and publisher William Smith Williams on 18 October 1848. Charlotte Brontë is probably best known for her novel Jane Eyre, which was published in 1847 under the pseudonym Currer Bell. However, in her relatively short life she wrote several other novels as well as many letters to her publishers and her friends, many of which remain and can be read today.

For her BA thesis Annemarie Walop, a student at the University of Leiden, decided to try to assess the closeness of the relationship between Charlotte and her correspondents by looking at the opening formulas she used and at the level of linguistic involvement in her letters (Walop 2013). Her corpus consisted of 394 letters, written by Charlotte from 1848 to 1851.

On the basis of the methodology developed by Tieken (2009), Annemarie established a hierarchy of opening formulas for Charlotte Brontë’s letters, ranging from the most formal to the most informal formulas. Annemarie found that Charlotte used as many as nine different opening formulas, ranging from the formal Madam to the informal Dear Nell. She used different formulas for the same people as well, especially with new correspondents. She would use the most formal opening formula in her first letter, and in subsequent letters a less formal one. This was the result of a visit that had occurred in between the writing of the first and the subsequent letters. Annemarie also found that Charlotte varied in her use of Dear and My dear. Apparently, she did not use the forms with and without the possessive pronoun to differentiate between lesser and stronger degrees of formality.

Charlotte Brontë used the least formal forms of address in letters to her father and her closest friends Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor, and she used the most formal forms of address to her business relations and to a lady of the nobility. The use of informal opening formulas corresponded to a higher level of closeness, whereas the use of formal ones agreed with a lesser closeness between Charlotte and her correspondents.

Annemarie also calculated Charlotte’s linguistic involvement with her correspondents in order to assess the strength of her relationship with them. She used the same linguistic features as Sairio (2005), which were the occurrence of the first person singular pronoun (ego-involvement), of the second person singular pronoun (interpersonal involvement), and of degree adverbs and evidential verbs (involvement with the subject matter). After adding up all the different frequencies, Annemarie found that Charlotte was most involved with some literary critics, and she was least involved with her father and one of her lifelong friends.

These results were unexpected, so Annemarie came up with a few possible explanations for the results. It might have been the case that Charlotte’s relationship with her father was not as close as is assumed, or that Charlotte’s nineteenth-century letters are different from the eighteenth-centuries letters that have been previously investigated by means of linguistic involvement. Or maybe Charlotte Brontë’s letters are simply the odd ones out?

(Summary of the thesis by Annemarie Walop.)

References:

Sairio, Anni (2005). “‘Sam of Streatham Park’, a Linguistic study of Dr. Johnson’s membership in the Thrale family”. European Journal of English Studies, 9.1:21-35.

Smith, Margaret (1995). The Letters of Charlotte Brontë. 3 Volumes. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid (2009). An Introduction to Late Modern English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Walop, Annemarie (2013). “Carriers of closeness in correspondence: Opening formulas and linguistic involvement in Charlotte Brontë’s letters”. BA thesis, University of Leiden

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