A final Adieu

Ilse Daalhof wrote the following blogpost, on the correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, which she has been studying:

In the week we were looking at opening and closing statements of letters, I stumbled onto what appeared to me a unique closing statement in the papers of Joseph Banks. Sir Joseph Banks is one of the people who had many correspondents and whose letters and papers have mostly been preserved. The papers of Sir Joseph Banks contain the correspondence received by Joseph Banks through many years full of influential connections on all aspects of Australian proceedings. Among them are a few letters from Charles Clerke (1741-1779), Captain James Cook’s companion on his last voyage.

Charles Clerke (source: Wikipedia)

As I was scanning for opening and closing formulas, I noticed an unusual closing formula in the last letter sent by Charles Clerke:

These are most sincerely the warmest & sincerest wishes of your devoted affectionate & departing servant.

There are a few things about this closing formula that are unusual. First of all, there is no repetition of the address. During the Late Modern English Period closing formulas usaually consisted of three standard elements, and we might there fore have expected to find the following:

  1. The repetition of the address
    I am, Dear Sir,
  2. The compliments or services
    Your most obedient and humble servant
  3. The signature
    ChaS Clerke

Usually, the longer the formula, the more polite it was, but even in the longest formulas, these three elements could be distinguished. Though this closing formula contains the “compliments” or “services” that were common in these formulas and the signature, there is no repetition of the address, My ever honoured friend, which is itself also quite unconventional. Instead of ending his letter with the common I am formula, Charles Clerke put emphasis on the wishes he had for the receiver.

This uncommon closing formula might be explained by the departing aspect that is in it. But why ‘departing’? Knowing Charles Clerke was a naval officer, I thought he might be going on a new voyage. However, reading the rest of the letter, it becomes clear what this is all about: this is the last letter of a dying man:

Now my dear & honoured friend I must bid you a final adieu; may you enjoy many happy years in this world, & in the end attain that fame your indefatigable industry so richly deserves.

As Banks’s friend and companion, Charles Clerke had been corresponding with him for some time. During his last voyage with Cook, suffered from a severe disease.  As the Dictionary of Canadian Biography writes: “a spell in the Fleet prison in London as the guarantor of another’s debts had left him with tuberculosis”. Charles Clerke himself knew this very well:

The disorder I was attacked with in the King’s bench prison have proved consumptive, with which I have battled with various success, […] It has now so far got the better of me, that I am not able to turn myself in my bed, so that my stay in this world must be of very short duration.

From this letter we can conclude that Charles Clerke was a dear friend of Joseph Banks, bidding him a last farewell, but more importantly that in the last days of the writer, the rules of letter writing formulas were no longer essential to a letter.

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