Eventually I accumulated, from various sources, over 2000 of my grandmother’s letters. The first thing I did, necessary in this age of electronic publication, was to digitise them by transcribing each one, retaining as much as possible the unique characteristics of each one. I ended up with 11 large binders containing the transcribed letters.
This is when the scale of the task I had set myself really hit me.
I had to find a way of retaining the unique visual characteristics of each letter: these often conveyed as much, if not more, of her meaning than did the words. This included preserving her spidery handwritten insertions and idiosyncratic spellings, vocabulary and punctuation, and doing this required a number of sometimes difficult decisions.
Evelyn’s letters fall roughly into two groups. The first were written in the 1920s and 30s when she was travelling around the Mediterranean and Europe and life was relatively stable. These letters, almost always typed, were lengthy and their appearance unremarkable.
The second group were written from the early 1940s onwards. The most striking and revealing feature of these letters, and the hardest to preserve when transcribing, is their appearance. Much of the collection is carbon copies, with the imperfections inherent in that, often typed on a machine badly in need of a service: these letters are characterised by missing or raised characters and a left-hand margin that can only be described as “wonky”. Perhaps to save paper, Evelyn typed right up to the right-hand margin, with words sometimes missing a final letter or two. When a page was completely filled, she often turned the sheet 90 degrees and typed (or hand wrote) the length of the left hand margin. In addition, many letters, both carbons and originals, have insertions and annotations in her characteristically spiky handwriting, often using a blotchy fountain pen. The overall effect is of a frenetic emotion-laden energy, which often conveys as much or more meaning as the words themselves.
Because it is the appearance of Evelyn’s letters that is so revealing I established some conventions are an attempt to preserve as much of this as possible:
Where her text is typed, I have typed it. Her handwritten insertions and annotations are transcribed as close to the passage they refer to as possible, and are shown in a different font which is intended to represent the spikiness of her writing. Emphasis in CAPITALS is preserved, but her underlining in typed passages is shown in italics, and preserved in handwritten passages as underlining.
A distinctive feature of Evelyn’s letters is her handwritten additions to the typed letters and these fall into two categories. Insertions were made at the time of writing and generally comprise material she missed out of the main text. Annotations are quite different. In 1951 and 1952, a particularly florid period, Evelyn went through carbons of letters she had sent and the originals of letters she had received, annotating them to reflect her view of their authors and their contents. These insertions are inserted in a distinctive font as close as possible to the point of insertion in the original letter.
Each of Evelyn’s letters contains a large number of “mistakes”. Many of these are clearly typing errors, some due to problems with her typewriter (as during the period when the “u” key was not working): where this appears to be the case I have corrected these errors.
However, there are a number of words which she consistently misspelled: e.g. cemetary (cemetery), quantitive (quantitative), publically (publicly), occulist (oculist), etc. These misspellings are an integral part of her style, and when a word is consistently spelled wrong I have preserved that spelling. Consistent misspellings also involve the names of many of those closest to her. Further afield, she repeatedly misspells Chihuahua, where her marriage to Cyril was dissolved, as “Chichuaua”. All these misspellings are preserved as she wrote them.
Although Evelyn was born and educated in the United States, she spent many years in England and was later married to an Englishman. Inevitably, her spelling is a mixture of British and American usage, sometimes in the same sentence: I have preserved this.
In her later letters, Evelyn’s punctuation was often anything but conventional. Exclamation marks appeared frequently, and could be seen as an index of her mental state, with serial exclamation marks a feature of her more frantic letters. Capitalisation was generous, if not always according to convention. And, everywhere, in profusion, commas. All of these are preserved as she wrote them.
But the biggest decision of all was how to extract her personal story from the wealth of information she shared with her friends. I had to narrow down the contents of 11 thick lever arch files to a manageable size. This meant sometimes being ruthless, weeding out the inconsequential while preserving the essential elements of both her narrative and her style. Some would call this “editing”. I am not sure what I would call it.
. . . . . .
It is time now to start reading her early letters.