Private View: Victorian Letters as Source Material

By Lynda Nead
The private letters of ordinary people can give us many insights into a bygone age. Take a look at two of them here, written in Victorian times - they're a sure way to get in touch with the past.
Letter written by Amelia Roper (a postscript is highlighted) 

Letters between friends

When historians use letters to the press as source material, we are still dealing with published historical sources and with views formulated with the express purpose of reaching a wide public. But if we are trying to reconstruct the everyday lives of men and women in the past, we also need to go beyond the world of public debate and published sources and rediscover those private documents - letters or diaries - written by and for ordinary people, for no higher purpose than simply 'keeping in touch'.

The Amelia Roper letters come from a previously unpublished archive held at the Museum of London. They were written between 1840 and 1858 and offer a valuable insight into the everyday lives of two Victorian women. The pages of the letters are folded and re-folded into tiny squares and are frequently cross-written - with the neat handwriting traversing the pages first horizontally, then vertically, creating a grid of news and narration.

The letters were written by a young woman called Amelia Roper, to her close friend, Martha Busher. Roper lived in Walthamstow, a residential, suburban area to the north-east of London. Her friend lived south of London in Sevenoaks, Kent, later moving to Kenilworth in Warwickshire.

'These are texts written for the eyes of a friend ...'

There was nothing special about these women, they simply represent two ordinary existences, lived in the suburbs and cities of England in the middle of the 19th century. Some of the letters are transcribed by the Museum, others are not, and a number are barely legible. Taken together, they offer compelling snatches of the lives of ordinary men and women of their time, and present a useful, alternative perspective on social and emotional life to that offered in official sources.

The letters are a fascinating blend of formalised greetings and impatient transmission of gossip. They include apologies and upbraidings for lapses in writing, and hastily added postscripts, adding last-minute thoughts. These are texts written for the eyes of a friend and preserved for the sake of memory. Contents are determined by the priorities of one young woman's life, rather than by the formalities of official, public discourse.

Alone in the city

'Punch' cartoon, depicting a Victorian woman travelling alone on a train
'Punch' cartoon, 1894: Train travel increased women's opportunities for independence
The letters document key life events, such as Roper's engagement and first pregnancy, but they also record a multitude of incidental experiences, of journeys, meetings and conversations, which constitute the everyday in any historical period. Roper did not move widely around the city - her experience was defined by a limited number of routes, for a specific range of purposes.

In relating these journeys in her letters, however, she generates a different story of Victorian society from the one of confined womanhood that we so often hear about, and a new way of understanding women and the city in this period. In a postscript to a letter dated 4 January, 1856, Amelia revealed to her friend:

'When I had gone to the station on Tuesday, the train had gone so I walked to town. I had not gone far when a gentleman in a four-wheel chaise offered me a ride but I was like you bashful and said no. If you had been [there] I should [have] said yes.'

'It speaks of embarrassment, apprehension, and possibility.'

This apparently throwaway anecdote tells us so much. It shows a young woman who travels alone into the city and who takes decisions about her journey. It also describes an encounter with a male stranger. There is an exchange, a refusal and a momentary reflection on the alternative outcomes. It speaks of embarrassment, apprehension, and possibility.

Anyone who lives in or visits cities today is familiar with the need to negotiate social space and to read the identities of passing strangers from their dress and appearance. This was also the world of the Victorian city. Women of all kinds were part of this complex social environment, with its changing class and gender relations. The unpublished letters of Amelia Roper offer the historian unprecedented access to the everyday experience of this world.

Published on BBC History: 2004-11-05
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