On reading other people’s letters

“I am so very sorry that I should have been obliged to let so long a time elapse without my being able to reply to your most kind letter…”

Isn’t that much more wonderful than “Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back to you…”?

I spent some time this week in the reading room at the Virginia Historical Society, sifting through the papers of Julia Gardiner Tyler, the tenth First Lady of the United States. I had no intention of conducting rigorous research, but rather hoped to hear Julia Tyler’s voice emerge from these letters, some 150 years old.

As an inexperienced researcher, I didn’t realize that most of the material would consist of letters to Julia instead of letters in her own hand. I also expected all of her correspondents to write in impeccable copperplate script; instead, I was baffled by their faded, sometimes hastily scrawled handwriting. Especially when they ran out of space and began cross-writing, as you see above.

I did, in the end, get a few glimpses of what Julia might have been like in life. Critical, for one thing. One letter from her 15-year-old granddaughter Julia Spencer, dated April 23, 1886, begins “My darling Marmee, I have received the dress and also letter, I think the dress lovely.” Someone — Julia Tyler, I think it’s safe to assume — has penciled in corrections to the spelling: carryed to carried, sollard to solid.

She was a tough, but loving mother. To her son John Alexander Tyler, she wrote: “Although you have shown such a want of honor respect and love for your mother… I cannot lay aside my duty to you…. so that your offenses in Richmond need not be talked of in the manner it would if it was known you had left me without my consent. … I hope you will have more regard for your Brother’s feelings than you have had for mine, and keep out of the company of the bad boys who drink play cards and have other bad vices.”

In another letter to John Alexander her tone is tender and anxious.

“I assure you no one will think of scolding you. We all know your motive was such a good one that we only praise your spirit and manliness so don’t let that fear make you hesitate to return. We all long to see you, and hear an account of your adventures. …. come quickly my dear dear son – JGT”

Both letters are undated, so I can only guess at the circumstances. Her son ran away to join the Confederate Army at 14 (and was rejected) — was that when she wrote her entreaty to come home? A seeker of adventure, he later served in the Confederate Navy and fought in the Franco-Prussian War. He died in New Mexico in 1883.

Heartbreak, anger, longing — so much is contained in these few scraps of paper, and so much more remains unsaid. I know Julia Tyler a little better now. Enough, anyway, to imagine her.