Using letters in writing a family history

Family Chronicle magazine has an excellent article on writing family history--getting from a list of names to the stories. The following section of the article deals with private letters:

Private correspondence

A few old letters are often to be found treasured by some member of the family, constituting all that can be described as family papers. Recently several family history journals have been publishing correspondence from early emigrants to their relations at home, containing fascinating details of the primitive conditions with which they were having to cope. Unfortunately, letters of a more routine nature tend to follow the easy path down to the waste-paper basket. Sometimes, however, an ancestor may have had occasion to correspond with some person who was, or later became, of sufficient distinction to have his papers preserved; and so family letters and autographs may now be hobnobbing with those of the great in some record repository. Among the vast number of Additional MS in the British Library MSS Library, at the British Museum, I found several letters written by Valentine Fitzhugh at Constantinople to James Porter, formerly British Ambassador there and later knighted. These supplied not only valuable additions to my knowledge of Valentine’s career, but also gave me an insight into his character. In one of them he wrote:

Dear Sir, ...The 20th past (October 1762), two-thirds of Pera (the Christian residential suburb of Constantinople) was unfortunately burnt down, my house and furniture amongst the rest. My clerk had only time to save the counting house. I shall be a loser by this accident at least D.5000,- -. For my part I always endeavour to avoid misfortunes, but when they happen they affect me very little, `The Almighty giveth, he taketh away, Blessed be his name for ever’. It began at St. Antonio’s (convent) and burnt to the butchery, in all about 60 houses, and very little furniture saved.... This affair has so much disgusted both Mrs. Fitzhugh and myself that we have taken the resolution to leave this country, for we see nothing but misery and destruction before us, for which purpose we have fixed upon Neufchatel, where there is good society, great liberty, and very cheap living, three points very essential. England would be very disagreeable to Mrs. Fitzhugh as she does not talk the language. Besides, my fortune is not sufficient to live as I should choose. There I can live very genteelly, and I hope very happily.

The somewhat priggish claim that his mind was impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune followed only a few lines later by its complete contradiction is rather endearing. The full correspondence showed me that, but for a change of destination on Valentine’s part, I might well now be a Swiss national.

I have recently been told of the existence of some more letters from a member of my family to a historical celebrity, in this case from my great-great-aunt Emily to Lady Byron, the poet’s wife. When, on hearing this, I said that I must arrange to see them, my informant said, “Oh, there is nothing in them of any interest whatever.” Never pay the slightest attention to such a comment. No one but you, the family historian, can tell what evidence you will find useful. It may well be that most important items in those letters are Emily’s address and the dates, revealing where she was at certain times. In this particular case, I do expect to get more than that, because at present I know of no reason at all why Emily should be writing to Lady Byron; so, even if her letters are deadly dull, they are bound to reveal a subject of correspondence hitherto unsuspected; and what may be merely implied in them may lead me on to some activity of Emily’s that I should know about.

Information about collections of correspondence in private hands can be obtained, in many reference libraries, from the volumes of Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, and also by consulting the National Register of Archives, but for collections cataloged by the latter you will need to have some previous idea as to what you are looking for. The Commission and National Register are both at Quality House, Quality Court, Chancery Lane, London WC2.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/25 at 09:31 AM






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