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Key Ideas & Theories

Some of the most important ideas the Schreiner Letters Project has developed for thinking about Olive Schreiner's letters - and also in theorising letters more generally - are briefly outlined here, while more detail will be found in the publications produced from the project, which will be found using the Project Publications link on this page.

The epistolarium: The core concept for the Project’s work is the concept of ‘the epistolarium’ and its perspectival, dialogical, emergent, temporal and serial aspects. It is a shorthand way of referring to 'all of Olive Schreiner's letters' - that is, all she ever wrote, not just those that now survive, and trying to work out what they would look like en masse if all of them were available.

The epistolary gift and interrupted presence: Building on the idea of the epistolarium, the Project conceptualises letters, and epistolarity more generally, around ideas about ‘the gift’. Letter exchanges involve complex patterns of reciprocity which are part of maintaining the fabric of social life. Relatedly, it sees most epistolary exchanges as predicated on the continuation and maintenance of relationships around 'interrupted presence', rather than such exchanges occurring solely or mainly as a solution to long-term absence. That is, most letters are about facilitating and/or maintaining relationships between people in routine contact and only temporarily apart. They cover and concern the interrupted co-presence of the people concerned, rather than being means of crossing more permanent absences, as with migrant letters between people permanently or semi-permanently separated from each other.

Letterness: In common with much other academic work on letters, the Project is exploring the shifting boundaries of ‘letterness’ and the porous boundaries between ‘the letter’ and cognate forms or genres, whilst also recognising that the fundamentals of the letter form are highly resilient.

Epistolary transitional forms and counter-epistolaria: At the same time, we are also interested in the development over time in Schreiner’s letters of epistolary transition zones and transitional forms, and in addition a range of 'counter-epistolaria', ways of writing which trouble but do not break the centrality of the letter.

The purposefulness and performativeness of Schreiner’s letters: At basis referential, Schreiner’s letters are nearly always purposive and frequently highly performative in the J.L. Austin (1962) sense of ‘doing things with words’. Many of her letters actually ‘do things’ rather than just comment about them.

Editorship and the translation and transmutation of epistolary form: While the Project strives to make its transcriptions of the Schreiner letters as full and accurate and ‘to the letter’ as possible, editorship needs to be seen as a particular kind of activity involving translation and the transmutation of letters from one form to another. It produces something which are less simulacra than transmogrified forms, and it is theorising this. In addition to our own editorial practices, we have also explored how Schreiner’s letters have been edited by others and the impact of this on understandings of her life and writings as well as her letters themselves.

The inter-relationship of Schreiner’s letters with her other ‘on the page’ and ‘off the page’ activities: We are also interested in how Schreiner’s letter-writing connects with her ‘works’, the writing that formed the bedrock of her activities, and with her published writing, her political involvements and activities, and her everyday life and changing modes of living.

Schreiner epistolary and face-to-face networks and interconnecting epistolariums: Letters are an inherently social and communicative medium of exchange, and Schreiner’s very different ways of writing to particular recipients has to be taken into account. These people were also themselves engaged as letter-writers, sometimes to a large array of people, including outwith their connections with Schreiner herself. These interconnecting networks have also been explored as part of the Project.

Read on! Please go to the Project's publications page and read about these things for yourself.