Sealed without a loving kiss

Just a little note to say “I hate you”

Poisoned pens pierce the veil of sociable living

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“As our mind is strengthened by communication with vigorous and orderly minds, so it is impossible to say how much it loses and degenerates by our continual association and frequentation with mean and sickly minds.” So wrote the inventor of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, in the 1580s. “Mean and sickly minds” are the subject of Emily Cockayne’s wonderful book on the history of anonymous letters between the 1760s and the 1930s.

She has chosen the subject of those who flee from the “art of discussion” and the joys of repartee that Montaigne’s essay describes, when they instead seek refuge in anonymous communications. One of the great strengths of her book is not to dismiss the writers of these letters as weirdos existing on the fringes of society. She instead demonstrates that they are integrated into the fabric of social life, however uncomfortable that recognition might be, and shows what we can learn from these misanthropic missives.

Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters, Emily Cockayne (Oxford University Press, £20)

Anyone who reads Cockayne’s book will instantly be reminded of the moment they received an anonymous note and how they felt. It is, therefore, a profoundly popular history book. This should not obscure the fact that Cockayne has undertaken a challenging and important historical task: she uncovers a side of society we don’t normally encounter in works of history. In playing sleuth she exposes some of the mysteries, and unpleasantness, that underpinned ordinary life in the past.

With their poisoned pens, Cockayne’s authors pierce the veil of sociable living and interfere with that created sense of self within a society. We discover a rotten underworld populated by gossips, informers, thugs, fraudsters and creeps, all harbouring grievances. Anonymous letters emerge, in her treatment, as a form of protest or vigilante justice, for those who desperately wanted to take some sort of action in spheres where the arm of the law did not reach.

Cockayne imposes admirable order on her quirky source material: “gossip”, “tip-offs”, “threats”, “obscenity”, “libels”, “detection”, “media” and “local reaction” are her chapter headings. The range she covers is varied. Some of it is domestic, such as the note from one neighbour to another in Littlehampton in 1921: “You are bloody dirty or you would clean the yard sometimes you rotten buggers.”

Some of it is deeply political, such as the death threats Cockayne cites as responses to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, or those received by the landowner Lord Dorington and his son in the 1860s: “Sirs, Your lives are in danger … you are robing [sic] the working class of the Parish and their offsprings forever in fact you are not Gentlemen but robbers and vagabonds … if I have one chance of you I will shoot you as dead as mortal.” Signed with utmost politeness, the author couldn’t resist a quick, threatening P.S.: “I shall be happy to visit upon you soon.”

Other letters were written in an entirely different vein, such as those made up of graphic descriptions of sex acts written by older men and sent to very young girls. Cockayne also uncovers letter-writing campaigns to intimidate and harass individuals in local communities, like the letters sent to a woman in Bath in the 1930s: “When are your teeth going to be pulled? Your mouth must stink like your gossip,” reads one note.

In many of the instances recounted by Cockayne, the recipient of an anonymous letter-writing campaign is driven to suicide attempts, such as the young woman living in Robin Hood’s Bay in the 1930s, falsely accused of killing her baby.

The chapter on libels is especially intriguing. Kathleen O’Brien, a governess in a colonel’s house in Hove in the 1910s, was a compulsive writer of anonymous letters. She addressed them to those around her, but targeted herself in them, calling “Kathleen” a prostitute and accusing her of drunkenness and thievery.

The author threatened to set fire to the house by crawling underneath it

She successfully brought down her employer, who was briefly jailed for libel as the author of these notes. O’Brien went on to continue the same practice in the various mental hospitals where she spent much of the rest of her days, writing anonymously to those around her about her own “vileness”. “She has been an outcast for many years past & brings only trouble to whoever has dealings with her,” she wrote to one doctor, of herself.

Around the same time in Redhill, an educated, middle-class woman named Eliza Woodman received a parcel containing a dead, skinned kitten on her doorstep. This was only the start of an aggressive campaign against her; subsequently she received death threats: “In the brook you go, so you shall and soon, but the quickest and best way out of your misery will be to give you a gentle knock on the head. I will swing for you.”

The author threatened to set fire to the house by crawling underneath it, a threat they kept repeating: “I am going to burn you all out … I shall kill you burn you out. I shall come and settle you, you shall surely suffer death.”

The fascinating point about these letters (and, presumably, the skinned kitten) is that Woodman had sent them to herself, but ruthlessly accused her innocent neighbour of authoring them — even testifying against her in court. The neighbour was jailed in 1910. It was only in 1915 that the authorities caught up with Woodman, and she was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour.

Cockayne’s book works at the boundaries of the public and the private. Its selection of letters gives insights into private lives often obscured from the historical record. Her particular focus on women writers is subtle, and she is delightfully scathing about the sexism that has pervaded the treatment of this subject in the past, where hormonal explanations were used to explain why women wrote anonymous letters.

Male authors were provided with excuses: they had the flu, or they were under the influence of morphine or hypnosis. Anonymous female writers, in contrast, were dismissed as sexual perverts. Cockayne enjoyably speculates as to whether there would be a correlation: if these women had had more sex, would there be fewer anonymous letters? “Women were thought to be weak, or evil-minded, but were probably actually bored,” she writes, in a refreshingly sceptical take on the instinct to psychoanalyse these figures from the past.

Cockayne has done something laudable here. She has written a fun book based on serious research, and she has done so on what is referred to as a “teaching-only contract”. This is what British universities are now increasingly offering their academics when they really want to overburden their employees. Writing a book without research leave, or funding, on a full teaching load, is hard. I salute Cockayne and her dedication to academics working in similar conditions. If the subject of her book is poison, then Cockayne’s treatment of it is the antidote.

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