In this essay Alison Wiggins charts the extraordinary path Bess cut through Elizabethan society. Through the letters, Bess is repositioned as a complex woman of her times, immersed in the literary and textual practices of everyday life as she wove a web of correspondence that stretches from servants, friends and family, to Queens and officers of state. When we read Bess's letters we not only to discover her life, but experience how letters shaped the early modern world.
What did it mean to be handed a letter tied up with plum-coloured silk ribbon, or sealed with black wax? If a letter was written on a very large piece of paper, or was folded up very small, was your correspondent trying to tell you something? Daniel Starza Smith reads beyond the words and examines the meanings encoded in the physical forms of letters: the paper, folds, wax seals, ribbons, bearers, ink and dirty marks. He considers what these features communicated to early modern readers and shows why we should always be alert to the look and feel of a letter, as it can contain the most important message.
How do we read a letter that has no punctuation marks? How can we tell who is being sincere when so many early modern letters sound so fawning? How do we know if a servant has phrased a letter appropriately to a countess? How do we decipher early modern spelling? Graham Williams invites us to consider more closely the words on the page. He includes tips for first time readers of early modern English and selects choice examples, from across Bess's letters, of strategic politeness, overweening flattery, outrageous insults, outlandish spellings and insights into the roles of secretaries.
Why are Bess's letters today distributed around the world at so many different locations? How many letters have been lost during the passage of time? What are the challenges presented in the process of taking the letters from script to screen? Alison Wiggins reflects on these and other key questions and reviews the decisions made during the development of this web-edition.
The remarkable range and diversity of Bess's correspondence showcases a wide variety of types of Renaissance handwriting. Alison Wiggins and Graham Williams select a spectrum of letters with handwriting at increasing levels of difficulty (from 'easy to read' to 'extremely difficult, illegible in places'). They point out features of interest and suggest how to use the tutorial to create your own transcripts.
Anke Timmermann guides the listener through Bess's life and times in a series of dramatic collaborative readings from the correspondence and a tour around Hardwick Hall, which includes interviews with National Trust staff. The podcasts were part of the exhibition Unsealed: The Letters of Bess of Hardwick at National Trust property Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire, April 2011 - October 2012, and on loan to The National Archives, Kew, London, November 2012 - February 2013.