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The Colenutt Letters, by Nick Wilde

Following a letter to the Guardian about the omission of William Hale White from John Mullan’s book Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature. A London Bookseller sent David French an email about a collection of letters he had in his possession written by WHW to Mrs Colenutt. David let me know and I contacted Nick Jacobs and together we met in Cecil Court and looked through the collection. Only a selection of these letters, and then often heavily edited by his second wife Dorothy, appeared in Letters to Three Friends (1924) a further sixty exist in the collection. It was thought at first one was missing but it was simply misplaced because of a 3 looked like an 8 in the date. We made an offer which was accepted and as a result of many kind donations by members they are now in the Society’s possession. There ultimate home with be the Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service.

I have completed the transcription of these and will pass them on once final checks are made. A ‘print on demand’ publisher Victorian Secrets which has already published the Autobiography and Deliverance has offered to make then available. This seems the best arrangement because the volume is unlikely to become a bestseller.

These letters were written by William Hale White to Mrs Colenutt from January 23rd 1870 until 17th October 1910. Although that is a period of forty years the actual friendship lasted from the early 1850’s whilst Hale White was in Portsmouth where he became friends with Richard Colenutt. Mr Colenutt was a friend of his cousin William Chignell who was a preacher. Richard was twelve years his senior but Hale White saw in him a very like minded individual. Richard Colenutt had married Sarah Fabian Clay and, although some letters are written to Mr. Colenutt the majority are written to Mrs Colenutt. Hale White initially addressed her as “My dear Mrs Colenutt” but from 1883 he always addressed her as “My dear friend” and signed himself W. Hale White. This is a bit odd because he writes to the second of the Three Friends published in Letters To Three Friends as “My dear Miss Partridge” from 1893 until 1903 when it becomes “My dear Sophie” until they stop in 1912. Incidentally the letters to Philip Webb are all addressed to My Dear Webb and run from 1894 until February 1913. However he seems inordinately fond of Mrs Colenutt but seems to have both refrained from using her first name and from signing himself William.

What seems odd is that the last letters to Mrs Colenutt seem to be written by a far frailer man than the letters to the other two correspondents at the time (1910) when the letters seem to stop. Perhaps it was Mrs Colenutt’s inability to read them that ended the correspondence. Nonetheless they are fascinating in a way although different from those written to the other correspondents. They are very more domestic in character and although they do touch on many serious subjects from literature the full letters are very concerned with family matters enquiring and informing about what is going on.

For example the first letter we have which did not appear in LTF begins:

The cuffs which you have sent me are exactly the thing that I wanted; in fact they are so exactly what I wanted that I felt ashamed when I got them because I was shameless enough to beg for them when Mary was here. They are a very sweet present. Every time when the cold bites of course I must think of you. The mittens will warm me and so will the thought. Is there not something peculiarly just-the-thing- if I may make an adjective of the phrase- in your gift?

Before moving on to report the birth of the Twins:

My two babies are quite well and Mrs White seeing that a night with twins, who will not cry together but have separate performances is rather wearisome. Tell Mary that she is now godmother to the girl, that is to say as much so as she can be, seeing that the little heretic has not been baptised nor ever will be. Their names are Mary Theodora Ernest Theodore My best wish for the girl is that she may be as much like her godmother as she can be. The child has really been named after yours.

It seems strange that the girl is baptised and the boy not, WHW seems very against organised religion and later when his daughter Mary or Molly as she is called joins the church he writes:

Some two years ago Molly joined the Church. I am bound to say that the parson who had much to do with her conversion is a singularly Broard., but it was a shock at the time, and, although to me she is just what she always was, it does make a difference. I am no friend to priests of any sect and I have to be on my guard lest I should offend. It is strange to hear that a clergyman has called and “that he did not ask for you, Sir; he wanted to see Miss White”. I believe Molly is happier now that she is a member of a religious community. Very few are able to stand alone and to live without a solution of ecclesiastical problems which they are told are of eternal importance. Besides, Molly now has friends, pleasant creatures most of them, and she feels she is not isolated. So I submit and try to make the best of it. Much love from your old friend.” The Reverend John Broard is the minister of Tanner’s Lane Chapel in The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, a caricature of John Jukes, Minister of the Old Meeting.

I will let members know when publication takes place. I have indexed them by name and thought I would add a place index and family index too. It all takes time.

Letters to Three Friends by William Hale White (“Mark Rutherford”) was published in 1924, Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press. It contains letters to Mr. and Mrs Colenutt, 1872 – 1908, to Miss Partridge 1893 – 1912 and to Mr. Philip Webb, 1894 – 1913 together with and index.

The letters to Mr and Mrs Colenutt section contains 107 letters, many of them incomplete. This volume contains 173 letters. The previously unpublished material is printed in italics.

The Colenutt letters, transcribed by Nick Wilde