I’m spending a month doing archival research at the Lewis Walpole Library, a lovely place in suburban Farmington, Conn., that houses Yale’s eighteenth-century collection. The library—whose manuscript collection still runs largely on a card-catalogue system, with many handwritten cards!—has a fantastic collection of correspondence, including but not at all limited to Horace Walpole’s thousands of letters. There’s far more stuff than I can see in a month, even assuming I do figure out the quirky catalogue system. I generally tend to take an unsentimental view toward archival research. I don’t often feel a strong connection to the authors of the letters I’m reading—I find that they lived in a very different world and generally had very different concerns and emotions than we do. And the strange thing about research is that one is reading in a curiously instrumental way: I’m trying to decide what I can “get out” of these artifacts and how it will fit into my dissertation. Despite my interest in these authors’ handwriting, the paper they used, the ways they folded their letters, and the frequency with which they wrote, I usually don’t picture myself reading over their shoulders as they sit at their writing desks.

Yesterday, however, I unexpectedly came across a series of letters that I actually found incredibly emotional. It was part of the correspondence of the Grenville family, a powerful political bloc in the mid-eighteenth century that included several MPs and was allied with William Pitt, who was Prime Minister on and off during the 1750s and ’60s. There were five Grenville brothers, who seem to have been quite close; their dozens of surviving letters are filled with expressions of affection and fidelity. In 1747, during the War of the Austrian Succession, George Grenville was a Treasurer of the Navy and his younger brother, Tommy, was a naval captain. Tommy had been at sea for more than a year and George had obtained a promise from the other treasurers that his brother would not be sent on any more voyages. But in April, the English fleet sailed for Cape Finisterre in the Bay of Biscay to engage French forces, and Admiral George Anson insisted on Tommy’s ship, the Defiance, accompanying the fleet. George wrote to his brother that he had refused to sign the order, “but the board are so much afraid or so little anxious about keeping their word so solemnly given that they have signd the order & gratified Mr Anson in his request.”

Lord Anson’s Victory off Cape Finisterre, May 3, 1747, by Samuel Scott

The next letter in the series is dated May 16, 1747, and is from the Defiance‘s surgeon, Andrew Guthrie. “As I believe it to be my duty, I, most unwillingly, beg leave to acquaint you with the nature of the fatal accident, which happen’d to your Brother Capt: Grenville on the third of May,” he writes. The British had won the battle, but Tommy’s leg had been torn off by a splinter from the deck of the ship. Guthrie amputated the leg, but his captain died several hours later from blood loss. Unlike almost all of the other letters in the Grenville correspondence, this one is torn and wrinkled, as if it had been crumpled up and then flattened out again.

I was completely unprepared for Tommy’s death, coming as it did after many letters about his ship’s movements around the world, and I found the sequence riveting. Maybe this feeling of connection is related to the fact that my research is moving out of the seventeenth century and into the mid-eighteenth, a period that we see as more recognizably modern. The episode feels almost fictional, with the brother’s expected return delayed by one last, fatal battle—all it needs is a devoted fiancee waiting at home. It was one of those serendipitous events that can happen in the archive and that show how central letters were to any and all communication in the eighteenth century.

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