A new recruit to the Archives team and a whole lot of letters to read…

Danielle McCarthy has joined the Archives & Special Collections team for a three month placement as part of her MFA in Creative Writing, here at the University of Surrey.  Her work involves writing summaries of Florence Shepard’s correspondence to her husband, Ernest Shepard, during World War I to aid the discoverability of this unique material. Here are her first impressions…

Getting to grips with Florence’s writing style

I had been nervous about that first day, in Archives and Special Collections. Awfully nervous. I had, of course, met with Helen and Mel prior to that first Monday in February, but that did not stop the butterflies; I hadn’t yet met the rest of the team. I arrived at Archives and Special Collections just on time. Mel then took me through the initial paperwork that accompanied my placement, and summarised the project put in place for me by the department. I would, she said, be working with material from the E H Shepard Archive; letters from Florence Shepard to E H Shepard. This had been mentioned in the initial meeting, in December.

I felt quite honoured that I would be permitted to work with the letters; Florence enclosed drawings, news of the family, pressed flowers, and strands of her own hair.

Due to this, the letters are rather personal, and special. Florence’s handwriting style can be quite difficult, and so I have had to call on Mel more than once, twice, or even thrice for assistance; I am still in the process of “getting my eye in”, and it will undeniably take time.

The first letters available took approximately forty-five minutes to an hour each for me to read. I would first pick words that I could comprehend, and would build a sentence from there. This, after much trial and error, allowed me to piece together a summary of the events described within the letter. In aid of this I found it helpful to make a reference guide of sorts, so that I could identify specific letters, for example “y”, that were otherwise challenging to recognise.

Occasionally the process grows more perplexing. In a few instances, Florence has taken note paper from her home, Red Cottage, on holiday with her; this makes it difficult to place the letters geographically. The stamps on the letter envelopes do suggest an approximate send date, but the postmarks are occasionally illegible, and thus the letters can also be difficult to place in time. And so, I have had some difficulties with the letters; but I do hope that, with time, I’ll become more efficient.

So far this has been a fascinating project; I have particularly enjoyed the process of summarising the letters, and have found it useful with regard to other work. It connects uniquely with the dissertation work that I am currently undertaking. I look forward to decoding Florence’s remaining letters to EH Shepard in the coming months, and to learning more from the Archives and Special Collections team.