HAT IS the value in reading other people's mail, especially mail that is 150 years old? Well, first, let us be frank -- to snoop is human. Second, letters catch the small, personal details that are never part of formal history, and so they tell us more than formal history can about daily life when they were written. Third, because letters are not always carefully considered, even by professional writers, and are not usually intended for posterity, they expose the author's personality as more guarded writing never can.
Richard A. Davies's edition of The Letters of Thomas Chandler Haliburton falls short only in the first of these areas, and that -- except in one case -- through no fault of his own. Not enough letters survive to tell continuing stories, and therefore the "human interest" value of this collection is limited. Mr. Davies has done his best, in footnotes and section introductions, to connect the letters, but they remain disjointed. In one instance, though, the editor could have ameliorated this problem. In the 1 November 1838 issue of Bentley's Miscellany, a humorous -- and completely fictional -- verse described the meeting of "Dick Dystich" and "Charlotte Shillibeer" on an omnibus. Much to the surprise of the editor, Charles Dickens, and the proprietor, Richard Bentley, a
Mr. Shillibeer, the owner of a bus company, claimed that the poem slandered his daughter, 18- year-old Charlotte. The lawsuit remained unsettled for many years, as Haliburton's aside in his 9 July 1852 letter to Bentley attests. However, the reference in that letter to "Miss Shillibear" is meaningless to the reader, because the December, 1839, letter to Mr. Shillibeer that Haliburton apparently ghost-wrote for Bentley and the quotation that explains it languish in an appendix of "Miscellaneous Additional Letters." 'Me cross-reference in a footnote to the 1852 letter does not restore the narrative punch.
Haliburton's letters preserve historical minutiae by documenting in a context unshaped by art the headaches that plagued a judge in rural Nova Scotia. Soon, no doubt, some scholar will compare these letters with The Old Judge to see wherein the author borrowed from his own life. Interesting as such a study will be, it cannot have the power of the letters of a man who did not yet know how things would turn out. Indeed, Haliburton overextendedhis resources to build a mansion in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in the belief that his judicial duties and emoluments would last indefinitely. His financial troubles, exacerbated by the determination of the Nova Scotia government to withhold half his salary when he took a vacation, ended only when he moved permanently to England in 1856 and married a woman of means. For six more years, he persisted in his efforts to recover his salary and collect the pension he had been promised. His letters show the Nova Scotia government to have been not only stingy, but duplicitous.
This collection is made up largely of business letters, which show Haliburton's irreverent side all too rarely. Most of the letters written before 1856 are, in a word, dry. Perhaps the country gentleman's life in England gave Haliburton leisure to write to his friends; perhaps, because of his prominence, his post-1856 correspondents saved his letters; whatever the reason, after 1856 the letters more frequently show their author with his hair down. We see in him a generous host and a man largespirited enough to quarrel wholeheartedly with his associates and then make up just as wholeheartedly. In the second of his two fights with Richard Bentley, Haliburton proclaims, 11 you have knocked my pen out of my hand," but six months later his letters have resumed their jocund tone, and he is pressing Bentley as he did before their disagreement to come to eat dinner and spend the night.
The complaint above about the placement of the ghost-written letter to Mr. Shillibeer is an example of the kind of criticism that is easy to level at any editor, criticism that actually boils down to the fact that the critic might have made a different -- though not necessarily better -- decision. Overall, it is very hard to find fault with Mr. Davies's editorial policies or the consistency with which he has carried them out. Thanks to the meticulous work of the editor, the designer, and the copy editor, Margaret Woollard, The Letters of Thomas Chandler Haliburton is an attractive, accessible, and virtually error-free book that will become an essential element in any study of Haliburton's life, works, and times.