(To see Parts 123 and 4 in this series, click on the links.)

In the last post I noted that most of my great grandfather’s first letter to his son (which I transcribed here) was devoted to moral exhortation. But what kind of exhortation is it?

One way of approaching this question is to focus on the language used. In the second paragraph of the letter – which is given over entirely to advice-giving – the language repeatedly emphasises moral effort: ‘I hope that…you are endeavouring in every way to do your best’ ‘keep up your courage’ ‘persevere until you conquer it’. The short, sharp exhortations of the last sentence of this paragraph reinforce this focus on individual effort: ‘Be active Be prompt Be careful Be willing Be diligent and then you will get on.’

Behaving well – doing ‘your best’ – is seen by the letter-writer as a constant struggle against ‘difficulty’ and ‘risks’, in which effort and perseverance will win out in the end. At one point the writer lapses into the Pollyanna-ish ‘keep smiling’, but the tone is generally earnest.

In fact, the word ‘earnestly’ occurs later in the letter, when Charles promises to pray for his son. In this second bout of moral exhortation, the language is more explicitly religious, with a plea that Arthur should remember what he has been taught at Sunday School and Scouts and to ‘remember God for Christ’s sake’.  There is the same focus on moral effort as in the earlier section: with talk of overcoming difficulties and ‘Temptation’ . However, the sense of the individual struggling alone is here balanced by the reminder that ‘God loves you not for a day but eternally’, and the belief that He will ‘assist you’ in this moral battle.

Characterising moral life as a constant state of warfare leads naturally, and perhaps by association, to the final short paragraph, in which Charles asks God to make his son a ‘good Soldier of Jesus Christ’ and at one and the same time ‘a Soldier for your King and Country.’

In the last post I called this closing ‘blessing’ the ‘finale’ of the letter, and it’s possible to read the text as working up to this climax. Discourse analysis, particularly as practised by discursive psychologists, sees everyday discourse (talk, writing) as always seeking to accomplish something. Perhaps part of the ‘work’ being done by this letter is to impose meaning on the (military) experience that Arthur is going through, by associating it with the (religious) framework of meaning that is most important to his father. Since Charles sees life as a constant spiritual battle, the language and imagery for achieving this is already to hand. In rhetorical terms it is not difficult to accomplish a fusion between moral soldiering for Christ and serving ‘King and Country’ in uniform. This is the resolution achieved by the end of the letter.

However, besides the language of individual effort and struggle, the letter occasionally introduces another, altogether gentler note. We’ve already noticed the reference to the love of God, and at times Charles’ own love for his son breaks through the moralising rhetoric. In the middle of the third paragraph, when Charles has been reproaching his son about money, he suddenly interjects a ‘Dear Arthur’ and this is the cue for the message about divine love and assistance.  Charles signs off the letter ‘Loving and Prayerfully / Your / Dear Father’, an altogether more affectionate and endearing tone than has marked most of the letter.

I want to say more about these two different registers – on the one hand, the language of individual effort and moral struggle, and on the other, that of divine and paternal affection – in the next post. There are implications, I think, for how we analyse the way that Charles ‘does’ fatherhood in this letter, and also for understanding his ‘performance’ of his Christian faith.

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