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Epistolary Labour: A Cultural History of the Imperial Letter and British Family Life in Colonial South Asia, 1857–1921

posted on 2023-09-13, 13:22 authored by Ellen SmithEllen Smith

This thesis examines letters and other forms of cultural production related to the letter writing of seven British imperial families in colonial South Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From recently discovered letters written by a British woman escaping from Gwalior during the 1857 Indian Uprising, to a British judge producing watercolour sketches in Sri Lanka in the 1870s for his mother, the project generates new understandings of the political and cultural work of writing letters in imperial contexts. It draws out the afterlives and expansiveness of this correspondence, tracing the itineraries of letters from private to more public or social documents as they were adapted into, for instance, newspapers, memoirs, and scrapbooks, and thinks about the imperial family as a site for colonial record-keeping, editing, and archiving. In doing so it re-conceptualises letter writing as a form of labour, what I now term ‘epistolary labour’ to reveal the psychological, emotional, and often physical work associated with correspondence. It probes how this epistolary labour was distributed within the family, contending that it was often a gendered experience, but not in expected ways. It begins by uncovering the journalistic roles of women as correspondents during periods of rebellion and shifts to consider the political significance of women’s intimate relationships in empire through letter networks. A reflective midway chapter on erasure speculates on editing as a mode of labour by and for women in the imperial archive. Beyond women’s ‘work’, it also maps out the intense epistolary activity of imperial bachelors and fathers, made visible in these family letter collections. Through a new model of ‘epistolary labour’ in this thesis, the imperial letter is re-centred in the way we grapple with the place and power of family in maintaining the British Empire, and how we write its histories.



Clare Anderson; Kate Smith

Date of award


Author affiliation

School of History, Politics and International Relations

Awarding institution

University of Leicester

Qualification level

  • Doctoral

Qualification name

  • PhD



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