Absent Voices #3: Words from the Soul: Private Letters between John Locke and Damaris Masham

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas. 76×64 cm. Britain, 1697. Source of Entry: Collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. Attribution: Sir Godfrey Kneller [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It’s not often, as a Gender Studies researcher studying the history of philosophy, that I find myself wanting to hear more from one of the famous-dead-white-men that make up the bulk of the field. You might be especially surprised to hear that, after working my way through An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from start to finish, I wanted to hear more from John Locke. When my PhD project is on early modern women philosophers, women whose philosophical voices are still too often absent from the classroom, why would I want to read missing texts from one of the great canonical English philosophers, a man whose writings we possess in abundance?

It’s like this. One of the women I’m studying is Damaris Masham (1658/9-1708), a philosopher whose thought is largely known to us through her two published treatises. But they weren’t all she wrote. Masham was an extremely close friend of Locke’s – they met when she was twenty-two, twenty-three, when he was already an established philosopher of nearly fifty. They quickly struck up an exchange of letters which lasted for several years. The only reason the epistolary flow between them stopped was that he actually moved into the house Masham shared with her husband and lived there until his death. They were close enough that snide comments were made at the time about the “seraglio” at the Masham household, and speculation has been made since about the extent to which their intense friendship bordered on a romantic connection.

My academic interest in the letters between Locke and Masham mainly concerns Masham’s philosophical thought. I’m looking at the ways in which Masham engages in philosophy in the letters to Locke very differently to her published work. Reading the letters, though – especially reading all forty of Masham’s letters in one gulp, as I did one afternoon – is actually pretty moving. You get a real sense of Masham’s troubled emotions, the intensity of her feelings for Locke, the difficulty in navigating their slightly prickly relationship, her discontent following her marriage. You get caught up in the dizzying flow of Masham’s life and thoughts over the years, her changing character, changing relationships. And then, from Locke back to Masham – we have only four surviving letters. In response to all Masham’s deeply intimate, personal, emotional letters to Locke, we are faced largely with silence from the great philosopher.

Painting of Damaris Cudworth Masham. Attribution: By Todd Whitesides [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.
The letters we do have from Locke to Masham make the absence of his replies even more tantalising. In two of them Locke discourses dryly regarding assorted philosophical concerns. One of the letters is just about some business dealings. And then we have the fourth letter, a lengthy emotional outburst proving that Locke is just as invested in their strange, uncomfortable relationship as Masham is. “It is possible Madam that I having [sic] very little [sic] satisfaction in the place I am but what I have from your letters should yet be in danger to want them out of your neglect of me?”, he opens, clearly frustrated. The carefully constructed sentences you will find in his published philosophy are lacking – instead we have run-on sentences showing scant regard for spelling and grammar. He writes:

I know not whether I have don well or noe, but this I am sure had I not interested my self for you as for a sister or a daughter, or something nearer than those relations, I had never mentiond it to you at first.

“or something nearer than those relations” – Locke acknowledges the ambiguity and intensity of their friendship. The letter continues, a confused stream of Locke’s emotions, and he concludes that he “was never less satisfied with any letter I ever writ to you in my life”. He discloses finally that “I have some parts in my soule very tender and when I am in pain I cannot avoid feeling it”.

What I love about that letter is the disruption it brings to our image of Locke as the empirical philosopher carefully dissecting the workings of the human mind. Locke too is caught up in the confusion of emotions which strikes us all at some point, the ambiguity of an intimate relationship without clearly defined boundaries. When Locke writes about not expressing himself to Masham as he would want to, it strikes a chord in me – the feeling of trying to say something important to someone close, frustrated at not quite getting it right. But it’s not enough: I want to get the full picture of Masham and Locke’s uneasy relationship. I want even to be able to go beyond the letters, to see Locke and Masham’s lives in her house in Essex, hear their private conversations which are so totally inaccessible to us.

This yearning drives home the slightly voyeuristic nature of my interest in the Masham-Locke letters. I’m meant to be looking at them as a philosopher or a historian – but ultimately I’m still avidly reading private letters that were never meant to be read, looking for scraps of information about a relationship that is, after all, none of my business. Locke and Masham were people, as the experience of reading their letters makes abundantly clear: how am I, even as an academic researcher, entitled to any of their private thoughts and reflections? Is there something unseemly in academics rifling through archives in search of the private letters, diaries and notebooks of the figures they’re studying, an invasion of privacy even for the long-dead? I’m not sure I have answers to those questions. I’m left, instead, with the abundance of Masham’s witty, frustrated, affectionate and heart-felt letters, and the near silence of John Locke.

Simone Webb is a first year PhD student in Gender Studies at UCL. Her work is on genre in the texts of early modern women philosophers such as Damaris Masham, Mary Astell and Catharine Cockburn, with a particular focus on “private” genres of philosophy such as familiar letters. Areas of philosophy she’s exploring in these texts include philosophy of love, friendship and the self, and the notion of “philosophy as a way of life”. She can be found tweeting about her research and academic life @SimoneWebbUCL, and on her blog A Wretched Scrowl.

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