Mary Slessor’s Letters

Transcriber’s Notes

We thought that a few comments would be useful on the difficulties faced, and decisions made, in transcribing Miss Slessor’s letters to Charles Partridge (and also a few to his parents).

These letters were written over the period from January 1905 (soon after Mr. Partridge had taken the new post of District Commissioner in Ikot Okpene, in the territory of the Ibibio people) to 24th December 1914. In fact, the last letter was written less than three weeks before Miss Slessor’s death, and was received by Mr. Partridge after this sad event. Thus they cover the last ten years of her life.

Mary Slessor’s letters are immensely readable – her thoughts rush on to the paper as freely as in conversation. They are also surprisingly legible, given the difficult situations in which Mary was writing. It is obvious that she loved communication, particularly with her friends. She had frequently to overcome tiredness, even exhaustion, lack of time, severe ill-health and interruptions by children or visitors. It is, therefore, not surprising that there are areas of difficulty, with some letters proving more difficult to read than others.

The main difficulties for the transcriber are outlined below:

I) Word contractions: Mary used certain contractions as a matter of course. These include & [and]; wd. [would]; shd. [should]; cd. [could] etc. Such contractions are, we hope, universally understood, and have been transcribed exactly as written. Less familiar contractions, such as str. [steamer], CM [Court Messenger] etc., are explained in the footnotes.

II) Punctuation: It is frequently impossible to differentiate between a full stop and a comma, and it is possible that some of the marks were actually places where she had rested her pen while deciding on her next few words. The transcribers have tried to follow Mary's punctuation, but have used their discretion where it made sense to do so. Moreover, her contractions frequently omit the apostrophe and full stop. Capital letters have been reproduced according to Mary's usage.

III) Spelling: Mary’s spelling was generally very good, but some spelling mistakes are to be found. Usually the mis-spelt words can be clearly understood, and so have been left as written. Where there is room for doubt, the transcribers have tried to correct this in the footnotes.

IV) Underlining: Mary uses underlining to stress certain words or phrases. Unfortunately, it has been impossible to show this directly in the transcriptions, due to software limitations. Words underlined are enclosed by asterisks – thus, *very*. Double or occasionally treble underlinings are indicated by the same number of asterisks: thus **very**, or ***very***, which help the word or words to stand out as intended. More rarely, Mary uses capital letters or large lower case letters to indicate important words. These are both shown as capitals in the transcripts.

V) African words: Mary’s letters are full of references to the people and places of Calabar, and these have proved a great problem. Where her writing is not so clear, it is relatively easy to arrive at the correct English word but sometimes it has been very difficult even to guess at an African word. In particular, the capitals U and N can be indistinguishable from one another. The Efik alphabet uses English characters but often with diacritical marks (ignored in these transcriptions), which Mary uses from time to time. Charles Partridge’s copy of the “Dictionary of the Efik Language” has been consulted but, without knowledge of Efik grammar, is of limited value. It is hoped, however, that an Efik speaker will be found to help in this.

VI) Envelopes: Many envelopes still accompany their letters and, where they do, both address and postal information have been included, as it is felt that these give additional information and atmosphere.

VII Footnotes: Explanatory footnotes are appended to each letter to deal with unfamiliar concepts or words within that letter. This makes the letter as “self-contained” as possible, albeit at the cost of repetition of some footnotes from letter to letter. This scheme was considered to be more convenient to the reader than a separate collection of explanatory notes for all letters.

Ruth E. Riding and Leslie A. Mackenzie: November 1998