The Evelyn Letters Project

The Correspondence

Evelyn published in more than twenty fields: from agriculture pollution and navigation to architecture, the fine arts, philosophy and pedagogy. All of these are reflected in his letters, which also include a vast amount of previously unknown material on the family, childhood and education.

Even more than Evelyn's Diary, the correspondence represents the work and interests of the scientific founders of the Royal Society. It also documents important developments in a wide range of subjects. In his lifetime, Evelyn published on agriculture, archaeology, architecture, classics, economics, engraving, ethics, history, horticulture, library science, navigation, numismatics, painting, pedagogy, philosophy, politics, sculpture, soil chemistry, theology, and town planning. He was also a regular contributor to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and involved in two public commissions to do with sick and wounded seamen, one of which involved him in the founding of the Greenwich Naval Hospital.
The correspondence represents the exchange of humanist and scientific information in the early modern period. Evelyn's polymathic interests place him in a tradition that includes Erasmus on one hand and Coleridge on the other. His massive correspondence archive of more than 3000 letters is the record of these interests and this interchange. In it the modern reader can also see Evelyn, the first English translator of Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, constructing a scientific persona for himself. Evelyn's correspondents included (among many others) Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, Henry Oldenburg, the Secretary of the Royal Society, and Samuel Hartlib, the educational reformer to whom Milton dedicated his treatise Of Education.

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Coins The correspondence also shows him, in connection with his book on coins and medals, Numismata, pioneering the study of past cultures by learning to read their artefacts. As a friend and correspondent of Elias Ashmole (the founder of Oxford's museum) and a collector himself, he offers in these letters unique glimpses into the early history of collecting and museology.
Gardens The correspondence also demonstrates his work as a pioneering horticulturalist and botanist: a man engaged in the process of reshaping what was meant by nature and the natural world while laying the foundations of the science of botanic taxonomy that John Ray and Linnaeus were to complete. There is extensive correspondence about Sylva, his book on forest management, which permanently changed the face of the English landscape. And there is an equal amount related to his still-unpublished history of gardens, "Elysium Britannicum", a project that was first proposed to Sir Thomas Browne in 1658. As what amounts to a horticultural and botanical information exchange over half a century, it forms along with the correspondence surrounding it a central document of the reshaping of the English sense of the natural world in the later 17th century.
Children Evelyn was also keenly involved in the study of pedagogy and childhood generally. The death of his first son at the age of six led to his translating Chrysostom's Golden Book on childhood education. But it also led to an extensive correspondence not only with his wife's cousin, the reforming educator Christopher Wase, but with the headmaster of Eton, Henry Godolphin. Godolphin was responsible both for the education of Evelyn's grandson and of his own nephew, Francis Godolphin: a boy whom Evelyn "adopted" as his own grandson and from whom he elicited a unique epistolary account of the eleven-year- old's journey to Cornwall in 1690.  The travel Journal of Francis Godolphin 
Family Inevitably, much of Evelyn's correspondence is with members of his family, and as such it provides an extensive record of domestic life in the later 17th century. Evelyn's wife, Mary, had been educated in Paris by both the learned exiles from Commonwealth England and French scholars. Her letters to her husband are a revelation of the sort of female learning that Bathshua Makin championed in her Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673). Evelyn's letters to and from his wife are a record of a marriage of more than half a century and are a fascinating demonstration of attitudes to children as well as of property and marriage.
Public Affairs The correspondence documents important developments in a wide range of subjects. Beginning with letters about the Civil War, it contains a great deal that is of importance to politics and history in the latter half of the 17th century. Evelyn knew and corresponded both with Lord Clarendon and Lord Godolphin. As a Commissioner for the Naval Hospital, he was involved in public affairs at a crucial time and corresponded extensively with Pepys. And he also wrote to the historians John Aubrey, Anthony ? Wood, Robert Plot, and Ralph Thoresby.
Literature As a literary man, he corresponded with the poets Edmund Waller and Abraham Cowley, and previously unrecorded information about Milton also occurs in this correspondence as do letters with Milton's nephew, Edward Phillips. Evelyn's reply to Cowley's essay and pindaric ode on gardens (dedicated to him) is in the Letter Copybooks and includes a pindaric reply. There are also many letters to his proteges, Richard Bentley and William Wotton, who were both central to the "ancients and moderns" controversy. Charles Morduant, the Earl of Peterborough, a pioneering landscape gardener who was also Pope's friend, is also among Evelyn's correspondents, as is Morduant's wife.
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Copyright Douglas Chambers 1998
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