new zealand electronic poetry centre

Ursula Bethell


Secrets of Felicity: Letters of Ursula Bethell

selected and introduced by Peter Whiteford


The Macmillan Brown Library in the University of Canterbury has the principal collection of Ursula Bethell's papers, and these include drafts of letters she wrote, letters that had presumably been returned, and all the letters to Kathleen Davies (née Taylor), which Mrs Davies added to the Bethell archive; the Hocken Library in Dunedin holds letters to Rodney Kennedy, Charles Brasch, and Toss and Edith Woollaston (which are included in the Brasch archive); the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington holds the papers of Sir John Hall, Monte Holcroft, and J H E Schroder, together with lesser collections of letters to Johannes Andersen, W F Alexander and Pat Lawlor. The letters to Eileen Duggan are held in the Archdiocesan Archives of the Catholic Church in Wellington. One letter to Edith Woollaston is held at the National Museum Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. Finally, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, holds the papers of the publisher Sidgwick and Jackson, which include Bethell's letters to Frank Sidgwick. Identifying shelfmarks are included at the end of each letter.

Editorial Note

The text attempts to reproduce as accurately as possible what Bethell wrote, without pretending to a facsimile reproduction. Many of the letters are reproduced in full, but some have been edited to omit less significant material. Such omissions are shown by an ellipsis in square brackets, placed within the line when the excision is of a phrase or sentence, or placed on a separate line if the excision is of one or more paragraphs.

For the most part, Bethell's hand is clear and legible; on the rare occasion when a word or phrase has defied interpretation, the word 'illegible' appears in square brackets. I have ignored words and phrases that have been crossed out or overwritten, except on a few occasions where they serve to clarify Bethell's thinking. Words added by her above or below the line are inserted in the text where appropriate. Occasionally, Bethell glossed her own letters with asterisked marginalia; these are also included at the end of the relevant paragraph. Postscripts and afterthoughts are conventionally placed at the end of a letter, although Bethell sometimes wrote them at the head or lengthways in the margins. Words I have added to clarify meaning are also in square brackets.

Bethell's emphases are for the most part confined to a single underlining, which is rendered here in italics; double underlinings are printed in small capitals. Abbreviations occur extensively in the correspondence; these have been retained as she wrote them, except when their expansion is not obvious. Abbreviated names are identified in footnotes unless their identity is clear from the context.

The text has been emended as lightly as possible: I have inserted a closing bracket or quotation mark where one has been forgotten, and silently corrected any very obvious slips of the pen, while preserving stylistic idiosyncrasies (such as the very frequent omission of an apostrophe from it's, or the spelling 'havn't') Examples of dittography are silently omitted. In matters of punctuation, Bethell shares with Mansfield a fondness for a dash where one might expect a comma or a full stop. I have come to feel that some of the 'feminine dashes' (see her letter to Sidgwick, Nov. 4, 1929) can be replaced with a full stop without any damage (a following upper case being a reliable guide), and have lightly emended her punctuation.

The annotations at the foot of each page are intended to identify people, events, and allusions where these might add to the reader's understanding; it has not been possible (nor would it be desirable) to identify every such reference. However, I have annotated rather more fully than might otherwise be expected, given the absence of a full biography. Johnson's desire, expressed in his Preface to Shakespeare, to be 'neither superfluously copious, nor scrupulously reserved' in his notes and glosses seemed an admirable goal, but even as he declared it, Johnson recognised that 'it is impossible for an expositor not to write too little for some, and too much for others. He can only judge what is necessary by his own experience; and how long soever he may deliberate, will at last explain many lines which the learned will think impossible to be mistaken, and omit many for which the ignorant will want his help.' No doubt the annotations here will strike some in the same way, but I trust that the help offered will outweigh any intrusion.

References to Bethell's Collected Poems in the notes are to Vincent O'Sullivan's editions, which provide a more accurate and complete text than that of the 1950 collection.


Last updated 7 August, 2005