THE SYNGE LETTERS: Bishop Edward Synge to his Daughter Alicia, Roscommon to Dublin 1746-1752, ed Marie-Louise Legg Lilliput Press/Irish Manuscript Commission pounds 35
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THE mid-18th century in Ireland looks to us like a painting in chiaroscuro. Swift's controversies, parliamentary business in Dublin or the haut ton as observed in Mrs Delany's letters are brilliantly highlighted; odd shafts of light fall on threatening movements of rural agitation, but great areas of the canvas are left in equivocal shadow. We know strangely little of how people got on with each other, outside certain well-recorded circles. We have a much less clear picture of master-servant relations, fashion and consumerism than in contemporary England. The actual (as opposed to legal) position of Catholics has to be pieced together from inference. And the dark has closed around the life of women and everyday family relations, allowing carte blanche to sloppy generalisations and sentimental anecdotage.

The discovery of Bishop Synge's correspondence is therefore a historiographical event of the first importance. What comes as an extraordinary bonus is the distinction of the letters themselves - informal, mocking, chiding, moving, demanding, informative. Miraculously, a social milieu and mental world suddenly leap into focus.

Bishop Synge is already known to scholars, as a member of a distinguished Irish Protestant dynasty and the author of important treatises on toleration - while remaining as assuredly privileged as other members of his class and caste. And he allegedly refused to ordain Oliver Goldsmith for appearing before him in red breeches. But these letters (like Madame de Sevigne's) define a personality through its affections, and in the process illuminate far more than the Synge family.

Edward Synge and his wife had six children, but she died young in 1737, and only one child survived. The bishop never remarried, and brought up his daughter Alicia with love, humour and at times exasperated affection. Every May he left his house in Kevin Street, Dublin, to stay in his diocese at Elphin; between then and October, he sent back a flood of letters to "My Dear Giddy Brat", designed for instruction and edification but not for publication. The surviving series starts when Alicia is 13, and her last brother is dying. Her father writes:

"I will not suffer one of them to speak a word to me about him. On Friday night I gave him up; and the first and only question I asked about him on Saturday morning, was whether He was alive ... I gave a loose to pleasing thoughts, and was by this means so unhinged, that when towards night, I saw cause to be alarm'd; being off my guard, I was more distress'd, than I had been since his illness ... Were I to be toss'd to and fro between hopes and fears as I was yesterday and the day before, for a Week to come, I might be destroy'd, tho' your Brother should be well at the conclusion."

So he advises her to handle her grief likewise, and to be his support. "Depend upon it, My Dear Ally, Fall what can fall, I shall be well if you be. This, Hussy, is a very odd letter for me to write to a Girl of thirteen."

Odd or not, in its poignant intimacy it sets the tone for the letters he pours out to her every summer until she is 20. Passed down through the family, they have been edited with devotion and flair: Dr Legg, by good fortune, is both a descendant and a historian. Her introduction is elegant and percipient; the correspondence is glossed and expanded, using newspapers, genealogies, inventories, directories, architectural archives and the great census of his diocese masterminded by Synge himself. Notes and illustrations painstakingly reconstruct the bishop's Kevin Street house, with its front court which his "Hussy" ran into when he arrived from the country, his Elphin palace whose building led (like Swift's Quilca retreat) to "blunders, deficiencies, distresses and misfortunes", and the rowdiness of Dublin street life (on occasion, Alicia stoutly defended her domain from armed marauders). But the voice that comes through is not muffled by scholarly apparatus; it is as personal as Woodforde or Kilvert, and this book is as important as theirs.

It speaks not only to the social historian in search of lived experience, but to anyone interested in parents, children, cooking, gardening, manners, love, death and the fabric of human life. Alicia is taught how to greet people, which flowers are best "Stuff'd" into a mixed border, how to treat servants, how to deal with her doctor. She is entertained by a running commentary on provincial life, and the doings of friend and neighbours, like the forthcoming marriage of the Reverend "Insipid" Gunning, retailed with something of Congreve's acid elan:

"He seems to be as indifferent about it, as you've seen him about trivial things. He provides neither new Coat, nor Gown, nor Shirt, not even a nightgown. He says he has an old one, which is somewhat thread-bare. It will do. He owns fairly that he should not have thought of a ring, but that His friend who made the Match put him in mind of it, and then he was horribly puzzled how to get the measure of her finger. A Widow sister in the house helped him ..."

Devoid of stateliness or affectation, the bishop is a sharp judge; his daughter's company is carefully monitored (she was a considerable heiress), and frivolous friends implicitly rebuked. Dr Legg's sardonic index entry for one of them, Betty Donnellan, says it all: "ears pierced, 63; reads too many novels, 210; unhappy situation 256." But Alicia is advised to profit even by fashionable bad company, like the gambling Mrs Fitzmaurice: "By the absurd monstrous figure they make, a just abhorrence of their vices, is rais'd in the minds of those who are not affected with them; and the impression is stronger from such examples, than from precepts or advice ... For your Age, you have very just notions of good and bad."

Reading is frequently urged, and the letters provide an invaluable guide to current orthography, since Alicia's spelling is carefully criticised; the changing practice of spelling "Ireland" is recorded ("Ir'land" is acceptable, but not "Irland") and Dr Swift continually instanced as an arbiter of correct usage. French models are urged - especially de la Rochefoucauld, despite his low opinion of human nature. On the other hand, as Dr Legg notes, England is neither visited nor mentioned.

Above all, "instruction" is widely interpreted, in a way that contradicts many of the assumptions of superficial social historians. A long letter to the 18-year-old Alicia tackles her directly about false modesty ("which ruins Multitudes") on the subject of menstruation:

"My Dear Dear Girl. Consider. You are a Female, I won't say Woman. Everything therefore that belongs to Females, belongs to you. Your Frame and nature is what the great God of Nature has given you. Can any thing then that is natural, be matter of reproach, or be conceal'd as a shamefull Imperfection? It is not one. To want it, would be ... In France A Lady will speak with more ease of ses Ordinaires, than I now write the Word ... suppose a Lady had a suppression of Urine, Would it be immodest in her to speak of this to her Physician? No! Certainly ... suffer the Doctor and Ned to speak to you about these matters, as about anything else ... If it costs you a few blushes at first, What signifys it? They'll soon be over, and you and I both easy. I shall not be so, till I know this letter has had its proper effect and yet I do not expect a Word of answer."

Outside this arresting intimacy, the letters profile everyday life in the country: the harvest, the weather, the acquisition of a "Setting Dog", purchasing and despatching a soup-dish. The servants at Elphin, referred to as "my Family", speak out too; the lazy housekeeper, named (again a la Congreve) "Mrs Heap", and the poetic cook who instructs the bishop, on one of his frequent kitchen visitations, in the art of breadmaking: "Indeed, My Lord, says she, I get barm sometimes as red as a Fox, sometimes black, full of Hop-leaves, Bog-bane, Wormwood, Artichoak leaves ..."

Foodstuffs are often more exotic: pineapples, melons, even saffron are grown, and the bishop appreciates French cooking as well as French manners. We learn the kind of materials to hang around a bed, or line a trunk, and the "Coarse Colours fit for painting field-Gates and such things". As the country house goes up, endless items must be purchased and shipped from Dublin, and a whole world of buying things is revealed; merchants are carefully targeted, and a doughty shopper is referred to approvingly as "a great Hunter". Favourite employees afflicted by illness are despatched to Dublin for treatment, with full details appended. Though the bishop was known by contemporaries as "Proud Ned", it is not how he figures here.

Alicia's letters are lost, and by the time she died in 1807 her father's Irish world was long gone: the political polarisation, sectarian intolerance and overwhelming violence of the 1790s consumed it like a furnace. But Elphin and Kevin Street a half-century earlier are recreated here, over five years of intense everyday life. The last letter is signed off, appositely, with a final grammatical admonition: "Some bad Stopping in your last. The Old fault! When will you learn to put . where the sentence closes?"

With that full stop a light is extinguished, leaving father and daughter reclaimed by darkness, and the reader two-and-a-half centuries later bereft. How did the Gunning marriage turn out? Did the carrier ever arrive with the soup-dish? Did the bishop approve of Alicia's marriage six years later? We know she lost two children, and a third went mad. He had told her: "It was a saying of your Grandmother's when a young Damsel was gay and cheerfull. The Black Ox has not yet trod on her foot. An homely image of Matrimony, but too too often a just one." Did she re-read his letters through her long life? A hundred years after her death, her relative, the playwright J M Synge, used to stay in cottages on the Aran islands or in Kerry, and listen through floorboard cracks in his loft bedroom to the unconstrained and vivid talk in the kitchen below. Hearing the bishop's voice through these mesmerising letters has much the same effect; and, as with his descendant's plays, the act of overhearing has been immortalised in a uniquely Irish classic.

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford.