Some thirty letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy to an Irish priest, Fr Joseph Leonard, are soon to be auctioned. The letters come from an undisclosed source (more about that in a moment), and are of great interest. In them, the late Mrs Kennedy speaks of her inmost feelings in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and it is clear that Fr Leonard was a sort of spiritual father to her. Given that Mrs Kennedy was intensely private and that her thoughts during her husband’s funeral have remained undisclosed until now, and given that she is a figure of some historical importance, many people will be interested in the contents of these letters.
When Queen Victoria died in 1901, her daughter, Princess Beatrice, went through all her mother’s papers and burned a great many letters and journals that she believed did not deserve to see the light of day. Historians ever since have cursed the memory of this dutiful princess, and what they see as her attempt to sanitise her mother’s reputation. Though we can never be sure about the value of what Princess Beatrice burned, the truth remains that personal letters are a valuable historical source. The Kennedy trove will have to be evaluated by historians, but it may well be the case that these letters represent more than celebrity memorabilia.
But these letters were written to a priest, and we can assume from their contents, and from what we know of Mrs Kennedy’s character, that she was not writing for publication. Did she ever imagine they would be poured over by others? That is always possible, but surely unlikely, particularly of the letters she wrote before she became First Lady. Moreover, she wrote in a time before invasion of privacy became the norm.
The letters are not covered ipso facto by the seal of the confessional, but it would have been understood at the time by both Mrs Kennedy and Fr Leonard that these letters were of their very nature private. They are not confessional, but they are pastoral, and all Catholics have the right to speak to their pastors in the strictest confidence; they do not have to ask that their confidences be treated as such – they assume it.
This represents an interesting problem for the owner of the letters, whose identity is undisclosed, but who must have obtained the letters through Fr Leonard. It is possible that Fr Leonard left the letters lying around, and his heirs found them, and decided to sell them. Or it is possible that Fr Leonard deliberately preserved the letters with a view to his heirs having something to sell in future. We do not know. But the question remains. Should Fr Leonard have destroyed the letters? Legally, they were his, and the copyright was his. But, I think, on balance, he would have been better off destroying them.
But, let us say, what if the letters have survived purely by accident? If they were to have come to light only recently, what then? Should the person discovering them have destroyed them? Perhaps not. But not to destroy them is not to publish them. One could deposit them in some archive with the instruction that they were not to be opened for a hundred years or so.
I can think of one interesting parallel case. There is a Catholic institution known to me that holds a well known writer’s personal notebooks. In these notebooks the writer pours out his heart before God and particularly laments his various sins. It all makes painful and at times very embarrassing reading. But it is also a remarkable valuable source to critics who want to understand the writer’s works. Those doing research can apply to see the notebooks and can read them, but they do under controlled conditions. They are not allowed to make notes or to quote them. The writer in question has been dead for over a century and a half; he would have been horrified by others reading his notebooks, which, as I say, are deeply personal; but it is rather a good thing that his invaluable source has not been lost.
Similarly with Mrs Kennedy. These letters should perhaps be read a hundred years form now. They may be a valuable source. But letting reputable historians see them is not the same as exposing them to public view in our newspapers today. Respect for privacy is important, and reading other people’s private correspondence is a sin. Nevertheless, there come a point when private correspondence becomes a legitimate source for historians: but I doubt that point has been reached yet with Mrs Kennedy.
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