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The Epistolary Novel

A genre of fiction which first gained popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epistolary novel is a form in which most or all of the plot is advanced by the letters or journal entries of one or more of its characters, and which marked the...

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The Epistolary Novel

A genre of fiction which first gained popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epistolary novel is a form in which most or all of the plot is advanced by the letters or journal entries of one or more of its characters, and which marked the beginning of the novel as a literary form.

Epistolary fiction dates back at least to ancient Roman times, but the epistolary novel as a distinct genre first gained prominence in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Aphra Behn in Britain and Charles Louis de Montesquieu in France produced works of fiction told through the medium of letters, but many scholars still regard Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) to be the first example of the epistolary novel—and indeed the first mature novel to be written in English. Richardson's ground-breaking work is marked by a coherence of characterization, plot, and theme that had been missing in earlier fictional efforts, and his use of the epistolary form lends realism, complexity, and psychological subtlety to his story. The epistolary novel enjoyed its greatest popularity in England and France from the mid-1700s to the end of the century, a time when literacy was on the increase and the public sought literary works with more depictions of ordinary experience and greater psychological realism than were found in the old heroic romances. With its reliance on subjective points of view, the epistolary novel by its very nature offers intimate insight into characters' thoughts and feelings without interference from the author, and advances the plot with dramatic immediacy. Epistolary authors commonly wrote about questions of morality, and many epistolary novels are sentimental in nature. Because of the “private” nature of the form, with the depiction of domestic and personal concerns, much epistolary fiction was written by or about women, and the letter-novel was one of the earliest avenues for women writers to achieve public recognition for their art.

Female characters in the novels often wrestle with sexual temptation and moral propriety and find that the only way to express themselves honestly and thoroughly is by confiding in a trusted friend through letters. Many critics in Richardson's day regarded the letters he wrote in the voices of his female protagonists to be the finest expression of feminine concerns and sensibilities of the period. Genuine female voices are also to be found in the some of the most popular and best-known epistolary novels of the eighteenth century. Mary Davys, one of the first women to support herself through her writing, produced several epistolary works, including The Reform'd Coquet: or Memoirs of Amoranda (1724), which tells of the “taming” of Amoranda, a good but flighty young woman, and Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady (1725), a satire about politics and women's place in society. Fanny Burney's Evelina: or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778) is a novel of manners that explores a young, innocent woman's entrance into society. Marie-Jeanne Riccobini's highly successful Les Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757), an exchange of letters between a simple young Englishwoman and her aristocratic lover, makes clear the division between private and public spheres that were a feature of women's social reality in the eighteenth century. Many women writers of the period in their novels point out women's exclusion from public matters, and often their female characters seek to transcend social barriers by making their own autonomous decisions.

While women novelists were certainly read during the eighteenth century, the bias prevailed that serious literary work was conducted by men. The acknowledged great British epistolary novelists of the period included Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollet. Richardson had enjoyed a career as a successful printer, and was asked to compose a guide to letter writing. He worked around a central theme and the result was his moral novel Pamela: or, Virtue Unrewarded, the story of a servant girl's victorious struggle against her master's attempts to seduce her. The work was an unprecedented popular and critical success and spawned dozens of imitations and burlesques, the best-known of which was Fielding's An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. Fielding with his parody points out some of the inherent problems with the epistolary form, including the fact that simple, uneducated characters convey their sentiments through sophisticated literary means. Still, Richardson continued to favor the form, declaring that it was much better suited to realistically portraying the lives and dilemmas of characters than straightforward narrative fiction. The fact that the important and well-respected novelist Tobias Smollet, who had already achieved fame with his narrative fiction, turned to the epistolary form with The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) indicates the popularity of the genre in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

Fiction told through the medium of letters was also popular on the European continent, and by the mid-sixteenth century in Spain and Italy letters were often used to tell stories of the trials of illicit and prohibited love. Over the next 150 years, letter-writing became increasingly popular in travel books, news stories, and published personal correspondences. The rise of the epistolary novel as a form on the continent roughly parallels its development in England. Charles Louis de Montesquieu's 1721 Lettres persanes and Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, fils's 1735 Lettres de la Marquise de M*** au Comte de R*** lacked the realistic novelistic structure and complexity of Richardson's fiction, but those works certainly influenced Richardson as well as later French epistolary writers. Some of the great French epistolary novels in the eighteenth century include Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 Les Liaisons dangereuses. These novels, like their English counterparts, are redolent with sentimental romance and melodrama, and a great deal of attention is paid to questions of morality. Several popular but little-remembered epistolary novels appeared in the United States at the end of the century, just as the greatest vogue of the genre was past in Europe and Britain. As the century drew to a close the novel letter as a form had fallen into disfavor, as readers and writers of popular fiction increasingly turned to Gothic romances, and serious novelists, too, adopted the more straightforward narrative form.

Representative Works

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Olinda's Adventures: Or the Amours of a Young Lady 1693

Frances Burney
Evelina: or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World 1778

Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, fils
Letters from the Marchioness de M*** to the Count de R*** 1735

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Letters from an American Farmer 1782

Mary Davys
The Reform'd Coquet: or Memoirs of Amoranda 1724
Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady 1725
The Accomplish'd Rake: or a Modern Fine Gentleman 1727

Henry Fielding
An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews [Shamela] 1741

Choderlos de Laclos
Les liaisons dangereuses [Dangerous Liaisons] 1782

Charles Louis de Montesquieu
Lettres persanes [Persian Letters] 1721

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni
Les Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd 1757

Samuel Richardson
Pamela: or, Virtue Unrewarded 1740
Clarissa: or the History of the Young Lady 1747
History of Sir Charles Grandison 1750

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
La Nouvelle Héloïse 1761
Letters of an English Nun and an English Gentleman 1781

Tobias Smollett
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker 1771

Godfrey Frank Singer (essay date 1933)

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SOURCE: “Epistolary Fiction (Particularly the Novel) in France and in Italy,” in The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence, Russell & Russell, 1963, pp. 181-94.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1933, Singer examines the popularity of the epistolary genre in France, Italy, and Germany, countries whose works he says most critics neglect because of the prominence of Samuel Richardson and other English authors.]

The casting of narrative works of fiction, which we have designated novels, into epistolary form, was a practice by no means limited to the land which gave the greatest examples of the art any more than it was to the century which produced its most distinguished proponents and in which the mode reached its highest peak of development and achievement. Novels were written in this form by French, Italian, American, German, Russian, and other authors. In Brian W. Downs' book on Samuel Richardson, there is included a chapter on “The Consequences of Richardson,”1 wherein Mr. Downs has included a list of novels in letter form in various other literatures in Europe. He has, however, omitted America from his census, and has treated epistolary fiction in Italy rather slightingly. It may be argued, of course, that the use of this form was not a “consequence” of Richardson, or that Richardson did not introduce into Italy the novel in letters, although admittedly he made it fashionable there. But when one considers the epistolary epidemic, as it may be termed, and sees the germinal poste restante marked “England” and knows further than that that Richardson connotes the word “epistolary” in England, one can well feel that he is not jumping to conclusions rashly in ascribing to Richardson the impulse giving strength to the novel in letters and its imitators in England and outside England.

If one were anxious to investigate the subject of the epistolary novel in France completely, the compass of a volume would be necessary. Aside from those works listed by Mr. Downs in his aforementioned chapter, M. Philippe Van Tieghem's edition of La Nouvelle Héloise; ou Lettres de deux Amants habitans d'une petite Ville au pieds des Alps, of Rousseau (first exposed for sale in 1761 in Paris), contains the best list collected in one spot convenient to the finger tips.

In 1751, three years after its appearance in England, Clarissa appeared in French as Lettres Angloises ou Histoire de Clarissa Harlove. In 1755-56 we may note the appearance in French of Nouvelle Lettres Angloises ou Histoire de Chevalier Grandisson. These translations are both attributed to Abbé Prévost, the author of Manon Lescaut. As early, however, as 1742, there is noted a work which shows that Pamela had already made its mark upon the French literary consciousness, for Antipamela; or Mémoires de M.D.—appeared at this time, published in London. In 1743, Anti-Pamela; or, Feign'd Innocence Detected: In a Series of Syrena's Adventures, possibly by Mrs. Haywood (opines Mr. Downs) was translated into French. The translation of Pamela itself appeared in 1742, but this is a book less to the fancy of the French than are Richardson's two later novels. From this date on, through the eighteenth century, as in England, France having looked upon the epistolary mode and having liked it, its popularity was assured. Many imitations of Pamela, aside from those already noted, appeared in French. Mme. de Beaumont, who has been previously mentioned for her epistolary fiction, was a Frenchwoman prolific in her imitations of Richardson. Francois-Thomas de Baculard d'Arnaud was another such author. Diderot's La Réligieuse is one of the most outstanding instances of Richardson imitation and was published in 1760, almost twenty years after the appearance of Pamela. Laclos' Liaisons Dangereuses (translated into English as Dangerous Connections) was another.

The true Richardson of France was, however, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. La Nouvelle Héloise (1761), is, like others of his works, in letters. This work in particular may be compared with those of Richardson because it, too, had a long train of imitators. Of great interest, however, is Rousseau's version of the Portuguese Letters in a volume called, Letters of An Italian Nun and an English Gentleman (1781), a series of sentimental and pathetic letters which are extremely well written, graceful in phrasing, and of an insistent sadness. The influence of these on English sentiment was great.

Among the many works which were composed in imitation of the Nouvelle Héloise, M. van Tieghem has listed: La Philosophe par Amour; ou, Lettres de deux Amants Passionnés et vertueux (1765); Henriette de Wolmar; ou, la Mere jalouse de sa Fille, pour servir de suite à la Nouvelle Héloise (1768); Le Nouvel Abailard; ou, Lettres de deux Amants qui ne se sont jamais vus (1778), by Réstif de la Bretonne; Sophie; ou, Lettres de deux Amies recueillies et publiées par un citoyen de Genève (1779); Lettres de deux Amants habitants de Lyons, publiées par M. Léonard (1783); La Dernière Héloise; ou, Lettres de Junie Salisbury recueillies et publiées par M. Dauphin, citoyen de Verdun (1784); and Amours ou Lettres d'Alexis et Justine (1786).

It is not to be thought, however, that the epistolary impulse in France was entirely dependent upon Richardson. As early as 1607-1619 Honoré d'Urfé's L'Histoire d'Astrée, was a model for epistolary correspondence in France in the seventeenth century. It was of such tremendous influence that its use in the eighteenth century as a representative gem of the epistolary art is not to be wondered at. Then, too, there were Lettres Persanes (1721), by Charles Louis de Sécondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, full of a graceful humor, a piquancy of phrasing and a perspicacity of observation that render them particularly lively. If Oliver Goldsmith could copy this work forty years later in his Citizen of the World, surely its widespread use at home need not be thought surprising. The intermixture of the serious with the light vein in these letters keeps them delightful. They are, moreover, valuable as an informative treatment of the manners and customs of Europe as these might be seen through the eyes of two Asiatics. John Davidson, the English poet, made a sympathetic translation of them late in the nineteenth century. Directly in imitation of these are the letters of the French patriot, Jean Paul Marat, Lettres Polonaises, written about 1770. In these letters, a young Polish prince traveling through the countries of Europe incognito, writes his extended criticisms of the manners and customs, especially of the social conditions, of the countries through which he has traveled, and sends them chiefly to a friend and to a brother. The letters are, of course, an excuse for Marat to air his opinions of the existing social order.

Not entirely in the same vein, but created by the same impulse as were the Lettres Persanes were those two epistolary works which formed a background in France to the development of sentimental fiction in the epistolary form, Alcoforado's Lettres Portugaises (1669), and Mme. de Graffigny's Lettres Peruviennes (1747), both of great popularity.

When the influence of Richardson on the French epistolary novel is being argued, it must be remembered that there is a high possibility of the existence of an original French epistolary influence on Richardson. Marivaux's two major works of fiction, La Vie de Marianne (1731-41), completed after Marivaux's death by Mme. Riccoboni, and Le Paysan Parvenu (1735-36), are both in letter form. It was this author, Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, who endeavored to bring back his countrymen to nature, as has already been mentioned (p. 75). In like manner, Samuel Richardson made strong endeavor to turn the tide of fiction into the channels of realism, of everyday occurrences and everyday lives. He succeeded undoubtedly beyond the dreams of Marivaux, and the works of the latter author are, by comparison with those of the English writer, fanciful and light. Yet there are resemblances to be noticed between the attempted realism of Marivaux and the successful realism of Richardson, resemblances that suggest the possibility of Richardson's having somewhat followed the lead of the Frenchman. Marianne is, however, episodic. The Richardson book it most suggests, Clarissa, is, on the other hand, a history in which the events of the heroine's life follow each other in an uninterrupted succession. Here is one of the chief differences between Richardson and Marivaux. There is no doubt that Richardson had before him the example of Marivaux's novels in the epistolary form. That he was led to couch his own works in that form because of the example of Marivaux is, on the other hand, doubtful, if not entirely incredible.

Even before Marivaux, however, and following in the trail of the Lettres Portugaises rather than in that of Marivaux's early work, are such series of love letters as Lettres de la Marquise de M——— au Comte de P——— (1732) and Lettres Athéniennes (1732), both the work of Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon (Crébillon fils). The latter work may be placed beside Landor's tale of classic love in letters, Pericles and Aspasia. In the French work the letters are exchanged between Alcibiades and Aspasia.

To almost the same period of years as the two important epistolary works of Marivaux belong the epistolary works of Madame de Tencin, Le Comte de Comminge (1735) and Malheurs de L'Amour (1747), two sprightly novels written with a moral purpose but not a great deal of dignity. Already considered as French epistolary authors whose work was translated into English are Mme. Riccoboni and Mme. Elie de Beaumont. The former is the author of Lettres de Julie Catesby (1759), and the latter the author of Lettres du Marquis de Roselle (1764), both written in the epistolary form. It might be noted that Mesdames Tencin, Riccoboni, and de Beaumont, along with Mme. de Charrière, author of Lettres neuchateloises (1784), and Caliste; ou Lettres écrites de Lausanne (1786), and Mme. de Souza, who wrote Adèle de Senanges (1794), form a sort of epistolary school of sensibility which extends over a period of some sixty years and is comparable to the similar school of sensibility already considered in the English epistolary novel of the eighteenth century. These French books are, upon the whole, although the works of Mme. Riccoboni and Mme. de Beaumont are thoroughly pleasant, rather pedestrian and uninspired creations, sometimes relieved by a flow of graceful and exquisite writing, but usually overladen with sentiment and sensibility.

Voltaire is the author of an epistolary work in Les Lettres d'Amabed, traduites par l'Abbé Tamponet, a piece that may be considered minor in every respect. This was published in 1769. Dependent upon the work of Marivaux for its title and its moral indignation is Le Paysan Perverti; ou, les Dangers de la ville—histoire récente mise au jour d'après les véritables lettres des personages, by Réstif de la Bretonne (already mentioned for his imitation of Rousseau), published in 1775. …

Turning to epistolary expression in Italy, we find that Pamela appeared in translation in 1744-46, and the heroine of the novel had her story made famous in that country by Goldoni's Pamela Fanciulla (or Pamela Nubile) (1750). Goldoni followed this play with Pamela Maritata (1750). Clarissa was translated, in novel form, in 1783-86; Grandison in 1784-89. Thus we find that the epistolary novel reached Italy, from England, save in the case of Pamela, rather later than it had France, where Richardson's novels were completely translated by the close of the fifties. In Germany, too, the fifties saw Richardson completely translated. But in Italy the drama was at this time more popular than the novel, and so it was that Pamela became a stage rather than a page heroine. Incidentally, these plays of Goldoni were translated into English and published in London in 1756. Chiari, in 1759, also published a Pamela Maritata, and his novel Francese in Italia he based on Clarissa.2 One finds here not so much the definitely moralistic tone that was so peculiarly Richardson's; but the impulse of the epistle came from him. Of course Rousseau was, in France, a nearer neighbor to Italy, and Goethe's Werther was also very popular with the Italians, but since all go back to Richardson as the fountainhead we may say of Chiari that he, too, does. Mr. Downs has taken from Arturo Graf the statement that Richardson, though he did not introduce the epistolary form into Italy, made it popular there.3 This is unquestionably a good phrase, but one that seems upon the whole a trifle vague, for the translation of Pamela dates 1744-46; Chiari's Francese in Italia dates 1762. Richardson was there eighteen years before Pietro Chiari! And in Chiari's La Viaggiatrice there is a very clear influence of Pamela. It is in epistolary form as are three of his other novels: La filosofessa italiana; La Cantatrice per disgrazia; and La Donna che non si trova (1762), which is in imitation of La Nouvelle Héloise. As a matter of fact, Albergati had had it in mind to imitate this Rousseau work in an epistolary novel but did not do it, and published instead the Lettere Capricciose piacevoli e varie in collaboration with Zacchiroli, Compopioni, and Bertalozzi. Thus, if Richardson did not “introduce” the epistolary form into Italy, but merely made it “fashionable,” then to Chiari must be given the honor of introducing it. But since Richardson was most often his model, we may conclude that the introduction was at least under the influence of Richardson if that author was not himself the immediate impulse. Of course, Richardson did not introduce epistolary fiction into England, but he made it popular there.

Earlier too, of course, than Chiari are certain other works. It has been claimed for Italy that the origins of the epistolary novel are Italian. Europe knew the epistolary novels of Montesquieu, Richardson, Rousseau, and Goethe. But in 1569 there was already an epistolary novel in Italy, the Lettere Amorose of Aloise Pasqualigo, which is the basis for this distinguished claim. In 1684 we have Marana's L'Esploratore turco e le diliu relazioni segrete alla Porte Ottomana (Paris). This has been thought to be of French origin, but Natali refutes this conclusively.4 It is, like Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, a survey of politics and society. It was very popular and appeared in English in the first decade of the eighteenth century. In almost direct imitation of the early work by Marana is Lo Spione Italiano; ossia corrispondenza segrete e familiare fra il Marchese di Licciocara e il Conte Pifiela, tutti e due viaggiatori incogniti per i diverse corti d'Europa (1782).

It is, in the final analysis, however, Pietro Chiari who is the leading proponent of the epistolary form in Italy, as has already been intimated. Certainly this is indisputably true of his place in the eighteenth century, if it is not equally true of his place in all Italian literature. It is interesting to note that the general machinery of his epistolary novels is, indeed, very much like that of the sentimental moralistic novel in letters in England. The same extravagances, the same plethora of gallant intrigues, surprises, duels, flights, and of the course, tears, are employed in these novels almost as plentifully as they were in England's epistolary works of fiction. I have already indicated that the novel was not the most important form in Italy in the literature of the eighteenth century. It was not, indeed, until the appearance of Le Ultime Lettere di Jacopo Ortis in 1799-1802 that the novel became a truly popular form in that country. In other words, Chiari was persistently writing in a form that was not entirely popular during the period in which he wrote. By 1757 he had begun his career as a writer of the picaresque tale with the Storia di Luigi Manderine, based on a French original. Thus Concari sums up this really important writer:

Non credo che giovi di saperne oltre di codesti romanzi di venture fondati in capricciose combinazioni accozzate senza logica ne arte; il fin qui detto da un idea dei propisiti dell' autore, che pure scrive per dilettare e istriure, e non ha ne rettitudine ne moralita, se non pervana ostentazione nelle massime e nei discorsi.5

Yet this is the man who did so much in Italy to keep the novel alive! …

Of the work which saw the light in Italy in this form, it may be said that there is only one of lasting importance, and that is Ugo Foscolo's Lettere Ultime di Jacopo Ortis. The other novels in epistolary form are more or less transitory in tissue and general worth. But when one remembers that a country which had very little fiction in novel form which was its own before 1830 gave birth to a goodly dozen of epistolary novels, the virulence of this trans-European epidemic can be estimated.

The same general statement may be made of German literature, in which there is to be found, among the several existing epistolary novels, but one that is of true worth and importance. This is, of course, Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a novel in letters which first appeared in 1774. Since it was preceded by the epistolary works of Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is a safe and natural assumption to suppose that Goethe derived at least the suggestion for the form of his work from the novels in letters of Richardson and Rousseau. Goethe followed the path of Rousseau in the spirit that he established in his work and succeeded in setting up a new mode of thought in German social relations and in literature. In that the book encouraged sentimental youths to commit suicide, it achieved a sort of notoriety as well as fame; yet its intrinsic value is a high one. The philosophy, the sentimentality, and the social ethics of the book are derived from Rousseau. On the other hand, the style in which the letters are written; their naturalness; their faithfulness to character (especially in the case of the letters which Werther writes, full as they are of philosophic ramblings and sentimental self-pityings); their attempted simple presentation of bourgeois life, are all more closely allied to the work of Richardson than to that of Rousseau.

The book itself is important as a literary work as well as an epistolary one. In this novel, says Wilhelm Scherer, Goethe “protested against a society, which did not understand how to use the brilliant talents of an impetuous young man; he protested against established inequality, against the pride of the nobility … ; he protested against prevailing morality, that did not even look upon suicide with compassion; he protested against conventional pedantry of style and against aesthetic rules … ; and he protested against the established speech, which the author employed, as a matter of fact, not only with freedom, but even arbitrarily.”6 Whatever else may be said of the book, it must stand undoubtedly as one of the most remarkable and influential of epistolary novels in literature and one as important in its effects as the epistolary novels of Richardson and the Nouvelle Héloise of Rousseau.


  1. Richardson, London, New York, 1928, p. 218.

  2. Arturo Graf, L'Anglo-Mania e L'Influsso Inglese in Italia nel secolo XVIII, Torino, 1911.

  3. Graf, op. cit., p. 282; Downs, op. cit., p. 233.

  4. Il Settecento. In Storia Letteraria D'Italia. Scritta da una Società di Professori, Milan, 1929.

  5. “I do not think it is necessary to enquire any further into such romances of adventure revolving about whimsical combination, thrown together without either logic or art. What has been said thus far gives an idea of the purposes of the author who writes to delight and to instruct, and yet does not possess either righteousness or morality, except to display them in his maxims and discourses.” T. Concari, Il Settecento. In Storia Letteraria D'Italia. Scritta da una Società di Professori, Milan, N. D., p. 398.

  6. Wilhelm Scherer, Geschichte der Deutschen Literatur, Berlin, 1883, p. 500.

Charles E. Kany (essay date 1937)

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SOURCE: “The Sixteenth Century: The First Epistolary Romances in Prose,” in The Beginnings of the Epistolary Novel in France, Italy, and Spain, University of California Press, 1937, pp. 69-79.

[In the following excerpt, Kany discusses two sixteenth-century Spanish works that he considers to be the first true epistolary novels, and he examines their influence on European romantic and pastoral literature.]

In 1548 … there appeared in Spain the Processo de cartas, a full-fledged epistolary novel made up entirely of prose letters. Fifteen years later (1563) a still longer romance wholly in letter form, Pasqualigo's Lettere amorose, appeared in Italy. These are the only two examples which we have inherited from that period.

Premature efforts at best, their technique fell far short of perfection, and their significance is wholly premonitory. Nor is it surprising that they gave rise to no immediate and direct imitation. The inserted letter of the romance continued its fixed course and shows no startling change such as might have been brought about by the impinging influences of the Processo de cartas and the Lettere amorose. These two romances are, then, to be regarded as pioneer works which cleared a path for the advance of the epistolary novel.


The fuller title of this Spanish romance is: Processo de cartas de amores que entre dos amantes passaron. Of the author, Juan de Segura, nothing is known. Alfonso de Ulloa printed the Cartas anonymously in Venice in the year 1553.1 Juan de Segura's name, however, appears in the editions of 1548, 1553 (Alcalá), and 1564.2 Ticknor (I:426, note 13), who knew only the 1553 anonymous edition, suspected that the Cartas were written by Diego de San Pedro, according to a phrase in the latter's Desprecio de la fortuna where he speaks of “aquellas cartas de Amores, escriptas de dos en dos.” But this statement must refer to some other work. …

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how the simple plot is developed in this first of epistolary novels, will be to give a brief summary:

Not until the lover has written his lady three letters (signed Captivo) protesting his deep affection does she deign to reply (number 4), telling him that since pity is natural to women, she responds to this inner voice, but she warns him not to write again. Overjoyed, he begs her (5 and 6) to pronounce his doom. She will not give him the satisfaction of ordering his death and rejoices in his torment (7). If he prove sufficiently long-suffering and worthy she may reply to his question. Until then she wishes to hear no more from him, though she admits that his epistolary style is agreeable.

In letters 8 and 9 he is despondent as any condemned man, reading and rereading her cruel sentence. Finally she relents (10), “opening the door” to his desire but enjoining upon him the utmost discretion. This reply inflames his passion (11). Since she has opened to him the gate of commiseration, he will neglect nothing to obtain still greater favors. He begs her (12) to write when she can, for he sees her so seldom. She confesses (13) that she is won and promises to meet him at a place he frequents.

Subsequently he tells her (15) how much their interview delighted him and asks whether he may not enjoy her conversation undisturbed some evening, for he has now served her for two years. At this she reproaches him for his haste and inexperience in love (16). He, in turn, curses his hand and his tongue for the offense they have given (17).

After six days he writes again (18), begging her to visit the place where his body will soon be buried. She replies (19) that since she has been the cause of his misfortune, she will remedy it as soon as an opportunity presents itself. After two rapturous letters from him (20 and 21) she informs the ecstatic lover (22) that she has not forgotten her promise and that she and her mother will watch at Nuestra Señora de Gracia early that very evening.

He is grateful for the all too short interview (23). Now that he has spoken with her and enjoyed her sweet and instructive conversation as well as her beauty, he is lost indeed (24). She is pleased with his letters (25) and would consider herself most ungrateful if she did not accord him her favors. At their last meeting she noticed his downcast eyes and his silence. This shyness she attributes to excessive love. She will meet him in the afternoon at the usual place. All his joy consists in seeing her at the appointed hour (26).

Would that she had not seen him (27), for the fire in his eyes has kindled her heart and won her completely; but he must speak to her brothers about their union, since she is obedient to their will.

He reports (28) that he has asked for her hand but has been refused. She writes (29) that his last letter proposing an elopement has been intercepted by her brothers and that they are planning to take her away. She begs him to find some means to write. She is sending this letter by a maid who will serve them in their future correspondence. If he is deprived of the sight of his lady, he cannot live an hour (30). Her afflicted heart undergoes tortures during the hours when she used to see him (31).

He sends her silks of various colors (32). She thanks him for his letter and present (33). She is confined to a convent and wishes him to send a gift to one of the “devotas señoras,” whom she has chosen for her confidante, and whom she hopes to win over to their side.

Not hearing from him for two weeks, she reproaches him severely (34). Sickness has prevented him from writing (35). He sends cloth for a robe and twenty escudos for hoods as a gift to her confidante. She writes that Doña Juliana is grateful (36) and sends him some pastries in return. She wishes he would serenade her but warns him to sing softly.

She writes (38) that Orpheus could never equal the sweetness of his music, which the nuns thought to be the voice of an angel from Heaven. He replies that the source of his music is her beauty (39). She writes (40) that her parents and brothers, having learned of the serenading, are determined to take her far away, she knows not whither.

After his lady is taken from him, he writes to Doña Juliana (41) requesting her to send him certain promised relics. Doña Juliana replies (42), enclosing a cloth which bears a few drops of blood left for him by his lady, and tells him there is no hope for his love.

In his misery, he writes to a loyal friend (43), seeking advice. He wishes to put an end to his wretched life. His friend attempts to console him (44) by sending a copy of the story of Luzindaro and Medusina, similar to his own. The romance has this title: Quexa y aviso de un cavallero llamado Luzindaro, contra amor y una Dama, y sus casos, con deleytoso estilo de proceder, hasta al fin de ambos: sacado del estilo Griego en nuestro Castellano. It is a mixture of sentimental discourses, allegory, and fantastic adventures:

A king of Greece, versed in astrology, imprisons his daughter in a tower in order to prevent the fulfillment of her destiny as predicted by the stars. But the wise Acthelasia frustrates his plans by making Luzindaro, son of the king of Ethiopia, fall in love with the unhappy princess after beholding her in a vision. With the aid of a magic ring, Luzindaro makes his way into the tower. At first unsuccessful in his suit, he is later much favored. But he must undergo shipwreck and many other adventures before he is united in marriage to Medusina. After a brief period of happiness, the princess dies. Luzindaro, in despair, starves himself to death, after having devoured the ashes of his beloved.

Thus end the story and the Processo.

It is interesting to consider in the Processo how the action taking place outside the letters proper is incorporated into the general scheme. The method lacks smoothness and finish, to be sure, in this first effort; but the attempt is worthy of note. Not until letter 12, for instance, do we learn that the lover sees his lady from time to time. Up to this point the reader assumes the relationship between the two lovers to be wholly epistolary. Again, in letter 13, she arranges to meet him; in letter 15 he tells how much he enjoyed meeting her. The interview itself, which we are to infer took place, is nowhere described. In letter 22 she informs him of her intention of going to church with her mother; in letter 24 he speaks of having enjoyed her sweet conversation, etc.; in letter 25 she makes a casual remark about his conduct at that meeting. In the same letter, she arranges for another tryst, the emotional result of which we learn in letter 27. The brothers' refusal to grant the request of the lover and their later action in bringing about the dénouement are treated in greater narrative detail, yet not so completely as might be desired.

Although the work contains many letters that teem with extravagant conceits of the time, it is nevertheless of great importance in the development of the genre, for it is the first modern novel made up entirely of letters. Juan de Segura, having generalized the procedure of Aeneas Silvius, Diego de San Pedro, and even older authors, has thus honored the literature of Spain. Save for its mention in histories of Spanish literature, Spain's claim to priority in the epistolary novel has never been sufficiently recognized.3

Though the work enjoyed four editions in Spain, only its appendage, the story of Luzindaro and Medusina, seems to have been translated into French.


The second epistolary novel is Alvise Pasqualigo's Delle Lettere amorose libri due ne quali leg gendosi una historia continuata d'uno amor fervente di molti anni tra due nobilissimi amanti, si contien ciò che puo in questa materia a qualunque persona avvenire.4

The Processo de cartas is a mere tale compared with this, for here we have 557 letters, divided into two books. Since a detailed account of them would be impossible, not to say inexpressibly dull, I shall trace only the main facts of the story.5

The nobleman Alvise Pasqualigo, returning to Venice after a seven years' absence during which he has tried to forget Madonna Vittoria, attempts through frequent writing to revive what had been an unsuccessful affair. Vittoria, wife of a young count, is overwhelmed by Alvise's importunities and finally promises to love him as a brother. But he insists in many letters upon seeing her secretly; and she, chary of her reputation, entreats him not to show her portrait to anyone nor to breathe a word about her.

She remains implacable, doubting the sincerity of his love; whereupon Alvise threatens to kill himself. Convinced of her lover's constancy by this threat and regretting her doubts, Vittoria meets him clandestinely one day in order to reassure him of her affection. From that day on, the letters of Madonna are poignantly sad and bitter. Anonymous letters (97, 105) are written by an admirer for the purpose of inciting the jealousy not only of her husband, but of Madonna herself.

Vittoria soon becomes pregnant (163) and her jealousy and discontent increase (218, 249). In vain does Alvise attempt to convince her that he uses the other ladies of his acquaintance as a screen for their own love; she continues to live in anxiety and desires death:

… per esser io donna priva d'ogni conversazione & si puo dire confinata in casa, & per convenirmi pensar sempre di quella cosa che più m'è cara, non havendo con alcuna sorte di trattenimenti da rompere il mio fisso pensiero, o pur da sviarlo per qualche momento.


Her greatest woe is that she must live with her husband, “chi mortalmente m'odia” (322). He has charged a certain Fortunio to keep strict watch over all the household. During this time the lovers, unable to see each other, find consolation in epistolizing. Finally, assuming girl's attire and accompanied by a lady, Alvise spends happy moments sitting beside Vittoria in church (346-347).

The situation becomes so perilous that Alvise never leaves the house without the accompaniment of three noblemen. Yet his lady's love does not diminish. She falls dangerously ill on learning that, to avoid marrying a girl of his parents' choice, he plans to leave the city for a month (450-451); she would rather that he marry the girl than that he go so far away. Alvise, however, thinks best to depart.

Here ends the story as told in the 1563 edition, which is probably the first. Without mentioning this edition, Albertazzi (pp. 55-56) and Wiese simply say that the letters appeared before 1569 under the title of Lettere di due amanti.6 Natali in his monumental Settecento (1929, II:1095) mentions only the 1569 edition in attempting to corroborate his erroneous statement that the first epistolary novel was Italian.7 In the 1569 and 1607 editions, the work was called Lettere amorose di Messer Alvise Pasqualigo. Albertazzi for his analysis probably used the 1607 edition, which is divided into four books and contains the dénouement of the romance. Since I had access to the 1563 edition only, I shall give a brief account of the dénouement as related by Albertazzi:

Returning to Venice after a four months' absence, Alvise finds Madonna Vittoria a changed person, quite secure against all temptation. She reassures him of her Platonic affection but adds that the long separation has cured her of culpable love. The truth, however, is gradually revealed. Vittoria in the interim has had another lover, and indeed no other than Fortunio, the spy. Since her attempts at denying it are futile, she reluctantly confesses her misdeed. Derided by his friends, Alvise finally challenges Fortunio and wounds him in a duel. Vittoria intercedes for him, showing Alvise a letter in which Fortunio consents to leave her, since she so desires. But this is in vain. Alvise leaves her to despair.

It is thought that these were real letters, written, copied, and preserved with the intention of being published, “quasi a modello di epistolario amoroso.”8 The writers therefore took precautions: proper names are never given in full, the husband is usually referred to as “amico” (24, 47, 54, 81), “matto” (530), “nemico” (163), etc. The letters embody many disquisitions on love, which was characteristic of the period. The current question whether a lover ought to be favored by many or by only one lady forms the subject-matter of four letters (210-213); nor are arguments for and against jealousy lacking (218, 249, 263, 342, 362). The letters are too repetitious in thought and in sentiment to make very pleasant reading—probably owing to the fact that they are genuine and not fictitious. The constant reiteration of mutual faith, the exaggeration of mood and emotion, the endless adjurations, and the eternal protests are unfavorable to that sense of selection and progress demanded in a conscious work of art. In spite of the extremists in contemporary literature, it seems reasonable to expect the novel to have a less private and limited appeal than any collection of actual correspondence. But whatever its limitations as a work of art, the Lettere amorose takes its place with the Processo de cartas, Spain's strangely neglected contribution to the history of literature.


In dealing with the pastoral romances I shall choose as examples only such episodes as show a continuation of, or an advance over, the use of the letter as last seen in the Italian erotic romances.

The device by which the individual episodes are made to fit into the whole work is nearly always the same: a company of shepherds come upon another shepherd, who is lamenting his amorous misfortunes and who, upon their request, recites his tale of woe.

The Italian pastorals, the Ameto and Sannazaro's Arcadia (1504), offer no letters. Even the first Spanish pastoral, Montemayor's Diana (1558), has nothing of the particular interest. Though it contains nine letters, they are not of sufficient importance to warrant their consideration here. Gil Polo's Diana enamorada (1564) falls into the same category.

The Segunda parte de la Diana de Jorge de Montemayor, on the other hand, written by Alonso Pérez (1564), has twelve letters which serve to advance the plot. I shall give in brief form the contents of one of the episodes in this pastoral:

Disteo receives a letter (p. 398 in the 1622 edition) from Palna, his “madre de leche,” in which she explains why she has suddenly left him, whom she calls her “only consolation.” She begs him to have patience until she can make full explanation. Sagastes has persuaded her with promises and gifts to become the confidante of his sister Dardenea, whom Disteo loves. After some time Disteo replies to Palna (p. 400), pardoning her desertion.

Because of his love for Dardenea, Disteo avoids all companionship and is sunk in melancholy. Attributing his plight to her absence, Palna is deeply grieved and writes him a letter (p. 401, not given in full), reminding him of his promise to be patient. She exhorts him to banish his sorrow and to exercise himself in arms. Disteo replies to this (p. 401, not in full) that since she is near his Dardenea, he is content. Finally, at his request, she arranges a tryst with Dardenea. He disguises himself as Palna's nephew Placindo, whose place he takes as the bodyguard of Sagastes, about to engage in a fierce nocturnal adventure. Thanks to Disteo, Sagastes is successful and is proclaimed a hero.

The following day Disteo sends a letter to Palna (p. 414), describing the adventure. Palna, in turn, relates the whole story to Dardenea, who, thinking her honor involved, forbids Disteo her house. She relents only after Disteo has acquired a reputation throughout the kingdom for his heroic deeds.

Disteo writes Palna again, enclosing a letter for Dardenea. But Palna, not daring to deliver the missive directly, resorts to a cunning trick. She arouses Dardenea's curiosity by shutting herself continually in her room. Dardenea, having discovered that Palna is engaged in reading and writing letters, one day undertakes a search for the epistles, and this is what she finds (pp. 420ff.):

(1) Letter from Disteo to Palna, in which he laments her loss and begs her to give Dardenea the enclosed note.

(2) Letter from Palna to Disteo, in reply to (1), in which Palna thanks him for his kind thoughts, but will return his note lest it displease her mistress.

(3) Letter from Disteo to Dardenea (in terza rima), in which he writes that he is bidden by Amor to admonish her lest she anger Cupid or Nature. If she will not requite his love, he will seek death.

Aroused, Dardenea addresses him (pp. 425-428, terza rima) as “el más de los hombres atrevido.” If she thought a reply were dishonorable, she would sooner take up the sword to find death than the pen to answer him. Relenting somewhat, she says she cannot prevent his loving her; if he uses force she must needs consent in spite of herself. But since hope is uncertain, and evil and harm are sure to result, it would be better to “open the door to forgetfulness and disdain.”

Now Palna, who has been allowed to read this reply, sends another letter to Disteo (p. 428), lest Dardenea's harshness discourage him. She urges him to persevere, since his beginning is so favorable. Dardenea, however, will not consent to speak with Disteo until he promises to marry her. After the exchange of many more letters (p. 428, not noted individually), Disteo expresses his desire to wed her, and he is allowed to see her one evening. Discovering that Palna has unwittingly left the door unlocked, Disteo returns furtively to his beloved. Later Dardenea's brother enters the room unexpectedly, but Disteo, with more ingenuity than clothing, manages to escape unrecognized. A happy ending is indicated when the two lovers and Palna flee from the closely guarded city to live the peaceful life of shepherds.

Although this romance was cast into the bonfire in the examination of Don Quixote's library because the author had not followed the plan of Montemayor, it is of greater interest for our purposes than the Diana itself.

We may pass by Montalvo's Pastor de Fílida (5 letters), Cervantes' Galatea (10 letters), and many others, but we owe some attention to Lope de Vega's Arcadia (1598). This pastoral begins with a rhapsodic love letter from the shepherd Anfriso to his love Belisarda (pp. 92-95 in the 1653 edition). Belisarda answers fondly (p. 104), telling him that she is to be alone that evening, and sending him a lock of hair.

But Anfriso has rivals who make his life miserable. He goes off into the mountains to forget his shepherdess, sending two shepherd boys to keep him posted on events in town. They write him a full account, with special emphasis on the constancy of Belisarda. In the solitude of his retreat, Anfriso is consoled by reading the innumerable letters from his love. But the shepherd boys bring him news of Belisarda's departure for Cilene. Anfriso finds means to write to her, and she replies (p. 109). Then Anfriso, reassured by her letters, abandons the mountains and journeys to Cilene. Shortly after his arrival he receives a letter from Belisarda (p. 109) saying that she is arranging to meet him. They spend several days in festivities and entertainment, nevertheless still exchanging love letters (p. 116).

Then Belisarda asks Anfriso, for the sake of their mutual tranquillity, to leave her. Dressed as a pilgrim, the sorrowful shepherd wends his way to Italy, and the rest of the story deals with his wanderings. The unfaithful Belisarda marries another.

Though many of the letters in the Arcadia are not given in full, their contents are indicated. This was the common practice in writing pastorals, which were not generally of great length. Occasionally, however, we find the letters given in their entirety, as they are in the heroic-gallant novels of the XVIIth century. One of these rare exceptions is Antonio de lo Frasso's Diez libros de fortuna de amor (1573). This work is less episodic than the ordinary and has a connected plot, which is, however, too long to be included here.

Although the Diez libros de fortuna de amor is ridiculed by Cervantes (El Quijote, I, 6) and characterized by Ticknor (III, 45, n.) as “absurd” and full of “so much bad verse,” nevertheless, so far as it relates to the epistolary genre, it has more merits than any of the other pastorals. It is free from the host of disconcerting and disrupting episodes that characterize the type. It can therefore develop its own action, scanty as that may be, to its full extent, and give free play to a long series of letters and verses which would probably have found only passing mention in the condensed episodes of other pastorals.

It is interesting to note the methods employed by the very late pastoral writers, such as Florian (1755-94). By the middle of the XVIIIth century, the pastoral had long since fallen into disrepute. The very name of the pastoral was somniferous: “dès que l'on annonce un ouvrage dont les héros sont des bergers, il semble que ce nom seul donne envie de dormir.”9 The cause of this “dégout” for the shepherd romances was probably their remoteness from real life, their prolixity, and their countless episodic digressions. Florian therefore reduced his charming Galatée written in imitation of Cervantes' Galatea to one hundred pages, about one-third the length of the original, and inserted but one letter; his Estelle (132 pages) likewise contains but one.10 This paucity of inserted missives is partly due to the fact that the letter device had long since become strong enough to exist independently, and had therefore been dismissed from the romance to form an entity of its own. The pastorals had contributed their part toward the development of the epistolary genre. They adopted the letter from the sentimental and erotic romances,11 kept or increased its vigor, then passed it on to the heroic-gallant novels. The important channel through which the letter was conveyed to these XVIIth-century romances is the pastoral par excellence, the Astrée.


  1. Such is the copy in the Ticknor collection (Boston Public Library).

  2. Cf. Orígenes, I:cccxxxviii.

  3. Singer, for example, in his recent work The Epistolary Novel (1933), not only ignores the existence of the Processo but makes this rash statement (p. 214): “… no great literature, with the possible exception of the Spanish, seems to have escaped completely from the [epistolary] impulse.” It might be noted here that the picaresque novel, engendered in Spain, may well have contributed its share of intimate narrative in the first person to the popularity of the equally self-revealing memoirs, journal-books and letters which eventually led to the epistolary novel.

  4. Venetia, Fr. Rampazetto (1563), ed. by Francesco Sansovino. Reynier (p. 256, note 3) mentions a collection of letters that appeared in Venice in 1562: Lettere amorose di Mad. Celia scritte al suo amante. This exceedingly rare work I have not seen.

  5. In the preface to the 1563 edition, Francesco Sansovino states his purpose in publishing the letters: to expose woman's fickleness in affairs of the heart and to warn noblemen against the snares of love. He thinks the following moral may be drawn from the work:

    che lo huomo nobilissimo tra tutte l'altre cose del mondo, mal fa quando si dà in preda all'affetto amoroso, & che egli dee cercare di spendere il tempo in cose di valore & non d'Amore, & ch'il Petrarca ben disse il vero quando lasciò scritto,

    Femina è cosa mobil per natura
    Ond' io so ben ch'un amoroso stato
    In cor di donna picciol tempo dura.
  6. Cf. Wiese and Pèrcopo, Geschichte der ital. Litt. (1899), p. 379.

  7. “… le origini del romanzo epistolare sono italiane; noi avemmo le Lettere amorose di Alvise Pasqualigo sin dal 1569.”

  8. Albertazzi, p. 57, and Letter 416.

  9. Cf. Florian, Œuvres (Paris, 1838), I:162.

  10. Ibid., I, Galatée (1783), Estelle (1788).

  11. The French sentimental novel at the turn of the century looks back to works already discussed; space prohibits mention of their relatively unimportant imitations.


Albertazzi, A. Romanzieri e romanzi del cinquento e del seicento (Bologna, 1891).

Florian. Œuvres (Paris, 1838).

Natali, G. Il Settecento (Storia letteraria d'Italia, Milan, 1929, 2 vols.).

Pasqualigo, Alvise. Delle Lettere amorose libri due (ed. F. Sansovino, Venetia, 1563).

Reynier, G. Le Roman sentimental avant l'Astrée (Paris, 1908).

Segura, Juan de. Processo de cartas de amores que entre dos amantes passaron (Venice, 1553).

Singer, G. F. The Epistolary Novel, Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence (Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1933).

Ticknor, George. History of Spanish Literature (New York, 1849, 3 vols.).

Wiese and Pèrcopo. Geschichte der italienischen Litteratur (1899).

Dorothy R. Thelander (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3078

SOURCE: Introduction to Laclos and the Epistolary Novel, Librairie Droz, 1963, pp. 11-17.

[In the following introduction to her study of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses, Thelander discusses in general terms why the epistolary form was thought to be more realistic than narrative fiction and how it allowed the author to depict characters from multiple perspectives.]

Today, so few epistolary novels are published that we tend to forget that the genre is more than another eighteenth-century phenomenon like the mania for parfilage which, one year, threatened all the epaulettes of Paris. Long before Richardson, the basic premises of the novel by letters had been established; the techniques employed by eighteenth-century writers cannot be considered as original. Ancient models were known and copied during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when other forerunners of the epistolary novel were composed. Ovid's Heroides, a series of letters in verse from heroines of literature, history, and mythology to their absent lovers which contain the entire story of the romance in a few lines, went through twenty-five editions or reprints before 1789, according to the Bibliothèque Nationale catalog; the translations of Octavien de Saint Gelais were reprinted seven times by 1546. There were even new “heroides” written by Radulf de la Tourte,1 Guilbert de Nogent,2 and Baudri de Bourgueil. The replies from the lovers to three of the letters composed by the fifteenth-century poet Angelus Sabinus3 were popularly attributed to Ovid himself. It is against this tradition that is much older than the eighteenth century that Laclos wrote Les Liaisons dangereuses and it is against this background of continued use that his novel (or any other epistolary novel) must be assessed.

In order to write an epistolary novel, an author must be able to see that real or fictional letters can be arranged in a series in order to carry the narrative element of a story. By this definition, there were no classical epistolary novels which survived to influence later fiction, although Reinhold Merkelbach believes that one of the sources of the Life of Alexander of Macedon in the Pseudo-Callisthenes version (c. 300 A.D.) was an epistolary novel composed about 100 B.C.4 Letters were used for brief narration in the Bible and in early Christian literature, as well as in the Greek letter collections of ælian and Alciphron. The letters of Héloïse and Abelard, which contain narrative portions, were so immensely popular that they were retranslated and rewritten straight through the eighteenth century. One of the weapons in the Reuchlin case was a collection of satiric letters called the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum, where there is occasional narration. Writers of seventeenth-century romances even followed the Greek tradition when they used letters within their narrative to emphasize important facts or events or to add to the credibility of their stories.

In the previous paragraph, no distinction was made between fictional letters and real letters because the emphasis has been on the letter as a popular form which could be used for narration. Before discussing the peculiar properties of the epistolary novel, it might be well to define the fictional letter and to consider its stylistic requirements. A real love letter may contain an extravagant account of the beloved's charms, employing all of the stock metaphors; it may even be written in verse. At least in the eyes of the writer and recipient, it is not a fictional letter. The short essay with a salutation and a complimentary close is also not automatically a fictional letter: if the writer and recipient are both real people who use the mail services of their time to communicate, it is a special category of the real letter. Thus Voltaire's letter to Rousseau on “natural man” is a real letter. A fictional letter may be either well or poorly written, just as a real letter may be. The basic characteristic of a fictional letter is that either the writer or the recipient are not historical people, or that the historical personage to whom the letter is attributed did not write it. In short, the only way in which a fictional letter is distinguished from the real one is that it is fiction.

However, the fictional letter loses its effectiveness unless the reader is willing to forget for the moment that what he is reading is not a real letter. The fictional letter must thus meet various criteria of credibility. The most obvious method of judging the letter is its length, as Frank Gees Black has said.5 While our practical experience tells us that the amount of time any individual can and will devote to correspondence varies, still, when we are asked to believe that the heroine of Mme Riccoboni's Lettres d'Adélaïde de Dammartin writes a letter equivalent to over twenty printed pages, we may well be incredulous. In contrast to the relatively short letters in early epistolary fiction, those in the eighteenth-century novels tend to excessive length either in their own right or by the inclusion of diaries and journals faithfully copied by the characters to provide their correspondents with background. Though the real letters of the period were often long, the writers at least seemed aware that they might tire or bore the recipients, as shown by Diderot's repeated apologies to Sophie Volland. The eighteenth-century fictional-letter-writer tended to be immune to writer's cramp and insensitive to his reader.

Besides length, there are other criteria which we apply to epistolary fiction, consciously or unconsciously. The author of the letters in III Maccabees, for example, was careful to observe the correct chancellory form in order to give to his epistles the outward trappings of reality. On a more subtle level, while Ovid's claim to have been the originator of a new literary form in the Heroides “Vel tibi composita cantetor epistola uoce / Ignotum hoc aliis ille nouauit opus,” Ars Amandi, iii, 345) may be disputed, these imaginary letters establish the basic criteria of style in epistolary fiction. Ovid took the idea for the Heroides from the grammarians and rhetors under whom he had studied.6 With the rhetors, he had composed monologues or speeches for a designated person employing language suitable to their social position, age, and emotion. Substituting letter for speech, the bases for inner reality and for characterization in the epistolary novel are established. These criteria, unconsciously used by the reader, even became critical weapons in the late seventeenth century during the British phase of the Querelle des anciens et des modernes, as when Bentley argued against the authenticity of the epistles of Phalaris because of inconsistencies in the letters themselves.

Thus, the letters in an epistolary novel define the character of the fictional author by their style. If an author is to take full advantage of the documentary aspect of the letter, he must place his characters in such a situation that the letters they write are credible. Although we may wonder at the high degree of literacy among Alciphron's farmers and fishermen, once we grant this premise, there is nothing illogical about their letters. By contrast, as has been pointed out so often, the letter which Saint-Preux writes in Julie's boudoir is not credible.

The correspondence in an epistolary novel must somehow be motivated. This is only one of the technical problems facing the author. Another is the relationship between the letterwriters and the plot—are the characters writing about events which they have witnessed or in which they have taken part? Obviously, the letterwriter can be completely removed from the events which he supposedly narrates, but then the epistolary form loses part of its strength. There is also the “time lapse” problem. Events must be arranged in such a way that the narrator or narrators seem to be kept busy narrating. One solution is simply to indicate the passage of time by a change in the date assigned to the letter. A second is to insert material, not necessarily connected with the main plot, so that time may seem to pass for the reader. The addition of diaries of comparative strangers in some eighteenth-century novels can be directly traced to the need of the author to give his main characters time to travel or for the plot to develop behind the scenes without abruptly shifting dates and thus confusing the reader. And, if more than one person is narrating, the author must somehow arrange his correspondents so that the same event is never seen twice in the same way. One solution here is to have a supposed editor who tells the reader in a footnote that he had deleted useless letters. Another, which presents far more interesting possibilities, is to utilize the double narration, as Alciphron did, either by permitting one character to write two contradictory letters or two characters to write from different points of view, allowing the reader to make up his own mind about the event.

Although the epistolary technique, with its stylistic requirements, is surely not the easiest way to tell a story, it does present subtle possibilities to the skilful writer. A letter is a personal document—it is written by one individual with a definite personality which he reveals consciously or unconsciously. We need not go as far as Giraudoux in saying that a letter is in essence a confession or an improvisation;7 yet, at the same time, a letter is written to someone with another personality, with whom the author is attempting to communicate for some purpose. He tries to place his case before the recipient in such a way that the latter will be moved to accept the writer's position or to take the action which the writer desires. In the case of a letter to a distant friend, the writer is usually looking only for a sympathetic audience or for advice which he will find acceptable. When the recipient is in a position to help the writer actively, it is most important for him to realize what the writer is attempting to do.

In this way, the letter presents a dual abstraction from reality. Events are first passed through the prism of the writer's own personality then through a second prism: his knowledge of the recipient's character and his desire to influence him. It is more than a question of varying social distance, as M. Seylaz8 claims; the social distance maintained is a result of the wish to exert pressure on the recipient. In this sense, there would be, at least in theory, a difference between an epistolary novel which presents only one side of a single correspondence and a novel in the form of a diary. We do agree with M. Seylaz that the major strength of the epistolary technique lies in its ability to present several views of an evolving situation. They may come from the same person, a device used as early as Alciphron in his three Baccis letters; many individuals may give us a picture of a single person, as in the guilt-by-association technique of the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum; or they may be combined so that we get multiple views of several individuals.

If the author of an epistolary novel has been successful in his creation of illusion, the reader, at least for the moment, accepts the letters as documents. From the multiple views, he must create his own version of the truth and must correct it as he goes along with the new information he receives. While in a sense the reader may be said to recreate any novel for himself, he does so with minimal guidance from the author in this genre, much as he is forced in daily life to probe not only what is said or written or done by several people, but what is omitted. M. Seylaz, has corrected the opinion of Yvon Belaval that the flowering of the epistolary technique in the eighteenth century reflects the social preoccupation with memoirs and letters. M. Seylaz suggests that the authors wanted to make us forget that they were makers of stories in order to give us the illusion of communicating directly with real people and to take no responsibility for the work vis-à-vis the reader (pp. 15-16). Both of these suggestions are attractive, but there is a third reason for the appeal of the epistolary technique which lies in the special relationship between the reader and the novel. Throughout the “Eloge de Richardson,” Diderot elaborates in a more sophisticated fashion his early statement: “Combien de fois ne me suis-je pas surpris, comme il est arrivé à des enfants qu'on avait mené au spectacle pour la première fois, criant: Ne le croyez pas, il vous trompe …”9 The illusion of reality is complete for Diderot. The growth of the scientific spirit, the developing interest in man related to his environment throughout the eighteenth century meant an increasing importance for factual evidence. From the Biblical examples onwards, letters are documents, the exhibits which the lawyer produces to prove his case.

Yet neither the strengths of the epistolary technique nor its continuing popularity from Ovid to the writers of historical romances quite prepare us for the “after Pamela, the deluge” effect which sets literary historians to tracing the family trees of the four major works in the genre which appear in the eighteenth century at about twenty-year intervals: Les Lettres persanes (1721), Pamela (1740), La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), and Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). The familiar story that Richardson sat down to compose a manual on the art of writing letters and ended up with Pamela hides a premise which is perhaps more instructive than the novel: people, not necessarily of the highest classes, were sufficiently interested in writing letters themselves to buy a book that would tell them how.10 Writers could cater to this interest and turn an ancient form into a stylish genre.

Something is needed to produce an epistolary novel besides the idea that a letter can narrate and that it can be faked. Unless that novel is to be nothing more than a first-person narrative in long installments, the writer must be able to mirror a society in which people can and do communicate with each other by means of letters with some degree of ease. One extreme form of this problem appears in Mme de Graffigny's Lettres d'une Péruvienne, a very popular eighteenth-century epistolary novel. The thoughts expressed in the letters by the young Peruvian exposed to western civilization for the first time seem perfectly natural. We do not even doubt that messages were common among the Peruvians. However, even in a world where machines can be fed complicated instructions with only two signals, the idea that quipus (cords with knotted strings) could be used to record such nuanced thoughts is slightly ridiculous.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a climate was developing in England and in France in which an epistolary novel would not seem like a science fiction story. The crude postal systems of the Middle Ages and Renaissance were turning into efficient organizations delivering mail on a regular basis. By 1677, the British postal system was well organized, and the London Penny Post was founded in 1680. In France, the postal system was first formed in 1672. However, it was not until 1758 that the Parisian Petite-Poste was established.11

Once a postal system is in common use, it is possible to write an epistolary novel with someone other than Alexander the Great as the hero. The success of such a novel will depend in part on the degree to which letters do imitate real life. It caters to that very human desire to read other people's mail. M. Seylaz has constructed a theory about the appeal of the epistolary novel, especially Les Liaisons dangereuses, based on eroticism in which the reader becomes a sophisticated voyeur.12 While the Peeping Tom element may be concealed in the pleasure derived from reading another's letters, the late seventeenth-century British “rifled mailbox” collections, the popularity of the travel letter where the sexual element is often minimal, and the severe penalties imposed by law for tampering with the mail all suggest that people will read almost anything provided that they are not the addressees.


  1. On Radulf or Raoul de La Tourte, see F. J.. E. Raby, A History of Secular Latin Poetry from the Beginnings to the Close of the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1934) II, 23.

  2. On Guilbert de Nogent, see Phyllis Abrahams, Les Œuvres poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil (Paris, 1926), p. 37.

  3. J. Wright Duff, A Literary History of Rome … (London, 1909), p. 592.

  4. Die Quellen des Griechischen Alexanderromans (Munich, 1954), p. 188.

  5. The Epistolary Novel in the Late Eighteenth Century, a Descriptive and Bibliographical Study (Eugene, 1940), p. 8.

  6. Ovid, Heroides (Paris, 1928), tr. Marcel Prévost, ed. Henri Bonecque, p. xi.

  7. Jean Giraudoux, “Choderlos de Laclos,” Littérature (Paris, 1941), p. 67. Mme de Merteuil really answers this definition when she writes to Cécile (Letter CV, Vol. III, p. 119): “Vous écrivez toujours comme un enfant. Je vois bien d'où cela vient; c'est que vous dites tout ce que vous pensez, et rien de ce que vous ne pensez pas.” Miriam Allott, Novelists on the Novel (New York, 1959), p. 189 concludes that the genre is excellent for the “interpretation of private feeling and the power of individual self-expression,” and that “it was handled best by the French novelists—most devastatingly, perhaps, by Choderlos de Laclos … in Les Liaisons Dangereuses …, where it served with splendid success his Gallic gift for the unflinching analysis of devious motive and perverse emotion.”

  8. Jean-Luc Seylaz, “Les Liaisons dangereuses” et la création romanesque chez Laclos (Geneva, 1958), p. 61.

  9. Denis Diderot, Œuvres, ed. André Billy (Paris, 1946), p. 1090.

  10. Rudolph Hercher, ed., Epistolographi Graeci (Paris, 1873), pp. 6-12 gives the classifications (41) and examples of letters of Proclius Platonicus (7th century A.D.?). These examples are, however, quite different from later ones as this sample love letter will show: “Amo, amo per Themidem, pulchram tuam et amabilem formam, nec pudet me amoris: nam pulchras amare non est turpe. Sin autem qui omnio me reprehendat ut amantem, rursus ut pulchram petentem praedicet.” (p. 12).

  11. One of the reasons Mme de Merteuil gives for forcing Cécile's mother to take her to the country is that she might think of using the Petite Poste for her letters to Danceny.

  12. Seylaz, pp. 22-23, observes that Valmont often refers to the drafts of his letters. How much this reflects Laclos' need to give some logical explanation for their existence in the collection and how much the desire to inform us that these letters are not to be read as spontaneously written documents, as M. Seylaz feels, might be disputed.

Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11257

Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Eighteenth Century Epistolary Body and the Public Sphere,” in Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 5-29.

[In the following excerpt, Cook discusses Charles Louis de Montesquieu's 1721 Lettres persanes, Samuel Richardson's 1747 Clarissa, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni's 1757 Fanni Butlerd, and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, works which, she argues, illustrate the epistolary genre's evolving concern for the boundaries between public and private domains.]


If the rhetorical structure of the letter always makes us ask, “Who writes, and to whom?”, the eighteenth-century letter-narrative provokes a more specific question: “What does it mean to write from the crossroads of public and private, manuscript and print, at this particular historical moment?”

In his essay “What Is an Author?” Michel Foucault makes an assertion about the forms I explore in this study that suggests some provisional responses.

The author's name manifests the appearance of a certain discursive set and indicates the status of this discourse within a society and a culture. It has no legal status, nor is it located in the fiction of the work; rather, it is located in the break that founds a certain discursive construct and its very particular mode of being. As a result, we could say that in a civilization like our own there are a certain number of discourses that are endowed with the “author function,” while others are deprived of it. A private letter may well have a signer—it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor—it does not have an author. … The author function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society.1

Foucault's essay is intended to serve as “an introduction to the historical analysis of discourse,” an analysis sensitive to transformations in both the “author function” and in the narratives legitimated by that function.2 The eighteenth-century epistolary fictions examined here, however, make it necessary to reconsider Foucault's claim that letters and contracts are among discourses lacking the “author function.” The Letters persanes, Clarissa, Fanni Butlerd, and Letters from an American Farmer challenge both Foucault's historical chronology and his taxonomy of the author function. In the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century, I argue here, a “discursive set” existed that coordinated the concept of authorship with both of the written forms that Foucault claims exclude it “in a civilization like our own.”

Not coincidentally, Foucault's categorization of modern discourses matches the conventional division of human experience into separate orders of public and private, a division that was consolidated and naturalized in the course of the eighteenth century. Against the swarm of public print forms that proliferated in the early decades of the century, the letter became an emblem of the private; while keeping its actual function as an agent of the public exchange of knowledge, it took on the general connotations it still holds for us today, intimately identified with the body, especially a female body, and the somatic terrain of the emotions, as well as with the thematic material of love, marriage, and the family. In the same period, the contract became the representative instrument of that other great aspect of the private, the range of economic activities we still call “private enterprise.”3 In general, literary critics are only now beginning to analyze more attentively the connections between on the one hand the capitalist economic system, formalized by the late-seventeenth-century financial revolution, and on the other the nuclear family, affirmed by eighteenth-century culture: the two major divisions of the domain of the private acknowledged by the Enlightenment.

As a result of being at last so thoroughly identified with the private order, the cultural history of both letter and contract has rarely been acknowledged or explored. It is often assumed that they have always been the private, “authorless” discourses Foucault describes, transparent forms that signify only constatively. In the eighteenth century, however, on the cusp between manuscript and print cultures, both these forms came into prominence in the cultural imagination. Functioning symbolically as well as semantically, they operated not to reflect a preexisting subjectivity but rather to produce and organize it in various ways. In so doing, they also delineate the modern historical trajectory of the metaphor of the Republic of Letters and of the citizen-critic who inhabits that republic. The Letters persanes (1721) uses the polyphonic epistolary form to train its readers in the new critical activities proper to subjects of the Republic of Letters. In Clarissa (1747-48), Richardson co-opts and reconstructs Montesquieu's public sphere of letters as a “quasi public” modeled on the affective relations of the private family. Where Richardson's novel exploits the ideology of the private, Fanni Butlerd (1757) exposes its crippling effects and transforms voyeuristic readers of private letters into parties to a (feminist) literary contract. Near the end of the century, the Letters from an American Farmer (1782) mourns the collapse of the public sphere that made such a contract theoretically possible. In each case, the forms of letter and contract not only define the boundaries of authorship but also construe their readers in very specific ways in relation to the categories of public and private.

In response to Foucault's definition of authorship, then, we can draw two counterconclusions for the study of eighteenth-century epistolarity. First, the eighteenth century was in important ways not “a civilization like our own,” and the real historical and cultural differences should not be flattened out when we read texts from the period. Second, those discursive modes haunting the borders or margins of established literary taxonomies, such as the epistolary narrative, constitute the richest terrain for the exploration of such differences.

The epistolary genre was central to the construction and definition of the categories of public and private that we have inherited from Enlightenment social and political traditions, and to the construction and definition of the bodies held properly to inhabit those categories. However, in part because an ideological investment in the existence of a gendered private order continued to deepen in the post-Enlightenment period, the critical histories of the narratives I examine here have consistently returned them to the realm of the private from which their characters strive, in different ways, to free themselves. This critical relocation persisted even though, in each case, the narrative of epistolarity that accompanies the epistolary narrative clearly claims its place in the Enlightenment public sphere.4 In order to elude the hermeneutic cul-de-sac produced by this ideological effect, eighteenth-century epistolary fictions must be read both through and against that Enlightenment cultural framework. By expanding formalist models of epistolarity in the directions to which Foucault points, examining such specific institutions of eighteenth-century print culture as the author function, the literary public sphere, and the ideal of the citizen-critic, we can begin to recover the full epistolary body of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters.


Eighteenth-century epistolary fictions allow us to examine the Enlightenment ideal of a Republic of Letters precisely because the letter-narrative exposes the private body to publication.5 The letter-narrative is formally and thematically concerned with competing definitions of subjectivity: it puts into play the tension between the private individual, identified with a specifically gendered, classed body that necessarily commits it to specific forms of self-interest, and the public person, divested of self-interest, discursively constituted, and functionally disembodied. This is the citizen-critic who is the proper subject of the Republic of Letters.

Jürgen Habermas's groundbreaking sociological work The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962) defined the invention of a certain kind of publicness as the central event of Enlightenment.6 If the private spaces of the conjugal family and of commodity exchange (the market) are opposed to the public terrain of the court and the modern state, then the “public sphere” (as Habermas's Öffentlichkeit has been translated) refers to a social space that is independent of both the private and the public categories of human experience. …7

As Habermas describes it, the public sphere itself develops out of and remains structurally related to the realm of the private, but the crucial distinction between the two lies in his definition of the public sphere as a zone in which participants leave behind that self-interestedness that necessarily enters into their consideration of matters of production and reproduction. Private individuals come together in the public sphere as citizens employing disinterested reason to consider matters of public concern. The innovativeness, and indeed the optimism, of Habermas's model stands out against other theories of modern publicness. For example, Hannah Arendt claims that the classical distinction between public and private is corrupted by the rise of what she calls the “social,” the realm of “housekeeping,” as she also tendentiously terms it.8 The current revaluation of so-called women's work would require us to rethink Arendt's dismissive assessment of this category of experience even had Habermas not mapped out the radical inversion of values that distinguishes classical notions of public and private from those of the Enlightenment. In the Greek model, the private stands as the space of deprivation, against which the public represents the space of freedom for the self. In contrast, in early modern Europe the idea began to take hold that only in the private realm of the affectively organized family did one evolve an “authentic” subjectivity. Now the privileges of privacy were to be defended against the encroachment of the state.

For Habermas, then, the public sphere existed in eighteenth-century Europe as a conceptual space in which reasoning individuals, abstracted from their private interests, arrived at a consensus on public affairs through their discussions, letters, speeches, books, and essays. This free, rational, and disinterested consensus effectively counterbalanced the growing influence of state- and class-based institutions and of conflicting private interest groups until its dissolution under the pressures of market capitalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century.9

Habermas does not acknowledge, however, that while the Enlightenment public sphere was ostensibly accessible to every literate human being, it functionally excluded subjects who were not white upper-class males. Here the limitations of Structural Transformation can be addressed by incorporating into public sphere theory the central insight of feminist criticism that these categories of human experience were constituted as gendered even as they evolved. Eighteenth-century epistolary fictions, formally and thematically preoccupied with the gendered private body as they are, necessitate the revision of Habermas's model on these grounds.10

Of particular importance to literary studies is Habermas's argument that the spread of literacy and the informal practice of amateur literary and art criticism in the salons, coffeehouses, and reading societies of Enlightenment Europe prepared the grounds for the forms of political critique that led to full civic engagement: the Republic of Letters made possible the political republics of the late eighteenth century.11 Especially in the last decade, critics have begun to explore the extent to which eighteenth-century literature was conscious of its intimate relation to the structures, conventions, and material bases of the public sphere, to the political contexts of liberalism and nationalism as these evolved in the course of the century, and to the new forms of subjectivity, including both the citizen-critic and the private individual, that inhabited these spaces.

From this perspective, however, a problem arises with Habermas's description of the historical trajectory of the public sphere. Although Habermas does not consistently do so, it is both legitimate and essential to distinguish between the public sphere in the world of letters and the public sphere in the political realm. Habermas's failure to distinguish between these two is the more striking in that his own analysis brilliantly shows that precisely this conflation is the foundation of liberal ideology. The emphasis of Structural Transformation is in general on the political, whereas my study is focused on the literary; as a result, the two projects propose different chronologies of the public sphere. For Habermas, between the 1770s and the 1870s, “civil society as the private sphere [was] emancipated from the directives of public authority to such an extent that at that time the political public sphere could attain its full development in the bourgeois constitutional state,” particularly in British parliamentarianism,12 In contrast, I focus here on the transnational ideal of a literary public sphere, formulated in part in epistolary fictions between the 1720s and the 1770s. I am of course concerned with the political resonances implicit in the metaphor of the Republic of Letters, and the last chapter of this work examines the rupture between literary and political public spheres in revolutionary America, but my study remains bounded by the Enlightenment ideal of the public sphere, which could not be accommodated by the nationalist cultures that increasingly shaped political states from around 1775.

Other important differences not discussed by Habermas between the public sphere of letters and the political public sphere appear when public sphere theory is reread from a feminist perspective, as I have already suggested. At the simplest level, one difference is evident in the fact that many individuals who did claim access to a literary public sphere were excluded from the political public sphere under British parliamentarianism and American and French constitutionalism. The full rights of citizenship institutionalized by the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of the Rights of Man were generally limited to white property-owning males and invoked a far less inclusive notion of citizenship than did the model of open access to the domain of reason implicit in the Enlightenment metaphor of the public sphere.

The elision of sex and class in Habermas's early formulation of the public sphere explains the insistence here on the body in print culture. Consider again the example of Lady Bradshaigh's Clarissa, described in the Introduction, which simultaneously invokes and resists the model of the citizen-critic's disembodied disinterestedness. Here the gendered private body and its desires, literalized by Bradshaigh's scrawl, are insistently held before our eyes against the publicity and the decorporealization implicit in the printed text. The extended, marginalized letter that is Bradshaigh's impassioned critique makes present by analogy the private letters of Clarissa, Lovelace, the Harlowes, Belford, and Anna that are understood to lie behind the published book and to sustain its public form. Other eighteenth-century letter-narratives manifest the same oscillation between private and public, script and print, which is also implicitly an oscillation between a corporealized, gendered writing subject and the disembodied voice of the citizen-critic.

The eighteenth-century epistolary novel played an important part in the reconfiguration and redefinition of concepts of private and public, for it represents the paradoxical intersection of these apparently opposed orders. Consisting of personal letters, very often those of women, that are brought into the public sphere of print culture, epistolary narratives are necessarily concerned with determining the boundaries of public and private—and with questions of gender and corporealization that are inextricably involved in this definition. Indeed, as I'll argue, the oscillation exemplified in Bradshaigh's Clarissa is formally as well as thematically inherent in the genre at this historical moment, in which broad social redefinitions of bodies and subjectivities, and of the spaces that these properly inhabit, are evolving with and against each other in the context of the institutions and material bases of print culture.13 The modern body-subject, as we might call it—that notion of the self as represented and bounded by the body and what it does and makes—is brought into play in epistolary narratives in particularly rich and complicated ways. Inflecting these are the concepts of public and private, bound up with liberal political theory as it evolved in this period, and such associated notions as publicity, publication, privacy, privilege, and privation. The ways in which eighteenth-century letter narratives deploy this constellation of concepts maps out the definition, contestation, and eventual collapse of the Enlightenment ideal of the public sphere; in this sense, the epistolary narrative is the central cultural form of Enlightenment.14


The death of the Father would deprive literature of many of its pleasures. If there is no longer a Father, why tell stories?

—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text

I have seen the morals of my time, and I have published these letters.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse

The modern outlines of the cultural categories of public and private took shape in the eighteenth century. The concept of publicness is necessarily defined against the complementary notion of the private; like all oppositional pairs, public and private make up a cultural system, a connotational network that with the rise of print culture began to implicate such related ideas as publication and publicity. Among the philosophical and political theories and the sociological and technological developments that affected how these categories were understood, the accelerating growth of print culture around the beginning of the century is especially significant. This is because the Enlightenment ideal of a public sphere was supported by a discursive network of publications: letters, speeches, sermons, treatises, engravings, political cartoons, books, broadsheets, and essays, all widely circulated in print. Together these made up the visible manifestation of the eighteenth-century Republic of Letters.

In what follows, I connect the ideas of public and private implicit in the metaphor of the Republic of Letters with one of the important myths of liberal political theory, a narrative about the origins of the civil state that was most clearly articulated in Great Britain near the end of the seventeenth century, although it had widespread European currency. This myth exposes a key difference between earlier notions of the public/private dichotomy and the predominant eighteenth-century model—a difference having to do with a changing sense of the cultural authority of the father.

The narrative goes something like this. For centuries, Western political theory assumed an analogy between paternal authority and that of the ruler and assimilated all power relations to this model. This conventional analogy was strengthened in seventeenth-century absolutist political theory, which assigned to the ruler a power over his subjects as innate and as complete as that of the patriarchal father over his child. Since paternal and political power were analogous, the Father-King was understood to be divinely ordained to rule both as political authority and as head of the family constituted by his people.

In direct opposition to this idea, Enlightenment contractarian theory denied the patriarchal justification of political power.15 As opposed to the assumption of continuity implicit in patriarchal political theory, which imagined no transformation of the basic structure of authority from the origins of mankind to the present, the story of civil origins told by contractarian theory assumed a foundational discontinuity. According to this narrative, the civil state brought into being by the social contract originated in a rupture of the father's patriarchal authority (through his death or replacement). In the ensuing structural reconfiguration, his sons entered into relatively egalitarian contractual relations with one another as brothers. Locke, for example, acknowledges that while patriarchal rule was undoubtedly the general form of government in earliest times, when the “natural” and customary rule of the father was tacitly accepted by members of an extended family, nonetheless a social contract and the civil society that is its product emerged when patriarchal authority was disrupted, by death or otherwise: “But when either the Father died, and left his next Heir for want of Age, Wisdom, Courage, or any other Qualities, less fit for Rule: or where several Families met, and consented to continue together: There, 'tis not to be doubted, but they used their natural freedom, to set up him, whom they judged the ablest, and most likely to Rule well over them.”16

Contractarian theory's disruptive narrative of the origins of civil society has crucial implications for the Enlightenment model of public and private that concerns us here, for it implies the decentering of the paternal role—or, to use Barthes's phrase, the death of the Father. Because the patriarchal Father-King structurally united the domains of government and the family, the dislocation of this figure meant that the political (public) and domestic (private) spheres once conjoined by the body of the patriarch split apart into differentiated domains of human experience, each of which had now to be separately regulated. The fiction of the social contract addresses only the public domain: the contract organizes the political relations of the brothers and produces the civil state, but it does not govern the private domain of the family. Enlightenment political theory provided no comparable fiction to order the family's relations, which were understood to be affectively rather than politically grounded.17 As a result, the emergent domain of private experience, no longer controlled by a larger, unifying social structure, could now be perceived as dangerously unregulated.

In direct contradiction to Barthes's (perhaps ironic) suggestion that narrative is pointless in the absence of the Father, I propose that in fact the telling of stories became much more important after the demise of the authority structures implicit in a patriarchal epistemology. In the extended cultural transition of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the institutions of print culture generally and individual works of literature in particular can be understood as efforts to explain and compensate for the effects of the death of the Father. In particular, the question of how to harness what were now seen as the private energies and appetites of individual men and women was answered not by political theorists but by writers of fiction: the novel, and particularly the epistolary novel, developed as a direct response to a new anxiety about the private at the very heart of the Enlightenment. The private sphere of affective relations required an ordering principle analogous to the social contract that ordered the public, civic domain. Just as the social contract produced citizens of political republics, then, the literary contract of the epistolary novel invented and regulated the post-patriarchal private subject as a citizen of the Republic of Letters.


Genres are essentially literary institutions or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact.

—Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

What was the “proper use” of an epistolary narrative in the eighteenth century? The claim I make about the cultural role of letter-fictions will be more readily accepted if both the epistomological status and something of the discursive range of the letter in eighteenth-century writing are established—if, that is, we specify some aspects of the contract in which Enlightenment readers understood themselves to be participating as they read an epistolary narrative.

The letter as such carried two contradictory sets of connotations in this period. On the one hand, it was considered the most direct, sincere, and transparent form of written communication, a notion expressed in the title of Thomas Forde's early letter-collection Foenestra in pectore, or, Familiar Letters (Window in the breast, or … ; 1660). The same idea is exploited in Lovelace's phony etymology of correspondence: “writing from the heart (without the fetters prescribed by method or study).” It also appears in Dr. Johnson's often-cited remark that “a man's letters … are only the mirror of his breast.” But the letter was simultaneously recognized as the most playful and potentially deceptive of forms, as a stage for rhetorical trickery, the “calm and deliberate performance” that Johnson, reviewing the scandal over the publication of Pope's correspondence, describes in his Life of Pope (1779).18

True to this epistemological ambiguity, in the eighteenth century the letter-form was used in every kind of writing, from scientific treatises to novels, from conduct books to political essays, as well as in exchanges between ordinary people facilitated by the development of postal institutions across Europe.19 The ways in which the letter saturated Enlightenment culture make it clear that studies of eighteenth-century epistolarity must begin by rejecting an anachronistic distinction between literatures of fact and fiction.20 While this dichotomy has become a basic principle of our textual taxonomies, a brief examination of various published uses of the letter in the eighteenth century shows no consistent distinction between “real” and “fictional” letters. Aside from the epistolary novel per se, there were poetical epistles, letters on botany, and monthly newsletters on literature, fashion, and business conditions. Such periodicals as the Gentleman's Magazine and Henry Fielding's Covent-Garden Journal might be largely made up of letters, often generated by the editor to evoke the impression of a community of readers.21 There were travel letters, letter-writing manuals, and letters “from the dead to the living.” There were editions of the letters of classical authors and of a few modern political and literary figures, though it was not yet considered acceptable to publish one's own correspondence during one's life.22 Particularly toward the end of the century, letters became identified with a radical political agenda; published letters appeared under such titles as “An Open Letter to the People of England,” and anonymous unpublished letters threatened landlords with fire and destruction.23

The implications of what I've characterized as the letter-form's ontological ambiguity become clearer when we consider this form's importance in Enlightenment scientific discourse. The letter's contemporary connotations of directness, transparency, and sociability made it arguably the crucial genre of the New Science, for where the tendency of classical and Renaissance natural philosophy had been to devise elaborate universal systems that had to be explained in book-length treatises, the empirical New Science emphasized the proposition and affirmation of limited hypotheses and specific facts. The letter encouraged the swift dissemination of discrete chunks of information such as accounts of individual experiments. Letters could be easily transmitted across national borders, escaping the kinds of censorship imposed on full-length books; they could be rapidly translated into the variety of national languages in which the New Science was now being discussed; and they could be swiftly and inexpensively printed and widely distributed.24

Furthermore, the letter-form encouraged the participation of nonspecialists in scientific endeavors. The correspondence columns of general-interest journals often contained letters on natural history observations or mathematical questions, and submissions to Philosophical Transactions, the journal of the Royal Society, appeared as letters. Under the rubric of epistolary sociability, the correspondence published by these journals composed a scientific community that linked rural subscribers with city dwellers and amateurs with experts.

Book-length scientific works used the letter for similar reasons, and here we begin to see how the implied authenticity of the letter-form, reinforced by its documentary function in the New Science, tended to blur the boundaries, not yet firmly established in the early eighteenth century, between fact and fiction. Arthur Young's The Farmer's Letters to the People of England (1768) recommended the practical agricultural innovations generated by Enlightenment science through the proto-persona of an educated farmer. Gilbert White's Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789), presented as an orderly series of letters, was actually patched together from a variety of sources: formal essays composed for the Royal Society, entries made over a period of thirty years in White's garden note-books and natural-history journals, and scraps of actual correspondence dating back to midcentury. Daniel Defoe's The Storm (1704), a survey of the effects of the previous year's disastrous tempest, combined real letters from correspondents all over Great Britain with supplementary “letters” written by himself under a variety of pseudonyms to round out the report. Its subtitle makes explicit its documentary claim: A Collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters, which happen'd in the late dreadful tempest, both by sea and land, on Friday the twenty-sixth of November, seventeen hundred and three. However, the lengthy, vehement insistence of its preface on the literal authenticity of the letters suggests that readers were deeply suspicious of that authenticity.

These examples of ontological ambiguity are related to the notorious blurring of fact and fiction in what we would now classify as properly literary epistolary works, such as the early editions of Samuel Richardson's letter-novels. Although the prefactory material of Pamela (1740) claims that the text is based on real letters, both the plot and the epistolary form of this novel grew out of an explicitly didactic model-letter manual Richardson was writing. The ontological confusion expands with his later epistolary novels, Clarissa (1747-48) and Sir Charles Grandison (1754): each of these generated extended written exchanges among Richardson's circle of correspondents, who offered advice on the work in progress, detailed their responses to events and characters in the novel, transcribed into their own correspondence useful moral apothegms distilled from the fictional letters, and occasionally wrote as though they were themselves those characters.25

The letter continued to inhabit an indeterminate space between fact and fiction to the end of the century, and this indeterminacy came to be recognized as a characteristic of the genre. Notoriously, both Rousseau in the second preface to Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Choderlos de Laclos in the Publisher's Note and Editor's Preface to Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) ironize the trope of the “real” letter-collection, completing the genre's ontological destabilization. Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) … amalgamates a rich mixture of narrative genres, from the documentary travel account to political allegory disguised as authentic natural history observations to historical and ethnographic anecdotes, framed as an exchange of letters between a simple, ill-educated frontier farmer and a rich and cultured European gentleman.

In the face of such generic variety, the question of whether Crèvecoeur's Letters is “fact” or “fiction” has little pertinence. Although I do not make precisely the same assertion about Pamela or the Liaisons dangereuses, I do suggest that viewing the genre as a continuous spectrum that runs from, say, Selborne at one end to Clarissa and Julie at the other will result in a much richer and more historically accurate understanding of it. In short, I am arguing that, contrary to what is implied by the title of one important modern study of the genre, epistolary narratives are not simply stories “told in letters.”26 Because of their intimate relation to the contexts of print culture, and because of their ontological ambiguity, letter-fictions require a critical apparatus specifically adapted to their formal and thematic idiosyncrasies. In the remainder of this chapter, I define a critical epistolarity to take the place of traditional approaches to epistolary literature.


The need for such a critical apparatus has not always been recognized. Too often, epistolary criticism has been based on assumptions about the genealogies of letter-narratives that distort their contexts, or on anachronistic premises that ignore the contemporary significance of the form or assimilate it to third-person narrative. Surveys of the eighteenth-century novel, for example, often discuss epistolary narrative only as a kind of subplot or parenthesis in the “development” of prose fiction. For the last three decades, accounts of that development have been heavily influenced by Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel (1957). Declaring the novel of “realism” to be the dominant prose-fiction tradition, Watt traces an evolution from Defoe through Richardson, who holds “the central place in the development of the technique of narrative realism,” on to Austen and so through to the great nineteenth-century novelists. Left to languish as cul-de-sacs of this evolutionary model are not only the “stylistic virtues” of Fielding and those British novelists who follow his “external” approach to character but also, even more sweepingly, all of “French fiction from La Princesse de Clèves to Les Liaisons dangereuses,” which, according to Watt, “we feel” to be “too stylish to be authentic.”27

Watt's teleological model of literary development continues to shape recent studies of the novel, even those that recognize the pit-falls of reading eighteenth-century novels as the imperfect precursors of nineteenth-century works. Michael McKeon's magisterial The Origins of the English Novel, 1660-1740 (1987) explicitly positions itself as a revision of Watt's study, redefining the nature and function of literary genres dialectically rather than teleologically. Certainly, McKeon's approach offers a more intricate understanding of the relation between literary works and social contexts than does Watt's model of simple analogy between philosophical and literary “realisms,” and furthermore it provides an explanation of the naturalization of the novel form that does not rely on a retrospective view from Austen's parlor window. Although McKeon begins by surveying a wide range of pre-eighteenth-century prose narratives crucial to the formation of the genre, however, the extended close readings making up the latter part of his book are devoted to British authors already certified as canonical by the academic culture industry: after Cervantes, Bunyan, and Swift comes the triad of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding discussed by Watt. One is left to infer that “the novel” before 1740 was exclusively the product of these writers, for the implications of this selection of authors is not discussed.28

Even as professedly radical a rereading of the diachronic development of the genre as Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel follows Watt's canonical lead. The elision that occurs between Armstrong's title and her subtitle, by means of which “domestic fiction” implicitly comes to stand for “novel,” exemplifies one of the governing critical assumptions about eighteenth-century prose fiction that is problematic in epistolary criticism. Like Watt and McKeon, Armstrong opens her study with a survey of certain extracanonical nonfiction prose forms that help shape the novel—in this case eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conduct books. Again, like Watt's and McKeon's, her close readings are devoted to a very traditional group of British authors: Richardson, Austen, and the Brontës. Her chapter on Pamela borrows Watt's title, “The Rise of the Novel,” without distinguishing her own project from the teleological account of the earlier study.

The juxtaposition of extraliterary discourses with canonical fictions—a strategy that New Historicist critics have employed very effectively—can be a way of challenging the authority of a literary canon. It is particularly useful insofar as that authority has been assumed to derive from an autonomous, ahistorical, and pancultural sphere of literary values that has little or nothing to do with social and political contexts. While challenging the principles by which canonical inclusion is legitimated, however, such a critical practice often ignores the category of literary works that have been excluded. In the case of prose-fiction criticism, the story of the “rise of the novel” still centers almost exclusively on the novels of private life, those drawing on the thematic material of the family, sex, and marriage that is central to what could be called (conflating Watt's and Armstrong's terms) the “realist-domestic novel.” Such a reading presents Samuel Richardson as the ancestor of the novel of private life that is at last perfected in the nineteenth century, rather than as one among a group of eighteenth-century authors who explore the thematic and generic possibilities of the epistolary form in the specific cultural contexts of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters. In contrast, the critical perspective proposed by this study takes Richardson as, among other things, Montesquieu's successor, rather than as merely Austen's precursor.

Along with retrospective constructions of the genre's genealogy, traditional epistolary criticism has essentialized its gender. Since the late seventeenth century, when the astounding popularity of the anonymous Lettres portugaises (1669) was followed by equally popular vernacular translations of the correspondence of Heloise and Abelard, the epistolary genre has been particularly identified with women and with what are often seen as women's concerns. The critical valence of the genre so defined is grounded in a complex ideological arrangement that valorizes “authenticity” and “sincerity” in women's writing, most frequently coded as the ostensibly natural expression of passionate emotion, the model for which can be found in Ovid's Heroïdes and Heloise's letters.29 Despite this more or less respectable ancestry, such values are in many ways at odds with the ideology of professional authorship that came into being with the rise of print culture. Thus epistolary works matching this profile were relegated by generations of professional critics to the second ranks of “literature”—or were simply forgotten.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, literary scholars “rediscovered” epistolary fiction and began to work out critical approaches under two different rubrics that took into account its formal and thematic specificities. On the one hand, feminist criticism exposed the cultural construction of the hierarchies of gender and genre that structure letter-narratives and their reception, and reopened the question of sociohistorical contexts; on the other, the attention of deconstructionist criticism to thematizations of textuality in literary works made accessible a crucial preoccupation of eighteenth-century letter-narratives. The salient example is Jacques Derrida's La carte postale: de Socrate à Freud et au delà (1980), an exploration of what might be called the sublime of epistolary poetics. The Post Card provides what was for a while the epigraph de rigueur for studies of the epistolary genre: “the letter, the epistle, which is not a genre but all genres, literature itself.”30 Appearing on what seems to be the terminal cusp of print culture, Derrida's monologic epistolary text redeploys every trick in the Scriblerian/Sterneian repertoire of typographical puns, from intrusive footnotes to textual gaps of the “hic multa desiderantur” variety. The letter-writer muses on travel, telephoning, and translation; on the history of postal institutions; and on Poe's, Freud's, and Heidegger's relations to epistolary intercourse. A thinnish subplot even works in the generic motif of the missing love letter. But these allusions remain superficial; Derrida's real interest is the perverse textual relation between Plato and Socrates at the heart of Western culture that is exposed on the eponymous postcard. As the phrase cited above indicates, Derrida here uses the letter as a trope for all writing. In contrast, my interest is precisely to distinguish the letter from other literary genres—to define its epistolarity—within Enlightenment print culture.

While feminist criticism and deconstruction made epistolary narratives legible again, they sometimes did so by simply inverting the hierarchy of values that formerly marginalized the epistolary novel, producing similarly limited definitions of the genre. Consider the critical history of Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721) as a case study. Scholarship on the Lettres persanes has perennially focused on the question of genre. For many years, the work was studied primarily by intellectual historians and students of political philosophy as a kind of warm-up act for the Esprit des lois (1748). From this perspective, those letters that set up the project of cultural critique by comparing forms of governments or demystifying the origins of customs and religions had the greatest value. Letters relating to the harem, to the sexual pleasures and frustrations of Usbek, his wives, and his eunuchs, were dismissed as superficial vestiges of contemporary rococo eroticism. This material merely veiled what was assumed to be Montesquieu's serious purpose, a liberal indictment of French absolutism. Even when the harem material was read as political allegory, the subordination of literary form to intellectual content remained the same.

Eventually the Lettres persanes was claimed by literary critics, who tended to reverse the emphasis of social scientists by focusing almost exclusively on the harem material. These critics sought a unity in the text that would allow its categorization as a novel, and they found it in the story of the harem's collapse. The other hundred and thirty-odd letters, those on comparative religion, depopulation, Parisian customs, notions of justice, and so forth, become obfuscatory secondary material that simply defers the story of sexual passion at the text's heart.31

This way of reading the Lettres persanes is intended, of course, to rescue it from a scholarship that subordinates literary form to philosophical content, but it generates its own problems. Specifically, when the epistolary genre is seen as limited to the sentimental epistolary plot of feminine passion, the exclusive identification of women and letters reaffirms essentialist concepts of gender and sexuality, as well as replicating an artificial division of human experience into separate and gendered public and private spheres. Such a confusion of classificatory principles can only further obscure our understanding of the interrelation of gender and genre, and our awareness of the cultural construction of both.32

As these summaries suggest, the contrasting approaches to the Lettres persanes of historians and literary critics share a structural feature: both treat those letters that emanate from and return to the harem as fundamentally different from the letters associated with the project of cultural critique. The distinction seems to result from assumptions about the gendering of discourses: when the Lettres persanes is classified as political philosophy, its novelistic or literary aspects may be ignored on the assumption that a literary genre linked to “feminine” values will not be relevant to a “masculine” political discourse. On the other hand, when the Lettres persanes is treated as a forerunner of the “domestic-realist” novel, its satirical and political elements are erased, for the plot of feminine passion is held to belong to a private sphere of human experience that excludes political and philosophical issues.

Thus, as long as gender is assumed to be the primary analytical category for reading the Lettres persanes, we will necessarily reproduce variations of the gendered dichotomies that split the text apart unsatisfyingly. In contrast, as the next chapter argues, when the network of issues implicit in eighteenth-century notions of public and private is taken as an organizing principle of the Lettres persanes, the legibility and coherence of Montesquieu's text is uncovered on its own terms, and its central importance in a reconstructed epistolary tradition becomes clear. Such a reading, which recognizes that gender is necessarily implicated in other cultural categories, also opens up more generically stable epistolary works, as we will see with Clarissa.


All margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that, the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins.

—Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger

Each of the following chapters is devoted to an eighteenth-century letter-narrative that challenges the boundaries of the epistolary genre and reconstructs it in important ways. My investigation of these fictions is shaped by their engagement with the technological and sociological contexts of the Republic of Letters. My central concern with print culture has to do with certain features of contemporary texts that are often overlooked: the material that frames the body of the letter-narrative, where the editorial apparatus offers the (fictional or actual) history of the letters' transformation from private documents into published texts.33 This strategic relocation of editorial frame to textual center works to defamiliarize these products of an earlier, transitional moment of print culture. Thus we read them not only as the private histories of individuals like ourselves, recorded by hand on scraps of paper and then ushered into the public world of print by an authoritative editor, but also, to some extent, as allegories of the Republic of Letters: stories about putting private life into publication that were written before this came to seem the “natural” way of telling stories.

I examine here what these works have in common as eighteenth-century epistolary narratives, linked by the thematics of publication and privacy. To that extent this study is an attempt to rewrite our definition of the genre as a whole through Enlightenment print culture. It is also, however, an examination of the contestations and reformulations of generic boundaries by four particular texts that claim very different relations to the Anglo-European public sphere, each of which represents an important contestation of the Republic of Letters. Thus this study also surveys the transformation of the epistolary genre over the course of the century as the generic contract is rewritten by historical contexts.

On the model of the abandoned lover's epistolary complaint established by the Heroïdes, writing a letter can be understood as the attempt to construct a phantasmatic body that in some measure compensates for the writer's absence. In this sense, the body is always central to the letter-narrative. As the following chapters will make clear, that body will be imagined differently, not only for different rhetorical purposes, but also at different historical moments. In this sense, Montesquieu's Lettres persanes represents a radical construction project: the creation of a masculine citizen-critic from within the symbolic field of early eighteenth-century French absolutism. Bringing together the registers of political power, gender, and publication, Montesquieu seeks to produce simultaneously the discourse of citizenship (the public sphere) and a properly male subject. The desired result appears in the distinction between a collection of letters and a published book. On the one hand, the Persians' letters describe the collapse of erotic relations; their epistolary strategies fail adequately to represent the absent phallus and instead disseminate only the various figures of lack that haunt the text. On the other hand, … the Lettres persanes itself successfully stages an antiabsolutist reconstruction of gender and power relations by helping to define the Enlightenment ideals of the public sphere and of the citizen-critics who inhabit it.

Montesquieu's second preface to the Lettres persanes, written 33 years later, makes it clear that the generic identity of the epistolary narrative was redefined by midcentury, following the success of the Richardsonian sentimental epistolary novel. Despite this rewriting of the generic contract, the material institutions of the Republic of Letters—the printing press, the post office, the periodical—remain the necessary contexts of epistolary narrative throughout the century, and so too the tradition of cultural and political critique associated with earlier epistolary narratives like Montesquieu's remains present in sentimental epistolary fictions of feminine passion. My juxtaposition of the picaresque-epistolary Lettres persanes with Samuel Richardson's sentimental-epistolary Clarissa (1747-48) … is intended to restore to view the full generic identity of the epistolary novel. Resituating Clarissa within the extended generic tradition, we are able to perceive that Richardson transformed and redeployed certain features of an already well-established genre and that he redefined the implications for society and literature of the idea of the Republic of Letters. If Montesquieu's answer to the Enlightenment conflict between private passion and public order is the creation of (male) citizens of the Republic of Letters, Richardson's relation to the democratizing effects of print culture is less straightforward and implies an alternative gendering of the epistolary body.

The uneasy accord between public and private worked out in Clarissa is complicated by Richardson's ambivalences, first, about his own relation as a printer and novelist to literary tradition and, second, about what he found to be the exceedingly difficult question of women's place in the public sphere. These vexed issues come to the fore in the debate over Clarissa's allegorical “father's house” letter. The Christian heroine's final explanation of her sufferings, “God almighty would not let me depend for comfort upon any but himself,” can also be read as Richardson's solution to the dangerous separation of public and private spheres. By means of his manipulation of the relation between epistolary text and editorial frame, a version of patriarchal authority undermined by Montesquieu is reaffirmed in secular novelistic form through the figure of the author-editor who appropriates, fragments, and disseminates private letters as a branch of public morality. Like Clarissa's God, Richardson is reluctant to permit his readers to depend for epistemological and moral certainty upon any but himself.

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni's Les Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757) … frames similar issues very differently. Drawing explicitly on Enlightenment political theory, as well as implicitly on her own experience as a professional actress, Riccoboni's novel provides an analysis of how the concept of the private enables men's exploitation of women. Fanni Butlerd shatters the sentimental epistolary convention according to which the private letters of women are (re)authorized by male editors. In her letters to her aristocratic lover, the young Englishwoman Fanni refuses the agonistic model of sexual relations in which men conquer women and insists on her free decision to give herself to her beloved. In precisely the same way, she refuses the exploitational implications of the sentimental epistolary tradition, from the Lettres portugaises to Richardson's novels. After being abandoned by her lover, Fanni transforms herself from private victim to public author by publishing her own letters, first in a newspaper, then as a book.

In so doing, Fanni removes the epistolary tradition from the hermetic privacy of the convent and the boudoir to what the French (and many English) idealized as the wide-open spaces of the English press. Converting a dangerous private passion into the public denunciation of social corruption through the Enlightenment technology of print, Fanni establishes a literary contract between herself and her readers by means of which sympathy of taste will reform society, producing not only more just and equal relations between the sexes but also model citizen-readers, both male and female, of the novel. In contrast to the Lettres persanes and Clarissa, both the publication history of this novel and its fictionalized frame imply the possibility of full female citizenship in the Republic of Letters. In this sense, Fanni Butlerd is an optimistic—and feminist—parable of the rise of the public sphere in a mass print culture.

Riccoboni's optimism did not, of course, bring about the egalitarian transformation of Anglo-European societies. The ideal of the Republic of Letters came into general question under the political pressures of the 1770s and 1780s, to be generally discredited in the 1790s through its identification with political radicalism.34 Because a founding principle of the public sphere is that of the participants' disinterestedness and non-factionalism, such an identification necessarily meant the end of its emancipatory potential as a cultural concept.

The trajectory of the loss of an Enlightenment faith in correspondence can be traced in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782), which I read … as a narrative of the decline of the Republic of Letters under the pressures of a developing nationalism that replaces the cosmopolitanism of the older ideal. The politically masculine (but ostensibly disembodied) citizen-critic constructed by Montesquieu, uneasily set aside by Richardson, and triumphantly redefined as female by Riccoboni returns in Crèvecoeur's Letters to a problematic corporeality that clashes with the requirements of disembodiment and anonymity necessary to citizenship in the Republic of Letters. The rupture of correspondence at the close of Letters from an American Farmer marks not only the end of the Enlightenment ideal of a cosmopolitan civic exchange but also the end of Enlightenment epistolarity.


  1. Foucault, “What Is an Author?” p. 108.

  2. Ibid., p. 117.

  3. This use of the adjective “private” often masks the long ideological collaboration between an ostensibly individualistic “exploring spirit” and more or less officially sponsored economic imperialism, the profound entanglement of so-called private and public motives that underwrote, for example, the history of the East India Company. For a synopsis of the various ways in which economic activity has been classified in relation to the public-private dichotomy, see Jeff Weintraub's “The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction,” excerpted in Bruce Robbins's “Introduction” to The Phantom Public Sphere, p. xiii.

  4. The term is Janet Gurkin Altman's; she defines it as “the pressure exerted by form upon meaning” (Epistolarity, p. 189).

  5. The metaphor of the Republic of Letters is of course much older than the eighteenth century, but I am concerned here with its Enlightenment connotations, inflected by the proliferation of print (although such non-written discursive exchanges as speeches, sermons, and public rituals are also relevant to it). A study of eighteenth-century European uses of the ideal might begin with Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire Historique et Critique (1695) and extend through Kant's Was ist Aufklärung? (1794); my investigation concerns the appropriation of the term by “polite literature.”

  6. The full text of Habermas's work, originally published in 1962 as Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, was not translated into English until 1989. His models reached non-German-reading scholars earlier through several channels: a French translation appeared in 1978, and selections in English were published in New German Critique in the 1970s and 1980s.

  7. This graphic representation may have encouraged reductionist readings of Habermas's theory, which does not propose a static, constant relation between these spaces but traces their dialectical development. Dena Goodman discusses slight differences between the diagrams in the German and English editions that may affect their interpretation in her article “Public Sphere and Private Life.”

  8. I find the metaphor of housekeeping very suggestive in relation to the question of the citizen-critic's gender. See Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 38. Although Habermas revalorizes the private, he, like Arendt, echoes the Frankfurt School view that the rise of mass culture destroys the emancipatory political potential of Enlightenment publicness. Peter Uwe Hohendahl's Institution of Criticism surveys important critiques of Habermas's work from the 1960s and 1970s, including those of Peter Glotz, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Wolfgang Jäger, and Niklas Luhmann. Richard Sennett's use of Habermasian public-sphere theory in The Fall of Public Man tends to generalize, even romanticize, and thus distort issues that Habermas treats more carefully. The essays in Craig Calhoun's Habermas and the Public Sphere and in Bruce Robbins's The Phantom Public Sphere have suggested other ways of rethinking, refining, and developing Habermas's models. I find particularly valuable Nancy Fraser's analyses of Habermas's disregard of questions of gender and Michael Warner's emphasis on the significance of anonymity and disembodiment in the public sphere. See Habermas's comments on these and other critiques in “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere,” in Calhoun, ed., Habermas. Despite its flaws, Habermas's book has proved to be, as Calhoun asserts in Habermas, “an immensely fruitful generator of new research, analysis, and theory” (p. 41).

  9. A related focus on the role of Enlightenment criticism is found in Reinhart Koselleck's Critique and Crisis. The distinctions between Koselleck's negative reading of the Enlightenment politicization of criticism and Habermas's celebration of that development are analyzed by Goodman in “Public Sphere and Private Life.”

  10. Here my study joins an existing body of feminist theory and criticism on the public sphere. Important examples include Joan Landes's Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution and Nancy Fraser's essays “What's Critical About Critical Theory?” and “Rethinking the Public Sphere.”

  11. Henry Fielding's Covent-Garden Journal illustrates the contemporary currency of the metaphor of the Republic of Letters in the field of polite literature. In a recurring column headed “A Journal of the Present War Between the Forces Under Sir Alexander Drawcansir, and the Army of Grub-Street,” Fielding attributes “the present dreadful condition of the great Empire of Letters” to the corruption of critical standards. In the first two numbers, the “Journal of the Present War” describes skirmishes in and around the various coffee-houses and theaters of London; in the third number, it reproduces a treaty between Sir Alexander and “their Lownesses the Republic of Grub-Street.” The treaty establishes Sir Alexander's Court of Censorial Inquiry and assigns it the right “to hear, and determine, all manner of Causes, which in anywise relate to the Republic of Letters.” Subsequent issues offer critical reviews in the guise of court hearings and letters to the Censor ostensibly from readers. See The Covent-Garden Journal, pp. 39, 45.

  12. Habermas, Structural Transformation, p. 79, my emphasis.

  13. In Desire and Domestic Fiction, Nancy Armstrong describes how sexual desire, and more generally subjectivity itself, is constructed in the “domestic novel” as a domain of experience wholly separate from the political. While our projects intersect at several points, I argue that an exclusive focus on the “domestic novel” produces an inadequate understanding of the epistolary genre.

  14. I am proposing that the letter is the “symbolic form” of the Enlightenment, as Panofsky takes perspective to be for the Renaissance. See Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form.

  15. These positions are respectively expressed in Sir Robert Filmer's Patriarcha (1680) and John Locke's Second Treatise of Government (1689). Because my interest here is in linking political and literary ways of making social order rather than in rehearsing an argument in political philosophy, and because my claim is about competing cultural mythologies rather than about the specific influence of any one text or individual, I will not review here the debate over the relation between the Glorious Revolution and contractarian theory claimed by Whig readings of history. See Peter Laslett's extensive introduction to his edition of Two Treatises of Government, and J. C. D. Clark's revisionist discussion in English Society 1688-1832, pp. 44-59.

  16. Locke, Two Treatises of Government, p. 381.

  17. My discussion of the social contract is indebted to Carole Pateman's extremely suggestive analysis of the ideology of liberal contractarian theory. Pateman describes, behind and prior to the fiction of the social contract, a hidden sexual contract. Women, exchanged between males to symbolize and seal homosocial relations, are not parties to this sexual contract, but instead are the objects of it. Though political theorists have traditionally assumed that patriarchal power is eliminated by modern contractual society, Pateman argues that it is simply reorganized: a modern, fraternal, and contractual version of (sexual) patriarchal power continues to operate in the private sphere of the family, a realm excluded from the civil contract. See The Sexual Contract, especially chapter 4.

  18. In Chapter 3, I show that the context of Johnson's remark makes clear that it was intended ironically. See the full text of his letter to Mrs. Thrale, dated Oct. 27, 1777, in Letters, pp. 89-90. For Lovelace's remark, see Clarissa, vol. 2, p. 431. The passage from the Life of Pope appears on p. 207 of the Lives of the Poets.

  19. For accounts of these institutions in Great Britain and Europe, see Howard Robinson's The British Post Office and Kenneth Ellis's The Post Office in the Eighteenth Century.

  20. On the development and institutionalization of this distinction, see Lennard Davis's Factual Fictions.

  21. On how the periodicals constructed a certain type of eighteenth-century reader in part through such letters, see Jon P. Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790-1832, pp. 18-26.

  22. In the Life of Pope, Johnson emphasizes the novelty of Pope's correspondence having been published. The only English precedents, he claims, are the (posthumous) letter collections of Howell, Loveday, Herbert, Suckling, and “Orinda” (Katherine Philips).

  23. E. P. Thompson discusses the latter in “The Crime of Anonymity,” as does Mary A. Favret in Romantic Correspondence.

  24. For example, Sir Isaac Newton's physico-theological letters to Dr. Richard Bentley, arguing the existence of God from the structure and function of the creation, were cheaply and widely available in pamphlet form and were reprinted through much of the century. The role of letters in the New Science is sketched in Daniel J. Boorstin's The Discoverers, pp. 387-93.

  25. This intertwining of fictional and nonfictional correspondence has a posthumous phase: some of these letters were eventually published along with Richardson's own in a hagiographic six-volume edition of his correspondence edited by Anna Laetitia Barbauld in 1804; an example is discussed in more detail in Chapter 3. Discussing a related kind of ontological confusion, Madeleine Kahn analyzes Richardson's own habit of “quoting [his characters'] views to reinforce his stated opinions, as if he had not also penned the text from which he now cites as from some unimpeachable source” (Narrative Transvestism, p. 118).

  26. I refer to Robert Adams Day's Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction Before Richardson.

  27. Watt, The Rise of the Novel, pp. 26, 291, 30.

  28. Despite his explicit disagreement with Watt's linearity, McKeon nonetheless refers in his conclusion to a “climax” of “the origins of the English novel” (Origins, p. 410). The unusual syntactic awkwardness perhaps marks his discomfort at reverting momentarily to a model he has explicitly disowned, and suggests the power of the teleological paradigm in our thinking about literary history. Surprisingly in such a consciously self-reflexive work of criticism, the word “canon” does not appear in McKeon's index.

  29. On the publication and reception history of the Lettres portugaises, see excellent complementary essays by Peggy Kamuf and Nancy K. Miller, respectively: “Writing Like a Woman” and “‘I's’ in Drag: The Sex of Recollection.” Both are exquisitely aware of the ironies implicit in the present-day attribution of the Lettres portugaises to Gabriel de Lavergne de Guilleragues, a minor literary figure and diplomat. The Heloise-Abelard letters were published in French in 1695 and in English in 1714; Latin versions and partial translations circulated from the thirteenth century on. Their publication and critical history from the twelfth century to the present are discussed in Linda S. Kauffman's Discourses of Desire, pp. 84-89. Kauffman's study surveys the “Heroïdean” epistolary type, linking women, love, and letters, from Ovid to the “three Marias” (Barreño, Horta, and Velho da Costa) who co-authored the New Portuguese Letters (1971). While she is sensitive to the larger political implications of Heroïdean epistolary poetics, Kauffman does not relate these to the historically specific contexts of Enlightenment print culture. Ruth Perry's Women, Letters, and the Novel examines social, economic, and psychological reasons for the identification of the letter-novel with aspects of female experience in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  30. Derrida, The Post Card, p. 48. Some of the implications of the transformation from a culture of print to one of telecommunications are traced in Friedrich Kittler's Discourse Networks 1800/1900 and Avital Ronell's The Telephone Book. Consider also Nicholson Baker's telephone-sex novel Vox. Beyond Vox, which is after all still a book, lies the brave new world of such digitalized sexual/conceptual prostheses as “Virtual Valerie.”

  31. The major trends in this history are summarized in the opening paragraphs of Alan J. Singerman's “Réflexions sur une métaphore.” As examples of unifying readings, see the essays of Roger Laufer, “La Réussite romanesque,” and Pierre Testud, “Les Lettres persanes, roman épistolaire.” Paul Valéry's essay on the Lettres persanes appears in Variétés II (Paris, 1930), p. 71. On the eunuch, see, e.g., Aram Vartanian's “Eroticism and Politics in the Lettres persanes” and Michel Delon's “Un Monde d'eunuques.” Among feminist readings, Suzanne Rodin Pucci's “Letters from the Harem: Veiled Figures of Writing in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes” examines the wives' letters.

  32. Connections between gender and genre are examined in Derrida's “La Loi du genre,” translated as “The Law of Genre.” Shari Benstock also makes this point in her essay “From Letters to Literature.”

  33. This concern is implicit in Tzvetan Todorov's suggestion that the most interesting subject of eighteenth-century epistolary fictions is how the story in the letters becomes the story of the letters. Todorov describes the relation between “l'histoire du roman et l'histoire dans le roman” in terms that imply the generalizability of this insight to all novels, a claim perhaps inspired by a New Critical assumption of an organic unity inherent in all texts: “The underlying story of the novel is precisely that of its creation; that story is told through the other story … the meaning of a work consists in speaking itself, speaking to us of its own existence” (“Le Sens des lettres,” p. 49). In contrast, I limit the claim to the eighteenth-century epistolary novel as the product of a historically specific, self-reflexive moment of print culture.

  34. On the transformation of models of readership in the 1790s, see Klancher's The Making of English Reading Audiences and Favret, Romantic Correspondence, especially chapter 2.

Works Cited

Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Baker, Nicholson. Vox. New York: Random House, 1992.

Benstock, Shari. “From Letters to Literature: La Carte Postale om the Epistolary Genre.” Genre 18, 3 (1985): 257–95.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1985.

Clark, J. C. D. English Society 1688–1832. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Davis, Lennard. Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Day, Robert Adams. Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction Before Richardson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966.

Delon, Michel. “Un Monde d'eunuques.” Europe 55, 574 (1977): 79–88.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Trans. Avital Ronell. In W. J. T. Mitchell, ed. On Narrative. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

———. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Favret, Mary A. Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Fielding, Henry. The Covent-Garden Journal and A Plan of the Universal Register-Office. Ed. Bertrand A. Goldgar. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” In Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 101–20.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” In Bruce Robbins, ed. The Phantom Public Sphere. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

———. “What's Critical About Critical Theory?” In Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell, eds. Feminism as Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988, pp. 31–56.

Goodman, Dena. “Public Sphere and Private Life: Toward a Synthesis of Current Historiographical Approaches to the Old Regime.” History and Theory 31, 1 (1992): 1–20.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Hohendahl, Peter Uwe.The Institution of Criticism. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Johnson, Samuel. Letters. 3 vols. Ed. Bruce Redford. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

———. Lives of the English Poets. 3 vols. Ed. G. B. Hill. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905.

Kahn, Madeleine. Narrative Transvestism: Rhetoric and Gender in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Kamuf, Peggy. Fictions of Feminine Desire: Disclosures of Heloise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

———. “Writing Like a Woman.” In Sally McConnell-Ginet, et al., eds., Women and Language in Literature and Society. New York: Praeger, 1980.

Kauffman, Linda S. Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer with Chris Cullens. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Klancher, Jon P. The Making of English Reading Audiences, 1790–1832. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.

Koselleck, Reinhart. Critique and Crisis: Enlightenment and the Pathogenesis of Modern Society (1969). Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1988.

Landes, Joan B. Women and thePublic Sphere in the Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Laufer, Roger. “La Réussite romanesque et la signification des Lettres persanes de Montesquieu.” Revue d'Histoire littérature de la France 61, 2 (1961): 188–203.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, 1960; rprt. New York: Mentor-Penguin Books, 1965.

———. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. C. B. MacPherson. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1980.

McKeon, Michael. The Origins of the English Novel, 1600–1740. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Miller, Nancy K. The Heroine's Text: Readings in the French and English Novel, 1722–1782. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

———. “‘I's’ in Drag: The Sex of Recollection.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 22, 1 (1981): 47–57.

Panofsky, Erwin. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Trans. Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone Books, 1991.

Pateman, Carole. The Sexual Contract. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Perry, Ruth. Women, Letters, and the Novel. New York: AMS, 1980.

Pucci, Suzanne Rodin. “Letters from the Harem: Veiled Figures of Writing in Montesquieu's Lettres persanes.” In Elizabeth C. Goldsmith, ed., Writing the Female Voice. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989, pp. 114–34.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady. Ed. Angus Ross. New York: Viking Penguin, 1985.

———. Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady. 4 vols. London: Dent, 1962.

———. Correspondence of Samuel Richardson. 6 vols. Ed. Anna Letitia Barbauld. London, 1804.

Robbins, Bruce, ed. The Phantom Public Sphere. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Robinson, Howard. The British Post Office: A History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948.

Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Sennett, Richard. The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Singerman, Alan J. “Réflexions sur une métaphore: le sérail dans les Lettres persanes.Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 185 (1980): 181–98.

Testud, Pierre. “Les Lettres persanes, roman épistolare.”Revue d'Histoire littérature de la France 66, 4 (1966): 642–56.

Thompson, E. P. “The Crime of Anonymity.” In Douglas Hay et al., eds., Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England. New York: Pantheon-Random House, 1975, pp. 255–344.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “Le Sens des lettres.” In his Littérature et signification. Paris: Larousse, 1967.

Vartanian, Aram. “Eroticism and Politics in the Lettres persanes,Romanic Review 60 (1969): 23–33.

Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Robert Adams Day (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: Introduction to Olinda's Adventures: Or the Amours of a Young Lady, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California—Los Angeles, 1969, pp. i-vii.

[In the following introduction to his edition of the anonymous 1693 epistolary narrative Olinda's Adventures, Day claims that the story is interesting because it contains many elements that precede the works of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson and that anticipate aspects of later realistic novels.]

A standard modern history of the English novel speaks of “the appearance of the novel round about 1700. Nothing that preceded it in the way of prose fiction can explain it.”1 Though today many scholars would assert that “nothing” is too strong a term, just how much of the original fiction written under the later Stuarts could “explain” Defoe and Richardson? Most late seventeenth-century novels, it is true, are rogue biographies, scandalchronicles, translations and imitations of French nouvelles, or short sensational romances of love, intrigue, and adventure with fantastic plots and wooden characters. Only occasionally was a tale published which showed that it was not examples of the novelist's craft that were wanting to inspire the achievement of a Defoe, but rather the sustained application of that craft over hundreds of pages by the unique combination of talents of a Defoe himself.

Such a novel is Olinda's Adventures, a brief epistolary narrative of 1693, a minor but convincing demonstration of the theory that a literary form such as the novel develops irregularly, by fits and starts, and of the truism that a superior mind can produce superior results with the most seemingly ungrateful materials. Of Defoe, Olinda's Adventures must appear a modest precursor indeed; but measured, as a realistic-domestic novel, against the English fiction of its day, it is surprisingly mature; and if we believe the bookseller and assign its authorship to a girl of fourteen, we must look to the juvenilia of Jane Austen for the first comparable phenomenon.

Olinda's Adventures seems to owe what success it had entirely to the bookseller Samuel Briscoe. It appeared in 1693 in the first volume of his epistolary miscellany Letters of Love and Gallantry and Several Other Subjects. All Written by Ladies, the second volume following in 1694.2 It may have been the nucleus of the collection, however, since it begins the volume, and since Briscoe states in “The Bookseller to the Reader” (sig. A2) that various ladies, hearing that he was going to print Olinda's letters, have sent in amorous correspondence of their own—a remark that could indicate some previous circulation in manuscript. Another edition (or issue) of the miscellany, with a slightly altered title, was advertised in 1697, but no copy of this is recorded.3 Nothing further is heard of Olinda for some years, but meanwhile Briscoe became something of a specialist in popular epistolary miscellanies, perhaps because he was a principal employer of Tom Brown, much of whose output consisted of original and translated “familiar letters.” In 1718 Briscoe assembled a two-volume epistolary collection with the title Familiar Letters of Love, Gallantry and Several Occasions; this collection was apparently made up of the best and most popular items in his miscellanies of the past twenty-five years.4 Here Olinda appears in much more impressive company than the anonymous “ladies,” for the collection includes the first letter of Heloise to Abelard (said to be translated by L'Estrange) with actual correspondence and epistolary fiction by Butler, Mrs. Behn, Dennis, Otway, Etherege, Dryden, Tom Brown, Mrs. Mary Manley, Farquhar, Mrs. Centlivre, and other wits. Another edition (or issue) was advertised for W. Chetwood in 1720; and if the edition of 1724 (“Corrected. With Additions”) is really the sixth, as Briscoe's title-page states, Olinda must have reached a respectable number of readers.

Olinda enjoyed another distinction, nearly unique for English popular fiction before 1700. While by the middle of the eighteenth century novel-readers in France were reveling in the adventures of the English epigones of Pamela and Clarissa, defending their virtue or exhibiting their sensibility in translation, the current of literary influence before Defoe ran overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. Olinda anticipated the Miss Sally Sampsons of sixty years later by appearing in 1695 in a French translation as Les Amours d'une belle Angloise: ou la vie et les avantures de la jeune Olinde: Ecrites par Elle mesme en forme de lettres à un Chevalier de ses amis.5 Whether merit or mere chance accounted for this unusual occurrence it is impossible to say; the translation of Olinda is a faithful one, though the text is at times expanded by the insertion of poems into Olinda's letters, with brief interpolated passages which rather awkwardly account for their presence. Curiously, the volume closes with a list of books printed for Briscoe, indicating either that the French translator would do anything to fill up space, or that Briscoe may have been exploring the possibilities of a French market for his wares.

While Olinda was ascribed merely to an anonymous “young lady” in the first edition, the editions of 1718 and 1724 gave it to “Mrs. Trotter.” This lady, who since 1707 had been the wife of the Reverend Patrick Cockburn, a Suffolk curate, was then living in relative obscurity (her husband, having lost his living at the accession of George I, was precariously supporting his family by teaching), though she had enjoyed a certain literary success in King William's time and would later be heard from as a “learned lady” and writer on ethics. The fact that her maiden name was used, though not likely in 1718 to add very much luster to Briscoe's collection, and the similarities between the heroine's situation and Mrs. Trotter's own early life … make Briscoe's attribution seem worthy of acceptance. It is true that if Mrs. Trotter wrote Olinda she did it at fourteen. But she had been a child of astonishing precocity; she had produced a successful blank-verse tragedy at sixteen, and both Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Jane Austen were to perform similar novelistic feats (to say nothing of Daisy Ashford).

Catherine Trotter (1679-1749)6 was the daughter of David Trotter, a naval commander who died on a voyage in 1683, and Sarah Bellenden (or Ballenden), whose connections with the Maitland and Drummond families seem to have helped support her and her daughter in genteel poverty until she gained a pension of £20 per year under Queen Anne; Bishop Burnet was also her friend and patron. Catherine, a child prodigy, learned Latin and logic, and is said to have taught herself French; she extemporized verses in childhood, and at fourteen composed a poem on Mr. Bevil Higgons's recovery from the smallpox which is no worse than many “Pindarics” of the period. In 1695, however, Catherine Trotter established herself as a female wit with the impressive success of her tragedy Agnes de Castro, adapted from Mrs. Behn's retelling of an episode from Portuguese history. It was produced at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in December, with a prologue by Wycherley and with Mr. and Mrs. Verbruggen and Colley Cibber in the cast. The Fatal Friendship, a tragedy produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1698, had a moderate success; two later plays did not. But Mrs. Trotter gained the acquaintance of Congreve, Dryden, and Farquhar, and was well enough known to be lampooned in The Female Wits (1704; acted 1696) along with Mrs. Pix and Mrs. Manley. In 1702 she turned to more serious writing, and her Defence of the Essay of Humane Understanding and other treatises defending Locke's theories against the charge of materialism were impressive enough to earn her a flattering letter from Locke himself; she also corresponded with Leibniz, who analyzed her theories at some length. The History of the Works of the Learned printed an essay of hers on moral obligation in 1743, and in 1747 Warburton contributed a preface to one of her treatises.

If we are willing to admit that Olinda is Mrs. Trotter's work, its virtues may be explained in part by seeing it as romanticized autobiography. Olinda, like Mrs. Trotter, is a wit and something of a beauty in adolescence, a fatherless child living with a prudent mother who is anxious to marry her off advantageously, and a solicitor of favors from noble or wealthy connections. Of the details of her character and circumstances at this time, however, no information is certain, and we must rely upon two presumably biased contemporary portraits. Mrs. Trotter gets off lightly in The Female Wits; she is represented (in “Calista,” a small role) as being somewhat catty and pretentious, vain of her attainments in Latin and Greek (she has read Aristotle in the original, she says), but her moral character is not touched upon.7 Another account of her early life, in Mrs. Manley's fictionalized autobiography and scandal-chronicle, The Adventures of Rivella (1714), may be entirely unreliable; but its author was certainly well acquainted with Mrs. Trotter, and what she says of her life in the 1690's, what is narrated in Olinda, and what Mrs. Trotter's scholarly memoirist Thomas Birch relates are similar in outline, similar enough so that we may speculate that the same set of facts has been “improved” in Olinda, perhaps maliciously distorted in Rivella. Cleander, the Platonic friend of the novel, Orontes, the kidnapped bridegroom, and Cloridon, the inconveniently married noble lover, appear to be three aspects of the same person; for Mrs. Manley tells at length (pp. 64-71) of “Calista's” relationship with “Cleander” (identified in the “key” to Rivella as Mrs. Trotter and Mr. Tilly).8 John Tilly, the deputy warden of the Fleet prison, whose mistress Mrs. Manley became and remained until 1702, first met her, she says, through Mrs. Trotter, who sought her aid in interceding with her cousin John Manley, appointed chairman of a committee to look into alleged misdemeanors of Tilly as prison administrator. Mrs. Trotter, says Mrs. Manley, was a prude in public, not so in private; she was the first, “Cleander” said, who ever made him unfaithful to his wife. Mrs. Manley goes on, with a tantalizing lack of clarity (pp. 101-102):

[Calista's] Mother being in Misfortunes and indebted to him, she had offered her Daughter's Security, he took it, and moreover the Blessing of one Night's Lodging, which he never paid her back again. … [Calista] had given herself Airs about not visiting Rivella, now she was made the Town-Talk by her Scandalous Intreague with Cleander.

Whatever the truth about Mrs. Trotter's adolescent amours may have been, or whether they have any connection with Olinda's fictional ones, must remain a matter for speculation; but the artistic merits of Olinda are in no such doubt. Although technically it may be called an epistolary novel, its author is no Richardson in marshalling the strategies of the epistolary technique. Nevertheless, although it is actually a fictional autobiography divided somewhat arbitrarily into “letters,” the postponement of the letter to Cloridon until the end, the introduction of what might be called a subplot as Olinda tries to promote Cleander's courtship of Ambrisia and notes its progress, the breaking off of the letters at moments of (mild) suspense, the bringing up of the action to an uncompleted present, all these show an awareness of fictional mechanics that is far from elementary. Indeed, a contemporary critic might go so far as to see in the novel's conclusion an anticipation of the “open-ended” realism of plotting so much applauded at present; for though Orontes has been got out of the way, Olinda has not yet been rewarded with Cloridon's hand by a similarly happy turn of fate, and must patiently await the demise of his inconvenient wife as anyone outside of melodrama might have to do. The contretemps and misunderstandings, the trick played on Olinda with regard to Cloridon's fidelity and her subsequent undeceiving, the closet-scene and its embarrassments, may smack of the hackneyed devices of stage comedy, but they are not clumsily handled, and they never make emotional mountains out of molehills.

Perhaps the most salient qualities of Olinda, in contrast to the fiction of its day, are restraint and control. With the exception of the rather ridiculous way in which the complications are resolved at the end (Orontes's sequestration and death from smallpox), everything in the novel is planned and motivated with some care. Inclinations develop slowly and believably; the spring of action, barring a few not very fantastic coincidences and accidents, are anti-romantic—almost too much so. Indeed, such criteria of the “modern novel” as those proposed by Ian Watt9 are all modestly but adequately met. Most important, the situation and behavior of the heroine, her values, and the world in which she lives are (but for their sketchy development) what a reader of Jane Austen might take for granted, yet are all but unique before 1740.

Here is a middle-class heroine who is fully as moral as Pamela, but with a wry sense of humor; she defers to her mother as a matter of course when marriage is in question, yet would willingly evade parental decrees; she is capable of Moll Flanders's examinations of motive, yet sees through her own hypocrisies; she lives in London in reduced circumstances and agrees to a marriage of convenience although tempted to engage in a dashing adultery; and she endures the onset of both love and jealousy without melodramatic or sentimental posturings.

Other technical achievements of Olinda aside, the portrait of the heroine as she reveals herself to her confidant is the novel's most significant feature. A fictional heroine of this early date who can be sententious without being tedious, who is moderately and believably witty, who is courted by a gold-smith (even though, conformably to the times, he is named Berontus) rather than a prince borrowed from Astree, and who satirizes herself soberly for scorning him, who meets her ideal lover with a business letter rather than in a shipwreck, and who level-headedly fends him off because he is both married and a would-be philanderer, is a rarity indeed.

Olinda commends itself to the student of English literary history principally for two reasons: because it so ably anticipates in embryo so many features which the English domestic and realistic novel would develop in its age of maturity and popularity, and because we do not yet understand, and need to investigate, the cultural factors-literary, social, and economic—which prevented the kind of achievement it represents from being duplicated with any frequency for several decades.


  1. Walter Allen, The English Novel (New York, 1968), p. 4.

  2. Advertised in the Term Catalogues, Trinity Term, 1693 (II, 466); Wing L1784, L1785.

  3. It is listed in Harold C. Binkley, “Letter Writing in English Literature” (unpublished Harvard dissertation, 1923).

  4. They included Familiar Letters [of] Rochester (2 vols., 1697), Familiar and Courtly Letters [of] Voiture (2 vols., 1700), A Pacquet from Will's (2nd ed., 1705), The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown (2-4 vols., 1707—), and The Lady's Pacquet of Letters (1710). Briscoe was not in every case the printer of the first edition.

  5. “A Cologne. Chez ***. MDCXCV.” A copy of the volume is in the Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal in Paris.

  6. See DNB, s. v. “Cockburn, Catherine”; Edmund Gosse, “Catharine Trotter, the First of the Bluestockings,” Fortnightly Review, N. S., No. 594 (June 1916), pp. 1034-1048; Alison Fleming, “Catherine Trotter—‘the Scots Sappho,’” Scots Magazine, XXXIII (1940), 305-314. The source from which all three are derived is Thomas Birch's The Works of Mrs. Catherine Cockburn (2 vols., 1751), including letters and a prefatory biography.

  7. The play is reproduced in the Augustan Reprint Society's Publication No. 124 (Los Angeles, 1967), with an introduction by Lucyle Hook.

  8. Page references are to the “second edition” of 1715. See Paul B. Anderson, “Mistress Delariviere Manley's Biography,” MP, XXXIII (1935-36), 270-271, for further details.

  9. The Rise of the Novel (London, 1957), Chapter I.

Ruth Perry (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: “Letter Fiction and the Search for Human Nature” and “Romantic Love and Sexual Fantasy in Epistolary Fiction,” in Women, Letters, and the Novel, AMS Press, 1980, pp. 1-26; 137-67.

[In the first excerpt below, Perry describes the social and economic conditions of early eighteenth-century England and their influence of the surging popularity of epistolary fiction, a literary genre that offered unprecedented opportunity for women writers and their concerns. In the second excerpt, she discusses the changing sexual mores of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and how this was depicted in the romantic fantasies of epistolary fiction.]

London was a brutal and disorderly place in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Ruffians lurked in the dirty, badly lit streets to rob and harass the wealthier citizens. John Evelyn was robbed several times at home and on the road. Samuel Pepys reports lying afraid in his bed at night, sure that the sounds he was hearing were thieves breaking into his house to steal his beloved possessions. Although the laws against theft were extreme—stealing a kerchief could be punished by death1—there continued to be a sizable criminal sub-culture of the sort described by Defoe in Moll Flanders.

In 1705 London's Common Council appointed more watchmen to keep peace in public streets; this action did not have its desired effect, though, for five years later it was reported that

of late many loose, idle, and disorderly Persons have used in the Evenings, in a riotous and tumultuous Manner, to gather together in the Streets and other Passages of this city, and the Suburbs thereof; where they make Bonfires and Illuminations, stop the Coaches and assault the Persons of the Inhabitants, and other her Majesty's subjects who happen to pass by on their lawful Occasions, insult their Houses, break their Windows, forcibly and illegally demand Money of them. …2

In 1718 the City Marshall reported

the general complaint of the taverns, the coffee-houses, the shop-keepers and others that their customers are afraid when it is dark to come to their houses and shops for fear that their hats and wigs should be snitched from their heads or their swords taken from their sides, or that they may be blinded, knocked down, cut or stabbed; Nay, the coaches cannot secure them, but they are likewise cut and robbed in the public streets, etc.3

Some of this crime was malicious, willful, unmotivated by material need. There were, for instance, a band of local hoodlums,

who call themselves Hawkubites, and their mischievous invention of the work is, that they take people between hawk and buzzard, that is, between two of them, and making them turn from one to the other, abuse them with blows and scoffings; and if they pretend to speak for themselves, they then slit their noses, or cut them down the back.4

There were also a growing number of prostitutes, supplied by the influx of country girls who came to London, helpless and unsuspecting as one depicted in Hogarth's The Harlot's Progress, unable to survive the disruptions of enclosure and industrialization in their native towns, and seeking employment as servants in the growing city.5 The many remedies for venereal disease advertised in the London newspapers in the 1720s is probably a good index of their increased activity.6 And along the road leading out of London lay an appalling number of abandoned children, both dead and alive.7

In fact, living conditions in London in 1700 were so bad that the death rate (one in twenty-five) far exceeded the birth rate, a fact which alarmed a number of natural philosophers who wrote about the necessity for marriage and having more children.8 This extraordinarily high waste of life in the city occurred because of too much poisonous gin (more stringent liquor licensing laws were not passed until 1751), unsanitary quarters, bad food, disease, etc. Throughout the eighteenth century the population of London had to be continually replenished by people pouring in from other towns and from the countryside.9

The rising numbers of marginal individuals without community or respectable work, and the squalor into which the city absorbed them, were signs of a society moving from an agricultural economy toward an industrial one. In many ways, the intellectual and philosophical changes in the culture were reflections of this critical economic shift. The old authorities were gone: the seventeenth century witnessed both the execution of the legitimate king and widespread religious dissent from traditional theology; nor had these orthodox sources of truth yet been repaired or replaced. It was an era in which abundant satire testified to the moral confusion, to the hypocritical gaps between pretended and actual standards. The culture paid lip service to the comfortable philosophy of the “great chain of being,” in which individuals were required to blindly live out their parts in a Divine Plan so complicated that no one but God could understand its entire and perfect justice. Yet this philosophy was at odds with the newer spirit of entrepreneurial individualism which accompanied expanding trade and capitalism.

The literature is full of these contradictory signals. Robinson Crusoe, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlowe, Tom Jones, all begin their adventures by leaving home, going off on their own, but each suffers for that willfulness and each is made to see the impossibility, in a social world, of doing exactly as one pleases. In each case, however, their enterprising spirit is rewarded as each achieves a higher station in life than that in which he or she began. This pattern is perhaps clearest in Robinson Crusoe where the sin committed by the hero—self-determination—is punishable by twenty-odd years of solitude and then rewarded with wealth.

Many of the criminal biographies, so popular in the early part of the eighteenth century, were shaped the same way, making it clear that each scoundrel's first important misstep had been “individualism,” ignoring Providence, and believing too exclusively in himself. Certainly this was the cause of Moll Flanders' unhappiness as well as of her success, and Defoe shows his readers at the end of that book that the only way to win personal salvation and public acclaim was to submit to the laws of God and of society. Similarly, the later parts of Pamela and of Robinson Crusoe are about the reclaiming of the individual by society: Pamela must learn to be the mistress of a bourgeois establishment, to fit into society at her new station, and Robinson Crusoe must cope with his sailors and the colony established on his once isolated and peaceful island. The attempt was to strike a new balance, to redefine the relation between needs of individuals and the rules of the larger society.

In the midst of these confusions, without clear ethical standards for living or unalterable social and economic places in which to fit, there was a growing belief that reason, aided by facts collected empirically, could supply the answers no longer provided by traditional religion or a divine-right monarchy. It was believed possible to understand human nature and prescribe rules for a healthy life through study and analysis rather than through revelation. After all, the seventeenth century had seen the discovery of the laws governing the universe; now it was time to do the same for humankind. As Ernst Cassirer observes:

The whole eighteenth century is permeated by this conviction, namely, that in the history of humanity the time had now arrived to deprive nature of its carefully guarded secret, to leave it no longer in the dark to be marveled at as an incomprehensible mystery but to bring it under the bright light of reason and analyze it with all its fundamental force.10

The Royal Society, operating since 1660 with its studies of mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and the natural sciences, was the institutional manifestation of the faith in the new methods of pursuing knowledge. Swift's materials for the satire of the experimenting mania in book III of Gulliver's Travels were not invented by him but came from the pages of Philosophical Transactions. Robert Boyle, for example, (who first enunciated the law that the volume of a gas varies inversely with pressure) was one of those who supplied him with instances in which the drive to corroborate scientific constructs with systematically gathered information exceeded the bounds of common sense. When Boyle described a blind Dutchman who could distinguish color by touch, “his most exquisite perception is in his thumb,” and described his data with as much precision as in his more plausible experiments, Swift transformed the report into the blind man in Lagado who mixed colors for painters.11

Nor was curiosity the exclusive quality of a specialized group of academics. There was, at that time, a thirst for information among all those with the leisure and means to pursue it. The educated Englishman characteristically wanted to know more about the world in which he lived and about the people who inhabited it. A Frenchman visiting London in the early part of the century was struck by how universal was the English appetite for information and wrote home about it in this way:

There are many shabby cafes in London with furniture which is worn because of the numbers of people frequenting them … What attracts the people to the cafes are the gazettes and other public papers. The English are great newsmongers. Most workers begin their day by going to a cafe to read the news. I have often seen bootblacks and others of that sort getting together to buy each day's gazette for a half-farthing and to read it together … There are a dozen different gazettes in London, some which come out every day, some twice a week and some weekly. One can read the news from other countries usually taken from the Holland Gazette. The articles on London are always the longest, one can learn of the marriage and death of people of quality, of civil, military and clerical appointments, and anything else of interest, comic and tragic, in this great city.12

The tastes of an increasingly literate public were beginning to determine what was printed in England, unlike in earlier times when writing was an aristocratic pursuit for a very select audience. Writers had to convince booksellers that their works could sell widely; it was no longer a matter of simply pleasing an aristocracy. Visual art, too, was moving toward public subscription rather than the patronage system with the establishment of the first academy of painting in 1711.13 Newspapers were one of the visible signs of the demands of this new, broader audience. Indeed, modern notions of journalism—of simple, factual, objective, informative reporting—can be traced to this period. The lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695 which had been a curb to publishing also encouraged the proliferation of this cheap reading matter. Coffee houses attracted customers by supplying newspapers to their clientele along with the latest beverages from the New World.

The popular demand for informative reading is also recognizable in the longer literary forms which sold well during the early part of the century. There were tales of travel, secret and not so secret histories of lives, and collections of letters. Certain terms recurred again and again in the titles of fiction: “history,” “memoirs,” “life,” “voyage,” “adventure,” “account,” “letters.”14 All of these forms were supposedly derived from materials which were authentic rather than fictional, for the public seemed to want to be informed about all the strange and marvelous permutations possible in real life.

The travel books were partly the result of the growth of capitalism: the impulse to accrue and the necessity for finding new business sent Englishmen all the way around the world, to return to talk of new lands and foreign people. As early as 1680 The Royal Society had shown an official interest in the accounts of travelers15 and Evelyn's diary of August 6, 1698 reports the excitement of dining “at Mr. Pepys, where was Cap: Dampier, who had been a famous Buccaneere, brought hither the painted Prince Jolo, printed a Relation of his very strange adventures,” discussing the errors in existing maps of the South Pacific.16 Of course by 1720, this interest in the exotic South Pacific had grown sufficiently to blow up the famous South Sea bubble.

The letter, as form, was a perfect frame for travel reports or essays of any length and on any subject in this new age which so valued collecting information. (Indeed, the earliest newspapers were no more than batches of informative letters published together.)17 Tone could range from impersonal journalistic human interest stories, to pedantic ethnographies, to ponderous theological debates, to sensational disclosures. Edward Ward, for example, was a hack writer who liked to masquerade his sensational exposés as on-the-scene reports back home in the form of letters.18 While some had recourse to letters to debate the tenets of Quakerism or to detail foreign cultures, popular writers like Ward framed anything that might sell in a letter format.

Travel books were so popular by that time that after theology books they were the second most numerous kind of book published. But stories of voyages are also metaphoric expressions of testing limits. They are quite literally about how far one can go, pushing at boundaries, reducing unknowns to knowns. The travel literature which provided the public with anthropological lore about other civilizations often compared them to English society with an eye to finding out what was considered natural in other cultures, what customs corroborated one's own certainties about human limitations. Other environments were especially interesting for what they could show individuals about their own world. English courtship and marriage customs, in particular, were often compared to other cultures as if these differences could teach one how all of it ought to be done. Travel stories were also suitable as allegories of the favorite Puritan sort about losing and then finding one's way—wrestling with one's rebellious mind, straying into psychically alien territory, but finally turning homeward to the proper English way of life.

Pirate tales and criminal biographies, also very popular in the early part of the century, helped define good and evil in ways it would be hard to duplicate, with their examples of gratuitous and unreasoning violence at the extremes of human cruelty.19 Indeed, the very interest in criminality presupposes an allegiance to law and order; it assumes that there is some basic standard from which deviations are made. There was an interest in unlawfulness for the same reasons that there was an interest in making up rules for living. Because man was still the most uncontrollable and unpredictable element in his own world, there was a need to examine the outer edges of human experience, in order to define the natural limits of the passions. So although the success of the criminal biographies can be explained by popular craving for the lurid and sensational, it could also be argued that these biographies satisfied a taste for the details about those who ended on the gallows, a curiosity as to how their lives led in that direction, what their experience consisted of, and how they came to be what they were. In fact, these accounts often did come from the records kept and published by the institutions processing these criminals, from reports of the trials at Old Bailey, and from published accounts which Newgate prison chaplains wrote about the last hours and confessions of criminals they had worked with. These chaplains sold their accounts for money and for the glory they earned with stories of their spiritual prowess in last minute conversions.20

It was an age of sermons, laws, rules, and fictionalized explorations of conduct and consequences, an age that believed reason could educate feeling. Therefore a market existed for books of advice on how to behave in even the most intimate moments of one's life. Popular writers of the day were certainly aware of that audience: John Dunton's The Athenian Spy (1704) was ready “to direct the Bachelor and the Virgin in their whole amour”21 and Edward Ward's Marriage Dialogues (1708) meant to show those “unhappy in the Marry'd State” “where the fault lies.” Defoe, always willing to supply the needs of the reading public, contributed The Family Instructor (1715), a collection of sample dialogues for sticky situations which might occur between a father and son, or a mother and daughter—a “how-to-do-it” manual for family life—and Conjugal Lewdness (1727) which warns married couples at great length against too heavy an emphasis on the sexual side of their union. It should be remembered, too, that Richardson's letter-writing manual offered directives to its readers for a good deal more than style. It would seem that many readers were looking for instruction in how to think and feel.

The many tales of love affairs bought eagerly by the public at this time often featured a moralizing editorial statement between the episodes of passion, dwelling on the degree to which emotion could obliterate conscience and pervert social relationships. Love always broke all the rules, and created lawless behavior. As one novelist put it,

Reason, Religion, and even the Will is subservient to that all-powerful Passion which forces us sometimes to Actions our Natures most detest; Mother against Daughter, Father against Son, contrives; all Obligations of Blood and Interest are no more remember'd; over every Bound we leap, to gratify the wild Desire, and Conscience but vainly interposes its Remonstrances.22

Perhaps there was a delicious horror in reading about such “wild Desire” for the issue of what “our Natures most detest” or the “Obligations of Blood and Interest” were not easily defined. Stories of anarchic emotion teased the imagination with the real range of human choices. Excessive desire, difficult to control and predict at best, could push a person beyond self-control. Thus an early marriage manual advises against incest “lest the Friendship a Man bears to such a woman be immoderate; for … if the conjugal Affection be full and betwixt them as it ought to be, and that it be over and above surcharged with that kindred too, there is no doubt but such an Addition will carry the Husband beyond the Bounds of Reason.”23 Love could lead to madness; indeed it was seen as a kind of temporary insanity in which “Rape, Murder, everything that is shocking to Nature, and Humanity had in them Ideas less terrible than what despairing love presented …”24 Thus such tales demonstrated what social philosophers believed at that time—that people were held in check only by the laws and customs which regulated individual passions, that they were creatures of appetite whose instincts headed them toward chaos but for the restraints of reason.

Sometimes these love stories were offered up in a spirit of scientific humanism, as case studies in emotion. Like the criminal biographies they offered a close up view of the uncivilized side of human nature. This rationale was all the more convincing as the conventions which defined fiction became increasingly realistic; for as one popular writer pointed out, moral prescriptions based on fictional lives are more likely heeded when “fear of falling into the like Misfortunes, causes us to interest ourselves more in their Adventures, because that those sorts of Accidents may happen to all the World; and it touches so much the more because they are the common Effects of Nature.”25 The public wanted more of the sense that such stories were based on “real life” and that one could learn from individual cases. In 1705 Mrs. Manley announced this literary trend: the fad for French romances was “very much abated” and “Little Histories” had taken their place.26 In 1719 Defoe assured his readers that “a private Man's Adventures in the World were worth making Publick.”

Some of the “Little Histories” of that time strain the modern sense of realism considerably. Take, for example, this letter from a servant girl asking advice of an all-knowing seer about her affair with her master:

I believe, indeed, he has a great Respect for me, for he always takes care to cut the best bit of the Meat, or Fowl, or whatever we have for our Dinner, and lay it on his Plate as if he design'd to eat it himself, and leaves it for me.27

This detail, touching in its homeliness, is meant to testify to the everyday reality of the tale and to give the reader some insight into the experience of the character. Yet in its own way, it is as naively romantic as a story of a damsel saved from distress.

Nevertheless, the effect of writing vignettes about probable characters rather than allegorical sequences or fantastic adventures, of focusing on concrete physical details rather than falling back on indistinct, stylized descriptions, of shortening length and deflating style, was to blur distinctions between fantasy and mundane reality and make it seem possible to move romance into the realm of daily life. The outlandish and fanciful names of characters in the romances began to be used as the pseudonyms in epistolary fiction, assumed by clandestine correspondents to avoid detection in case their letters were intercepted. It also was becoming literary fashion to write about middle-class heroes and heroines, a practice which the very prolific Eliza Haywood defended in this way:

Those who undertake to write Romances, are always careful to give a high Extraction to their Heroes and Heroines; because it is certain we are apt to take a greater Interest in the Destiny of a Prince than of a private Person. We frequently find, however, among those of a middle State, some, who have Souls as elevated, and Sentiments equally noble with those of the most illustrious Birth: Nor do I see any Reason to the contrary; Nature confines not her Blessings to the Great alone … As the following Sheets, therefore, contain only real Matters of Fact, and have, indeed, something so very surprising in themselves, that they stand not in need of any Embellishments from Fiction: I shall take my Heroine such as I find her, and believe the Reader will easily pass by the Meanness of her Birth, in favour of a thousand other good Qualities she was possess'd of.28

In arguing that human qualities which are worth emulating can be found throughout the population, she at once announces that her book has a moral function and heightens the impression that her characters come from life, that her stories “contain only real Matters of Fact” and “stand not in need of any Embellishments from Fiction.” Nor is this example unique. A passage from the translation of Marivaux' The Life of Marianne (1736) strikes the same notes: there is an inverse snobbishness aimed at those who do not like to read about ordinary people and an implication that the story of a tradesman or commoner is as valuable a “History of the human Heart” as anyone could wish, and probably truer:

There are People whose Vanity creeps into every Thing they do, even into their very Reading. Lay before them the History of the human Heart, among People of great Quality; no Doubt they will think it an important Matter, and well worth their Attention … No Matter for all the rest of Mankind. They barely allow them to live, but judge them with no further Notice. They would even insinuate, that Nature might very well have spared the Production of such Creatures, and that Tradesmen and Commoners are but a Dishonour to her. You may judge then with what Scorn such Readers as these would have looked upon me.29

The day of the poor but honest heroine had arrived, thanks to the demands of a less aristocratic reading public who wanted to read more stories about people from their own class staunchly upholding strict moral codes.

The audience for whom these early novels were written were generally Londoners with enough education and leisure to read, and enough money to buy the books. Since they cost six pence to six shillings at that time (one or two shillings being the common price), they were out of range of all but the well-to-do. Epistolary fiction, sometimes printed piecemeal in magazines, was a little cheaper, installments running only six to twelve pence a week that way.30 The effect of watching the story unfold, of waiting for the next installment, was particularly well suited to the form of a novel told in letters. But whether serially or by volume, reading novels was a taste that only the comfortable classes could indulge. Private entertainment is expensive, and reading one's own book cost a good deal more than communal theater-going which had been the literary amusement of an earlier generation. Still, books were selling better than ever before, and the increased volume of sales kept their price stable in spite of a steady rise in the cost of printing.31

Although these books were fairly expensive, the main audience for them was not aristocratic. For one thing, the villainous rakes most often cast as the enemy in these stories came from that class, and the satire tends towards mockery of class distinctions from a middle-class point of view. For example, in Mrs. Davys' Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady, there is a butler whose proof of being “a very well-bred Man” is that he “drinks, whores, and games and has just as much Estate as will qualify him for a vote,” as well as an impoverished peer who has gambled away his estate and whose hovel is satirically called “my Lord's chamber.”32 The focus on the heroines in these novels also betrays a particularly middle-class concern, for it was the only class in which men worked and women did not. (Among the laboring classes men and women both worked; aristocratic men and women had similar requirements in the way of duties.) This divergence of role led to great controversy about the nature of their relationship to one another. Then, too, the growing need in landed aristocratic families for middle-class cash made middle-class women upwardly mobile as they had never been before. This intensified the middle-class interest in themes of love, marriage, and the etiquette of sexual fencing.

The letter novel thrived in this context. Middle-class readers could identify with characters who sat down to write letters which told of the agonies of love, or reported experiences of traveling, or revealed secrets, or gave advice, or arranged intrigues. They could read about the thoughts and experiences of these literate heroes and heroines with the appealing illusion that they came directly from the minds of the participants rather than being filtered through the sensibility of an omniscient narrator. The language generally used in epistolary fiction was common rather than literary, and the characters who wrote news to their families or advice to their friends were all plausible types. The letters themselves seemed to be proof that such people really existed and that following their lives was not merely self-indulgent escape, but informative reading about first-hand experience.

Certainly the most interesting experiments in realistic fiction of the day were books written like autobiography—Moll Flanders or Robinson Crusoe or letter novels. The public must have enjoyed such first-hand writing, for columns of letters of complaints, advice, or confession written to editors of newspapers and gazettes by private individuals were so successful that editors imitated them, and featured professionally written ones concocted to read like unsolicited letters. It was simply easier to commission them than to collect them, and the public was always curious about others like themselves, isolated in their separate lives within the big city.

Because letters were the obvious medium for exchanging informal and personal news between intimates, they also perfectly illustrated stories of relationships. The epistolary mode gave an objective cast to such stories, as if they were data collected from actual experience demonstrating the natural extremes of feeling and depicting human problems. Even the titles of epistolary novels sometimes seem to lay claim to special truth about human states like curiosity or love or constancy or jealousy or innocence, as if the letters made it possible to abstract and isolate them for special study in each story: “The Masqueraders, or Fatal Curiosity,” “Fantomina, or Love in a Maze,” “The Fatal Secret or Constancy in Distress,” “The Penitant Hermit or The Fruits of Jealousy,” “The Player's Tragedy or Fatal Love,” “The Brothers or Treachery Punish'd” (italics mine).

This kind of epistolary writing tended to be very much in demand in the forty years or so which preceded Richardson's Pamela, perhaps because it satisfied the public taste for “realism” or seemed to provide documentation for moral dilemmas, and because it was written not as literary art but to sell to the middle class readers whose values and interests it reflected. In any case there were between 100 and 200 epistolary works published and sold in London during the early eighteenth century, many of them very popular, running through many editions. Some of them were collections of separate, unconnected letters, each of which was exemplary, amusing, or informative; some were novels constructed entirely with letters; some were intermediate cases—collections of “real life” letters which were sequential but did not quite tell a story, or novels with interpolated letters but with plots much too complicated to be narrated through the indirection of letters. This cluster of letter fiction provides the seeding for the subsequent development of English novels; close inspection of the form in later chapters will show how the letter format encouraged certain tendencies in fiction, made it possible for women to do such writing professionally, and because of the inevitable assumptions and themes of stories told in letters, made fashionable the tales of endless maneuvering between men and women.

All of the best selling Grub Street hack writers dealt in letters: Defoe, Dunton, Ward, Brown, D'Urfey, and by the 1720s, Eliza Haywood and Mary Manley as well. They translated them, edited them, “presented” them or wrote them outright; many letters were passed off as authentic, some were facetious, some were fictional. Eliza Haywood alone issued eighteen volumes of epistolary work between 1724 and 1727 which means that there was a great demand for them, for her livelihood depended on writing what would sell. Edmund Curll, the most famous, successful, and unscrupulous bookseller of this period was making most of his money by 1719 on letter collections and fictive autobiographies.33 This was the same bookseller called “unspeakable” by Pope in his denunciation of the whole new upstart literary industry which was upsetting the tradition of literature as an aristocratic occupation. A later critic of the period wrote more kindly of Curll's propensity to print private papers as his “indefatigable industry in preserving our national remains.”34

But not only did the middle class profit from the opening up of the literary profession. Educated women, too, now found it possible to make a living writing stories according to the popular formula, or publishing diaries or letters in a culture which thought it anomalous for a gentlewoman to produce anything more public. Women's writing, of course, was not taken seriously but thought of as a new, pleasant way for women to busy themselves. A reader wrote to The Spectator,

You lately recommended to your Female Readers, the good old custom of their Grandmothers, who used to lay out a great Part of their Time in Needle-work: I entirely agree with you in your Sentiments, … I would, however, humbly offer to your Consideration the Case of the Poetical Ladies; who, though they may be willing to take any Advice given them by the Spectator, yet can't so easily quit their Pen and Ink, as you may imagine.35

The Preface to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Letters, written in 1724 by the first English feminist, Mary Astell, was unusual in its warm praise of the female sensibility. Mary Astell, who had long decried women's servitude, pressing for women's right to a real education, asked her audience to set aside their prejudices against women's writing and be “pleased that a woman triumphs, and proud to follow in her train.”36 The woman she championed, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, was one of the few women in the intellectual circles of the day. She was a gifted writer and an astute conversationalist, at one time very much admired by Pope, although later estranged from him. Mary Astell claimed that her letters from Turkey were proof that ladies traveled “to better purpose” than their lords, and that while the public was “surfeited with Male Travels, all in the same tone, and stuft with the same trifles; a lady has the skill to strike out a new path, and to embellish a worn-out subject, with a variety of fresh and elegant entertainment.”37 Certainly Lady Mary traveled “to better purpose” than even elegant entertainment, for it was she who brought back to England the practice of innoculation against small-pox.

Indeed, there were a number of successful woman novelists in the decades preceding the publication of Richardson's Pamela, in spite of the fashionable derision of “Literary Ladies.” Interestingly, all of them—Behn, Manley, Davys, Haywood, Rowe—wrote at least some of their fiction in the form of letters. One of the reasons women were encouraged to try their hands at epistolary fiction was because it was a format that required no formal education. It did not treat traditional literary problems, it necessitated no scholarly training. Its success largely depended on a simple, personal, letter-writing style. This was, in fact, one of the few kinds of writing which had long been encouraged in women since—to make the appropriate distinction—letter-writing had always been thought of as an accomplishment rather than as an art.

But it is important to remember that women did not dominate this new sort of fiction although they wrote a good deal of it. The most authoritative checklist of pre-Richardson epistolary fiction includes seventy-two volumes written by men and fifty-four volumes written by women, of which Eliza Haywood alone wrote twenty-nine.38 It is possible, of course, that women contributed more to epistolary fiction than we can ever know, for sixty-eight of those 200 or so early epistolary works39 have no known authors and it is often thought that respectable women took refuge behind the label “anonymous.”

At the same time that women began to write professionally, they also became a significant new audience for the fiction and light reading coming from the new Grub Street industry. Certainly the proportion of women readers in the audience had been much less half a century earlier. A study of 262 works printed in a ten-year span in the middle of the seventeenth century shows that although twenty-nine were dedicated to specific women, only nine of the books were explicitly intended for a female readership.40 Nor had women been the main audience for the romances of the seventeenth century. William Temple recommended several long romances to Dorothy Osborne in the course of their courtship; Samuel Pepys read romances and even tried his amateur's hand at writing one. On January 30, 1664 his diary entry reads:

This evening, being in the humour of making all things even and clear in the world, I tore some old papers; among others, a romance which (under the title of ‘Love a Cheate’) I begun ten years ago at Cambridge; and at this time reading it over tonight I liked it very well. …

But by the beginning of the eighteenth century, a sizable female audience was beginning to be assumed for fiction of all sorts. The preface to Mme. D'Aulnoy's The Present Court of Spain calls attention to its female writer because it “will go a great way you know with the Ladies and admirers of Ladies. …”41 Edward Ward's Female Policy Detected: or The Arts of a Designing Woman Laid Open (1695) was certainly written because of the growing market for books about women. Dunton, never one to miss a good commercial opportunity, advertised a book of “600 letters pro and con, on all the Disputable Points relating to Women” called The Female Warr. It is interesting that he thought the letter the most believable way of presenting women's voices. Steele, too, considered his treatment of women's topics in The Spectator as new and daring since no other magazine had ever set out to “treat on Matters which relate to Females, as they are concern'd to approach, or fly from the other Sex, or as they are tyed to them by Blood, Interest, or Affection.”42 The novelty of his venture is partly visible in the uncertain tone with which he treats women's issues. On the one hand he professed an interest in elevating them to a shared intellectualism with men, deploring the lack of opportunities for women's education and recognizing the harmful effects of the differential attitudes of parents towards their girl and boy children. On the other hand, he patronized, with amusement, the diminished world which women inhabited:

I have often thought there has not been sufficient Pains taken in finding out proper Employments and Diversions for the Fair ones. Their Amusements seem contrived for them rather as they are Women than as they are reasonable Creatures; and are more adapted to the Sex than to the Species. The Toilet is their great Scene of Business, and the right adjusting of their Hair the principal Employment of their Lives … Their most Serious Occupations are Sowing and Embroidery, and their greatest Drudgery the Preparation of Jellies and Sweet-meats.43

The new audience for the incidental prose of letter collections, magazines, and epistolary fiction in the early eighteenth century also continued to include many men. Dudley Ryder for instance, a pleasant middle-class young man whose diary survives, was an avid reader both of letter collections and of essays from The Spectator and The Tatler for their sensible “reflections and observations upon the passions, tempers, follies and vices of mankind.”44 One hundred and eighty-six of the 309 names of people engaged to buy a copy of Letters From a Lady of Quality to a Chevalier (costing three to five shillings depending on the binding) are men's names;45 seventy-four percent of the names on the subscription list bound with the 1730 edition of Some Memoirs of the Amours and Intrigues of a Certain Irish Dean are men's names; 198 out of 332 subscribers for Elizabeth Boyd's The Happy Unfortunate or The Female Page (costing two shillings six pence in advance and an equal sum upon delivery) are men; in five out of six of the subscription lists for epistolary novels reported on by Robert Day, men subscribers outnumber women subscribers two to one.46 It would seem that in spite of the increasing number of women's voices and women's issues reaching the public, men were still the main purchasers of literature in that period. Part of the explanation for this, no doubt, is that men tended to control the money in a family. Furthermore, booksellers' shops, like coffee houses, were still men's territory, unusual places for a gentlewoman to be found.

Considering that men still dominated the world of popular literature it is remarkable how many of the central characters in these novels are women. The stories are created so that the reader watches their dilemmas, which are usually sexual, unfold. In the older chivalric romances it had always been a man's honor which was tested, not a woman's—and that honor had altogether different properties from those at issue in the eighteenth-century novel. In the tradition of Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, Aeneas and Dido, it had always been the woman who seductively lured the man from his higher purpose, his noble mission. When Sir Gawain in the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight allowed himself to be seduced by a woman it was a punishable weakness in his knightly character, a flaw in his single-minded perseverance. In the literature of chivalry, a man's honor resided in his physical prowess and his spiritual enlightenment which were his weapons against the forces of evil often tempting him in the form of a sexually inviting woman. By the time of Richardson, these roles had been very much reversed, and without any sense of strain the public read its way tearfully through 2,000 pages of an unscrupulous rake trying to seduce a poor, defenseless woman. As a social philosopher at the turn of the century noted, “Men are now the Tempters, and Women … are first ashamed of their offense.47 No longer were men expected to test their mettle by stoic endurance against tremendous odds—dragons, sorcery, hostile bands of knights. No longer did a man display his “greedy hardiment” by eager combat with challengers. The contest had narrowed considerably by the end of the seventeenth century; a man's trophies were his sexual conquests, and it was the woman who fought the holy struggle to preserve her chastity.

In these fictions, a woman's chastity stood for a more profound inviolability, for being able to hold onto one's convictions and not buckle under pressure. It was her passive endurance, her ability to keep saying “no” in the face of increasingly extreme pressure that was being tested. An early epistolary story by Thomas Brown, for example, shows the connection between chastity and independence; for as long as the husband could not possess his wife sexually he could not “invade” her in any other way either. Only when “the Castle surrender'd” after two months, could the husband control her entirely.48

One feels certain that these sexual conflicts were about power rather than desire because the male sexuality is so aggressive. In Crébillon fils' novel Letters from the Marchioness de M*** as in Clarissa, the woman actually dies of the sexual invasion. The military metaphors in Captain Ayloffe's Letters which are standard in the eighteenth-century language of love, are very much to the point; that is, the object of the game was winning as much as pleasure. “Women are like Commanders in small Garrisons,” reads Captain Ayloffe's advice to his friend, “reject the Carte Blanche, and pretend to maintain the last Man; but when your Approaches are made, and the Batteries play smartly upon 'em, they'l hang out the Flag, and that Town is not far from Surrendring, which begins to Parley.”49 Or take this letter which a man writes to the woman he loves in Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister. He is telling her of a dream he has just had:

… it was then, and there me thought my Sylvia yielded, with a faint Struggle and a soft Resistance; I heard her broken Sighs, her tender whispering Voice, that trembling cry'd—Oh! Can you be so cruel.—Have you the Heart—Will you undo a Maid because she loves you? Oh! Will you ruin me because you may? My faithless—My unkind—then sigh'd, and yielded, and made me happier than a triumphing God! But this was still a Dream, I wak'd and sigh'd, and found it vanish'd all!50

He dreams about “triumphing,” fighting and taking and being deified, potent as a God! Like most of the seduction struggles, this one too is really a power struggle.

One of the reasons for this sexual aggressiveness against women in epistolary novels is because it is precisely the impotent suffering of the embattled heroine which produces the anguished consciousness that needs the release of writing letters. In these stories, women are imprisoned, seduced, abducted, raped, abandoned, and their passively outraged responses to these developments are carefully detailed. Because the woman's role is stereotypically reactive rather than active, the woman's side of things maximizes emotional self-examination. After each encounter, each new plot development, the heroine is given no recourse but to retire to the privacy of her writing closet and react on paper.

Indeed, these epistolary novels are often plotted like experiments performed on isolated individuals. The characters are almost systematically manipulated and their reactions under pressure carefully preserved in their letters or journals. Both Pamela and Clarissa are put through paces to see if they pass the test of virtue. Certainly in a civilization steeped in the Christian tradition of wanderings in the wilderness and of finally finding salvation, stories of trials are no novelty. Yet these references to tests and trials are not so allegorical in tone as they are experimental. One of Aphra Behn's women writes “I'll die before I'll yield my Honour … if I can stand this Temptation, I am Proof against all the World.”51 “If it had not been for this Trial to get the Mastery of my Passion,” states another embattled heroine in another epistolary novel, “I should never have understood the force of it.”52 The books direct the reader's attention to the heroine's responses as she confronts difficulty after difficulty, to be recorded in her letters, as if the emotional particulars of each case are what is important rather than any temporary outcome in the plot.

Perhaps it was because women were so separated from the rest of society, so very much on their own psychologically, that they came to be the symbolic figures who battled for integrity in the new forms of fiction. Even if a woman conformed totally to the expectations her family held for her, she never was really established securely. Her position was so perennially marginal that one misstep could always lose her everything, and she usually had nothing but her own strength of will and character to pull her through. No one in the society was as alone as a woman; she had no personal power, no resources, and if cut off from her parents, no allies. This defenselessness is apparent enough in a Pamela or a Moll Flanders, but a married woman, too, out of favor with her husband, could be as isolated as described in The Fatal Amour Between a Beautiful Lady and a Young Nobleman: “She saw herself in the Hands of an angry Husband, who had an absolute Power over her: And had no body to advise or comfort her.”53 Often these fictional heroines are orphans, lonely individuals standing outside the culture who therefore can be the test cases for working out a new balance between society's regulation and individual desire.

When fictional heroines vacillated about leaving their parental homes and making their own choices, or when fictional rakes debated internally about indulging their desires or following the community's moral codes, they were reflecting dilemmas new to the culture. In part, these were caused by economic changes.54 For example, the issue of whether to marry for reasons of estate or for individual preference was a very real question in England at that time. But other problems were metaphorically tested in tales of women's virtue and desire as well: whether or not there were natural moral limits, whether the claims of society and traditional authority ought to come before the needs and passions of an individual.

In the epistolary story by Aphra Behn called Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister (1694), these things come together clearly. It is about an incestuous and adulterous passion which is discussed for a long time in letters before finally being consummated near the end of the story. In his verbal agonies, the hero Philander often writes about what is natural and what is artificially imposed upon man by misguided social codes. He is made to be a spokesman for the more “natural,” animal side of human nature, envying the freedom of wild birds who are not restrained by “troublesome Honour:”

Man, the Lord of all! He to be stinted in the most valuable Joy of Life; Is it not pity? Here is no troublesome Honour, amongst the pretty Inhabitants of the Woods and Streams, fondly to give Laws to Nature, but uncontroul'd they play, and sing, and love; no Parents checking their dear Delights, no Slavish Matrimonial Ties to restrain their nobler Flame. No Spies to interrupt their blest Appointments. …55

He questions the social definitions of what is acceptable, and proclaims his right to “incestuous” love. Indeed, when one looks closely at the nobleman and his mistress-sister, Sylvia, it is clear that there are some extenuating circumstances. For one thing, Sylvia is not Philander's actual blood sister but his wife's younger sister, although that relationship still has an incestuous feel to it. For another, his wife is cuckolding him with someone else. But Sylvia argues “False as she is, you are still married to her.”56 Because the social codes are taken seriously, the novel is shaped by that struggle over morality.

The characters all realize that there are laws which feeling does not sweep away; throughout there are references to the affair as being “criminal,” “monstrous.” When they are discovered, Sylvia writes to her lover:

Philander, all that I dreaded, all that I fear'd is fallen upon me: I have been arraign'd and convicted; three Judges, severe as the three infernal ones, sate in Condemnation on me, a Father, a Mother and a Sister. …57

Her love affair is an illegal one, and she sees in her family's condemnation the disapproval of the larger society. Sylvia's legalistic metaphor foreshadows the real legal action which follows, too, for the larger society does seek to punish the illicit lovers. Philander is pursued by lawsuits for rape and incest. Finally they solve their problem by marrying Sylvia off to one of Philander's lackeys, who agrees to be married in name only, acting as a front for Philander himself. The only way to appease the outraged society is to mimic its conventions, even in travesty.

Although the lovers hide from their parents, and try to outwit the conventions of society, there is no gaiety about this truancy. Throughout this book there is a deep fear of the breakdown of authority. Although Philander decries the social codes, at the same time the reader feels how much they are needed to hold together the society. Vague and shadowy, the execution of Charles I hovers in the background as a warning of where disrespect for law and order can lead. Philander is a political rebel as well as a sexual one; Sylvia denounces his secret revolutionary activities because they could lead to king-killing and sacrilege. She writes to Philander as if there were a mystical and religious sanction against questioning authority: “I am certain that should the most harden'd of your bloody Rebels look him in the Face,” she says, referring to the king, “the devilish Instrument of Death would drop from his sacrilegious Hand, and leave him confounded at the Feet of the Royal forgiving Sufferer …58 Certainly this passage is naive; but more than that, it is invested with great religious fervor suddenly and sharply felt. In fact, the energy seems to come from Sylvia's anxiety and displaced sexual intensity, expressed in these political issues. Her exaggerated reaction connects the breaking of the two kinds of rules.

This story of crime, both incest and treason, told in the love letters between Philander and Sylvia, looks much like the same old seduction story. Philander convinces Sylvia, against law and common sense, that their desire for one another is more important than anything else. But closer to the surface than usual, the concerns of a culture in flux can be seen, trying to mediate in its fiction between the claims of the traditional and the individual's questioning of these conventions.

Because the epistolary novel grew in response to certain specific social conditions—a new literary industry, broader literacy in the population, the evolution of the female audience, the development of a few writers among middle and upper class women—it was a form well suited to a detailed working through of moral issues. Characters who spent their fictional lives writing letters to each other about their confusion and ambivalence contributed to an illusion of realism; these emotional outpourings were the literary residue of deeply felt experience and thought from which a reader might learn something of use in order to deal with his own moral dilemmas.


It is not simple coincidence that the novel, and especially the epistolary novel, came into vogue at roughly the same time as women's preoccupations began to have less to do with how they actually lived their lives and more to do with the fantasies of love and romance which were the most they could expect as women, if they kept themselves graceful and attractive. The novel must be understood as a form of literature which developed at a time of dislocating social changes. The growth of cities and the beginnings of industrialism caused new divisions of function in the society on the basis of sex as well as class, and this seriously affected the condition of women in the literate classes. These city women no longer were the economic partners of men, for the new capitalistic modes no longer made public use of their labor, but separated them from the active concerns of life into a pretend world of romantic love and fantasy relationships. It is at this point that the novel came into its own—at a time in history when urban women of the middle and upper classes no longer had any economic power, when they no longer participated in the means of production of the society.

Novels fit into this changing social scene as the means for circulating the comforting affirmation that women were not meant to be grocers or haberdashers or wooldrapers (let alone doctors or scholars), but were intended solely for the business of romantic love. Indeed, if a novel had a male protagonist it could be about almost any sort of subject and circumstance, but if it was about a woman, it was almost certainly about her relation to a man; nothing else was germane. Most of these novels about women start as Thomas Brown's The Adventures of Lindamira (1702) does: “I shall pass over those little Occurances of my life till I arrived to my 16th Year, during which time nothing remarkable hapned [sic] to me,” beginning at the point when the heroine becomes a sexually vulnerable figure, open to the temptations, delusions, and ecstasies of romantic love.59

The epistolary novel was the perfect vehicle for stories of romantic love because its very format demanded a subject matter in which emotional states were most prominent. Long distance epistolary involvements, like romantic love, required a taste for sentimentalized fantasy relations, and an ability to shut out humdrum reality. Created to seem possible and true to life, stories in letters portrayed characters who resembled their respectable readers, but who escaped their urban isolation by reading and writing their way into exciting amorous adventures.

Fantasies about love and marriage flourished in this environment not only because they justified the empty lives of middle and upper class women, but because the culture inhibited any realistic and easy relations between the sexes. Marriageable women were rarely alone with the men they imagined themselves to love; such a lack of access could only have encouraged idealized dreams of romance. Many courtships were carried on in letters fuelled by the imaginative process of writing, because written correspondence was the most direct and private way that unmarried men and women had of communicating with one another. We know, for instance, that John Evelyn's eldest daughter Elizabeth appalled her parents by eloping after a longstanding, clandestine correspondence. Dorothy Osborne and William Temple wrote to each other for seven years, despite his father's efforts to find a richer match as well as her relatives' disapproving judgment of William as an adventurer. Finally, after her father died and she survived the smallpox, which disfigured her, they married.

The danger of such relationships was that the distance made it easier to imitate the conventions of the fictions which furnished the ideal versions of such love affairs, and to ignore the obvious disparities between novelistic romances and the experiences of life. The Spectator warned, “We generally make Love in a Stile, and with Sentiments very unfit for ordinary Life: They are half Theatrical, half Romantick. By this Means we raise our Imaginations to what is not to be expected in humane life … because we did not beforehand think of the Creature we were enamoured of as subject to Dishumor, Age, Sickness, Impatience, or Sullennes. …”60 As long as such romantic expectations had been attached only to those special relationships outside of the daily round of married life, the stories which promulgated them could have no pernicious effects. But in the fictions of love being written by the end of the seventeenth century, realistic characters were always working through crises, falling in and out of love, managing to live their lives at the emotional pitch which the new clichés about love and marriage celebrated, but which never quite came true for their readers.

The epistolary courtship of Dorothy Osborne and William Temple does not seem to have misled them, for their marriage appears to have been a contented one, despite their early prolonged separation. But other stories from real life did not end so happily. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example, enjoyed her courtship with Wortley and arranged to elope with him by letter, because she was forbidden to see him. Her clandestine correspondence, which ended in an unhappy marriage, is very dramatic, even reading like a novel. In fact, when she was an older woman she told her daughter that Richardson's Clarissa reminded her of her own youth. She wrote: “I was such an old Fool as to weep over Clarissa Harlowe like any milkmaid of sixteen over the Ballad of the Ladie's Fall [a broadside written circa 1680]. To say truth, the first volume soften'd me by a near ressemblance of my Maiden Days. …”61

And it is true—the letters from these “Maiden Days” do read like Clarissa. Lady Mary's parents tried to push her into a loveless marriage to add to the family's wealth, and although she argued and appealed to relatives to intercede for her, she finally had no other recourse but to make a stealthy escape. It was almost forty years before Clarissa when Lady Mary ran off with her lover; at that time most people did not yet consider love either a necessary or a sufficient condition for marrying. Lady Mary, who did not want to marry against her own inclinations, was advised to do so by her relatives, ordered to do so by her father, and considered “a little Romantic” by her friends. She was sure that even her friend Phillipa would think her mad to run away from an arranged marriage.

I give here most of the sequence which Lady Mary remembered so vividly in her later years, both for the sake of showing the degree to which fiction made use of the conditions of women's lives and because such an actual document throws some light on the fiction it resembles.

To Wortley, June 11, 1712:

… My Family is resolv'd to dispose of me where I hate. I have made all the Opposition in my power; perhaps I have carry'd that opposition too far. However it is, things were carry'd to that height, I have been assur'd of never haveing a shilling, except I comply. Since the Time of Mandana's we have heard of no Lady's ran away with, without fortunes.62

To Wortley, July 26, 1712: she tells him that she has written an importunate letter to her father and

… said every thing in this Letter I thought proper to move him, and proffer'd in attonement for not marrying whom he would, never to marry at all. He did not think fit to answer this letter, but sent for me to him. He told me he was very much surpriz'd that I did not depend on his Judgement for my future happynesse, that he knew nothing I had to complain of etc., that he did not doubt I had some other fancy in my head which encourag'd me to this disobedience, but he assur'd me if I refus'd a settlement he has provided for me, he gave me his word, whatever proposalls were made him, he would never so much as enter into a Treaty with any other; that if I founded any hopes upon his death, I should find my selfe mistaken. … I told my Intention to all my nearest Relations; I was surpriz'd at their blameing it to the greatest degree. I was told they were sorry I would ruin my selfe, but if I was so unreasonable they could not blame my F[ather] whatever he inflicted on me. I objected I did not love him. They made answer they found no Necessity of Loveing; if I liv'd well with him, that was all was requir'd of me, and that if I consider'd this Town I should find very few women in love with their Husbands and yet a manny happy. It was in vain to dispute with such prudent people; they look'd upon me as a little Romantic, and I found it impossible to persuade them that liveing in London at Liberty was not the height of happynesse. …63

To Phillipa Mundy, August 1712:

For my part, I know not what I shall do; perhaps at last I shall do something to surprize everybody. Where ever I am, and what ever becomes of me, I am ever yours. Limbo is better than Hell. My Adventures are very odd; I may go into Limbo if I please, but tis accompanny'd with such circumstances, my courage will hardly come up to it, yet perhaps it may. In short I know not what will become of me. You'l think me mad, but I know nothing certain but that I shall not dye an Old Maid, that's positive. …64

To Wortley, August 17, 1712:

Every thing I apprehended is come t[o p]asse. ‘Tis with the utmost difficulty [and d]anger I write this. My father is in the house. … I am frighted to death and know not what I say. I had the precaution of desiring Mrs.— to send her servant to wait here for a Letter, yet I am in apprehension of this being stopp'd. If tis, I have yet more to suffer, for I have been forc'd to promise to write no more to you.65

To Wortley, August 18, 1712:

… If you can come to the same place any time before that, I may slip out, because they have no suspicion of the morning before a Journey. Tis possible some of the servants will be about the house and see me go off, but when I am once with you, tis no matter.—If this is impracticable, Adieu, I fear for ever.66

To Wortley, August 18, 1712:

I would not give my selfe the pain of thinking you have suffer'd as much by this misfortune as I have done. The pain of my mind has very much affected my body. I have been sick ever since, yet tho' overcome by fateigue and misfortune I write to you from the first Inn. …67

The similarity of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's experience to those of Richardson's celebrated heroine is startling. It makes the interchange between art and life more tangible: Richardson's art seems more genuinely borrowed from the life of his day, while Lady Mary's letters seem more dramatic than life usually is. The energy in these letters comes not only from her fine independent spirit dealing with difficulties, but also from the theatrical touches in her writing which betray interest in the melodrama of her situation. The way she compares her plight to that of Mandane in the romance by Scudéry, the ironic self-consciousness of writing “Hell” to mean spinsterhood and “Limbo” for an uncertain elopement, and the flamboyance of her declarations give one the impression that she thinks her life comparable to that of a fictional heroine.

The excitement of Lady Mary's courtship with Edward Wortley Montagu must have been heightened by their separation, by their constant brooding about one another, and, of course, by the correspondence that they had to resort to. Their meetings had all the trappings of forbidden adulterous affairs: fear of suspicion, arrangements for passing letters, and for properly spaced meetings in larger gatherings. Their letters are all about missing each other, sudden jealousies, and the designing of future tête-à-têtes. Behind their relationship was the titillation of checking over one's shoulder, of defying parents, of living out a romance—all the elements of an epistolary relationship. The passion with which they invested their relationship was manufactured out of their fantasies about love and about each other rather than growing gradually out of direct experience of the other.

Lady Mary's marriage was evidently not a happy one, and she must have speculated on the degree to which the imaginings of love reckoned in her own youthful folly. Throughout her later letters she reiterates the maxim that passion keeps better in the imagination than in reality, that long possession of any woman inevitably cools a man's desire for her. In the wisdom of age, having lived through her own difficulties, her final response to Richardson's novel was unsympathetic. She wrote to her daughter:

Even that model of Perfection, Clarissa, is so faulty in her behavior as to deserve little Compassion. Any Girl that runs away with a young Fellow without intending to marry him should be carry'd to the Bridewell or Bedlam the next day. Yet the circumstances are so laid as to inspire tenderness, not withstanding the low style and absurd incidents, and I look upon this and Pamela to be two Books that will do more general mischief than the Works of Lord Rochester.68

The mischief of which she spoke, no doubt, was the sort that followed from too close identification with such fictional heroines. Novels like Clarissa sowed false expectations of romance in young women, as well as such sympathy for her yearnings as might lead them to share her downfall. While Lord Rochester only wrote lascivious verses whose original impulse was clear and whose effects predictable, Richardson wrote books which lured the reader into a world in which right was not so very distinguishable from wrong, because the verisimilitude of the characterizations roused an empathy in the reader which confused the issues. The epistolary format, especially, created a genre in which each character spoke for him or herself, from his or her own point of view; as Clarissa put it to her friend Anna Howe: “there would hardly be a guilty person in the world, were each suspected or accused person to tell his or her own story and be allowed any degree of credit.”69

The trouble was that there was not sufficient ballast in women's lives to keep their feet on the ground. The work they did became progressively more ornamental and less functional in the course of the seventeenth century. Like the heroines of epistolary novels, they merely filled their time while waiting for something exciting to happen. Elizabeth Pepys, for example, the wife of the famous diarist, suffered from having nothing to do while her husband was off with friends or at his office. Samuel Pepys seems to have understood what a strain such interminable inactivity was on his wife, although he could not do much about it:

Up and began our discontent again, and sorely angered my wife, who indeed do live very lonely, but I do perceive that it is want of work. … Then to my office late, and this afternoon my wife in her discontent sent me a letter, which I am in a quandry what to do, whether to read it or not, but I propose not, but to burn it before her face, that I may put a stop to more of this nature. But I must think of some way, either to find her some body to keep her company, or to set her to work and by employment to take up her thoughts and time.70

With four or five servants and no children, Elizabeth Pepys had little to do but write complaining letters to her husband, who for his part was always hiring some new maid to keep his wife company, or taking her to visit her mother, or engaging a music teacher or a dancing master to keep her occupied.

The situation was no better for brave Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who wrote this letter to her new husband, describing her occupations in his absence:

I write and read till I can't see, and then I walk; sleep succeeds; thus my whole time is divided. If I was as well qualified in all other ways as I am by idleness, I would publish a daily paper called the Meditator. … Till today I have had no occasion of opening my mouth to speak, since I wished you a good journey. I see nothing, but I think of every thing, and indulge my imagination, which is chiefly employed on you.71

Nor was her case unusual. The editor of The Tatler claimed he knew twenty families by name “where all the Girls hear of in this Life is, That it is Time to rise and to come to Dinner; as if they were so insignificant as to be wholly provided for when they are fed and cloathed.” With an understanding rare to his time, he continued: “It is with great Indignation that I see such Crowds of the Female World lost to humane Society and condemned to a Laziness, which makes Life pass away with less Relish than in the hardest Labour.”72

Woman's domain had been reduced to her own small nuclear family, for which she was provided with necessities (cloth, food) by professionals in a wage economy which increasingly excluded her. The new cultural emphasis on childhood and childrearing which Philippe Ariès dates from the end of the seventeenth century probably grew out of this social dysfunction. It was then that childhood began to be understood as qualitatively different from adulthood: children stopped being dressed exactly like adults, and painters stopped painting them as scaled-down adults.73 The new consideration given to the education and training of children made motherhood into a kind of profession, creating new responsibilities for women, and providing them with new leverage within the evolving family.

But these were not roles which required formal education and rarely were women trained to read further than the semi-literate assortment of novels, romances, and plays available to them. Even wealthy women were expected to improve their time with needlework rather than in the pursuit of learning. Mary Astell, who petitioned Queen Anne to set up schools for women, felt that this cultural neglect of women's minds was the root symptom of the prejudice against them, and that to it could be traced their characteristic boredom, frivolity, and expense. An intellectual life was the highest good, she believed, and leisure was best filled with serious study and charitable works. She felt that women needed education to help right the balance in their lives, to promote reason over passion, and reality over fantasy. But in advocating women's schools, she could not always keep an ironic note from her writing, for she knew she was demanding it in a social vacuum:

But to what Study shall we apply ourselves? some Men say that Heraldry is a pretty Study for a Woman, for this reason, I suppose, That she may know how to Blazon her Lord and Master's great Atchievements! They allow us Poetry, Plays, and Romances, to Divert us and themselves; and when they would express a particular Esteem for a Woman's Sense, they recommend History; tho' with Submission, History can only serve us for Amusement and a Subject of Discourse. [For] … how will this help our Conduct or excite us in a generous Emulation? since the Men being the Historians, they seldom condescend to record the great and good Actions of Women; and when they take notice of them, 'tis with this wise Remark, That such Women acted above their Sex. By which one must suppose they would have their Readers understand, That they were not Women who did those Great Actions, but that they were Men in Petticoats!74

With so little to give their lives meaning and stability, it is no wonder that women were given to illusory brooding about romance. A sophisticated character in a French epistolary novel later in the century shuddered for the susceptibility of idle women whose energies centered on love:

Tremble above all for those women, active in their idleness, whom you call “tender,” of whom love takes possession so easily and with such power; women who feel the need to occupy themselves with it even when they do not enjoy it and who, abandoning themselves unreservedly to the ebullition of their ideas, give birth through them to those sweet letters which are so dangerous to write; women who are not afraid to confide these proofs of their weakness to the person who causes them; imprudent women, who cannot see their future enemy in their present lover.75

“Those sweet letters” to which epistolary heroines abandoned themselves, were “dangerous to write” because they fanned the flames of love and encouraged solitary dreaming. Writing kept a woman on the string, imaginatively involved in the love affair, no matter what the distance, no matter what the obstacles. As the famous letter-writing Portuguese Nun observed: “a man should rather fix upon a Mistress in a Convent than anywhere else. For they have nothing there to hinder them from being perpetually Intent upon their Passion. …”76

The unreality of women's lives was also perpetuated by such training and direction as they did get. Lord Halifax's famous letter to his daughter, a distillation of the soundest precepts of his time, advised her “to have a perpetual watch upon your Eyes, and to remember, that one careless Glance giveth more advantage than a hundred words not enough considered.”77 He warned her to avoid gambling because she might get caught up in the game and forget to compose her face. Everywhere he reminds her that her reputation is her most important possession, in a hostile world where everyone is after her virtue. “The Enemy is abroad and you are sure to be taken if you are found stragling.”78 He preached constant vigilance and mastery of inference, of indirect expression, of innuendo. Indeed, his advice could also have been aimed at training for seduction, so much did he emphasize the possible effects of the smallest sign or gesture of real feeling.

Steele satirizes this trained coquetry in the complaints of a fashionable London lady about her visiting country cousin, in The Spectator.

She is very pretty, but you can't imagine how Unformed a Creature it is. She comes to my Hands just as Nature left her, half finished, and without any acquired Improvements. … She knows no Way to express her self but by Tongue, and that always to signifie her Meaning. Her Eyes serve her yet only to see with, and she is utterly a Foreigner to the Language of Looks and Glances. In this I fancy you could help her better than any Body. I have bestowed two Months in teaching her to Sigh when she is not concerned, and to Smile when she is not pleased: and am ashamed to own she makes little or no Improvement. … I could pardon too her Blushing, if she knew how to carry her self in it and if it did not manifestly injure her Complexion.79

Although Steele humorously overdoes his thesis that city women are caricatures of all that is unnatural, always playing a part, still he suggests how genteel women of his time did violence to their own feelings of reality. He also describes the upbringing which trained them to control their feelings, expressions, and actions, to ignore discomfort for beauty, and to choose an immediate pain in the expectation of a future pleasure:

When a Girl is safely brought from her Nurse, before she is capable of forming one simple Notion of anything in Life … [she] is taught a fantastical Gravity of Behaviour and is forced to a particular Way of holding her Head, heaving her Breast, and moving with her whole Body; and all this under the Pain of never having a Husband; if she steps, looks, or moves awry. This gives the Young Lady wonderful Workings of Imagination, what is to pass between her and this Husband, that she is every Moment told of, and for whom she seems to be educated.80

This is an important point: women were being brought up to live imaginatively in the future; nothing else in their lives justified such training as they got.

By assuming that women were meant primarily for romantic attachment, society condemned them to it. Gone were the earlier straightforward contractual relations between the sexes, supplanted by the mystification of idealized relationships. The only appropriate ambition of a lady of quality was to bend all efforts to the art of pleasing. This constant recourse to the judgments of others was to take the place of living for them and fill the gaps of education and career. “‘Tis much more natural for women to please men than do any other thing,” states a pamphlet published in 1696. “And this desire which is so innate to the Sex, makes them live without action.”81 Women were instructed to treat themselves as mirrors, to reflect others rather than to have any self. They were to live in their imaginings of others' thoughts rather than in their own reality. “True Love,” began “Mrs. Steele” ominously in the third volume of The Ladies Library, “in all Accidents, looks upon the Person beloved, and observes his countenance, and how he approves or disapproves it, and accordingly looks sad or cheerful.”82 Since love was to be the basic inspiration of a married woman's life, she was to experience everything in terms of another's wishes, and filter her life through the construct of her husband's mind.

Not only did this society demand that women move carefully and watchfully through life, guided by their conscious minds and not their instincts, but it denied their physical reality, the enjoyment of their bodies. Their visible constraint was even remarked by a foreign visitor:

Walking is likewise a great Diversion among the Ladies, and their Manner of doing it is one way of knowing their Character; desiring only to be seen, they walk together, for the most part, without speaking: They are always dress'd, and always stiff; they go forward constantly, and nothing can amuse or put them out of their way; I doubt they would not stoop to take up a Flower from under their Feet: I never saw any of them lie on the Grass, not shew the least Inclination to sing. …83

The ultimate physical repression, of course, was the culture's denial of female sexuality. Although trained to attract men, even in a sexual way, the love women were to bear their husbands was to exclude the natural reason that men and women mate. The author of The Present State of Matrimony suggested that women have “an inexpressible Desire of Children, which we rudely, and wrongfully term Lust … This Passion for young Children, is beyond Imagination. The most chaste Virgin in the World can scarce contain herself at the Sight of a beautiful Child; but is ready to devour it with her Kisses.”84 Any feeling more distinctly physical than that in a woman was thought degenerate. Many critics have taken Clarissa's vacillations as a sign of her neurosis, but it was characteristic of the period to assume that women only endured sex for money or security. Even Moll Flanders only used sex for these ends. The early novels are filled with heroines who are woodenly unconscious of their own desire—a convention which demonstrated their decency and modesty as well as the expectations of polite society. Defoe, who chides his male readers in Conjugal Lewdness for marrying solely for “Money and Maidenhood,” never admits the possibility of women's marrying for sexual reasons. But he does warn prospective husbands that they would be fools to marry any woman who granted the ultimate favor before the wedding night, because such appetite proved them unfit for marriage.

These attitudes had not always prevailed—even in England. In Chaucer's time, for example, the sexuality of that gat-toothed woman, the libidinous Wife of Bath, was portrayed without embarrassment, ugliness, or shame. Her lustiness was a sign of vitality and readers were to delight in it, to admire her for having had the world in her time. In the Renaissance, too, a woman's sexual appetite was recognized and even feared. For once she was introduced to sexual pleasure by her conjugal duties and her natural passion aroused, one could not depend on her chastity. Husbands were therefore advised to limit sexual activity with their wives, “even to the point of deprecating pleasure,”85 and not awaken this dangerous appetite. Certainly the Renaissance conventions of adulterous passion, a system which separated love from marriage, implicitly recognized women's desires. But by the eighteenth century, decent women were no longer expected to enjoy their sexuality. In 1714 a woman, shielded by anonymity, lamented in The Spectator “that Men may boast and glory in those things that we must think of with Shame and Horror!”86

The public promotion of contraceptives made this denial all the more double-edged inasmuch as it clarified the distinction between sex for pleasure and sex for reproduction. Although contraceptives had been used in many cultures for centuries, public notice of them was new.87 The first mention of them in print came in 1708, in The Charitable Surgeon, by “T. C. Surgeon” (pirated from John Marten) which offered “The certain easy way to escape Infection, tho' never so often accompanying with the most polluted Companion,” and went on to hint that it might keep young ladies from “a great belly.”88 A year later The Tatler jogged the public memory by touting him who “invented an Engine for the Prevention of Harms by Love Adventures” as a great “Promoter of Gallantry and Pleasure.”89 These notices amounted to a public recognition that sex could be indulged in exclusively for pleasure. Indeed, Defoe frowned upon their use in marriage as encouraging improper attitudes towards sexual relations.90

It is important to know these facts about women's lives if one is to make sense of Clarissa's endless ambivalence, Pamela's investment in her simple style of dress, the interminable letters which they wrote, or the reading public's fascination with long stories of women's seduction. The speakers in many early novels were women: Moll Flanders, Roxana, Pamela, Clarissa, Evelina; and their moral, economic, and social choices were symbolized almost exclusively in sexual terms because increasingly, that was the only option in women's lives. Unlike the dazzling but faceless damsels of earlier romances, these self-involved heroines focused minutely and lengthily on their own feelings, for they evolved when their genteel counterparts in life were bored, inactive, badly educated, and without real work. It is no wonder that women's lives furnished the materials for a genre whose subject matter was deferred experience and emotional description.

But the inventors of such heroines had to be careful not to outrage polite readers of their fictions. Their characters had to have the fire and imagination for the ardent love affairs readers wanted to experience by proxy, but enough discretion to inhibit these impulses like properly bred women. The solution was to let art imitate life, and to portray women who enacted in fantasy what they were denied in actuality. One of Mrs. Manley's heroines, for instance, confides to her lover that

Fancy has brought you near, nay so very near, as to my Bosom; there this Morning I dream'd you were, and the Imagination was so strong, that starting out of my Sleep I left my Dream imperfect; my Senses, had their Concern been less, had not so soon rous'd themselves to find whether the Object were a real or imaginary Happiness. And I perhaps had longer seen you, nay, I more than saw you, forgive the Pleasure I take in writing freely. …91

The unconsciousness of the dream state not only relieved her of responsibility for her sexual desire, but also proved her moral strength. For virtue is cheap if there is no passion to overcome, no struggle to win. Héloise's letters, too, report living through moments from the past she shared with Abelard in a precious, recurring dream:

During the still Night, when my Heart ought to be quiet in the midst of sleep, which suspends the greatest Disturbances, I cannot avoid those Illusions my Heart entertains. I think I am still with my dear Abelard. I see him, I speak to him, and hear him answer. Charmed with each other, we quit our Philosophick studies to entertain ourselves with our Passion. …92

The dream itself is about surrender to passion, the relaxation of vigilant reason, that moment when a woman puts down her book and stops studying. And that is when the remembrance comes to Héloise—when her guard is down, when her fantasies are available to her, unlocked by sleep.

As Eliza Haywood told her readers “whatever Dominion, Honour, and Virtue may have over our waking Thoughts, 'tis certain that they fly from the clos'd Eyes, our Passions then exert their forceful Power, and that which is most Predominant in the Soul, Agitates the fancy, and brings even Things Impossible to pass: Desire, with watchful Diligence repell'd, returns with greater violence in unguarded sleep, and overthrows the vain Efforts of Day.”93 Haywood herself has a delightful example of it in Love in Excess, when during her sleep “Melliora in spite of herself, was often happy in Idea, and possest a Blessing, which shame and Guilt deter'd her from in reality.”94 We see Melliora enact in dumbshow, still asleep, the motions of her desire while calling out: “too too lovely Count—Ecstatic Ruiner!” What is all the more delicious, the Count himself is present in the room with her, holding her and kissing her as she sleeps. Melliora can enact her impulsive desires but without any moral responsibility for them because she is asleep. Meanwhile, the chaste reader, too, could have the satisfaction of both admiring an honorable heroine and of vicariously enjoying her less-than-honorable embraces.

Such a scene testifies to the increasing gap in early eighteenth-century culture between private sexual indulgence and public emphasis on chastity; it shows the hypocrisy of an age in which men had the reputations of libertines, while women denied and were denied their sexuality. Nor was the effect of this public prudery to dismiss questions of sex from the public consciousness but rather to focus it more sharply on the mildest of actions. By the time Fanny Burney wrote Evelina, her readership was titillated by the effrontery of a man who took the arm of a decent woman unbidden. Innuendo and metaphor began to make up the deficits in explicit storytelling in these stories of thwarted love: when Melliora stuffs the keyhole to her room to prevent the Count from using his key, there is no doubt about what these images stand for; the nun in Jane Barker's A Patch-work Screen For The Ladies touches off a fire in her convent as she runs away with her lover—the convent and her passion simultaneously burst into flames.

Inevitably, it was feared that such reading would have bad effects on the suggestible minds of young women who were learning to read in greater numbers all the time. Take this warning, for example, the donné of a story by Jane Barker: wealthy Dorinda is so blinded and misled by the romantic fiction with which she has been filling her head that she makes the terrible mistake of marrying her foot-man, sure that he is a prince in disguise. However once he has the legal prerogatives of a husband he proves to be a brute, taking over her property and even pushing her out of the house. She finally blames fiction for the illusions which led her into folly.

It was such Romantick Whimsies that brought upon me the Ruin and Distress in which you behold me; I had read Plays, Novels and Romances; till I began to think myself a Heroine of the first rate; and all Men that flatter'd, or ogled me were Heroes; and that a pretty well-behaved foot-man or Page must needs be the Son of some Lord or great Gentleman.95

In Defoe's The Family Instructor (1715), the exemplary dialogue between mother and daughter focuses on this problem as if it were a standard reason for the maternal admonitions of young ladies. At the end of the ideal scenario between mother and daughter, the repentant daughter makes an enormous bonfire of all her plays, romances, and novels, in a blaze of religious fervor. The transgressions of the son in this fictively typical family were profligacy, drinking, play-going, and swearing; no one was concerned about the delicate balance of his mind. Not until fifty years later was there a male character, Rousseau's St. Preux, who was encouraged in his deceptions about romantic love by reading too many novels.

Parents recognized that novels set improper examples and encouraged improper feelings, that the passions in these fictions “are apt to insinuate themselves into unwary Readers, and by an unhappy Inversion a copy shall produce an Original. … Indeed 'tis very difficult to imagine what vast Mischief is done to the World by the False Notions and Images of Things, particularly of Love and Honour, those noblest concerns of Human Life, represented in these Mirrors.”96 In fact, epistolary fictions were always calling the attention of readers to these dangers. It was as if they advertised their product and testified for it themselves. In a conversation in Love in Excess, it was averred that “these sort of Books were, as it were, preparations to Love, and by their softening Influence melted the Soul, and made it fit for Amorous Impressions.”97 In other words, one was more open to real sexual experience if one had lived through it once already in the imagination.

There is a letter in the fictional collection, The Post-Boy Rob'd of His Mail, in which a libertine instructs a complicitous maid by letter to help him time his amorous attacks:

Watch her softest hours, when her Soul's in tune to join with the Harmony of Love: After her Mind has been employed in Romances, Plays, and Novels, then nought but sweet Ideas fill her Soul, and Love can't be denied admittance, those having so well prepared the way.98

He subscribes to the theory that these stories of love will stimulate the woman's sexual impulses and he wants to strike, so to speak, when the iron is hot. In another fiction, an experienced woman writes a letter to a friend, in which she describes seducing a young man by lending him some books. The volume that seemed most effective, significantly enough, is a collection of letters:

We chanced one day to light upon Brown's Translation of Fontenel's and Aristaenetus's Letters; he seem'd mightily pleas'd with 'em; there was one from a Lady who permits a Lover all but the Last Favor, and gives him leave to touch her Breast, to Kiss her Eyes, her Mouth, and squeeze her with her stays off; he could not imagine what Pleasure could be taken in that. …99

Certainly the epistolary author is asking the reader-at-home to “imagine what Pleasure could be taken in that,” as well as telling the story. Books do lead one into sexual thoughts. The sequence is reminiscent of Dante's lovers Paolo and Francesca seduced by the kiss in their book. Needless to say, the heroine soon shows the naif what he has been missing. But it is clear that the seeds of his seduction were planted not by any real touching, but by the imagined touching which he experienced through the printed page. This is the point at which the experience of the reader in the fiction is shared exactly by the reader-at-home.

The same seductive technique is employed by the Duke in the Secret Memoirs … from New Atalantis when, attracted to his beautiful young ward Charlot, he decides to stop playing guardian to her virtue and to corrupt her. Like Milton's Satan, he knows that the surest way is to appeal to her imagination, to offer the intangible. He leads her to the library and directs her to read romances and novels and various works which focus on love. Then he leaves for several days, to give the poison a chance to work:

The Duke was an Age absent from her, she could only in Imagination possess what she believed so pleasing. Her Memory was prodigious, she was indefatigable in Reading. The Duke had left Orders she shou'd not be controul'd in any thing: Whole Nights were wasted by her in the Gallery; she had too well inform'd her self of the speculative Joys of Loves. There are Books dangerous to the Community of Mankind; abominable for Virgins, and destructive to Youth; such as explains the Mysteries of Nature, the congregated Pleasures of Venus, the full Delights of mutual Lovers, which rather ought to pass the Fire than the Press.100

The episodes which follow are predictable. Charlot succumbs to temptation and becomes the Duke's mistress upon his return. Advertising her book as the apotheosis of passion, Mrs. Manley unconsciously burlesques the scene, promising her readers a “young and innocent Charlot, transported with the powerful Emotion of a just kindling Flame, sinking with Delight and Shame upon the Bosom of her Lover in the Gallery of Books.”101 It is a wonderful image, a perfect emblem of the warning and fascination for books which describe love, illustrating how stories about passion induce passion, that vicarious experience enjoyed in the reading could have consequences in real life.

Again and again in epistolary novels, there are scenes which do not advance the plot but seem especially prepared, garnished, and served as inducements to fantasy. Reported in letters, they are twice as suggestive, for they carry with them the motives of the fictive correspondents who want to re-experience their moments of passion by writing about them. Sylvia, for instance, in Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister, writes to her lover:

What tho' I lay extended on my Bed undrest, unapprehensive of my Fate, my Bosom loose and easy of Access, my Garments ready, thin and wantonly put on, as if they would with little Force submit to the fond straying Hand. …102

There is no narrative reason for Sylvia to tell Philander all this since both he and his “fond straying Hand” were present at the time. The reader can only understand it as a daydream, a delicious moment Sylvia wants Philander to live through again with her in the imagination. But the passage is also designed to allow the audience a chance to imagine themselves into such a moment. Another letter-writing character, almost as blatant, urges his sister to think of him at the moment he takes his new bride to bed: “I conjure you, Sister, by our Friendship, in your Imagination to time my Joys, when all transported I shall naked clasp her fair, soft, sweet, enchanting Body to my Bosom. …”103 Such letters are explicit invitations to the reader-at-home, too, to indulge in voyeuristic fantasy. Imagine, for instance, a solitary reader at home in 1730 reading these words written by a solitary character having an epistolary love affair:

The thoughts of your Return, and our happy Meeting again, fills me with Ideas too ravishing to admit Allay. … Instead of amusing myself with any thing that might make me forget you, I take no Delight but in remembering you: Recollections presenting me with ten thousand nameless Softnesses your dear Society blest me with, and I injoy them over again in Theory. …104

The unspecific language could fit almost anyone's fantasy of love. And the reader could certainly “injoy them over again in theory” as often and as imaginatively as the epistolary heroine herself.

Even the plot structures of epistolary novels have a sexual rhythm, building towards the moment of sexual release. “I could grow old with waiting here the blessed Moment,” writes Philander in Love-letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, focusing his entire attention, and the reader's as well, on that moment.105 The characters in epistolary novels stimulate and tease themselves, as well as the reader, with their longings for one another, their jealousies, and the possibilities of their next meeting. The culmination of this epistolary activity is usually their sexual union, the non-verbal end to which the writing is directed. The hindrances to this consummation, the obstacles in the way, then become a kind of titillating foreplay the author and reader engage in. As one of Mrs. Manley's epistolary characters asks, “what can be more exquisite than delay'd Enjoyment?”106

In Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister, for instance, although we know from the start that Philander and Sylvia are destined for each other, three quarters of Part I goes by before they manage to go to bed together. Until then, most of their writing has to do with the planning and anticipation of that moment. Many pages, written to tantalize and heighten the suspense, elapse after Sylvia agrees to it. And then, after all that, Sylvia faints and Philander becomes impotent; the tryst is a failure and the lovers begin to plan for another one. And so the novel itself becomes a paradigm of sexual play: building up the audience for the big moment, delaying it, and building up again.

The same rhythm is worked out in Eliza Haywood's Love in Excess. Many times before the dénouement, the sexual act is averted at the last minute. The would-be lovers are interrupted at the crucial moment many times and finally even separated by nunnery walls before the actual reunion and marriage take place. There is even one scene in which the Count, about to be seduced by a wealthy, corrupt, alluring woman, is saved at the eleventh hour when a messenger bursts into the room. The scene is unintentionally laughable, for the Count has already come to the brink of intercourse so many times with the lovely Melliora that his near seduction seems like an unintended parody of those scenes: virtue is always being saved just in the nick of time. Not that there is ever any question about the eventual outcome. One of the characters even carries around a wedding gown in a trunk, as Haywood carried the ending in her mind from the start, and makes a dramatic entrance in it at the triple marriage which ends the book.

Interestingly, overt pornography was developing at the same time as these epistolary tales of love and sex. Certainly they came out of the same socio-economic facts: growing literacy and book production, an increased emphasis on women as sexual objects along with greater restraints than ever on their availability, and arrangements for privacy in urban dwellings. This was a context which bred a taste for sexual fantasy, and in it the pornographic novel grew up side by side with the polite novel.

There had always been a place for the bawdy in literature, for the telling of dirty stories for raucous enjoyment. But this new kind of book had a very different effect on its readers. Here is an account which Pepys gives of finding a copy of L'Ecole des Filles unexpectedly:

Jan. 13, 1668

… stopped at Martin's, my bookseller, where I saw the French book which I did think to have had for my wife to translate, called ‘L'escholle des filles,’ but when I come to look at it, it is the most bawdy, lewd book that I ever saw, rather worse than ‘Putana errante,’ so that I was ashamed of reading it.107

But the fascination outlasted the shame, and a month later Pepys returned to his bookseller's shop and

… bought the idle rogueish book ‘L'escholle des filles,’ which I have bought in plain binding, avoiding the buying of it better bound, because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the list of books nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found.108

The next day, having read his new book, Pepys says that

it is a mightly lewd book, but yet not amiss for a sober man once to read over to inform himself of the vilany of the world. … I to my chamber where read through ‘L'escholle des filles,’ a lewd book, but what do no wrong once to read for information sake. … And after I had done it I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame, and so at night to supper and to bed.109

Pepys's response to the book distinguished it from the bawdy of earlier periods: by 1668 sexuality had the power to entice and to shame. It counted among the villainies of the world, and a reader had to somehow justify his reading such books by claiming for them some redeeming social value.

Both pornography and novels shared an emphasis on the flammable imagination, on the dimension of mental activity in sexual matters. But whereas polite prose fiction emphasized women's sexuality by means of prudish abhorrence of it, by imagining women as protectors of the honor of their families, pornographic books were exclusively about the other side of women's nature. La Puttana Errante (1650) was a discussion between whores on the means to sexual pleasure; L‘Ecole des Filles, published five years later, linked sex to romantic love in a radical departure from conventional mores. By 1660 there was a book out which specialized in perversions, including sections on the young, group intercourse, whipping and lesbianism.110 Women were viewed as angels in one form of prose fiction and as whores in another—in both cases in exclusively sexual terms.

Epistolary fiction, in which characters tried expressly to share their experiences with one another, capitalized on these trends. After all, the purpose of a letter is to make one person's consciousness available to another. Epistolary characters are always trying to make people far away catch fire, to make their friends and lovers feel what they feel. Sometimes this intention is explicit, as with Edward Ward's young man who employs “Loves common confident, The Pen” as a “means of kindling the like Desires in my new found Angel …”111 Or there is Mary Davys' gentleman who also thinks a pen the most effective way to woo a lady. “Methinks,” replies this man's intended victim, warning him that she is not susceptible to his sweet words, “you write as if you had a mind to draw me in, as you pretend Love has done you, by Wheedle.”112

Since all the relationships in an epistolary novel are verbal, people fall in love with one another's words, tempt each other at long distance by writing seductive things, and spy on each other's words. The novels set out to dramatize the relation of imagination to life, the way the words on a page can play havoc with the emotional state of a reader. And because the novel reader is also privy to these very powerful words, he or she is also open to their effects.

Indeed, epistolary fiction often encouraged readers' identification by providing a third figure in the novel who also read the letters, who was privy to the action, and who comprehended the intimacy between the major correspondents. This third person, sometimes a confidante of the hero or heroine, sometimes part of a love triangle, opened up the tale to the reader-at-home by doubling his or her role as spectator to the emotional action.

There is an example of this provocation to voyeurism in The Unnatural Mother and Ungrateful Wife, a story in which daughters triumph over their mothers. It comes in a central scene in which the kindly woman who is being betrayed by her adopted daughter is alerted to this state of affairs by her waiting maid. She watches through a keyhole and sees her husband come into evil Nelly's room at midnight “with nothing on him but his Shirt and a Night-Gown flowing loose about him.” Then the faithless man “threw himself on her Bosom with eager Haste, seem'd ready to stifle her with burning Kisses, while his wanton Hands were preparing to consummate the last guilty Rites of lawless Passion.”113 As the betrayed wife watches the two lovers enact their passion, the reader notices, with a kind of jealous and guilty shock, that he or she is also watching. The scene, then, is structured to duplicate, for the reader, the voyeurism and to intensify the feelings it engenders.

René Girard, writing theoretically about the novel, describes and explains this “triangulation of desire” as he calls it.114 Triangulating desire, arranging a three-way love interest rather than a simple two-way mutual attraction, keeps the desire from being a simple, direct relation between the one who loves and the object of desire. A triple relationship is mediated by someone else's responses, and this mediation, this awareness of a third person's implication in the love affair intensifies the desire, for the rivals imitate each other, reinforce their own fixations by imagining the other's feeling. In other words, the force of triangular desire comes from the mind, as it were, rather than from the viscera; its power can be attributed to the intensified consciousness which jealousy provokes. Such triangulation is almost standard in epistolary novels, in which letters between lovers or confidantes are always being forged, intercepted, or even just read, legitimately, by a third person.

The experience of vicariously sharing the lives of fictional characters is undoubtedly familiar to long-time novel readers. By now we have all grown up knowing that feeling of becoming absorbed in another world, of escaping through the printed page, of going into that reading trance which substitutes the reality of the world on the page for the world around us; but this is a relatively recent notion of the way literature can function. It was not until the early epistolary novels, with their long-distance relationships, their emotional realism, their stories of amateur writers trying to let one another in on essential experiences, that books were turned to such a use. Until then literature was used to delight and to instruct, but not to confound a storybook realm with real life.

Nor were books the proper medium for light entertainment until literacy and book production put them in the hands of a much larger proportion of the population. Printed literature had always been the province of a small number of educated aristocrats until the late seventeenth century, with traditions going back to the Bible or the classical writers. The issues of these novels—the search for personal happiness in romantic love and marriage, and the sanctification of the individual consciousness (the resistance to seduction or persuasion, the need for privacy)—these had not mattered to earlier cultures. Not until the economic and cultural changes of the seventeenth century, with the consequent reshaping of community and family life, altered social patterns was there need for a literature with another audience, another purpose, another set of strategies.

One of the earliest critics to consider the “origin and progress of novel-writing,” the first editor of Richardson's letters, describes what is special about the way Clarissa works:

We do not come upon unexpected adventures and wonderful recognitions, by quick turns and surprise: we see her fate from afar, as it were through a long avenue, the gradual approach to which, without ever losing sight of the object, has more of simplicity and grandeur than the most cunning labyrinth … As the work advances, the character rises; the distress is deepened; our hearts are torn with pity and indignation; bursts of grief succeed one another, till at length the mind is composed and harmonized with emotions of milder sorrow; we are calmed into resignation, elevated with pious hope, and dismissed glowing with the conscious triumph of virtue.115

Moment by moment the experienced novelist guides us into a world which is familiar and simplified. Gradually he draws us into believing in it, meshes its assumptions with our own, arranges for us to live in his world long enough until it takes over our entire consciousness and “our hearts are torn with pity and indignation” and all the rest of it.

In letter fiction, because writer and reader are already part of the fictional reality, a reader-at-home is that much closer to full suspension of disbelief. Whereas in the epics or tragedies of the Greeks, catharsis was achieved by ritual progress through symbolic action, here it is achieved by identification with the particular plight of a particular individual. We feel the dilemma because we care for Clarissa. The participatory action of reading letters, the attempt to re-create the world of the letter-writer so as to make sense of the letter, encourages this empathy. And for the reading audience of these early novels, used to maintaining emotional connections with family and friends by mail for long periods of time, the effort must have been a familiar one.

Letters have the natural property of suspending attention from the world of objects and turning it inward to imagined people and relationships. These attention-riveting qualities of letters are apparent simply by picking up a modern day letter manual and skimming some samples. The words on the page, with their implication of direct, personal communication, have the power to take precedence over the immediate world. It is not necessary to have a personal connection to the circumstances of these writings to participate in the fictional world from which they arise; one naturally tries to fill in the qualities of the letter-writer and the relationship with the interlocutor from the tone and style of the letter.

These effects influenced the developing novel. A fiction presented “unedited” in a series of letters could lure a reader into putting the story together, into caring about the characters behind the letters. The adventures and relationships of solitary letter-writing characters in fiction were more available to solitary readers at home for delectation and escape than those offered in a more conventional narrative form. Letter novels, like letters themselves, could take you vicariously where you could not go in life.

But this could also be a moral advantage, as Richardson convinced the reading public. One could live through others' mistakes and emerge unscathed but chastened. The experience of an exemplary consciousness—that of a Pamela or a Clarissa—could inspire, uplift, change a reader. “Many a young woman has caught from such works as Clarissa or Cecilia, ideas of delicacy and refinement which were not, perhaps, to be gained in any society she could have access to,” wrote Anna Letitia Barhauld in her early nineteenth-century eulogy of Richardson. In an anecdote included in the introduction to the second edition of Pamela, this sorcery of the novel, this power to take over the reader, is held up as its special advantage:

The first Discovery we made of this Power over so unripe and unfix'd an Attention, was, one Evening, when I was reading her [Pamela's] Reflections at the Pond to some Company. The little rampant Intruder, being kept out by the Extent of the Circle, had crept under my Chair, and was sitting before me, on the Carpet, with his Head almost touching the Book, and his Face bowing down toward the Fire.—He had sat for some time in this Posture, with a Stillnes, that made us conclude him asleep: when, on a sudden, we heard a Succession of heart-heaving Sobs; which while he strove to conceal from our Notice, his little Sides swell'd, as if they wou'd burst, with the throbbing Restraint of his Sorrow. I turn'd his innocent Face, to look toward me; but his Eyes were quite lost, in his Tears. … [He] is perhaps the youngest of Pamela's Converts.116

This passage is a testimonial to the novel's success, proof that it has the desired effect, that it can do its appointed job properly. That stillness which seemed like sleep is a sign of the spellbinding, the transfixion of the boy in another consciousness. The fact that we are told he also “has got half her sayings by heart, talks no other language but hers …” demonstrates, too, the extent to which he has entered Pamela's mind, or perhaps let her enter his. A new era of fiction had begun; now a book was expected to do more than just tell a story.

Letters, by virtue of their place in the culture, their literary effects, and their implicit fiction of a single, personal voice, had been an important link in the process which evolved the modern novel. The experience of long-distance correspondence made it possible for the reading audience to imagine carrying on an emotional life at some remove, or to maintain a one-sided relationship in the imagination rather than to live it out in the social world. This new kind of literature encouraged readers to dream themselves into the lives they found in books, lives of characters for whom reading and writing were their most significant acts.

The epistolary mode also made plausible a new kind of heroine—literate, isolated, unhappy—who symbolized in a purer form the dilemmas of the current culture than the heroes of earlier romances and epics. Such heroines, who poured out their hearts on paper, valued their individual happiness above social approval and assumed that this happiness was to be found not in work or religion but in a perfect sexual union whose institutional form was marriage. These were assumptions which, however widely adopted by middle-class English society, belonged particularly to the women of that class, for the economic and social reorganization which took place in England in the course of the seventeenth century had abridged many of their functions. Novels not only filled the leisure of those without serious work but provided romantic fantasies to give meaning to their lives. Even the intoxication of reading novels resembled the intoxication of romantic love; the epistolary formula, in particular, was a perfect one for stories of romantic love ending in “happily ever after” marriages. In this way, epistolary novels perpetuated the myth of romance in everyday life by telling such stories as if they were true, by giving them wider circulation and making them part of the popular culture, and by inviting readers in their very form, to partake of the pleasures of fantasy.


  1. J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, 1950), p. 17.

  2. W. Maitland, A History of London (London, 1739), pp. 322-324.

  3. M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1965), pp. 10-11.

  4. Philip Pinkus, Grub Street Stripped Bare (New York, 1968), p. 285. This is quoted from a contemporary broadsheet.

  5. Margaret Cole, Marriage: Past and Present (London, 1938), p. 86.

  6. Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art and Times, 2 vols. (New Haven, 1971), I, 254.

  7. David Owen, English Philanthropy (Cambridge, Mass., 1964), p. 53.

  8. M. Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century, p. 25. See the work of early demographers such as John Graunt and William Petty or the pamphlet Marriage Promoted: In a Discourse of Its Ancient and Modern Practice both under Heathen and Christian Commonwealth (London, 1690), described below.

  9. William Black, Observations Medical and Political on the Small Pox and the Mortality of Mankind at Every Age in City and Country (London, 1781), p. 154.

  10. Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, trans. Fritz C. Koelln and James Pettegrove (Princeton, 1951), p. 47.

  11. Marjorie Nicolson and Nora Mohler, “The Scientific Background of Swift's Voyage to Laputa,” Annals of Science, 1937, II, 299-334. See especially pp. 322-323.

  12. César de Saussure, Lettres et Voyages (Laussane, 1903), Lettre VI, pp. 166-167.

  13. Ronald Paulson, Hogarth: His Life, Art, and Times, I, p. 92.

  14. William M. McBurney, A Checklist of Prose Fiction, 1700-1739 (Cambridge, 1960), p. viii.

  15. E. S. de Beer, ed., The Diary of John Evelyn (London, 1959), p. 689. Entry dated August 27, 1680.

  16. Ibid., p. 1027.

  17. These newsletters were like the European relations or reports of topical events. See Joseph Frank, The Beginnings of the English Newspaper, 1620-1660 (Cambridge, 1961).

  18. For Ward's sensational “letters” describing the pleasure-seekers of Tunbridge or the wicked colonists of New England, see Edward Ward, “A Packet from Will's” in Letters of Love, Gallantry, and Several Other Occasions, 2 vols., by Voiture, Brown, Dryden, Congreve, etc. (London, 1724) II; also A Trip to New England (London, 1699). This and “A Letter From New England” are reprinted by the Club for Colonial Reprints, ed. George Parker Winship (Providence, 1905).

  19. John J. Richetti, Popular Fiction Before Richardson: Narrative Patterns 1700-1739 (Oxford, 1969), p. 77.

  20. Ibid., p. 77.

  21. Philip Pinkus, Grub Street Stripped Bare, p. 92.

  22. Eliza Haywood, The Agreeable Caledonian (London, 1728), p. 84.

  23. Thomas Salmon, A Critical Essay Concerning Marriage (London, 1724), p. 165.

  24. Eliza Haywood, “Good Out of Evil; or, The Double Deceit” appearing in Eliza Haywood, Love in Its Variety; Being a Collection of Select Novels written in Spanish by Signior Michael Bandello (London, 1727), p. 67.

  25. Mary Delariviere Manley, The Secret History of Queen Zarah (London, 1705), Preface.

  26. Ibid., Preface.

  27. A Spy Upon the Conjurer, author uncertain, possibly Daniel Defoe or Eliza Haywood (London, 1724), Part III.

  28. Eliza Haywood, The Disguis'd Prince or, The Beautiful Parisian (London, 1728), pp. 1-2. This is a translation of a French book written in 1679 by Jean de Préchac.

  29. Pierre Corlet de Chamblain de Marivaux, The Life of Marianne (London, 1736), Part II, 83-84.

  30. Robert Adams Day, Told in Letters (Ann Arbor, 1966), p. 71.

  31. A. S. Collins, ‘The Growth of the Reading Public During the Eighteenth Century,” Review of English Studies, II(1926), 284-294.

  32. Mary Davys, “Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady,” in The Works of Mrs. Davys, 2 vols. (London, 1725), II. Also available in publications of Augustan Reprint Society, #54, 1955.

  33. William Henry Irving, The Providence of Wit in The English Letter-Writers (Durham, 1955), p. 145.

  34. David Nichols, The Correspondence of Dean Atterbury, 5 vols. (London, 1783-1790), I, iv.

  35. The Spectator, No. 632, Dublin, Nov. 30, 1714.

  36. The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1965), I, Appendix I, 467.

  37. Ibid., p. 467.

  38. Robert Day, Told in Letters, pp. 239-258.

  39. This is Day's figure. Actually there were somewhat fewer for some of the works on his bibliography are duplicates: the same book reprinted later with a new title page, or individual pieces of a collection listed individually and also together.

  40. An unpublished Radcliffe thesis by Ruth Stauffer in 1942.

  41. Mme. D'Aulnoy, The Present Court of Spain, trans. Thomas Brown (London, 1693), Preface.

  42. The Spectator, No. 4, March 5, 1711.

  43. The Spectator, No. 10, March 12, 1711.

  44. The Diary of Dudley Ryder (1715-1716) ed. William Matthews (London, 1939), p. 119. Entry dated October 14, 1715.

  45. George Frisbie Whicher, The Life and Romances of Eliza Haywood (New York, 1915), p. 11.

  46. Robert Day, Told in Letters, p. 74.

  47. Marriage Promoted: In a Discourse of Its Ancient and Modern Practice both under Heathen and Christian Commonwealth, anonymous pamphlet (London, 1690), p. 27.

  48. The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown, 2 vols. (London, 1707), I, 337-340.

  49. “Captain Ayloffe's Letters,” in Abel Boyer's Letters of Wit, Politics, and Morality (London, 1701), reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters (Coral Gables, 1969), p. 27.

  50. Aphra Behn, Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister (London, 1694), Part I reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 206.

  51. Ibid., p. 217.

  52. Five Love-letters From a Nun to a Cavalier, trans. Sir Roger L'Estrange (London, 1678), reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 17.

  53. Anonymous, The Fatal Amour Between a Beautiful Lady and a Young Nobleman (London, 1719), p. 64.

  54. Chapter 2, passim.

  55. Reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 221.

  56. Ibid., p. 215.

  57. Ibid., p. 265.

  58. Ibid., p. 225.

  59. The Adventures of Lindamira, Revised and Corrected by Mr. Thomas Brown (London, 1702), p. 2.

  60. The Spectator, No. 479, September 9, 1712.

  61. The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1965), III, 8-9. Letter to Lady Bute, March 1, 1752.

  62. Ibid., I, 123n. Mandane is the runaway heroine of Madelaine de Scudéry's Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus (1649-1653), which Lady Mary read as early as 1705.

  63. Ibid., I, 133-134.

  64. Ibid., I, 149-150. The exact date of this letter is unknown. Phillipa Mundy was a close friend of Lady Mary's age: she was Lady Mary's “Anna Howe.”

  65. Ibid., I, 163-164. In the heat of this excitement, Lady Mary was writing Wortley twice a day: two letters on August 15, two letters on August 16, and an earlier one on August 17 precede this letter. Weary students of epistolary fiction should take note that people did write an extraordinary number of letters.

  66. Ibid., I, 164.

  67. Ibid., I, 164.

  68. Ibid., III, 9. Letter to Lady Bute, March 1, 1752.

  69. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 4 vols. (London, 1748), I, 186.

  70. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. Henry B. Wheatley, 2 vols. (New York, 1893), I, 513-514. Entry dated November 13, 1662.

  71. The complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, I, 175. Letter to Wortley, December 8, 1712.

  72. The Tatler, No. 248, November 8, 1710.

  73. Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, trans. Robert Baldick (New York, 1962) pp. 349-350 and passim. Lawrence Stone disagrees about the evidence of children's dress styles, but generally supports Ariès' conclusions that England was moving towards a more child-oriented society. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage (New York, 1977), pp. 405-449.

  74. Mary Astell, The Christian Religion as Profess'd by a Daughter of the Church of England (London, 1705), pp. 292-293.

  75. Choderlos de Laclos, Les Liaisons dangereuses. trans. Richard Addington (New York, 1962), p. 178.

  76. Five Love-Letters From a Nun to a Cavalier, trans. Roger L'Estrange (London, 1678), reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 19.

  77. “The Lady's New Year Gift, or Advice to a Daughter,” The Life and Letters of Sir George Saville, Bart. First Marquis of Halifax, 2 vols. ed. H. C. Foxcroft (London, 1898), II, 410.

  78. Ibid., II, 408.

  79. The Spectator, No. 66, May 16, 1711.

  80. Ibid.

  81. Anonymous [possibly Judith Drake], A Farther Essay Relating to the Female Sex (London, 1696), p. 59.

  82. Anonymous [possibly Mrs. Steele], The Ladies Library, 3 vols. (London, 1714), III, 90.

  83. Béat de Muralt, Letters Describing the Character and Customs of the English and French Nations (London, 1726), p. 35.

  84. Philogamous, The Present State of Matrimony (London, 1739), p. 67.

  85. Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana, 1965), p. 105.

  86. The Spectator, No. 611, October 24, 1714.

  87. Peter Laslett dates the use of contraceptive devices to Geneva at the end of the seventeenth century. The World We Have Lost (New York, 1965), p. 132.

  88. T. C. Surgeon, The Charitable Surgeon (London, 1708), p. 58.

  89. The Tatler, No. 15, May 13, 1709.

  90. Daniel Defoe, Conjugal Lewdness (London, 1727), p. 132.

  91. Mary Delariviere Manley, Court Intrigues (London, 1711), p. 138.

  92. The Letters of Abelard and Héloise, trans. John Hughes (London, 1743), p. 185.

  93. Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess (London, 1719), Part II, 47.

  94. Ibid.

  95. Jane Barker, The Lining to the Patch-work Screen (London, 1726), p. 106.

  96. Anonymous [possibly Mrs. Steele], The Ladies Library, II, 46.

  97. Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess, p. 36.

  98. Charles Gildon, The Post-Boy Rob'd of His Mail (London, 1692), p. 237.

  99. Mary Delariviere Manley, “From a Lady To a Lady,” Letter XXXIII in Court Intrigues (London, 1711), reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 44.

  100. Mary Delariviere Manley, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes From New Atalantis (London, 1709), p. 67.

  101. Mary Delariviere Manley, Rivella, p. 4, bound with Court Intrigues (London, 1711).

  102. Aphra Behn, Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister (London, 1694), reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 246.

  103. Mary Delariviere Manley, Court Intrigues, p. 36.

  104. Eliza Haywood, Love-Letters on All Occasions (London, 1730), p. 103.

  105. Aphra Behn, Love-Letters Between A Nobleman and His Sister, reprinted in Natascha Würzbach, The Novel in Letters, p. 230.

  106. Mary Delariviere Manley, Court Intrigues, p. 36.

  107. The Dairy of Samuel Pepys, II, 768-769. Entry dated January 13, 1668.

  108. Ibid., II, 790. Entry dated February 8, 1668.

  109. Ibid., II, 790.

  110. David Foxon, Libertine Literature in England, 1660-1745 (New York, 1965) p. 48.

  111. “The Dancing School,” A Collection of the Writings of Mr. Edward Ward, 6 vols. (London, 1717-1718), II, 237.

  112. Mary Davys, “Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady”, The Works of Mrs. Davys, 2 vols. (London, 1725), II, 299.

  113. Anonymous, The Unnatural Mother and Ungrateful Wife (London, 1730), p. 11.

  114. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (Baltimore, 1965), Chapter 1.

  115. Anna Letitia Barbauld, “Richardson,” The British Novelists, 50 vols. (London, 1810), I, xiv. Barbauld, besides being a great admirer of Richardson's technique, was the first editor of his letters.

  116. Samuel Richardson, Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, 2nd edition (London, 1741), Introduction, pp. xxiv-xxv.

Irene Tucker (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9737

SOURCE: “Writing Home: Evelina, the Epistolary Novel and the Paradox of Property,” in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 419-39.

[In the following essay on Frances Burney's Evelina, Tucker discusses issues the story raises concerning intellectual property rights and personal identity.]

On June 4, 1741, Alexander Pope filed suit against Edmund Curll, the prominent London bookseller who had just published Dean Swift's Literary Correspondence, for Twenty-Four Years, a volume comprised of letters written by Pope as well as those he received from such literary luminaries as Swift, Gay and Bolingbroke.1 Pope claimed rights over not only his own letters, but also over the letters he had received from Swift, and, on the basis of this claim, sought to prevent Curll from continuing to sell the book. Because he had never relinquished his rights to his writing, authorial rights established thirty years earlier by the 1710 Statute of Anne, Pope argued that his rights as author had been violated by Curll's failure to get permission to publish the letters.2 For his part, Curll maintained he had received the letters included in the volume from “the several Persons by whom & to whom they severally Purport to have been written & addressed,” and argued that, as a result, “the Complainant is not to be Considered as [both] the Author & proprietor of all or any of the said letters.”3

In his decision, handed down two weeks later on June 17, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke ordered Curll to halt sale of the book, partially upholding Pope's claim to the letters. In awarding Pope control over only the letters the poet himself had written, Hardwicke rejected Curll's contention that a letter constitutes a gift from sender to receiver. Still, the strange quality of Hardwicke's ruling, which awarded the recipient control over the material contents of the letter—the ink and the paper written on—while giving the author control over the intangible ideas and expression contained within, strikingly highlights certain contradictions implicit within the liberal notion of property that otherwise escape notice. Hardwicke writes, “It is only a special property in the receiver, possibly the property of the paper may belong to him; but this does not give a licence to any person whatsoever to publish them to the world, for at most the receiver has only a joint property with the writer.”4 What Mark Rose argues, persuasively to my mind, is that the Hardwicke decision, through its deliberate splitting of the material and ideal qualities of the letter, marks the creation of a new form of property—immaterial, intellectual property. The force of the ruling not only invests Pope with the right to control the fate of his writing, but, in separating the author's ideal “text” from its material manifestation as a particular “manuscript,” the Hardwicke decision delineates the otherwise obscure relations of the concept of copyright by creating the legal and ontological justification for the mass production and circulation of a potentially infinite number of these manuscripts.5 But, paradoxically, this material/ideal bifurcation threatens to subvert the very notion of property it is designed to shore up. If the material and the ideal can be separated from one another, then the possibility of acting willfully to change the material world—a possibility central to the liberal conception of property, as I will explain—is revealed to be contingent; a text happens to appear in the form of a manuscript, but need not necessarily do so.6 In attempting to secure property by freeing it from the limitations of its materiality, the concept of intellectual property created by the Hardwicke ruling opens up the terrifying possibility latent in all forms of liberal property—that actions performed, when not limited by the material world, are finally and fundamentally irrelevant to that world.

The natural rights personality theory of property set out by Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government has long served as the theoretical basis of liberal thought. According to Locke's formulation, individuals' rights to property are based upon their natural and inalienable right to their own person. Humans gain rights over materials outside the boundaries of their individual bodies by virtue of this self-ownership, since by acting on nature with the labor of one's body, one changes nature, and, in so changing it, one effectively produces this newly-reborn nature into an extension of oneself:

The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough and as good left in common for others.7

Locke here posits a model of property in which the self represents itself in the form of its productions and then owns these productions. Property is thus an extension of the self and the right to property is figured as being just as “natural” and “inalienable” as the right to own one's self.

Locke seizes upon the peculiar, part-literal, part-figurative quality of metonymy in order to develop his argument here. The central metonym of the passage, that relating labor to the body, enables Locke to move from the material to the ideal and back to the material—from the body that is owned by the self to the labor that is “mixed” (but only figuratively) with the material world back to the material world having been transformed by labor (and hence “owned”)—while eliding the oscillation between literal and figurative, between material and ideal. But since the possibility of acting upon nature with one's labor presupposes the separation of that nature from oneself, property marks not only the extension of the self but its limits as well. One asserts control over property by sending it away; the potential alienability of property paradoxically becomes the only possible proof of the inalienability of the right to it.8

Viewed within the Lockean context, the 1741 debate over the ownership of letters seems particularly scandalous precisely because it threatens to expose the paradox implicit in the natural rights conception of all property. If property not only serves as self-representation/self-production but also marks what is not the self, then the paradox of the ownership of letters serves as a dramatic literalization of the paradox of property. Pope's fascination with the possibility that he might lose property rights over his letters by sending them away from himself dramatizes the compelling irresolvability of the natural rights model of property, a model in which the moment of self-representation is simultaneously the moment of self-loss.

Frances Burney published her epistolary novel Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World in January 1778, thirty-seven years after Hardwicke rendered his decision in Pope v. Curll. Insofar as Hardwicke's verdict had been simply a restatement of, rather than a solution to, the paradox of property, the question of the ownership of letters seems to have remained a source of considerable interest. In choosing the form of the epistolary novel to tell the story of Evelina, Burney generalizes the paradox of owning letters into a paradox about property, representation and, ultimately, the nature of the self. Burney, in offering the story of a young, half-orphaned, incompletely owned woman who leaves her guardian in the provinces to go out into the world, seizes upon these very paradoxes as instruments for delaying the inevitable closure of the marriage plot she nonetheless feels compelled to weave.9 Moreover, Burney, who published the novel anonymously, refigures her relationship as author to her own artistic production and to the audience that would receive it in ways that generalize the particular vulnerabilities of her position as a woman writer into a critique of the liberal notion of property.

If the relationships among the writing self, the letter and the recipient of the letter are complex, the complexities of those relationships multiply exponentially when the selves and the letters in question are part of an epistolary novel. In his introduction to a special edition of Yale French Studies on literary letters entitled, “Men/Women of Letters,” Charles Porter analyzes the components of a letter that characterize it as letter.10 While Porter's analysis is an attempt to describe actual letters as opposed to letters within an epistolary novel, it nonetheless offers a detailed structure from which to begin to analyze both the particular representational paradoxes of the letter form and the ways in which these paradoxes are complicated by being placed within the frame of a novel:

1) The letter has an author known to and readily identifiable (even if vaguely) by the intended reader. Likewise the letter is addressed by that author (even if at times only implicitly) to an identifiable person or collectivity, sometimes well-known to the author, and is usually addressed only to that person or collectivity. Porter contrasts the letter with its related forms, the diary, which is normally addressed only to its author, and the autobiography, which does not have a single, identifiable addressee.

The epistolary novel departs most strikingly from its “real-life” counterpart with regard to the identities of author and reader. The form of the epistolary novel is characterized by an implicit doubleness of both, since along with the writer and addressee of any given letter within the novel there exists a second writer and addressee—the author of the novel and the novel's readers.11 If we recall the ways in which the presence of a letter's recipient within the representational economy of the letter draws attention to the paradoxes and limitations of property as a form of representation, then the presence of a second writer and a second, largely undefined audience within the epistolary novel makes the representative relationship between writing self and letter even less tenable. Within the epistolary frame, the letter is limited as an act of self-representation of its author within the text not only because it must be received and read before it can effectively represent, but also because it is literally the representation of another author—the author of the novel.

2) The letter is written out of its author's experiences or wishes or aspirations. “I” refers to the author, even if it is not fully identifiable with that author. Within the epistolary novel, the fictionality of subject position is both emphasized and complicated by the fact that the person behind the “I” is a fictional construction of the novel's author. Furthermore, the novel most often boasts a variety of “I” 's within its implicit wholeness, simultaneously depending upon and subverting the identification between letter and writing self.

3) Letters are dated or presumably datable. While the dates of actual letters are intended to identify the time of composition and, in so doing, emphasize and implicitly privilege the act of writing, dates in epistolary novels, when they are present, serve primarily as an ordering device. Dates also serve to ally the narrative movement of the story with a certain inexorability associated with the passage of time. At the same time the dates within an epistolary novel draw attention to the coincidence of a “natural” passage of time and the novel's narrative motion, however, the juxtaposition of the two time frames also accentuates the differences between the two. The temporal disjunctions created by the epistolary form suggest the extent to which human action (and the [autobiographical] representation of that action) depends upon the disruption of the “natural” passage of time, or, further, the way in which that passage of time only gains meaning through its disruption.

In apparently privileging the moment of writing, the presence of the date hides the temporal doubleness of any letter—the gap between the time a letter is written and the time it is read. If a letter is an act of self-representation, at what time precisely can that act of self-representation be said to occur? The temporal gap opened up by the act of transmitting the letter is the paradox of property converted into narrative terms, the function of property as both extension and limitation of the self mapped across time. The temporal doubleness implicit in the form of the letter is further complicated by the doubleness of the epistolary novel's author/reader structure. As readers of the novel, we can never be certain whether we are reading the letters as they are written, as they are being read by their recipient within the novel, or at some moment entirely independent of either of the two events.12

4) A series of actual letters is written “forward,” but the author of the letters lacks certainty about the future. These letters are thus unable to forecast or trace out a destiny, making them by nature discontinuous, multi-directional, fragmented. Porter contrasts the discontinuity of a series of letters with the implicit continuity of diary entries, arguing that while each letter is designed as an independent entity, created around a precise intention, a diary entry is supposed to be a state in an overall narrative of self-understanding.

In an epistolary novel, the fragmented quality of the letter form is consciously placed in tension with our knowledge as readers that the letters are part of a progression that, by virtue of its status as the production of a single author and as a formal whole, is meant to be understood as more or less unified. This tension subverts any clean opposition between the unified and the fragmentary. Within Evelina, this collapse of the unified/fragmentary opposition is manifested by a simultaneous recognition of the inevitability of the marriage plot that characterizes the eighteenth-century novel and the temporary subversion of that plot figured by the discontinuity of the individual letters.

5) Letters are identifiable by certain material forms (salutation, address, stationary, seal, etc.). These material forms are simultaneously present and conspicuously absent in the epistolary novel, since the novel invokes some of these forms—the salutation and structure of letter—in order to identify the letters in the novel as letters, yet in so doing, makes obvious the absence of other forms (the fact that the letters are printed rather than handwritten, that there are no envelopes or seals). This splitting of material and ideal forms of the letter—the idea of the letter is invoked, while many of the material aspects are held in abeyance—recalls Hardwicke's strange decision in Pope v. Curll to preserve the letter writer's rights of ownership by separating the material and ideal aspects of the letter.13 The status of Evelina as a published, copyrighted work ought not to be ignored in this context. The materiality of the book comes into being only by the act of separating the text from the matter of the letter. Textual property exists at the vanishing point of matter, but it is precisely at this point that material transformation can occur.

If the epistolary novel as a form serves to highlight the contradictions intrinsic to a natural rights theory of property and, more fundamentally, the pitfalls associated with traditional forms of self-representation, then Evelina, as a particular example of the epistolary form, seizes upon these contradictions with a vengeance. Writing as a woman within a society whose system of patrilineal inheritance made the relation between identity and property oblique at best, Frances Burney creates in Evelina a protagonist whose position as disowned heiress places her at the center of the contradictions regarding property and identity.14 Evelina first appears surprisingly late in the novel that bears her name; her appearance (in the form of her first letter) is delayed by a protracted exchange of letters in which Evelina's guardian, the Reverend Arthur Villars, resists then finally yields to the urgings of a female representative of Evelina's maternal grandmother to allow his ward to leave his home in the provinces in order to visit the grandmother in London. Evelina's initial identity within the novel is thus produced in her absence; in order for her to acquire the voice necessary for self-representation, she must absent herself from the site of this initial making.

As the letters are presented in the novel, each one labeled with its author and recipient, they are clearly established as the self-representations of their authors, yet the unavoidable presence of the recipient in the identification of the letter introduces the limitations of the letter as a form of self-representation at the same moment its possibilities appear. Moreover, as the opening epistolary dialogue of the novel makes clear, Villars views not only the letters he writes but the ward whose fate those letters negotiate as instances of his own moral production. Because Evelina is unclaimed by her own father, she is free to be appropriated by her guardian as his representation.15 Thus the prospect of sending Evelina away from the self-enclosed paradise in which the two of them have lived strikes him much as the prospect of sending off a carefully crafted letter might; the act of self-representation is only able to function by being made public, yet the step of making that representation public means that it is no longer fully Villars's own:

The mind is but too naturally prone to pleasure, but too easily yielded to dissipation: it has been my study to guard [Evelina] against their delusions, by preparing her to expect,—and to despise them. But the time draws on for experience and observation to take place of instruction: if I have, in some measure, rendered her capable of using the one with discretion, and making the other with improvement, I shall rejoice myself with the assurance of having largely contributed to her welfare.16

Evelina's behavior becomes, within the terms her guardian sets out, the possibility of Villars's celebration of himself. Furthermore, the movement into time—into narrative and into experience—manifested by both the letter and Evelina herself is figured simultaneously as a necessary precondition for Villars's self-representation and as a condition that guarantees the impossibility of complete, owned self-representation.

In the letter immediately following, the contradictory elements of the letter as a structure of self-representation are made even more evident as they begin to be wrenched apart from one another. As she leaves Villars's home in the provinces bearing the letter that gives her permission to leave, Evelina effectively stands as the bearer of the letter of permission and that letter itself. That she has completed her act of delivery necessarily indicates that she has been allowed to leave, yet the fact that she functions both as the representation of Villars's authority as a moral educator and as the bearer of that representation testifies that she is fully neither. The language of Villars's letter marks his growing alienation from his ward that necessarily accompanies the sending of the letter, as the progression of appositives reveals the increasing tenuousness of his claim to Evelina. “This letter will be delivered to you by my child,—the child of my adoption,—my affection (20, emphasis added). Within this structure, it is the sociality of the letter form and, by extension, of the act of self-representation that brings about Evelina's fall into narrative, into experience and history, into the material. Without the demands of the social, both Evelina and the letter she carries might remain within their provincial glade, forever unaffected by “the experience and observation [that] takes place of instruction.” Granted, the moral instruction Villars imparts unto Evelina within the privacy of his own estate is itself a social relation, but it can only be of limited consequence as long as that instruction remains outside of the public eye; Evelina can only function as Villars's representation once he consents to allow her to be seen within a wider public sphere. Only retrospectively, from a position outside Villars's enclosure, can the sociality of his relationship with Evelina be recognized and made to mean. (Significantly, it is not until Evelina leaves home that we hear anything of her own voice, since she has no need to write letters until she is separated from acquaintances.)

The doubleness of the novel's title pithily encapsulates the tension between Villars's prelapsarian fantasy—the promise of a perfect, transcendent identity implied by the concept of the name—and identity as a narrative, socially produced and historically contingent. But even the terms of the opposition between name and narrative laid out within the title Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World are immediately set into motion. The reference to “entrance” suggests the way in which both Evelina's and Villars's identities are formed by the process of moving away that mutually marks the outer limits of the selves, yet the transformation of that process into an entity called history that is itself the history of a type—“a Young Lady”—further suggests the fundamental inextricability of the two aspects of identity.

I am proposing that Burney establishes the letter from the outset of the novel as the emblem of the paradoxes implicit in both identity and in property as a form of self-representation. It is important, then, to examine the ways in which the form of the letter changes over the course of Evelina, for these shifts can be read as an attempt to trace the outer edges of the apparently opposing models of identity. While the letters at the opening of the novel are relatively short and “letter-like,” as the novel progresses and Evelina begins to establish a social world for herself apart from the one that had been defined for her by her guardian, the letters lose much of their letter-like quality, becoming considerably longer than the early examples and taking on many of the characteristics of non-epistolary narrative forms.17 (Many of these later letters are labeled, confusing if tellingly, “Evelina in continuation.”) A short, letter-like letter is necessarily more fully characterized by its “Sender to Recipient” label, suggesting a model of the self that becomes representative in being presented to, and hence limited by, an other. But, importantly, the shorter the letters are—the more completely they are identified by their label as the self-representation of their author—the greater the significance of the time gap created by the letter's transmission. The shorter and less narrative the letters are—the more like letters they are—the more they become subject to the temporal gaps brought about precisely by their status as letters—the time necessary for them to travel from London to the provinces and back again. Conversely, while the long, more narrative letters are proportionately less affected by the fact of their transmission, their narrative qualities at the time undermine the claims they might make to identify their authors, insofar as identity is most purely expressed in the form of an isolated name. Authorship, then, is figured as an assertion of control over interpretation—here, the interpretation of how the space of time is to be understood. This opening out of time introduces the possibility—clearly a frightening one—that the letter won't be read, that a reply will not be forthcoming.

But we ought to keep in mind that, in an epistolary novel as opposed to an actual letter, the author and reader of any given letter are not only the people whose names are affixed to the letter's text, but the novel's author and readers as well. Not only does this doubleness serve to undermine the simple notion of letter as self-representation to which Villars would willfully cling, but it draws our attention to the temporal doubleness implicit in the epistolary novel. Since we as readers are never certain at exactly what point in its circuit of production we gain access to a given letter, the authority—both in the sense of authorial identity and in the sense of force of law—that any letter commands is called into question. This subversive potential made possible by the form's temporal doubleness is most clearly manifested near the middle of the novel, when Villars condemns his ward's growing intimacy with Lord Orville, a man she has become acquainted with in London. When, having already read Villars's condemnation of the connection, we read Evelina's description of her continuing pursuit of the relationship, we are led to believe that she is willfully disregarding her guardian's wishes. Soon enough we learn that Evelina's apparent disregard of Villars's desires is merely an illusion created by the temporal doubleness of the epistolary novel: we have read Villars's letter before she has. Nonetheless, the lesson of the incident is marked indelibly. Once again, the very sociality of the construction of identity—whether the identity takes the form of authority, property or written self-representation, that makes it necessary for the letters to be transmitted to gain their meaning—also figures the limitation of that authority.

Thus far we have traced the trajectory of the novel according to the way it calls into question with increasing force Villars's authority and structures of identity. But the novel's development can be figured equally well in terms of Evelina's developing voice as a letter-writer, even as the valuation we normally lend such a development is called into question. Most obviously, Evelina's letters to Villars stand as a sign of her growing distance from him, both geographically and ontologically. Initially, Evelina is reluctant to write, recognizing that writing signals her ontological break from him:

My dear Sir, I am desired to make a request to you. I hope you will not think me an encroacher; Lady Howard insists upon my writing!—and yet I hardly know how to go on; a petition implies a want,—and have you left me one? No indeed. (23)

Here, as in the novel's opening pages, Evelina serves both as message and as the means of transmission for that message. The parallels between these two moments ought to alert us to their crucial difference, however: while in the first instance Evelina is sent away from Villars as if she were a letter, here, the letter returns to Villars as if it were Evelina. The substitution of the ideality of the letter for the materiality of Evelina's actual body hence becomes a necessary condition of her developing autonomy. The act of self-definition is explicitly figured as a definition of the limits of property; it is her conception of a want, of the possibility of lack, that marks her break from Villars. Still, just a few paragraphs later in the same letter, Evelina has already begun to conceive of her relationship to her erstwhile guardian differently, with his authority over her desires transformed into a legal control rather than a control emerging from their mutuality of identification or desire. She asks him, “Ought I to form a wish that has not your sanction?” (23). She marks the transitory state of her identity at this moment by refusing to mark, signing her letter with a blank space whose significance will become clearer later.

Villars responds, not unexpectedly, with an attempt to assert his imaginative authority to recreate the time in which the unity of their identities—his moral, emotional and financial possession of Evelina—produced the illusion of satiation, of limitlessness. “To see my Evelina happy is to see myself without a wish” (25). But Villars clearly, if reluctantly, recognizes the increasing untenability of his position, an untenability brought on by the fact that his self-representation in the form of Evelina has already been made public. To the extent that Evelina has become a writing subject, someone engaged in her own self-representation, she has become irreducibly different from Villars. His solution, acknowledgedly ideal, is to cancel her identity as letter-writer by eliminating the geographical (and, implicitly, the temporal) space that separates them. “To follow the dictates of my own heart, I should instantly recall you to myself, and never more consent to your being separated from me; but the manners and opinions of the world demand a different conduct” (129). Even this ideal, admittedly unachievable, solution is a fallen one, however, as Villars figures the unity between them as consent given or withheld rather than as a form of organic identity.

What is crucial to keep in mind is the way in which, throughout most of the novel, the paradox of identity and property is inflected differently across gender lines. If Evelina is schooled in the possibilities for subversion by witnessing the forms her own movement away from Villars takes, she is nonetheless, as a woman, placed differently from her guardian within the conflicting and intersecting lines of power that define identity and property. As the novel makes clear, Evelina's vulnerability to being appropriated as the site of Villars's moral self-production—her appropriateness to being made both the material and limit of others' self-representation—depends in large part upon her status as orphan, or, more accurately, as unowned heiress. Paradoxically enough, however, while her unconnectedness is what allows her to be seized as the stuff out of which others' self-production is made, Evelina nonetheless needs to imagine an absence of connection (at least of connection to men) as the foundation of her own identity. Faced with an array of competing suitors at her first public ball, Evelina tells each of them she is engaged to another to avoid having to commit herself to any of them. Where Villars uses his (and Evelina's) isolation from the world to justify his appropriation of her as a representation before the world, Evelina's fiction is a negative one, one that describes something that is not there. If the paradoxes of property and identity make clear the way in which the oppositions of autonomy and sociality tend to collapse into one another, men and women within the novel still begin at different places within the ever-intertwining set of terms. Rather than using control over others to represent identity before the world as Villars does, Evelina creates a fiction of connectedness in the form of her story to the suitors, intended to create for her the possibility of an autonomy that otherwise would not exist. To the extent to which personal autonomy is either possible or desirable (Burney is clearly wary on both counts), women seem only able to approach such autonomy under the cover of sociality.

The threat posed by Evelina's lie at the ball resounds throughout the novel. Just as Evelina's lack of familial connection both allows her appropriation by Villars and figures her identity as possible (and, from Villars's point of view, threatening) in its very fluidity, her social fiction-making, her telling of stories deliberately unrepresentative of and unconnected to her social reality, creates in part the possibility of her selfhood. Evelina clearly recognizes the power of the threat presented by her capacity to lie, particularly as that capacity remakes her relationship with Villars. She deliberately sets that threat into motion as she withholds information from Villars and then flaunts that act of withholding:

Will you forgive me if I own that I have first written an account of this transaction to Miss Mirvan?—and that I even thought of concealing it from you?—Short-lived, however, was the ungrateful idea, and sooner will I risk the justice of your displeasure, then unworthily betray your generous confidence. (249)

Here, the capacity to lie that Evelina first demonstrates at the ball is clearly associated with the structure of temporal doubleness associated with the letter in the epistolary novel. Evelina demonstrates her acumen as a reader of Evelina. To write letters is to prove that one is capable of lying. Evelina, who is characterized in the early sections of the novel explicitly by her lack of guile, learns to lie by coming to understand the operation of the letter. Inasmuch as her mendacity marks a deviation from her early character, writing letters would seem to serve to make Evelina less, rather than more, herself. Clearly, however, Burney holds no stock in the possibility of personal “essence”; not only do the novel's letters signal Evelina's growing independence from Villars, but autonomy in general, to the extent to which it is possible, is shown to be borne of the capacity to misrepresent. In Evelina, the act of lying becomes an assertion of the possibility of choice.18

Even more fundamentally, the association between lying and letter writing points up the extent to which the fact of human distance and separateness—the distance between London and the provinces that compels Evelina and Villars to communicate by letter and opens the temporal gap that makes it impossible for either to own their communication—coupled with the sociality of meaning, creates the possibility, indeed, the inevitability, of misrepresenting. There seems no position from which letters may be owned, from which they can even confidently be read. To assert that one is capable of either owning or reading is therefore to assert a fiction, to write a letter, to lie. Within the novel, sending, withholding and receiving information are not fundamentally different acts, but simply different moments in a single circuit. But as our experience as readers of the epistolary novel teaches us, we can never know exactly where in the circuit we are.

For Evelina, such undecidability is opportunity. Toward the end of the novel, as the inexorable marriage plot narrows around her, systematically closing off all avenues of escape, Evelina seizes upon the temporal undecidability made so evident by the epistolary form in one final, desperate effort to postpone the closure of marriage. When Lord Orville proposes marriage, “to make [his] devotion to [her] public,” Evelina begs for more time, asking his deference to a secret she is not currently in a position to reveal. “There is nothing, my Lord, I wish to conceal;—to postpone an explanation is all I desire” (354). Her secret is, of course, the mystery of her personal history, the explanation of her status as “orphan,” and the ostensible purpose of her delay is to await an opportunity for presenting herself to her father, Sir John Belmont, to be owned. Evelina invokes the conditions of her dependence as a further means of delaying her marriage. She informs Lord Orville she must write away to Villars for permission to marry:

I told [Lord Orville] I was wholly dependent upon you, and that I was certain your opinion would be the same as mine, which was that it would be highly improper should I dispose of myself forever so very near the time which must finally decide by whose authority I ought to be granted.


Reading her situation as a woman in a world in which autonomy and dependence are not distinguishable ontological conditions but, rather, names for discursive strategies, Evelina invokes the impropriety of “dispos[ing] of [her]self,” as a means of buying more time as she waits for Villars's response to arrive by the mails.

That the novel raises no question regarding Belmont's status as Evelina's real father is crucial, since the presumption of their relatedness shifts the issue to be resolved from one of determining natural connection to one of determining ownership. As Evelina sets off to meet her father, the question at hand is not whether Evelina is her father's daughter, but, rather, whether her father will own her as such. As the novel describes the encounter, Belmont could just as easily own her as not, a fact that explicitly empties the act of any ontological significance. As a result, Evelina's receipt of the patronym is not, as we might have expected, a moment at which her freedom to act is shut down, but, rather, one in which the strictures that might limit her action are revealed to be at their most arbitrary. Clearly, for this novel, there is nothing “natural” about owning or being owned.

If Burney labors both within and by means of the novel to represent the denaturalization of paternal ownership, she does not do so in opposition to Locke, but squarely within his terms. Until now, I have been discussing the concept of paternal property—the relationship of paternal ownership, authority and identity—as though it can be accommodated unproblematically within the general liberal model of property. While it is the Second Treatise's natural rights theory for which Locke is best known, the political and philosophical context for this model is laid out in the largely ignored First Treatise, in which Locke explicitly refutes Sir Robert Filmer's identification of the authority of absolute monarchs with the “natural” authority of fathers over their children. What becomes clear in examining Locke within the context of Filmer is the extent to which Evelina's strategy of postponement is an accord with Locke's own project to pry apart property, paternity and political authority. Insofar as this separation depends upon both the ambiguous materiality of the “labor” metaphor and the oscillation of alienability that the metaphor implies, such a move threatens the liberal form of property at the very moment it constitutes such a model; within this view, Evelina's status as disowned daughter becomes not perverse but paradigmatic.19

Indeed, “being Belmont” marks, if anything, the freedom that for Evelina accompanies undecidability, since her life as Evelina Belmont is almost perfectly coextensive with the period of time during which the letters requesting and granting permission for her to marry are en route. Within the structure of relations suggested by the names in the book, in fact, Evelina is figured as least “owned” when she has received the patronym Belmont, insofar as the surname Villars had chosen for her—Anville—linguistically emphasizes her links with both himself and with Orville. The association between her life as Evelina Belmont and her freedom from ownership is further extended through her letter to Villars in which she describes the arrival of his letter granting her permission to marry:

Open it, indeed, I did;—but read it I could not,—the willing, yet aweful consent you have granted,—the tenderness of your expressions,—the certainty that no obstacle remained to my external union with the loved owner of my heart, gave me sensations too various, and though joyful, too little placid for observation. Finding myself unable to proceed, and blinded by the tears of gratitude and delight which started into my eyes, I gave over the attempt of reading, till I retired to my own room: and, having no voice to answer the enquiries of Lord Orville, I put the letter into his hands, and left it to speak both for me and itself.


This letter, which she signs Evelina Belmont, “for the first—and probably the last time I shall ever own the name” (404), appears at first glance to mark, in the form of the arrival of Villars's letter, the final closing down of the structure of postponement that has heretofore enabled her limited freedom. Evelina is unable to read or speak, and if it was her movement beyond the status of Villars's “letter” that marked her initial break from her guardian, here she is explicitly returned to the status of his letter, “which speaks for both [her] and itself.”

But in this closing section, as in the rest of Evelina, nothing is quite as simple as it seems, no divisions quite so easily upheld. While the force and immediacy of the description may lead us to forget the context in which it is written, we ought to keep in mind that this passage is composed by Evelina retrospectively as part of a letter to Villars recalling precisely the moment of his letter's arrival. Once again, the acts of receiving, reading and writing letters collapse into one another, so that the primacy that might otherwise have been accorded the moment of writing is transferred to this complex knot of activity in which all acts become the same act: Villars reads Evelina's writing about her reading of his writing, all of which is further complicated by the fact that we as external audience enter the circuit at some undefinable point to read Fanny Burney's writing about this knotted complex of reading and writing, sending and receiving. Not only is the moment of Evelina's apparent voicelessness and self-dissolution at least partially recuperated by our knowledge that Evelina herself has represented this disempowerment, but the act of representation itself is shown to be one that gains its meaning only in being received and read.

Viewed within the structure of the letter laid out by Evelina, Lord Chancellor Hardwicke's creation of the concept of intellectual property by granting copyright to the writer rather than the recipient of a letter threatens to unravel the intertwined concepts of material property and personal identity on which intellectual property right is founded. It makes no sense, in understanding the functioning of the letter, to separate the act of writing from the acts of receiving and reading; thus the legal privileging of writing has the effect of pointing up the incoherences implicit within the notion of private property. The Lockean notion of property that grounds ownership in the “natural” ownership of the body, figuring the objects of possession as extensions and representations of the self, must ignore the fact that those objects must necessarily be defined as already alienated, already different from the self, in order for them to be owned. Evelina is able to transform the letters intended to secure her ties first to guardian, then to husband into an instrument for postponing her links to either; similarly, Fanny Burney, as a woman novelist, seizes Pope's attempts to extend his control from material to immaterial property as a means of challenging his right to property in any form. In refusing as illusory the legal separation between property as self-extension and property as self-difference, the structure of the letter in Evelina challenges the natural rights notion of property by exposing the contradiction at its core.

But ought we to read Evelina simply as critique? Far from simply pointing up the paradox of property as self-representation, Burney attempts in her novel to figure a new model of authorship that implicitly suggests new relations between self, production and property. In the dedicatory poem that opens the volume, “To ——— ———,” Burney once again uses the doubleness implicit in the epistolary novel to extend a discussion focused historically around the ownership of letters to apply to published writing in general as part of her larger attempt to imagine a kind of authorship that is not based on the model of possession. The blank place of the recipient, which recalls the blank signature of Evelina's first letter to Villars, most explicitly refers to Burney's status as anonymous author of the novel. Directed to the “author of my being” (1), the poem is offered as an explanation from the author to her father for her decision to publish her work anonymously.20 “But since my niggard stars that gift refuse / Concealment is the only boon I claim; / Obscure be still the unsuccessful Muse, / Who cannot raise, but would not sink, your fame” (1). Clearly, if Burney has chosen to publish anonymously, as she claims in the poem, in order to avoid sinking her father's fame, then she cannot name him as the recipient of the poem and the novel without revealing his identity. But like Evelina within the body of the novel, Burney also seems to refuse the social structures that define the daughter as “recorder of [her father's] worth” (1), as his self-production and representation. Likewise, it is possible to read the character of Evelina as the speaker throughout the poem (the blank in Evelina's first letter to Villars helps validate such a reading), addressing to Burney her own reluctance to stand as “recorder of thy worth.” With the blank place of the recipient holding both readings in suspension, Burney and Evelina, author and production, become indistinguishable from one another, an apparent fulfillment of the Lockean fantasy.

But clearly Burney has more than utopian wish-fulfillment in mind. While the blankness of the dedication conflates Burney and Evelina, if the two readings are considered at once, Burney becomes simultaneously both speaker and listener—the speaker of her address to her father, the listener of Evelina's address to her author. As soon as the validity of a natural rights notion of property is suggested by the conflation of author and artistic production, that validity is undermined by the collapse of speaker and listener that effectively challenges any move to privilege the speaker/author. The risks of such a strategy for Burney are at least equally as pronounced as the potentially liberatory effects of her subversion.21 The possibility of self-representation is made available only with the acknowledgement that any self that might be represented has already disappeared, replaced by a system of relations uniting reader and writer, sender and recipient, speaker and listener. Finally, however, the blankness allows each of the novel's readers to become the recipient of the dedication, to take his or her place as “author of [the speaker's] being.” In assuming her position as anonymous author and uncovering the infinite openness of the position of recipient/author that is implicitly characteristic of the relationship of all authors to their reading public, Burney figures a notion of authorship that is the production of all involved in the reading/writing process.22 In sending Evelina, like a letter, to everyone, she belongs to no one.


  1. Mark Rose, “The Author in Court: Pope v. Curll (1741),” Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal 10 (1992): 475-493. Rose cites Pope v. Curll as the first case in which a major English author went to court in his own name to defend his literary rights. As such, the case marks a transitional moment both in the concept of authorship and in the notion of literary property more generally.

  2. Some standard works on the Statute of Anne and on the development of copyright generally are Harry Ranson, The First Copyright Statute (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1956); John Feather, “The Book Trade in Politics: the Making of the Copyright Act of 1710,” Publishing History 8 (1980): 19-34; Lyman Ray Patterson, Copyright in Historical Perspective (Nashville: Vanderbilt Univ. Press, 1968); Benjamin Kaplan, An Unhurried View of Copyright (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1967); and Marjorie Plant, The English Book Trade (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1939).

  3. Quoted in Rose (note 1), 484.

  4. Public Record Office C11/1569/29, quoted in Rose (note 1), 485-86.

  5. While the Statute of Anne certainly initiated a concept of literary property, Rose, following Kaplan, contends that the statute operated within terms presumed by the economic structure of printing rather than that of authorship. That the statute mandated that violators of the law forfeit all offending books to their rightful proprietors, who were in turn, required to “Damask and make Waste Paper of them” points up the statute's emphasis on the book as a physical entity (Rose [note 1], 487).

  6. In his provocative discussion of the intersections of narrative and critical literalism in Clarissa (“Taking Clarissa Literally: The Implication of Reading,” Genre 21 [Summer 1988]), Stephen Melville comments that “nothing can stop this suspicion of art, fiction, reflection, once it has started. (And isn't that just the fear close reading always provokes, the fear internal to criticism that always turns its theoretical debates back into matters of detail, the accidental and essential of reading?)” (143). Indeed, Evelina seems to undermine any claims it (or its critics) might possibly make for the novel's representative status in its strategic exposure of the contingency signaled by the material. Evelina as example—whether it be as representative or unrepresentative text, whether its meaningful context be the epistolary novel, eighteenth-century fiction, or the history of women's writing—always threaten to veer into Evelina as random sample, with such randomness marking the point of intersection between significance and insignificance. The relationship between the historical claims I make in this paper and the evidence I adduce to support those claims, that is, a fairly detailed reading of a single novel, bears a striking resemblance to the text/manuscript knot Hardwicke tried unsuccessfully to unravel: a theoretical point happens to appear in the form of a novel, but need not necessarily do so (although, within certain professional contexts, it is only of interest insofar as it does). Finally, I think a clue to this puzzle lies in what Melville calls the epistolary novel's “seamlessness of mimesis,” the fact that “we can know [the epistolary novel] to be a fiction only if we are assured in advance or by some third person that it is such” (138). The difficulty we might have in distinguishing foreground from background with regard to the relationship between the history of the Hardwicke decision and the text of Evelina seems to me an analytically helpful one, the difficulty of the epistolary novel's “seamless mimesis,” since it suggests that such distinctions are achieved only by the intervention of either authority or personal interest.

  7. John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), 287-88.

  8. For some discussions of the paradox of the natural rights theory of property in other contexts, see Catherine Gallagher's “George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question,” in Sex, Politics and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1983-84, ed. Ruth Bernard Yeazell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), 39-62; Walter Benn Michaels's “Romance and Real Estate,” in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 85-112; and Howard Horwitz's “O Pioneers! and the Paradox of Property: Cather's Aesthetics of Divestment,” Prospects 13 (1988): 61-93. I am interested in exploring here the ways in which the structure of the letter, within both Burney's adaptation of the tradition of the epistolary novel and the contemporary debate over the ownership of letters, makes the relations of the Lockean paradox particularly evident.

  9. Mary Poovey argues that Burney identifies the courtship period as a moment at which the interests of fathers and husbands potentially come into conflict, but that she then retreats from the implications of such an analysis. See Poovey, “Fathers and Daughters: The Trauma of Growing Up Female,” in Fanny Burney's “Evelina,” ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), 85-98. While Burney does seem particularly interested in this period for precisely the reasons Poovey suggests, I intend to argue that, far from backing away from such a conflict, Burney dramatizes the ways in which young women may employ it strategically to their own ends.

  10. Charles A. Porter, “Forward: Men/Women of Letters,” Yale French Studies 74 (1986): 1-14.

  11. In “Of Readers and Narratees: The Experience of Pamela,L'Esprit Createur 21 (Summer 1981): 93, Susan Rubin Suleiman identifies convincingly an additional level of narration implicit in the epistolary form—that of the editor (and editor's reader). This narrative level may be emphasized to a greater degree (as in Les Liasons dangereuses and Pamela) or to a lesser extent (as in Clarissa or Evelina). While Suleiman argues that narrators and narratees within the same narrative levels remain stable in relation to one another, the relations seem to me to get more tricky at the extranarrative levels. While the distinction between author and editor remains clear, for example, the condition of author's narratee is to aspire to become editor's narratee through the willing suspension of disbelief demanded of most realism's readers. That this relationship between narratees is so unstable, in addition to the fact Burney identifies an editor in the Preface only immediately to subsume the role of that editor within the functions of an explicitly imaginative author, suggests that she is eager to minimize the distinction between author and editor. As I will argue, possession and authorship are figured in terms of one another and are plagued by the same incoherences.

  12. Janet Gurkin Altman points out that epistolary novels conventionally emphasize the immediacy of their narration, what she terms the “pivotal, yet impossible present.” The only event that can be represented with the presence the form of the epistolary novel claims for itself is the act of writing. See Altman, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1982), 129. Paradoxically, the materiality of writing, the same materiality that is threatening insofar as it limits the transparency (hence, the completeness) with which writing can function as a means of self-representation, is the only thing that can be represented completely (the completeness of the representation contingent upon the transformation of writing from an act into a thing.)

  13. Altman (note 12) terms the two uses of the letter “metaphoric” (by which the “message” of the letter stands in for the sender by virtue of its immateriality) and “metonymic” (by which the materiality of the letter becomes the conduit of physical contact between sender and recipient) (19).

  14. Susan Staves, Patricia Meyer Spacks and Judith Lowder Newton all trace a preponderance of physical violence within the novel. See Staves, “Evelina; or, Female Difficulties,” in Bloom (note 9), 13-30; Spacks, “Dynamics of Fear: Fanny Burney,” in Bloom, 31-57; and Newton, “Evelina: A Chronicle of Assault,” in Bloom, 59-83. This excess of violence seems to testify to the anxiety produced by these contradictions within and between property and identity.

  15. Since Evelina is without a patronym, Villars has created a surname for her—Anville, an obvious variation on his own name, as well as an anagram both for Evelyn (Evelina's grandfather and Villars's pupil) and for Evelina's own name. Not only does Evelina's lack of a patronym allow Villars to construct a lineage based strictly on their legal ties to one another, but the explicit linking of Evelina's first name to this fictional ancestral line would seems to suggest the impossibility of preserving any aspect of her identity from association with this line. Still, this collapse of given name and surname into an undeniably artificial genealogy suggests that Evelina might possess, in the absence of actual family ties, an extraordinary opportunity to fashion her own identity. This oscillation between discourses of complete determinacy and a complete absence of referentiality returns repeatedly throughout the novel and seems to function, both for Evelina and for Burney, as a means of creating actual, if temporary, freedom in the world. I will discuss this pattern in greater detail below.

  16. Fanny Burney, Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), 18. All further page references to the novel will be cited parenthetically within the text.

  17. This retrospective, narrative (as opposed to dramatic) quality stands in sharp contrast to the forms of narration characteristic of Richardson's epistolary fiction, the narration of “writing to the moment,” a phrase Richardson coined in his Preface to Sir Charles Grandison. “The nature of familiar letters, written, as it were, to the moment, while the heart is agitated by hopes and fears, or events undecided, must plead as an excuse for the bulk of a collection of this kind” (Richardson, quoted in Altman [note 12], 141).

  18. Altman argues that the epistolary novel became a favorite eighteenth-century form within a cultural milieu that saw authentication as a form of “presentification … whereby the writer tries to create the illusion that both he and his addressee are immediately present to each other and to the action. … Such tendencies suggest an eighteenth-century reading public whose dominant esthetic is contemporaneity; one might speculate on the dialectical relationship between the epistolary novel so popular in the latter half of the eighteenth century and the historical novel focusing on more distant events that ushered in a new kind of narrative in the nineteenth century” (202). If we understand Evelina, in its tendency toward retrospectivity and postponement, to be a movement away from the classic epistolary form identified by Altman, then we might see the beginnings of a new form of authority here—the authority of fiction, of the lie. We would thus understand the emergence of this new aesthetic of fictionality as a response to the particular conditions of disempowerment that made immediacy insupportable for Burney and for Evelina—propertylessness and daughterhood.

  19. Along these lines, Richard Swartz argues that the concept of patrimony—the right of fathers to will their property to their children—was frequently employed in eighteenth-century debates over perpetuity of copyright in an attempt to resolve the tension between the literary artifact's status as unique creation and its status as commodity. While Swartz's reading of the Miller v. Taylor (1769) copyright case tends to emphasize the diachronic aspects of the contradictions within the Lockean conception of property in distinction to my focus on the synchronic aspects, these differences, rather than being understood as opposing positions, might productively be read as offering insights into Locke's complex use of time in his natural rights model. See Swartz, “Patrimony and the Figuration of Authorship in the Eighteenth-Century Property Debates,” Works and Days 7 (1989): 29-54.

  20. For detailed biographical accounts of the nature of Burney's relationship to her father, see Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1988) and Poovey (note 9).

  21. Burney writes in her journal on the occasion of the publication of Evelina, “I have an exceeding odd sensation, when I consider that it is now in the power of any and every body to read what I so carefully hoarded even from my best friends, till this last month or two,—and that a work which was so lately lodged, in all privacy of my bureau, may now be seen by every butcher and baker, cobbler and tinker, throughout the three kingdoms” (Burney, quoted in Jennifer A. Wagner, “Privacy and Anonymity in Evelina, in Bloom [note 9], 99-109).

  22. Inasmuch as books must be bought and postage must be paid, such infinite openness is only theoretical. Nevertheless, because, before the establishment of the penny post in 1840, most postage was paid by recipients of letters rather than senders, the analogy between recipients and readers still holds. See Asa Briggs, Victorian Things (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 332. I am thankful to Elizabeth Young for asking this question and Cheri Larsen for her help in tracking down the answer.

This essay was first prepared in conjunction with Catherine Gallagher's graduate seminar on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Women Writers, held at the University of California, Berkeley in the spring of 1990. I am grateful to the other participants in the seminar for their helpful comments on the earliest formulation of this piece and to Cynthia Franklin, Catherine Gallagher, Victoria Pond, Simon Stern and Elizabeth Todesco for their sensitive, astute and supportive readings of later versions. I also benefited greatly from the lively discussion that followed my presentation of this paper under the aegis of the Berkeley Graduate English Women's Caucus. My thinking about Locke has been influenced significantly by Howard Horwitz's work on the subject; I thank him as well.

Martha F. Bowden (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Introduction to The Reform'd Coquet: or Memoirs of Amoranda; Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady; and The Accomplish'd Rake, or a Modern Fine Gentleman, by Mary Davys, edited by Martha F. Bowden, University of Kentucky Press, 1999, pp. xxvi-xlvi.

[In the following introduction to three eighteenth-century epistolary novels by the British author Mary Davys, Bowden discusses how The Reform'd Coquet, Familiar Letters, and The Accomplish'd Rakeprefigure stories and styles later made famous by Samuel Richardson.]


The Reform'd Coquet tells the story of Amoranda, an essentially good but flighty young woman whose unfortunate tendency towards coquetry and carelessness of her reputation is tamed by Alanthus, the man who wishes to marry her. In order to effect the reformation, the handsome lover disguises himself as an old man, called Formator, and moves into her house as her guardian and guide. It is the first work we know Davys to have written after her move to Cambridge, and her longest to this date; only The Accomplish'd Rake is more extensive, and it is no more elaborate. The preface suggests that she may have returned to writing out of financial necessity: “Few People are so inconsiderable in Life, but they may at some time do good; and tho I must own my Purse is (by a thousand Misfortunes) grown wholly useless to every body, my Pen is at the service of the Publick, and if it can but make some impression upon the young unthinking Minds of some of my own Sex, I shall bless my Labour” (5). Whatever the reasons for its creation, it is an accomplished work and shows no sign of being turned out mechanically merely for monetary reward. The dedication is addressed generally “To the Ladies of Great Britain” rather than to a particular lady from whom Davys might expect patronage; and in contrast to the flattery usual in such a document when the writer is seeking support, it contains words of admonishment and advice. She holds up her heroine as a model who, “when the Lightnesses of her mind were removed … became worthy of imitation” (3) and suggests that the ladies who read the book for “an hour or two of agreeable Amusement” (6) follow her example: “When you grow weary of Flattery, and begin to listen to matrimonial Addresses, chuse a Man with fine Sense, as well as a fine Wigg, and let him have some Merit, as well as much Embroidery” (3). She thus indicates her intended audience, who are young, unmarried, potentially giddy and impressionable young ladies.

The book was her first published by subscription, that is the collection of money from supporters in advance of publication to pay for the printing. The subscribers received a copy of the book and their names were printed in a list that they could have bound in the front of the volume. It was a method of ensuring publication that was widely used—Pope's edition of Homer is perhaps the most famous contemporary example—but an unusual approach to publication for novels at the time.1 As the second novelist to make use of this mode of publication, Davys was in the vanguard of innovation. An examination of the subscription list explains the absence of a potential patron on the dedication page, for the list represented each of the social strata: the nobility and gentry, the clergy (in addition to those obviously designated “The Reverend” there are also two listed as “Dr. Anonymous” who are probably clergymen as well), the literary world, and a long list of more ordinary folk, many of whom were probably her undergraduate patrons.

The novel, while innovative and well-crafted, also reflects her previous work. Although it is not, like Familiar Letters, an exclusively epistolary work, Robert Adams Day includes it in his discussion of epistolary fiction, which he defines as “any prose narrative, long or short, largely or wholly imaginative, in which letters, partly or entirely fictitious, serve as the medium or figure significantly in the conduct of the story” (5). Indeed, Davys's writing is always efficient, so that all thirteen letters in the volume, like the dialogue, are not ornaments to the plot but essential devices for furthering the story. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she has little indirect discourse. The characters speak directly for themselves, demonstrating the extent to which the drama has influenced her novels.

The preface to the Works (1725), which precedes the text of Familiar Letters in this edition, is Davys's clearest articulation of the use of dramatic technique in narrative fiction: “I have in every Novel propos'd one entire Scheme or Plot, and the other Adventures are only incident or collateral to it; which is the great Rule prescribed by the Criticks, not only in Tragedy, and other Heroick-Poems, but in Comedy too. The Adventures, as far as I could order them, are wonderful and probable; and I have with the utmost Justice rewarded Virtues, and punish'd Vice” (87). In the prologue to The Northern Heiress, several years before both The Reform'd Coquet and the Works, Davys also alluded to the rules of the critics, specifically Aristotle, in the works of learned writers:

… you Poets know, whose Brains
Having at last produc'd with mighty Pains,
Pieces in which not one Rule was forgot
Of all that mighty Aristotle wrote;
Nature in all the Characters observ'd,
And Time and Place to Nicety preserv'd.

She had then excluded herself from this august company, claiming to have little learning and only one language.2 But of course she has already demonstrated her familiarity with the rules, and she does so again in this novel. Like the letters and dialogue, the various subplots and interpolated stories—Callid and Froth, Lord Lofty and Altemira, Biranthus and Arentia—all work towards the purpose of the story, the “reform” of the title. They allow Amoranda to be placed in multiple dangers, which are held to be the consequence of her own over-trustfulness and carelessness, without resulting in actual rape, which would have prevented virtue's natural reward, the happy ending.3 While Altemira's story has a technically “happy” ending—marriage to her seducer—Lord Lofty is such a loathsome character that the only happiness we can imagine for her is the restoration of her good name. The marriage, from Lord Lofty's point of view, is punishment for his mistreatment of Altemira. The wicked are chastised with a severity that verges on parody; to take all these deaths seriously would be to undermine the comic intention of the book.

Davys's use of the summerhouse is a good example of dramatic technique incorporated into the structure of the novel. Indeed, apart from its dramatic uses, its placement is rather odd: surely an estate would have a quieter, more private setting for a retreat than the side of a highway. But it can easily be imagined as a functional stage set: it is on two levels, which allows Callid and Froth to be overheard by the housekeeper when hatching their plot. Both the listening servant and the plotting beaus are visible to the audience, or the reader, but the beaus are of course oblivious of any auditors. Its front windows allow it to be used as a little theater itself—we can look in at the various scenes going on there, such as Formator and the footman beating the beaus or Lord Lofty attempting to seduce Amoranda. Froth and Callid can thus also suggest to Amoranda that she sit in it to watch “a Dance of Shepherds and Shepherdesses in the High-way by Moon-light, just at the Summer-house window” (24). The proximity to the highway allows the most dramatic delivery of all the letters: “a Gentleman rid by, and threw in a Glove at the Window; Amoranda, at whose foot it fell, took it up, and found there was something in it, which she conceal'd, but was much surpriz'd at the Action” (19). The glove contains a letter whose contents are a declaration of love, but there will be many adventures and many more letters before the mystery of this one and the man who delivers it will be revealed.

Davys's use of cross-dressing can also be linked to the theater and the breeches roles in plays like Wycherley's The Plain-Dealer and The Country Wife or Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. In fact, however, her use of the device is quite different from that of the playwrights whom she obviously read with affection. There are also significant differences between media that make cross-dressing on stage and on the page two very different devices. One aim of the breeches roles in plays—the display of women's legs, a novelty in a theater where actresses themselves were a novelty—was impossible in the nonvisual medium of print. The audience perception also changes. There is no doubt that everyone in the audience knows that Fidelia in The Plain-Dealer is a woman dressing as a man in order to attend her lover. Similarly, few of the characters and none of the audience are fooled by Margery Pinchwife's appearance in her brother's clothes in The Country Wife; yet the novel reader sees only as much as the author will let her, and is no more knowledgeable than the characters. Thus, while we may have suspicions about some of the little gentlemen in both The Reform'd Coquet and The Accomplish'd Rake, we do not truly learn their identities until they are revealed to the fictional characters.

More importantly, cross-dressing is connected with transgression in Davys, in ways it is not in Wycherley, Dryden, or Farquhar. In The Reform'd Coquet, Altemira becomes emaciated from grief and dons men's clothes after her femininity has essentially been burned away by her experience of multiple betrayal. Despite the fact that she is essentially blameless, she has been “ruined” by her trust in Lord Lofty, and wears the clothing of a man as a kind of penance until her reputation can be restored. In the same way, Davys's use of male cross-dressing in some ways invokes the role of the stage dame but is fundamentally different in purpose.4 The episode in which Formator and a footman, both in women's clothes, attack the unsuspecting Callid and Froth is farcical—particularly since Formator is already one level deep in disguise. Amoranda unknowingly enters into the masquerade by promising another kind of exchange of roles: “if you happen to be worsted, we'll invert the Custom, and instead of your delivering the distress'd Damsel, she shall come and rescue you” (27).

The story of Birantha, however, bears little resemblance to stage farce, and is rather linked entirely with transgression. The rape attempt is disturbing, not humorous, because Birantha/Biranthus is far more competent than the fops and appears much more likely to be successful. On the stage two women in full dress fighting with each other might have a slapstick appeal; but without physical presentation to lighten the mood, the threats are quite horrifying: “This minute, by the help of thy own Servant, I will enjoy thee; and then, by the Assistance of my arm, he shall do so too” (59). Biranthus's ending reflects his transgressive behavior. He is put out of his misery by one of the Stranger's servants, a fate no gentleman would expect or desire, and is left lying dead still in the dishonorable woman's clothes. The betrayal by Biranthus and Arentia is surrounded by imagery of the fall of man, which emphasizes the sense of transgression and further distances the incident from the world of the stage dame. Biranthus's several disguises link him with Satan's shape changes in Paradise Lost, as does his decision that both his interior and exterior must be hidden. He is “resolved to disguise his Mind as well as his Body” (57), the former with rhetoric, the latter with petticoats. Biranthus and Arentia are called devils by the narrator (58) and Biranthus a viper by Amoranda (59). Arentia becomes the voice of the tempter, as she urges Amoranda to comply since she is being offered the choice of forced marriage or outright rape. But Amoranda, while she shares with Eve the vulnerability that comes from separation from her mentor, recognizes and rejects the rhetoric: “Peace, Screech-Owl, said Amoranda, thy Advice carries Poison and Infection in it; the very Sound of thy Words raises Blisters on me, so venomous is the Air of thy Breath” (59). Finally the serpent claims his own, for Arentia, who brought the tempter into the garden, dies from the bite of an adder.

In addition to the dramatic influence in this novel, there is a connection with the world of fairy tale and enchantment, which is not developed until the end of the novel, with the arrival of Lady Betty, Alanthus's sister. Lady Betty has come looking for her brother, who seems to have disappeared: “I fancy he's got into Fairy-Land, he lets me hear from him, but will not tell me how he may hear from me” (82). When Formator is revealed to her as the long-lost brother, she faints: “she not expecting to find her brother there, and seeing him all of a sudden turn'd from an old Man, whom she had never seen before, to a brother whom she knew not where to find, she thought herself in some inchanted Castle, and all about her Fiends and Goblins” (83). Amoranda has a dual role in the fairy tale world. She is the enchantress, keeping Formator/Alanthus captive and transformed (“There, there's the Inchantress, who by a natural Magick, has kept me all this while in chains of love,” says Alanthus), and a type of imprisoned heroine herself. As in the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” it is necessary for her to love Alanthus as Formator before she can see him in his true shape and thus move towards the “happily ever after” ending. The spell is broken when, being attacked by Biranthus, she calls for Formator, and Alanthus appears.

But that happy ending is itself problematic. Amoranda's character is developed in a careful and some ways conventional manner. Like many heroines, she is an orphan, whose mother dies of grief shortly after her father, leaving her alone and without direction at a critical point in her life. She has been raised in a sheltered place that has prevented her from learning the ways of the world, thus making her even more vulnerable. Davys also establishes the roots of her behavior in her flawed upbringing: her parents encourage her tendency to vanity, “under that mistaken Notion, of everything looking well in a Child” (13). But unlike many heroines in works of this nature, she has, in addition to beauty and charm, a quick wit and some of the best dialogue in any novel of the period: “Pray, my Lord, have done, said Amoranda, for I freely own I am not proof against Flattery, there is something so inexpressibly pleasing in it—Lard! you Men——— Come, let us catch some Fish, and divert the Subject. Hang the Fish, said my Lord. Aye, said Amoranda, for we shall never drown them” (17). It is unfortunate from a twentieth-century viewpoint that her “reform” directed by Formator/Alanthus through the incidents in the book should involve silencing and fear and be observable in her growing suspicion of other people. The girl who ignores a warning about the lecherous Lord Lofty becomes afraid to allow first a puny man, who turns out to be a woman, and then an obviously respectable lady into her house: “Amoranda had a just compassion for the unfortunate Man, and saw his Lady's Journey retarded; but the late Attempts which had been made upon her, made her afraid to desire her to come in” (69). By the end of the novel, the masks and disguises are gone—in Alanthus's words, “we are now barefac'd, and know one another” (83)—but all Amoranda's sparkle has disappeared with them. In the final happy scene she is utterly silent. Her last words, to Alanthus's sister Lady Betty who wants an explanation of her brother's white beard, are “Lord Alanthus, and Mr. Traffick, are the fittest to give your Ladyship an account, which I leave them to do, while I beg leave to go and dress me” (83). Having left her story in the male hands of her lover and guardian, she leaves the stage. When she returns and Alanthus makes his formal proposal, her answer is not recorded.

Part of the problem lies with the character of Formator, whose tendency to priggishness is obvious in his acceptance of Mr. Traffick's request, to mold the niece into the perfect woman as a preliminary to marrying her. To Amoranda he seems initially a killjoy; and his behavior in leaving her apparently to be raped by Biranthus, with the words, “Well, Madam, I am sorry for you, but I am no Knight Errant, nor do I ride in quest of Adventures; I wish you a good Deliverance, and am your humble servant” (60) in order to teach her a lesson, is not only priggish but outrageous. When Amoranda later challenges him about his desertion, he admits to conflicted feelings: “I was resolved, if possible, to cure you at once of rambling with Strangers: in order to which, I put on an Air of Cruelty, which Heaven knows! my Heart had no hand in” (80). But the reader may feel that his words are too little, too late, especially since he shows a sadistic pleasure in her pain (80-81), and Amoranda in turn seems only too quick to enjoy it (80).

The fairy tale framing allows us to suspend judgement in part on the shortcomings of his character. He is also partially redeemed through the observations of Maria, Amoranda's clever, older relation, for although her sharp eyes penetrate his disguise very quickly, she nonetheless finds him attractive, and takes the beard away with her so that she can ask potential suitors to wear it. Pictures of perfection are not easily drawn and many of us share Jane Austen's reaction to them; accusations of priggishness against Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison demonstrate the difficulty that even the greatest writers have in portraying virtue. But like the problematic nature of Amoranda's reform, the concept of Formator as perfection is bound to be questioned by twentieth-century readers. Did Davys really believe him to be so (would she choose him as a husband?) or was she reflecting the demands of the literary marketplace and her own desire to establish herself as a writer of texts that restore the “purity and empire of love”? And finally, are we supposed to see in the young man who puts on a fake beard and a lisp a spoof on the whole idea of Mentor? He certainly presents a much less dignified appearance than Athena does when, disguised as a wise man, she arrives in Ithaca to aid and strengthen Telemachus, who has to cope with his mother's unruly suitors. Davys's other writing suggests that she has enough familiarity with the classics and gift for satire to make that reading a possibility, or at least a subtext. At this distance an “authoritive” reading is both impossible and undesirable, but the wise reader will keep all these possibilities in mind.


While Familiar Letters' sole publication in Davys's lifetime was in her Works in 1725, there is sufficient internal evidence to date it from her days in London between 1716 and 1718. Donald Hal Stefanson (1:xi, xii) believes it was begun in the fall of 1717 and finished in 1718. He bases his date on the announcement of the birth of an heir to the Hanovers in the text (95), which he links with the birth of a son, George William, to Prince George on 2 November 1717, and “the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689” (xii n. 5). On the other hand, because William III landed on British soil on 5 November 1688, the twenty-eight years of Whiggish rule referred to in the text might direct us to 1716. Furthermore, the child was born on 20 October, not 2 November 1717.5 Whatever scheme one uses to date the work, it clearly comes from the London years, as the references to Flamsteed and the Reduction of the Light Horse indicate; it may have had several revisions whose chronologies have not been made consistent in the final version. There would also have been good reason not to publish it, for George William was born with a congenital weakness—a polyp in the heart—and the plaudits and good wishes for the birth of the first Hanoverian son born on English soil would have fallen rather flat in the face of the child's death in February, 1718. By the time Davys published the Works, however, William Augustus had been born (1721) in good health, and thus the compliments could flow without apology. In any event, the tributes to the so-called British heir are pure Whig apologetics, since the succession to the throne continued through the eldest son, German-born Frederick, who did not himself rule, but whose son became George III.6

Robert Adams Day includes Familiar Letters in a list of the four novels that “represent the highest development of letter fiction before Richardson.”7 He draws attention to the realism of the text, Davys's “sense of humor and an eye for physical detail” (187), and the fact that the letters are dated at adequately-spaced intervals to allow them to arrive at their destinations through the post as it then operated (203). While not noting the serious divisions between the two characters, he commends the tone of the letters for emphasizing wit over passion: “A pair of correspondents like Artander and Berina, who manage to be witty instead of passionate while conveying the impression that they entertain tender feelings for one another, is a refreshing innovation … The very lack of stress on conventional passion in the letters, combined with their playful tone, makes them perhaps the most realistic letters in early English fiction” (187, 190). Their wit makes Artander and Berina particularly good company; it also suggests that their text is somehow different from the other fictions into whose company they are generally gathered. Ruth Perry describes the typical epistolary process: “Certainly within these novels, characters use their letters to re-live moments they have spent together. Not concerned with narrative progress, they describe to each other the episodes they have lived through together, dwelling on them in loving, repetitious, detail.”8 While this description is an accurate characterization of many epistolary novels, it does not describe Familiar Letters, where we know almost nothing about the correspondents' lives before the book and the correspondence begin.

We know that they have been in the city together, that Artander has left for his family seat in the country, and that they have agreed to be platonic friends rather than courting lovers—a situation that suits Berina much better than it does Artander. There is no dwelling on their moments together, although there are some complaints about the separation from Artander, and a reference to previous political disputes. Instead, they discuss politics, argue, describe their friends and visitors, all in the witty manner that has delighted its readers ever since. The anomalies in the book, which set it apart from the epistolary fiction of the day, also lead us to other readings. Lindy Riley's article, “Mary Davys's Satiric Novel Familiar Letters: Refusing Patriarchal Inscription of Women” is quite right in describing the novel as satire, although I believe she is wrong in describing it as a reverse conduct book.9 Its satire is aimed at society rather than at exclusively gender issues. The vignettes interspersed throughout the letters paint a picture of social situations—fashion, miserliness, love, faithlessness, the pains of marriage, and death. They underline how broad a net Davys is casting. That she asserts a female Whig as the voice of reason and stability suggests where she thinks the answers to society's ills may lie.

Davys sets up a relationship between a man, Artander, who is both Tory and mildly misogynistic, and a woman, Berina, who is a Whig and reluctant to accept the restrictions of the past, both for women and for subjects of the crown. It is significant, however, that the conduct advice she rejects is from what she calls “one of those modern Creatures call'd a Prude … being the oldest Lady in the room” (94).10 Her reason for rejecting the injunction to cease writing to Artander is not that she feels that women should no longer be restricted in their correspondence. Rather, she rejects the “modern” and prudish idea that all relationships between men and women are sexual and makes a more ancient claim for her ties with Artander, that of friendship. She bases her decision to go on writing within the ancient and classical locus of the demands of friendship: “A Friend is not worth calling so, who dares not run the risque of so trifling a Censure, to maintain so noble a Character.”11 After a brief reference to Artander's letter, in which he describes a woman taken to task by her husband-to-be, she goes on to what will be one of the central concerns of the letters, the Tory/Whig argument, in which each tries to convert the other.

Politics and religion share the same close relationship in this text as they did in eighteenth-century England. Davy's connection with the clergy is a part of her writing persona and demands that she support the established church. Stefanson mentions that she does not seem to be particularly religious and that she makes fun of the pious. But the pious she makes fun of, particularly the woman in The Merry Wanderer, are dissenters, and she upholds the centrality of the Book of Common Prayer, as her use of November 5 makes very clear. By announcing the birth of the prince on November 5, instead of closer to the actual birth, Davys chose to link the continuity of the Hanoverian succession with two other significant events in English history, both of which confirmed in the minds of the British people that the maintenance of a Protestant monarchy was under providential control. On 5 November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot, more commonly known to us as Guy Fawkes Day, was uncovered; in 1688, William of Orange cannily arranged to land on English soil on the same day. The Gunpowder Plot had been a day of required observance in the church since 1605; after 1688, the commemoration of the Glorious Revolution was added to the service. Thus the choice of the day is deliberate, as is no doubt the day on which the correspondence begins, November 1, All Saints' Day, on which the church recognizes its unity through the ages in the community of those who have gone before.

Berina's support of the Whigs throughout the encounter, which she also describes as providential (“heaven had designed me for what I am” [97]) is a repetition of anti-Catholic and anti-Jacobite rhetoric as it was expressed in the public press and in the sermons of the day. All the parish congregations as well as the Houses of Parliament convened to commemorate the Gunpowder Plot, according to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, and to hear a sermon that rehearsed much of what Berina asserts in her letter of November 10. The catalogue of Catholic atrocities, including Mary Tudor's persecution of the Protestants and the Irish Rebellion, was standard fare, aired in pulpits all over the country. Artander's responses—his defense and hagiography of King Charles and his repudiation of Cromwell's people, whom he calls “King Killers”—are equally those of the Tory supporters of the Stuart monarchy and divine right.

Davys, stalwart Whig and Hanoverian as she has demonstrated herself to be in her dedication to The Northern Heiress, deliberately presents the Tory as inconsistent, changeable and untrustworthy. For example, Artander offers to subvert the Church's construction of marriage, in which the woman promises to obey her husband: “you shall find I will out-do your own Wishes, by giving myself up so entirely to your will, that your least Inclination shall be a Command” (117). Just as he goes against their pact and speaks to Berina of love, linking it with friendship in a way that she has previously rejected as prudish and modern, so he cannot be depended upon to follow through on his principles and match the absolute monarch on the throne with one in the family. Having used the Bible to support his Tory argument (99), he proposes to subvert scripture in order to win Berina's hand. Finally, he displays his cowardice: rather than reject a marriage proposal outright, he invents a mortal illness to explain his inability to accept it.

Davys is satirizing the political argument by diminishing it to the level of a quarrel between lovers; but she is quite serious in the description of marriage that she gives Berina to articulate:

… the Promise you make of inverting the God of Nature's Rules, and being all Obedience, is no Inducement to me to become a Wife: I shou'd despise a Husband as much as a King who wou'd give up his own Prerogative, or unman himself to make his Wife the Head: We Women are too weak to be trusted with Power, and don't know how to manage it without the Assistance of your Sex, tho' we oftenest shew that Weakness in the Choice of our Advisers. The notion I have always had of Happiness in Marriage, is, where Love causes Obedience on one side, and Compliance on the other, with a View to the Duty incumbent on both: If anything can sweeten the bitter Cup, ‘tis that.


There is nothing ironic in Berina's tone; what she says is consistent with her support of the King, who was also head of the church. Like her anti-Jacobite rhetoric, it reflects the Church of England view. She sees marriage as a mutual contract between husband and wife, much like the contract worked out between king and people: “When we swear Allegiance to a King, 'tis conditional; as long as he keeps his Oath, we'll keep ours. When God Almighty commanded our Obedience, he commanded his Care and Love” (100). The same Book of Common Prayer that mandated the commemoration of November Fifth and obedience in marriage also required that the King be prayed for at every service. Thus Berina's rejection of marriage because it too much resembles slavery is not representative of her rejection of women's obedience in marriage. On the contrary, she accepts the terms of the contract, but chooses not to enter into it herself, and therefore cannot accept marriage with Artander or anyone else. In doing so, she, unlike Artander, remains firm in the principles she espouses at the beginning: “I hate a Yoke that galls for life” (96). She is linked in her views of marriage with early feminists like Mary Astell, although given Astell's high Tory sentiments, it is unlikely that they would have much else in common. It should be remembered that Davys did not remarry, and instead chose to live thirty-four years a widow. Therefore it is probably significant that she places the words of the rational, clear-eyed Whig in the mouth of a woman, and one who fears love because she equates it with blindness and loss of control. The extent to which the satires of politics, gender, and belief, are intertwined in this novel is clear from the dynamics of the correspondence, for Berina is no more able to refrain from talking about politics and current events than Artander is from speaking of love. It is a reversal of gender roles; it also implies that the Whig/woman is more serious-minded than the Tory/man.

Day believes that Berina's laughter at Artander “grows fainter as the correspondence ends” and that “the reader is left to assume that a marriage will take place” (188). But does the reader assume any such thing? Certainly one eighteenth-century reader did so and wrote a couplet on the subject,12 but that very couplet invokes the god of love who, represented as a blind and blinding boy, is very much a presence in the novel. Artander and the reader beware: we may be misreading the heroine. Many of my students assume that when Artander arrives in town, Berina will welcome him as more than friend, but there are dissenting voices. One student thought that Berina would set him straight and send him away; another thought that she would probably marry him, but it would be, in the student's own words, “a complete waste.” Given the necessity for obedience and the expected role of the wife in the eighteenth century, the student saw Berina's brilliance snuffed out by marriage. She had not read The Reform'd Coquet, but she seemed to intuit Amoranda's silencing.

Davys's pattern of allusion is particularly strong in this short work; she draws in all the sites of reference that she invokes in the longer works. The density of allusion also marks it as somehow different from the other novels, and helps us to see her strategy. It is probably no coincidence that among the writers to whom she refers most often are Swift, Congreve, and Farqhuar, all of whom went to Trinity College, Dublin, the first two at exactly the same time as her husband. In addition she refers to Cowley, whom Ruth Perry describes as a favorite among the women of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, although Davys is more drawn to his love poems than to the celebrations of retired life; retirement was not something she was ever able to enjoy.13 The many classical references announce Davys's claim to be an Augustan wit, although her status and gender denied her a classical education. Two Scriblerians, Pope and Gay, subscribed to her work, and in The Accomplish'd Rake, the Belinda story is a deliberate revisioning of Pope's Rape of the Lock. Cervantes' hero Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza also appear; they were favorites among the wits of the day, particularly the Scriblerians to whom Swift belonged. It is as if, isolated both socially and geographically (after 1718) from the intellectual center, she is nonetheless attempting to write herself into it, creating in her work an association that mimics the connections of friendship and writing between the members of the Scriblerus group, to which she could never in actuality belong.14


Like The Reform'd Coquet, the story of Sir John Galliard is one of transformation and education. Here again Davys carefully sets up the protagonist to be a prime candidate for reform. His father dies when he is young, leaving him, like Amoranda, without a strong moral force in the family. While Amoranda's mother is physically weak and dies, leaving her orphaned, Sir John's mother, Lady Galliard, fails him morally. The psychological preparation is very astute in a pre-Freudian age, for Sir John's antipathy towards women, the vice that especially requires reform, begins with sexual betrayal by his mother when he finds her in bed with his footman. At that point he leaves the house in disgust, rejects Cambridge and the groves of academe, and instead takes the high road to London. Given the eighteenth-century pastoral/urban dichotomy, one might say he chooses to go to hell on his own terms. When at the end of the book he returns home, his mother reveals her complicity in his actions by quoting Cowley's “The Welcome.” Superficially the poem seems entirely appropriate for welcoming home one's long-lost son, with its prodigal son imagery, but it is in fact the speaker's welcome to his own heart. She admits, through the poet's voice, that her own actions have initiated and participated in the progress of this particular rake.

Once in London, he falls into all the well-known vices: gambling, whoring, dandyism, falling into bad company, and spending his inheritance on luxuries before he gets it, so that he is obliged to go into debt. Particularly he attacks women, even the daughter of Mr. Friendly, his surrogate father and the man who cares most for him in the world. Attractive women are there for him to take, to seduce, to enjoy and to discard, regardless of their social status. He suffers all the usual ills of a man in his situation: he is sick, hungover, infected with venereal disease, cheated and in debt. Eventually he goes too far and rapes Mr. Friendly's daughter. From then on, even he is able to see how everything he does blows up in his face (sometimes literally) and he is forced to go home and face the consequences.

The novel repeats many of the techniques of The Reform'd Coquet. Here as well, letters play a significant role in furthering the plot. Of particular note are the double-talking letter from a jealous husband that lures Sir John into a trap (214) and his mother's deceptively breezy note from home which reveals to him that Nancy Friendly has given birth to a child who looks suspiciously like himself (212-13). Davys also uses the breeches role in a similar manner as before, to mark transgressive behavior; the “little gentleman” called Venture-all dresses as a man to solicit Galliard's attention, something she could not do as a woman. Yet while Venture-all appears to accomplish her goal of producing a child for her husband, her approach is transgressive in Davys's world and is not rewarded. She is not able to convince Galliard to impregnate her until she takes off her mask, and he complies only because she is beautiful; the resulting child is a girl, not the son and heir she had hoped for. When she proposes marriage, again assuming the male prerogative with male dress, he refuses her. Catherine Craft-Fairchild, in Masquerade and Gender, includes Davys in her consideration of the “Darker Side of Masquerade”: while female cross-dressing results in empowerment, it also “seems to be a cautionary tale warning women against the dangers of female desire.”15 For her actions nonetheless confirm the roles that society dictates: “If transvestism is a woman's effort to ‘move up the patriarchal hierarchy,’ such a move only confirms the terms of that hierarchy and privileges ‘man’ at the expense of ‘woman’” (45).

Among the several seduction plots, the rape of Nancy is a critical point in the reformation of Sir John, since from then on he is beset by misadventure, experiences qualms of conscience, and is eventually led to offer marriage to her. Nancy's experience is thus more important than the seduction stories in The Reform'd Coquet, which are designed as a cautionary tales for the heroine. The tone is significantly different from the story of Altermira and Lord Lofty—the rape is more violent, the girl more vocal, and there is no question of her ultimate happiness being fulfilled; as she says, not even marriage will restore her good name entirely, for “the good natured World knows my Fault, and it will be sure to keep it in continual Remembrance” (225). But as in the case of Altermira and Lofty, we may be compelled to question Sir John's fitness as a husband, since nothing in his previous behavior has led us to expect him to be faithful. Indeed, he hastens the marriage lest he lose his nerve, and the author admits that she has set spies upon him to make sure that he behaves. Nonetheless, the story has been resolved in the time-honored way; Sir John has returned home, faced his duties, and been granted an heir to boot.

The parallels with Clarissa are obvious and illustrate the way in which Richardson's novel builds upon and transforms the amatory fiction which preceded it; Davys is just as surely a forerunner of Richardson as she is of Fielding. We have a virtuous woman betrayed, raped while drugged, her life apparently ruined, and her family distraught.16 As in Clarissa, this action becomes the turning point in the central male character's life, after which nothing is the same. The differences between the two lie in Clarissa's recognition of the essentially tragic nature of her situation. She refuses to marry Lovelace, although her family and Anna Howe want her to; and instead of pregnancy, a child, and redemption for both by marriage, she and Lovelace die, in very different ways that reflect their roles in the story. Like Clarissa's, Nancy's mind becomes disordered by the event—she says that “Peace is become such a Stranger that if it were to make me a Visit I should look surprised and cry I know you not” (224). Even when she is recovered she does not want to see or meet with other people. Her concern with whether or not her door had been locked on the night of the rape anticipates Clarissa's language, and her revelation of what has happened to her is linked to the unlocked door: “Perhaps (replied the poor Lady in Tears) they broke it open when they could not awake us; but be it how it will, I fear I am ruined past Redemption” (169). Twenty years later when Clarissa describes her own catastrophe, the room is transformed into her own body: “when all my doors are fast, and nothing but the keyhole open, and the key of late put into that, to be where you are, in a manner without opening any of them.”17 Davys's world is still a comic one, however, although in Nancy's pathetic cry that “No one has done this,” there is a growing recognition of the potential for tragedy.

The character of Belinda is also crucial to Sir John's reform, because she presents him with the salutary experience of a smart, attractive and articulate woman who does not find him irresistible. Of all the women he meets, she is most his equal. Her name is significant, for she clearly represents a reference to, and a reversal of, Pope's character in The Rape of the Lock. It is only after the reference to ombre, the game that proves fatal to Belinda's hair in Pope's mock epic, that the narrator rather disingenuously gives her character a name, “the common name of Belinda.” However common a name it may be (and it stands out among the other characters” names—Jenny, Nancy, Dolly, Sarah, Betty, Margaret) there is only one other Belinda connected in contemporary minds with a game of ombre. Miss Wary, like Ariel and Pope's Clarissa, attempts to warn Belinda against this particular man, if not against men in general. Having established the connection, however, Davys reworks the entire encounter.

Like her predecessor, Belinda is beautiful, vivacious and involved in London society; unlike her, she is not superficial. Even when Sir John manages to get her alone in a coach on a deserted road, he is not able to carry out in actuality what the Baron does metaphorically—Belinda does not lose a lock of her hair or anything else. What is more, she has paid some attention to Miss Wary: “But how resolved so ever Belinda was to reject Miss Wary's Counsel, it put her upon her Guard, and she kept a constant Centry at the Door of her Virtue” (188). The celestial powers of Davys's world do not desert a lady when they see the image of a man in her heart. The greatest change, however, is in her articulate use of rhetoric: where Sir John expects a wrestling match, he gets a debate, and one the lady wins, as she could not have won the physical encounter. She does so by suggesting, in her anger and not realizing how close to the bone she is cutting, that his mother is less than virtuous and that he is a footman's bastard, since he is not behaving in a way that indicates nobility. Sir John is vanquished; he was “never so stung in his life before” (193). The encounter has the extraordinary and unique effect of changing his feeling for her; it “is now turn'd to Esteem and Respect, which shall for the future regulate all my actions towards you … I am ashamed of what I have done, and, which is more, you are the first woman who has ever made me so” (194). She is also the first woman with whom he has a relationship that is neither sexual nor predatory; her influence prepares him for the remorse and sense of responsibility which will result in his returning home to acknowledge his son and marry Nancy. Nancy, too, wins him by the force of her rhetoric.

While it is always dangerous to speculate on personal parallels, this novel contains several distinct instances that suggest that although Davys did not put her name on the title page or at the end of the dedication, she nonetheless left her mark in the text. I have already mentioned her reference to Cambridge and the use of the name John, which is given to the hero, as well as to his Cambridge-educated father, Mr. Friendly, the surrogate father, and the “Little Mackroon,” the child whose presence in part effects the reform of Sir John's character. Teachwell, the man of “worth and learning,” clergyman, scholar, and teacher, who dies tragically young, is surely a tribute to Peter Davys, who was all those things. He is of “sober mild Behaviour, affable to all, but very industrious to bring his new Charge to a Sence of those Rudiments which Neglect had made him a Stranger to” (133-34). This novel also contains most of the few instances in which Davys discusses children in an emotional way. Venture-all's brief note to Belinda announcing the illness of her daughter, “whose Life is hers” (187) is full of pathos: “MY trembling Hand is now imployed to tell you, my dear Child is extremely ill, and you well know I share the Malady, fly to see it while alive and help to comfort a distracted Sister. P.S. Dear Bell make hast” (186). Sir John's reaction to the first sight of his own son is also notable, for it cracks his supposedly disinterested façade before he overtly accepts the boy as his own: “Sir John at Nature's Call, ran to meet it, took it to his Bosom and embraced it with a Father's Love” (224). Perhaps at the end of her life, Davys was finally able to think of her daughters without pain; in this work, we see her tribute to all she has lost.


  1. It is the first book Turner identifies as being published in such a way in her “Catalogue of women's fiction published in book form 1696-1796,” although Robert Adams Day notes one earlier example, that of Letters from a Lady of Quality to a Chevalier, by Eliza Haywood, published in 1721 with 309 subscribers. Turner, 152-211; Robert Adams Day, Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction Before Richardson (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966), 73-74.

  2. The Northern Heiress: or, the Humours of York (London, 1716), 6.

  3. See Susan Staves, “Fielding and the Comedy of Attempted Rape,” History, Gender and Eighteenth Century Literature, ed. Beth Fowkes Tobin (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1994), 86-112.

  4. See John Harold Wilson, All the King's Ladies: Actresses of the Restoration (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press), 73, for the comic uses of the stage dame.

  5. Ragnhild Hatton, George I: Elector and King (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), 132, 168.

  6. Stefanson thinks that Davys is attempting to win the support of George II, but the compliments are obviously aimed at George I who was still very much alive, both in the teens when the book was written and in 1725 when it was published.

  7. Told in Letters, 177. The other four are The Perfidious P (1702), Lindamira (1702), and Olinda's Adventures (1693 and later).

  8. Ruth Perry, Women, Letters, and the Novel. AMS Studies in the Eighteenth Century, no. 4. (New York: AMS Press, 1980), 123.

  9. In Cutting Edges: Postmodern Critical Essays on Eighteenth-Century Satire, ed. James E. Gill. Tennessee Studies in Literature, vol. 37 (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press. 1995), 206-21.

  10. Pope's poem “Answer to the following question of Mrs Howe: WHAT is PRUDERY?” suggests that rejecting a prude's advice is not necessarily a radical subversion of societal norms. The prude is described as “Old and void of all good-nature; / Lean and fretful; would seem wise,” and thus located in a group generally marginalized by society—the old and unattractive single women. Alexander Pope, Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Davis (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966, 1967), 638, lines 6-7.

  11. Davys enters an ongoing controversy as to whether or not women were capable of friendship. That Richardson should put disparaging comments about female friendship into the mouth of Lovelace is not surprising; but Clarissa's cousin Morden, a much more positive character, expresses similar convictions (see my article, “Composing Herself: Music, Solitude, and St. Cecilia in Clarissa,” in 1650-1850: Ideas, Aesthetics, and Inquiries in the Early Modern Era, vol. 2, ed. Kevin L. Cope [New York: AMS Press, 1995], 185-201).

  12. See below, p 242 n. 66.

  13. Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), 126-27.

  14. See Patricia Carr Brückmann, A Manner of Correspondence: A Study of the Scriblerus Club (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's Univ. Press, 1997) for a description of the way the relationship among the Scriblerians manifests itself in a pattern of shared allusion.

  15. Catherine Craft-Fairchild, Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in Eighteenth-Century Fictions by Women (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1993), 35.

  16. See Susan Staves, “British Seduced Maidens,” Eighteenth Century Studies 14 (1980-81): 109-34, for a discussion of the way in which the seduction of a daughter affects the whole family; Mr. Friendly's decline exactly fits the pattern.

  17. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady, 4 vols. (London and New York: Dent, Dutton, 1932, 1962), 3:210-11.

Ian Watt (essay date 1956)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3166

SOURCE: “Shamela,” in Fielding: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Ronald Paulson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 45-51.

[In the following essay, which first appeared in slightly different form in 1956, Watts claims that Henry Fielding's intention in Shamela, a satire on Samuel Richardson's Pamela, is to attack religious ideas of virtue and to undermine Richardson's interpretation of his heroine's character. Watts argues further that this latter purpose gives the novel its basic narrative form, as it begins and ends with letters exchanged between two parsons about Richardson's novel.]

Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded was published on November 6th, 1740. It immediately became the sensation of the literary season, and a swarm of attacks, parodies, and spurious continuations soon appeared to sour Richardson's remarkable and unexpected triumph; of these the first and easily the best was the eighteen-penny pamphlet An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, published on April 4th, 1741, under the name of Mr. Conny Keyber.

That Fielding was the author is indisputable. Horace Walpole and several other contemporaries privately recorded it as his in terms that do not suggest that there was any doubt about the matter; and in the last fifty years or so the labors of Austin Dobson, Wilbur Cross, Alan D. McKillop, Charles B. Woods,1 and many others, have strengthened the attribution with a great deal of internal and external evidence. There is always an element of uncertainty about the authorship of any work that was published pseudonymously, remained unacknowledged by its author, and was not publicly attributed to him in his lifetime.2 In the case of Shamela, however, these things are natural enough: Fielding was soon to become prominent as a novelist, journalist, and reforming magistrate, and was naturally unwilling to avow so indecent a work, especially once he knew, which he apparently did not when he wrote Shamela, that Pamela had actually been written by Richardson, whose Clarissa he was later to admire, and who was, moreover, a friend of his sister Sarah's; as for the public, it was not likely to be very interested in the authorship of a minor squib which, after the three editions of 1741, was not reprinted until 1926.

One might have expected that the question would have been settled in 1804, when Mrs. Barbauld published her edition of Richardson's correspondence; for it made public a letter to Lady Bradshaigh naming Fielding as the author.3 Nevertheless, the issue was avoided for nearly a century more, a fact which can perhaps best be explained as the result of the misplaced zeal of nineteenth century editors and scholars for Fielding's reputation or our morals, both matters, of course, which might more properly have been assumed to be no less invulnerable than Pamela's virtue.


Shamela, then, is Fielding's, and it is therefore his first prose fiction. The tale itself is accessible enough: the only facts it requires of its reader are those of life. Nor is the main range of satiric allusion much more recondite: it demands only a nodding acquaintance with Pamela, such as college easily supplies. The book opens and closes, however, with a series of secondary allusions which may call for some explanation. Any readers of the title page, for example, who do not have the works of Cibber and Middleton at their fingertips, may well wonder who is Mr. Conny Keyber?

Colley Cibber, actor, dramatist and Poet Laureate since 1730, was a very old enemy and butt of Fielding. His Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, Written by Himself, had been one of the best sellers of 1740; the title of Shamela is closely modeled on it, and there is, further, some similarity between Cibber's air of ingenuous self-satisfaction and the innocent self-revelation of Fielding's heroine. Here, however, the connection stops; and it is probable that Fielding used Cibber's name for his parody mainly because it would add to its topicality, and to the further discredit of a celebrity whom everyone would recognize under the patent and already established sobriquet of “keyber.”

The “Conny” of “Conny Keyber” is a conflation of “Colley” and “Conyers,” with the added appropriate suggestions of “coney,” a dupe, and possibly of “cunny,” latin “cunnus.” Conyers was the given name of Dr. Middleton, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, whom grateful colleagues had made “Principal Library-Keeper” of the University as some compensation for his vigorous, unsuccessful, and ruinously expensive attacks on the Master of his college, the redoubtable Dr. Bentley. Middleton had published a Life of Cicero early in 1741, and we know from Joseph Andrews4 that Fielding had little regard for the work itself; but what drew his fire in Shamela was the adulatory inanity of Middleton's “Epistle Dedicatory” to his patron, John, Lord Hervey. This courtier and poetaster, Pope's Sporus, was the Lord Privy Seal of Walpole's crumbling administration; and his effeminacy, which had already excited a good deal of satiric comment, explains the terms of Fielding's dedicatory letter “To Miss Fanny, &c.”—an appellation Pope had already established. The letter is actually a very close parody of Middleton's effusion; compare, for instance, its third, sixth, and final paragraphs with these passages from Middleton:

I cannot forbear boasting, that some Parts of my present Work have been brightened by the Strokes of your Lordship's Pencil.

That singular Temperance in Diet, in which your Lordship perseveres …

It was Cicero who instructed me to write; your Lordship who rewards me for writing.

[First, then, Madam, I must tell the World, that you have tickled up and brightened many Strokes in this Work by your Pencil.

[Fourthly, You have a Virtue which enables you to rise early and study hard, and that is, forbearing to over-eat yourself, and this in spite of all the luscious Temptations of Puddings and Custards, exciting the Brute (as Dr. Woodward calls it) to rebel. This is a Virtue which I can greatly admire, though I much question whether I could imitate it.

[ … it was Euclid who taught me to write. It is you, Madam, who pay me for Writing.]

Middleton had also commended Hervey's habit of early rising, of “spending a useful day, before others begin to enjoy it,” and had recorded his own matutinal visits “when I have found you commonly engaged with the classical writers of Greece and Rome.” The vignette was irresistible, and in the fifth paragraph of his dedicatory letter Fielding delightedly developed the opening afforded by the ambiguity of “engaged” into the kind of sexual innuendo appropriate to Hervey's reputation. We must agree with the verdict of Thomas Dampier, later Dean of Durham, who writes in a private letter of 1741 that “the Dedication to Lord Hervey has been very justly and prettily ridiculed by Fielding in a Dedication to a Pamphlet called ‘Shamela’ which he wrote to burlesque … ‘Pamela,’ a Romance in low Life.”5

So much for the title page and dedicatory letter: the second of the “Letters to the Editor” introduces yet another polemic note. Unlike Fielding, Cibber and Middleton were both Administration supporters, and this was no doubt an added reason for Fielding's mockery: but the political issue is not specifically raised until John Puff's letter. There Fielding ironically suggests that the talents of the creator of Shamela might even be equal to no less a task than writing a biography of “his Honour”—Walpole, and follows this insult with an injurious explanation of that politician's notorious complaisance about his wife's infidelities. The political aspect of Shamela, however, is very minor, and we must pass on to the letters of the two parsons which serve as introduction and conclusion to the narrative itself if we are to get to grips with Fielding's main intentions and appreciate Shamela as—among other things—a topical literary, religious, and moral satire.

When Parson Oliver, who bears the name of Fielding's early tutor, speaks of “an epidemical Phrenzy now raging in Town” over Pamela, we are confronted with yet another example of the Augustan rearguard action against the swelling ranks of the Grub-Street Dunces. It was bad enough that Cibber should make 1500 pounds from his Apology and Middleton much more from his Cicero,6 especially when Fielding himself was in the literary and economic doldrums, the dramatic career ended, that of the novelist and magistrate not yet begun; but the simultaneous furor over Pamela must have looked like the most dangerous conspiracy of all against the Republic of Letters, since the clergy seemed to be the ringleaders.

Fielding probably had two things mainly in mind when he made Parson Oliver attack “the confederating to cry up a nonsensical ridiculous Book, (I believe the most extensively so of any ever yet published).” There was, first, Richardson's insertion of some thirty pages of laudatory letters in the second and subsequent editions of Pamela: puffing was ancient enough, but never had it been so copious and shameless, and Fielding could make his satirical point merely by culling the riper fatuities from the original—the passages in quotation marks in Tickletext's first letter are all, with one brief exception,7 cited verbatim from the prefatory matter to Pamela.8

The second, and much more important thing that Fielding had in mind in attacking “the confederating to cry up” Pamela was the unprecedented and enthusiastic collaboration of the clergy. Dr. Benjamin Slocock had even recommended it from the pulpit of St. Saviour's Church, Southwark, and, it was rumored, had received ten guineas for the favor. When Fielding, therefore, put the rubric “Necessary to be had in all Families” on the title page of Shamela, and made Tickletext compare the Whole Duty of Man unfavorably with Pamela, he was only going a little further than Richardson's clerical claque. Pope himself, incidentally, had been numbered in the chorus, and in the charming eulogy “The Editor to Himself” Fielding seems to be embroidering his no doubt intentionally ambiguous encomium that Pamela “would do more good than many volumes of sermons.”

One other religious aspect of Shamela perhaps calls for brief explanation. Shamela, we notice, is like her avatar in owning a little library of devotional as well as other reading; and she twice mentions A Short Account of God's Dealings with the Reverend Mr. George Whitefield. Whitefield had published this work in 1740 as a reply to an attack on Methodism and on him personally by Dr. Joseph Trapp in the previous year; and when Parson Williams takes as his text “Be Not Righteous Overmuch” he is following Trapp in his first sermon, which had provided the keynote for the subsequent polemics.9 Public interest in the rise of Methodism, then, supplied Fielding with yet another set of topical allusions: and it is also, no doubt, partly responsible for the expansion of the role of Parson Williams, who is a very minor figure in Richardson, but who in Shamela becomes a caricature of a canting and hypocritical enthusiast.

Fielding's religious target in Shamela, however, is certainly not the Methodists as such, but rather those of any persuasion who are governed by what in Joseph Andrews he called “the detestable doctrine of faith against good works.”10 This emphasis on the social and moral virtues is typical of Fielding; and it is the central idea in Shamela, since it brings together Fielding's two main polemic purposes—the attack on those who had puffed Pamela as a book likely to promote the cause of virtue and religion, and the attack on Richardson's interpretation of his heroine's character. The domain of faith is inward and subjective: those who profess it may be deceiving themselves, or they may intentionally be deceiving others; we cannot test their professions any more than we can test the oft-protested purity of Pamela's motives; but we have a right to be suspicious, and a duty both to warn those who are duped and to expose those who sham.


These dual intentions give Shamela its basic narrative strategy. Fielding very ingeniously outdid Richardson in his pretense that he was only the editor of authentic letters: for he provided two independent sets of correspondence. We begin with a discussion between two clergymen about Pamela; then, once the framework of moral and literary criticism has been built up, Oliver discovers the real letters which prove his view of the case; and when these have been given, the two parallel actions—the disabusing of Tickletext and the unmasking of Shamela—are brought together in the final letter where Tickletext acknowledges that he had grievously misunderstood the whole matter, before telling us in his last postscript that justice has at last overtaken Shamela and her paramour.

Fielding's retelling of the Pamela story for his own purposes keeps very close to the original incidents; but gives them a contrary psychological explanation. Shamela feigns virtue only because Booby's inexperience makes her see that instead of “making a little Fortune by my Person” she can easily make “a great one by my Vartue.” What changes Fielding makes are not without warrant in the original: Mr. B., for example, had noted Pamela's “lucky Knack of falling into Fits when she pleases”—it was easy enough to show that it was not luck but cunning; and even Shamela's intrigue with Parson Williams is licensed by Mr. B.'s suggestion that his interest had been amorous rather than pastoral.

This aspect of Shamela is obvious enough to any reader of Pamela, and has often been analyzed. But some other elements of the satire have perhaps met with less notice. Fielding parodies Richardson's manner as cruelly as his moral. He is particularly successful in hitting off the incongruity between Pamela's pretensions to literate gentility and the rusticity, not to say boorishness, of much of the dialogue: some of the badinage between Pamela and her “Angel” is not far removed from such a report on her master's courtship as the following from Shamela: “Says he … Hussy, Gipsie, Hypocrite, Saucebox, Boldface, get out of my Sight, get out of my Sight, or I will lend you such a Kick in the ——— I don't care to repeat the Word, but he meant my hinder part.” The juxtaposition of exalted sentiments and inconsequential domestic details, which was a characteristic Richardsonian innovation in making the narrative seem real, is also very nicely taken off by Fielding: “And so we talked of honourable Designs till Supper-time. And Mrs. Jewkes and I supped upon a hot buttered Apple-pie.” Excellent, too, is the hit at Richardson's use of present-tense narration in highly improbable circumstances: “Mrs. Jervis and I are just in Bed, and the Door unlocked; if my Master should come—Odsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present Tense, as Parson Williams says.”

In general, then, Fielding unerringly selects the most dubious aspects of Pamela, and drives home its crucial moral and psychological ambiguities. The eighteenth century was a great age of burlesque; there is much to be said for the view that the best of Fielding's previous works had been burlesques such as The Tragedy of Tragedies and The Grub-Street Opera; and Shamela may be seen as the happy fruit of Fielding's own long experience in the genre.

But of course Shamela also looks forward. Like Hemingway's Torrents of Spring, it goes far beyond its original intention as parody, and takes on a life of its own. Not only so: Fielding, again like Hemingway, is ridiculing someone from whom he has learned much, more, perhaps, than he knows: for there is substantial truth in Richardson's assertion that “Pamela, which [Fielding] abused in his Shamela, taught him how to write to please. … Before his Joseph Andrews (hints and names taken from that story, with a lewd and ungenerous engraftment) the poor man wrote without being read. …”11

Shamela, of course, is not a faultless performance. Some of the details show signs of its hasty composition—there is some confusion, for example, about the extent of Mrs. Jewkes's complicity in Shamela's designs. It may also be questioned whether Shamela's very conscious hypocrisy about sexual matters is in harmony with the apparently unconscious nature of her religious hypocrisy; and there is perhaps an analogous contradiction between Tickletext's main role as a foolish dupe, and his conscious and unashamed revelation to Oliver of the aphrodisiacal effects of reading Pamela. At other times Fielding's love of the facetious tends to interfere with his main intention; and it is difficult to reconcile his many scabrous innuendoes with the serious didactic purpose he puts into the mouth of Parson Oliver.

Shamela, then, has many diverse elements: in matter, both coffee-house polemic and timeless satire on human folly; in manner, both precise stylistic parody and uproarious burlesque. This diversity naturally puzzles the literary historian, who is called on to place a work that is both a footnote to the Dunciad and a prologue to Tom Jones; while the critic, recognizing much of the brilliant invention, the lively narrative pace, the human insight, and the fortifying gusto found in Fielding's novels, may well have difficulty in determining how successfully the varied aims and methods of Shamela have been combined. There is a further difficulty: the ultimate criteria by which so bawdy a work can properly be judged have not, to my knowledge, been satisfactorily established. Grave moral reservations are doubtless mandatory. But perhaps I should leave them to my betters, and end instead by revealing that, if perfect honesty in these matters were to be made possible by some guarantee of academic immunity, I could find one reader of Shamela at least willing to testify that—to use a metaphor dear to Fielding—this salty hors d'oeuvre is more to his taste than some of the more imposing dishes on the Pierian buffet.


  1. Whose excellent article, “The Authorship of Shamela,PQ, XXV (1946), 248-272, gives full references to previous work on the subject.

  2. With one exception: the catalogue of books and copyrights offered at the bankruptcy sale of the bookseller Francis Cogan, July 10th, 1746, shows that his half interest in “Shamela, by Fielding” was sold to Andrew Millar (Alan D. McKillop, Samuel Richardson: Printer and Novelist [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1936], p. 74).

  3. Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, IV, 286; probably written late in 1749.

  4. Bk. III, chap. vi.

  5. McKillop, op. cit., p. 73.

  6. Richard H. Barker, Mr. Cibber of Drury Lane (“Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature,” No. 143 [New York: Columbia University Press, 1939]), p. 194; Conyers Middleton, Miscellaneous Works, 1755, I, 397.

  7. On p. 3, l. 21, “innocent story” is changed into “&c”; cf. Romeo and Juliet, Act II, scene I, line 38. The “dear Monysyllable” toasted on p. 30, l. 29, is glossed in Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. [References are to the text of Mr. Watt's edition, which is a facsimile of the second edition of November 3, 1741. Ed.]

  8. The passages, which were actually written by Aaron Hill, can conveniently be compared in the Augustan Society's valuable reprint of the Introduction to Pamela (ed. Sheridan W. Baker, Jr., No. 48, 1954).

  9. See Sheridan W. Baker, Jr.'s Introduction to his edition of Shamela (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953), pp. xv-xx.

  10. Joseph Andrews, Bk. I, chap. xvii.

  11. See note 3.

David K. Jeffrey (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4504

SOURCE: “The Epistolary Format of Pamela and Humphry Clinker,” in A Provision of Human Nature: Essays on Fielding and Others in Honor of Miriam Austin Locke, edited by Donald Kay, The University of Alabama Press, 1977, pp. 145-54.

[In the following essay, Jeffrey compares Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker, and argues that by using letters, the heroines of the two novels are able to create their own portraits of themselves and construct stable, artistic versions of reality that are less painful than their real lives.]

Samuel Richardson would doubtless disapprove the mating of his first heroine with Smollett's last protagonist, but they are not, in some ways, such a strange pair. Pamela in 1740 is the heroine of the first great epistolary novel, while Humphry in 1771 is the titular hero of the last. Both begin as servants, both moralize throughout their novels, and both find themselves elevated socially at each novel's conclusion—Pamela by marriage to her former master and would-be seducer, Squire B.; Humphry by being legitimated. On the other hand, Pamela's initially violent reactions each time B. lays heavy, ineffectual hands upon her contrasts with Humphry's crude, initial (dare I say) appearance, his bare posterior inadvertently exposed. Literacy separates the two even further; Pamela writes two hefty volumes about her trials and triumphs, while Humphry pens not a word, leaving that three-volume task to members of the group he serves.

Although contemplation of this pairing amuses, the parallels are clearer between Pamela and Lydia Melford (a member of the group Humphry serves), especially in regard to their writing and the meaning of the epistolary format. Lydia is in fact one of Pamela's many daughters.1 In character, both are young and fair, delicate and virginal creatures, much given to faints. Smollett does invert Richardson's plot, however, for the upper-class Lydia loves a man believed beneath her socially—an actor—although he too is legitimated at the novel's denouement. Lydia is not as prolific a writer as Pamela; few characters are. Lydia writes only eleven of the eighty-two letters in Humphry Clinker; her uncle, Matt Bramble, and her brother, Jery, write over two-thirds of the novel, while her aunt, Tabitha, writes six letters and Tabitha's maid-servant, Win Jenkins, “pursues her anal fixation”2 through ten hilarious missives. Pamela writes all but four of the thirty-two letters and the entire one and one-half volume journal that constitute her novel.

Why anyone would want to fill two or three volumes with fictional letters puzzles the modern reader. Certainly, the other forms available to Richardson—the romance, the picaresque, the pseudomemoir—seem either far less technically crude or far faster paced. Why then settle on an epistolary format? The answer is not only that letter writing was the habit of Richardson's lifetime but that, as he explains in the Preface to Clarissa, the epistolary format has advantages the other forms lack: “Letters … written while the hearts of the writers must be supposed to be wholly engaged in their subjects … abound not only with critical situations, but with what may be called instantaneous Descriptions and Reflections. …” “Much more lively and affecting,” he continues, quoting one of his characters, “must be the Style of those who write in the height of a present distress; the mind tortured by the pangs of uncertainty … than the dry, narrative, unanimated Style of a person relating difficulties and dangers surmounted, can be; the relater perfectly at ease; and if himself unmoved by his own Story, not likely greatly to affect the Reader.”3 In the Preface to Pamela Richardson hints at this same view, calling the format “probable,” “natural,” “lively,” and “mov[ing].”4 There is in Smollett no similar biographical predilection for the format, but, perhaps, he settles on it at last for the reasons Richardson states. Certainly, Smollett's four earlier novels are less successful than Humphry Clinker precisely because of the disparity between lively and affecting events and the dispassionate or ironic narrator who comments on them.5 But the epistolary format, as Richardson suggests in the prefaces, resolves such disparities by locating its writer somewhere between stream of consciousness and emotion recollected in tranquillity, thus providing at once a temporal closeness to the raw experience of reality and a consciousness which reacts to that reality.

As a consequence of this positioning, the writer of letters is both isolated and unreliable. In the act of writing, he separates himself from the present and cannot fully experience it; he can recreate only the past. Because the past he recounts precedes so immediately his recording of it and because that past so movingly affects him, his record of it cannot be wholly accurate.


Richardson pictures his heroine at odds with both familial and social units, and her isolation from such units the epistolary format effectively mirrors. Pamela's emotional isolation from her family is suggested by her parents' response to her first letter. Although Pamela's letter contains not the slightest indication that B. has other than an honorable interest in her or that Pamela feels anything other than gratitude to him for such interest, her parents respond to it by expressing fear that their fifteen-year-old daughter will act in a “dishonest or wicked” way; “we fear,” they write, “—you should be too grateful—and reward him with that Jewel, your Virtue, which no Riches, nor Favour, nor any thing in this Life, can make up to you” (p. 27). As a result of this extraordinary injunction, Pamela tries for most of the first volume to repress her attraction to B. Only after B.'s open admission of love for her does Pamela give way to the emotions of her own heart; only after her marriage and midway into the second volume can she write guiltlessly of her love, no longer fearful of her parents' reactions.6 Pamela's first letter also calls attention to her uneasy social position; through the good offices of Lady B., the squire's mother, Pamela has achieved “Qualifications above [her] Degree” (p.25), so that finding another suitable job would be difficult. But, if she is a little more than servant, she is less than B.'s kind, and she strives throughout most of the novel's first volume to escape both him and the concurrent moral and social dilemma his pursuit of her raises. Even after their marriage, she must attempt to make herself acceptable to those of B.'s class who either view her as a curiosity or openly scorn her. Not until she establishes a secure place in his social class does she lay down her pen.7 Pamela's isolation is also suggested geographically. In the first volume she is abducted from Bedfordshire (where friendly fellow servants aid and comfort her) to Lincolnshire (a wilderness in which, friendless, she endures temptations for some forty days and nights), and her switch from the letter format in Bedfordshire to the journal format in Lincolnshire mirrors her developing isolation, an isolation that works in Pamela's favor, for it forces her to make her own decisions rather than to act as her parents enjoin her. Near the end of the novel, she returns triumphantly to Bedfordshire and stops writing in order to “apply [her]self to the Duties of the Family” (p. 387). She has established her place, both as daughter and wife, within familial and social units.

Smollett's writers face similar difficulties—as they begin their journey from Wales through England and Scotland, they are isolated not only, as a group, from societies new to them but also, as individuals, from each other.8 Jery struggles to dominate his sister, Lydia, and views his uncle and aunt as “a family of originals” (p. 8). Matt's constipation comically reflects his emotional isolation; his bowels are as constricted as his heart. He even requests his correspondent to “lock up all my drawers, and keep the keys” (p. 6). Jery's isolation from Lydia is more literal. After some years of separation, he has “found her a fine, tall girl of seventeen … but remarkably simple, and quite ignorant of the world” (p. 8). In his first letter he parades his duty to the family and to her, such duty consisting, he believes, in stifl[ing her] correspondence” with the man she loves, Wilson the actor. Lydia delineates this injunction in two paired letters—the first to her school mistress, whom she thinks of as a surrogate mother (p. 9), the second to a schoolmate, Letty. As a result of that injunction, she has “promised to break off all correspondence” with Wilson “and, if possible,” she adds to Letty, “to forget him: but, alas! I begin to perceive that will not be in my power” (p. 10). This injunction figures importantly in the overall structure of the novel, for the novel will not end until all its letter writers achieve harmony within a familial unit. Matt tames Tabitha during a quarrel near the end of the first volume; Matt and Jery become friendly in the second, finding common ground in their sympathy for Martin, the rakish highwayman they encounter near the beginning of the volume,9 and in their mutual wonderment at Lismahago, the quixotic figure they encounter on the highway near that volume's end. They are not reconciled with Lydia until the last several pages of the volume, Matt when she calls him “father” in her hysterical relief that he has not drowned (p. 315), Jery soon after that, when, as Lydia phrases it, “the slighted Wilson is metamorphosed into George Dennison, only son and heir of a gentleman”—a gentleman who is also, too coincidentally, Matt's childhood friend (p. 336). The opening letters of the novel, then, introduce separate, because egocentric, consciousnesses, and the novel traces their developing union. As in Pamela, the geography of the novel suggests their progress. The characters journey through the urban centers of southern England (where their relationship is as constrained as Matt's bowels) to the north through Scotland (where Matt's pains ascend to his ear and where he and Jery both wax enthusiastic, but where Lydia sickens and writes nothing) to a midpoint between these geographical extremes, Dennison's rural estate, where Matt and Jery find new and even more compatible friends and where all three women—Lydia, Tabitha, and Win—fulfill themselves in marriage.

Thus to isolate a character calls attention to the existential dilemma in which he finds himself—or rather, in which she finds herself. For neither Richardson nor Smollett focuses much attention in these two novels on the existential choices of their heroes. Neither of Smollett's heroes are required to make such choices. Matt Bramble and his nephew, Jery Melford, record the mores of the places they visit but seldom mention their growing affection for each other. They do not, in any case, consciously choose to be affectionate. Squire B., on the other hand, is required to make some such choice, and critics have objected that Richardson has provided no other window into B.'s consciousness than Pamela's letters, which only record the reasons B. gives to her for his choice of her. Perhaps B.'s remarks about unequal marriages suggest reasons for the inequitable pressures only the heroines are forced to withstand. B. says, “A Man ennobles the Woman he takes, be she who she will; and adopts her into his own rank, be it what it will: But a Woman, tho' ever so noble born, debases herself by a mean Marriage, and descends from her own Rank, to his she stoops to” (p. 349). And he continues in this vein for six paragraphs. Here B. does not so much flaunt his own male chauvinism as he recognizes such chauvinism as the received social condition of his time. In such a society his roles are a given, defined by his birth into a particular class. Virtually nothing he could do would change this given, and thus his choices are essentially uninteresting and unimportant. A woman, however, is not socially defined. No matter her class, she can “debase herself” by “mean” behavior. Her place in society is thus more fluid and uneasy. Her choices are therefore vital, because she is self-defined.


A closer examination of the two heroines reveals important differences as well as similarities in the choices that affect their self-definition. Parental figures enjoin both girls at the very outset of the novels, and these injunctions force the heroines to affect roles, roles that are negative and potentially destructive; until they are free from these injunctions, the girls cannot act positively, as autonomous selves, for the injunctions involve them in what transactional analysts call “losing scripts.”10 Pamela's parents conclude the injunction of their first letter thus: “… we had rather see you all cover'd with Rags, and even follow you to the Church-yard, than have it said, a Child of Ours preferr'd worldly Conveniences to her Virtue” (p. 28). Here, as elsewhere, Pamela's parents equate dishonor and death; thus, when B. later tells her father that Pamela “is in a way to be happy,” her father replies, believing her defiled, “What! then is she dying?” (p. 248). Pamela accepts this equation for the first half of the novel, first threatening suicide (p. 126) and then nearly committing it (pp. 151-54) when she believes she cannot avoid dishonor. Her parents' script provides Pamela with only two roles, “Poor But Honest” and “The Ruined Maid.” The former she must embrace, the latter avoid at any cost, even death. Throughout most of the first volume, Pamela's behavior alternates between these two roles: she describes at length either her longing to escape from B. and her preparations for servitude at home (pp. 52, 60) or alternately, and rather warmly, her resistance to B.'s advances (pp. 64-68) and her near suicide. But the trials she undergoes while alone at Lincolnshire free her from her parents' script, and when B. releases her, admitting his love, she acts contrary to her parents' injunction. Her return to B. is an assertion of her own selfhood; she has realized her desires in a winner's role, that of Cinderella.

The consequences of Lydia's choices are less fully explored, although they are similar to Pamela's. Like Pamela, Lydia begins the novel with a loser's role, one assigned her by Jery, Matt, and Tabitha. Her correspondence with Wilson precipitates her brother's attempts to duel with him, and after the lovers are separated, as Matt writes, “the poor creature was so frightened and fluttered, by our threats and expostulations, that she fell sick the fourth day after our arrival at Clifton, and continued so ill for a whole week, that her life wa despaired of” (p. 14). Enjoining her against the role of “Ruined Maid,” they have instead scripted her as “Sleeping Beauty.” They believe time will erase Wilson from her memory and provide her with a mate of more suitable class. Lydia accepts this role, but she hopes that “time and the chapter of accidents, or rather … that Providence … will not fail, sooner or later, to reward those that walk in the paths of honour and virtue” (p. 11). Lydia has less appeal as a character than Pamela does because Lydia never rebels against her passive role. Instead, she accepts the pain that role causes her and faints and falls ill repeatedly. Happily for her, but unhappily for the novel, “accident” does convert her loser's role into a winner's. Her lover stumbles through the Brambles that surround her and is “metamorphosed”—from Wilson the Frog into The Prince of Dennison.

So, acceptance of their losing roles leads both girls to sickness and nearly to death. Thus Lydia languishes. And thus Pamela pitifully: “And now my dearest Father and Mother, expect to see soon your poor Daughter, with a humble and dutiful Mind, return'd to you: And don't fear but I know how to be happy with you as ever: For I will lie in the Loft, as I used to do; and pray let the little Bed be got ready … and fear not that I shall be a Burden to you, if My Health continues …” (p. 45). Still, one of the roles presented to the heroines has less appeal, because less potential, than the other, as Richardson has Pamela intuit. Pamela, of course, never does return to her parents. Life in a hovel is no life for her; “if my Health continues,” indeed. And Lydia's contrasting acceptance of the role chosen for her causes her many illnesses and also, intriguingly, the three-month cessation of correspondence with Letty, while Lydia journeys to and travels in Scotland, her farthest remove from Wilson. In short, acceptance of the role parental figures assign them can lead only to the stultification and stagnation of their personalities. On the other hand, flirtation with ruin—that is, with the role against which the parental figures enjoin them—provides both excitement and the greater potentiality. Pamela's flirtation with this latter role enables her to mature and, in fact, to define her own life, while Lydia's choice of the former role thwarts her maturation and, in some measure, her self-definition.

What does this mean? How do the heroines define themselves? They do so not by projecting their personalities onto an existential reality, but by projecting themselves onto paper.11 They are, after all, doubly isolated from reality. As they write, they isolate themselves temporally, and the two authors also isolate their heroines spatially. Only Lydia of Smollett's five writers seems to correspond covertly (pp. 27, 58, 134), and Pamela, of course, retires to her writing closet at every opportunity; she even busies herself with scribbling fifteen minutes before the hymeneal night's consummation devoutly to be wished (p. 295). Peculiarly separated from the realities of time and space, the heroines' letters contrast with reality and with the scripted roles, both of which threaten the heroines' destructions.

Just as the roles her parents script would destroy Pamela, so too, of course, would B. He does not at first think of Pamela as fully human; she exists for him simply as an object for his sexual pleasure. Nor does he respond to Pamela's threats, expostulations, faints, or prayers; nothing the girl does moves him. It is her journal, her “ready … Talent at [her] Pen” (p. 231), that destroys his “Resolution” (p. 213) to forget her and so “mov[es]” him (p. 208) that he proposes marriage. In her journal he discovers that what he had earlier thought “artful Wiles” (p. 160) and “little villainous Plots” (p. 161) either to escape or to ensnare him were in fact “pretty Tricks and Artifices, to escape the Snares [he] had laid for her, yet all … innocent, lovely, and uniformly beautiful” (p. 255). Similarly, B.'s sister, Lady Davers, is somewhat reconciled to Pamela by B., but the “Sight of your Papers,” she tells Pamela, “I dare say, will crown the Work, will disarm my Pride, banish my Resentment …, and justify my Brother's Conduct” (p. 375), will in fact “make me love you” (p. 374). Lydia's epistles do not serve quite so dramatic a purpose, but they do render her happier than either the role she accepts or her travels with her family. For in her letters she can openly admit the real “condition of [her] poor heart” (p. 93); indeed, only in her letters does she dare to mention Wilson, who figures prominently in them all. Thus, Lydia does not write only of the reality she has experienced during her travels or the torment and sickness caused by her role; she projects in her letters the reality for which she hopes. When these hopes seem to her most unlikely to be realized, the three-month hiatus in her correspondence occurs. Seemingly deprived of the reality she desires, she ceases to exist as a personality. Her epistolary death is the inverse of Pamela's proliferative epistolary life. Richardson has a good deal of fun with this idea of Pamela's papers having life. After catching a carp, for example, Pamela retires to her garden, there to “plant Life,” as she says (p. 120). What she plants, of course, is a letter to Parson Williams. Just prior to this episode, she conceals her entire packet of papers “in [her] Under-coat, next [her] Linen” “for they grow large!” (p. 120). Using the same phrase, Pamela calls attention to her epistolary pregnancy once more (p. 198.), just before B. jocularly threatens to strip her of the clothes that conceal her papers; she retires to her bedroom and complains that she “must all undress” before she can deliver the bundle (p. 204). This delivery, by the way, she “stomach[es] … very heavily” (p. 206).

In their letters, then, the heroines conceive of a life reality would abort, and each conceives of that life as an artist of his material. Each heroine distances herself from her own raw experience by writing letters, and each projects a more orderly version of that experience in her letters. For each girl, reality is painfully chaotic, and each can give it shape only in her letters. Each girl is rootless, tossed from Bedfordshire to Lincolnshire, around and back, carried throughout England and Scotland. Pamela's loss of and Lydia's need for a mother figure, which each mentions at the beginning of her first letter, stresses this rootlessness. Each heroine, therefore, projects a structure onto her disjointed experiences, and each is aware of doing so.

Pamela's inclusion in her letters of her poems and of her alteration of the 137th Psalm to fit her own circumstances calls attention to her conscious artistry, as does her constant worry about her little store of pen, paper, and ink—the utensils of her art. But she also calls attention to the artistry of her letters, which she writes as a “Diversion” from her troubles (p. 106). From the outset she compares herself and B. to various characters in books she has read—romances (p. 49), the Bible (p. 180), and Aesop's Fables (pp. 77, 162). Pamela writes also of the “Inditing” of letters (p. 37), of the “Scene[s]” in them (p. 155), of the “Part[s]” (p. 173) played by the other “Character[s]” (p. 181), of her own “Part” (p. 225), and of her style or “Language” (p. 257). She even suggests that her “Story surely would furnish out a surprizing kind of Novel, if it was to be well told” (pp. 212-13). B., at least, believes it; after reading part of her journal, he pleads with her thus to be shown the rest: “I long to see the Particulars of your Plot, and your Disappointment, where your Papers leave off. For you have so beautiful a manner, that it is partly that, and partly my Love for you, that has made me desirous of reading all you write. … And as I have furnished you with the Subject, I have a Title to see the fruits of your Pen.—Besides, … there is such a pretty Air of Romance, as you relate them, in your Plots, and my Plots, that I shall be better directed in what manner to wind up the Catastrophe of the pretty Novel” (p. 201). For Lydia, too, the artistry of her own letters provides the primary solace and order of her life. Thus she entrusts the “chapter of accidents”—in the Book of Life?—to reunite her with Wilson, and thus her “method of writing” to Letty affords her “some ease and satisfaction in the midst of [her] disquiet” (p. 307). But when Matt nearly drowns and Humphry is legitimated and Wilson stands revealed as Dennison, poor Lydia's “ideas are thrown into confusion and perplexity” so that she fears she will not be able to impart “either method or coherence” to her letter. She soon does so by settling into “a regular detail” of those events, that is, into a minute narrative of them (p. 334). Like Pamela, she creates order where she does not find it.

The epistolary format, then, enables Pamela and Lydia to structure an artistic version of reality that is less painful to them because given order by them, and both heroines are aware they are using their letters for that purpose. In the face of chaotic realities, they trust their art to provide permanence and stability in their lives. Richardson's remarks about the epistolary format suggest the validity of this interpretation: “Much more lively and affecting … must be the Style of those who write in the height of a present distress; the mind tortured by the pangs of uncertainty … than the dry, narrative, unanimated Style of a person relating difficulties and dangers surmounted, can be; the relater perfectly at ease; and if himself unmoved by his own Story, not likely greatly to affect the Reader” (my italics). Richardson's remarks do not stress only the psychic torment of his creations; his remarks also indicate his use of those creations as creators, artists aware of their own “Story,” aware of their own “Style.”

In sum, the epistolary format of Pamela and Humphry Clinker isolates the heroines from reality and thus enables them to construct their own portraits of themselves. The heroines are aware of the artistry such portraiture involves, and they use their art to structure not only their characters but also the plots of their lives. Essentially, Pamela and Lydia use the format as another of the century's great writers used his journal, and one of James Boswell's plaintive entries may serve as an appropriate epigraph for both Richardson's and Smollett's novels. Boswell wrote: “I am fallen sadly behind in my journal. I should live no more than I can record, as one should not have more corn growing than one can get in. There is a waste of good if it be not preserved. And yet perhaps if it serve the purpose of immediate felicity, that is enough.”12


  1. Robert F. Utter and Gwendolyn B. Needham, Pamela's Daughters (New York: Macmillan Co., 1936), esp. p. 13.

  2. Sheridan Baker, “Humphry Clinker as Comic Romance,” in Essays on the Eighteenth-Century Novel, ed. Robert Donald Spector (Bloomington: Indian Univ. Press, 1965), p. 163.

  3. Samuel Richardson, “Author's Preface (1759),” Clarissa, ed. George Sherburn (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1962), p. xx.

  4. Samuel Richardson, “Preface by the Editor,” Pamela, ed. T.C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1971), p. 3. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited in the text.

  5. See Tuvia Bloch, “Smollett's Quest for Form,” MP, 65 (1967), 103-13.

  6. Cf. Robert Alan Donovan, “The Problem of Pamela,” in The Shaping Vision (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 47-67.

  7. Cf. John A. Dussinger, “What Pamela Knew: An Interpretation,” JEGP, 69 (1970), 377-93; Stuart Wilson, “Pamela: An Interpretation,” PMLA, 88 (1973), 79-91.

  8. Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker, ed. Lewis M. Knapp (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 5. Subsequent references are to this edition and will be cited in the text.

  9. Interestingly, a rake named Martin also appears in the latter half of Richardson's novel.

  10. See, for example, Eric Berne, Transactional Analysis in Psychotherapy (New York: Grove Press, 1961) and What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (New York: Grove Press, 1972). The latter work Berne devotes to extensive analysis of various life plans, or scripts, finding in such classic fairy tales as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty patterns of human behavior.

  11. David Goldknopf, “The Epistolary Format in Clarissa,” in The Life of the Novel (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 59-78.

  12. James Boswell, The Ominous Years, 1774-1776, ed. Charles Ryskamp and Frederick A. Pottle (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1963), p. 265.

Donald R. Wehrs (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Irony, Storytelling, and the Conflict of Interpretation in Clarissa,” in ELH, Vol. 53, No. 4, Winter 1986, pp. 759-77

[In the following essay, Wehr argues that deconstructionist interpretations of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa miss the ways the author uses irony to impose a single, moralizing narrative judgment on the story's characters and actions.]

In recent years dour, didactic Samuel Richardson has become a proving ground for deconstructionist criticism. The epistolary mode, in which different characters read experience according to their irreconcilable value systems, interests and desires, and the author withdraws behind an editor's mask, appears to thematize “the struggles of interpretation,” making Clarissa a tragedy of “hermeneutic anarchy … a cacophony of voices, a multiplicity of exegetes struggling to articulate different ‘constructions’ of the world.”1 This hermeneutical struggle constitutes a power struggle: Lovelace reads Clarissa so as to inscribe her into his system while she resists the “rape” of such “colonization.”2

Though suggestive, these readings fail to register the role that irony and story play in orchestrating and evaluating the constructions of Clarissa's different correspondents. What gives Clarissa its central importance in the development of the novel is not its dramatization of a conflict of interpretations, but the system of resolution it proposes: the story establishes, through seemingly natural or self-evident inferences, a context for irony that in turn adjudicates between the claims of competing voices. It has long been noted that the novel as a genre seeks to naturalize interpretation, to make interpretation appear to arise of itself from the narrative, as opposed to acknowledging that interpretation rests upon arbitrary, allegorical signification. (The modern prose fictions, from Sterne on, that do call attention to the ambiguities of interpretation are frequently called “anti-novels,” “self-ironic,” or “self-parodic.”) The novel attempts to naturalize interpretation by using the story to justify a context for irony that in turn legitimates a certain reading of the story. Clarissa inaugurates a new genre of fiction by presenting a paradigmatic model for justifying irony through a realistic story and thus provides (or seemed to provide) a means of showing interpretation as it arises autonomously from the raw data of experience.

Instead of noting the connection between irony and story, the recent deconstructionist readings of Clarissa rely upon a generalized view of how the epistolary mode calls attention to the act of interpretation and thus reveals that “meanings are generated, arbitrarily, by different readers.”3 It is a small step from seeing every reading of a letter as a subjective construct to seeing the novel not as a story but as “a continuous gabble of imaginary voices,” lacking “any sense of a controlling, magus-like authorial presence.”4 The problem with such generalized analyses is that it suppresses differences: the effect of an interplay of many voices in Clarissa is not the same as the interplay in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre or a William Gaddis novel. Richardson makes his presence felt through the irony his story imposes upon the various correspondents. The worth or referentiality of the characters' readings of experience is judged by what happens to them, a matter over which Richardson has some say. Clarissa's fearsome determination to accept death rather than endure moral compromise justifies her interpretation not of the world (which was grievously misguided) but of herself; it gives the lie to the readings imposed by the Harlowes and Lovelace. After all the welter of words about Clarissa, she defines herself by her conduct, a conduct that ultimately discloses her true character, the signified that all the signifiers have been clamoring to describe and penetrate. The gradual unfolding of Clarissa's story provides a context for irony toward the various correspondents' assertions, a frame of reference that is complete only when the “History of a Young Lady” has made Clarissa's true self fully present by demonstrating that she means what she has always said, that moral integrity is more important to her than anything in this world, including life itself.

Before turning to Clarissa, we must consider briefly the relation of story to the epistolary novel and the relation of irony to multivocal narrative. It might well seem superfluous to observe that Clarissa tells a story, but Terry Castle maintains that it does not.5 Her argument rests upon the assumption, recently put forward by a number of critics, that the epistolary mode intensifies interpretive uncertainty.6 Since there is “no identifiable single voice of narration,” the reader “must piece together a sequence of actions” (a story) by himself. Letters produced by characters are the material for this construction, but “letters open themselves, promiscuously, to distortion by readers. …”7 Terry Eagleton makes much the same point: “the utterance of the moment, once paralysed to print, is then secured for the most devious interpretative uses.”8 The problem with this account is that it places letters in a narrative vacuum. But each letter stands in a collection, created by an author, that shapes the way individual letters are read (on first and subsequent readings) because they are made moments in a story that unfolds progressively. Castle makes this point herself. Our interpretation of Clarissa's reading of “Mr. Doleman's” letter describing a number of London lodgings is conditioned by “Lovelace's own account” of the letter: it was dictated by Lovelace himself to delude Clarissa into choosing to go to Mrs. Sinclair's: Clarissa's “reading of the letter has been anticipated; indeed, its very rhetoric, it turns out, has been designed to incline her toward Dover Street and Mrs. Sinclair.”9 There is a simple dramatic irony at work here. Because the reader and Lovelace know more than Clarissa, they can read Doleman's letter in a way she cannot and can see that her free choice is really, ironically, predetermined. Similarly, as Castle skillfully remarks, the conception of Mrs. Sinclair's that Clarissa gathers from the letter “blinds her to the true nature of her surroundings.”10 The act of blinding and its consequences are part of a story told through a series of letters. Clarissa's view of Mrs. Sinclair is subject to irony from the context of “the true nature of her surroundings”; that is, her surroundings as they are revealed to be in the course of the story. There is a conflict of interpretation between Clarissa's and Lovelace's view of Mrs. Sinclair's, but Castle can say with assurance that Lovelace's interpretation is right and Clarissa's is wrong because, in terms of the story, what Lovelace sees is what is really there. Because the story creates a context which backs up or refutes the claims or values of any correspondent, it is simply wrong to say, as Castle does, that “the only events in epistolary fiction, strictly speaking, are events of language.”11 What is represented indirectly in a story is no less an event than what is represented directly. In a play characters who are killed off-stage are no less dead than those killed on-stage.

The story cannot be neglected with impunity. Although Eagleton and Castle use deconstruction to further their arguments, they both reject William B. Warner's Reading Clarissa on the grounds that Warner obscures the significance of what actually happens between Lovelace and Clarissa. In Warner's peculiar allegory of reading, Lovelace is a playful fellow who knows that words never signify anything and that values are a bore while Clarissa is hopelessly deluded by the mythology of a unified self and logocentricism. Lovelace's rape is an act of decentering, creatively applied, “subvert[ing] this fiction [of the unified self] by introducing a small part of himself into Clarissa. Thus the rape, like all Lovelace's displacements, will seek to induce the slight difference that will make all the difference.”12 Eagleton's devastating critique of Warner exposes the moral irresponsibility that arises from failing to take the story seriously: “Lovelace, whom Warner finds ‘charming’, moves towards the rape ‘with an inexorable necessity’: what else can the poor fellow do if he is out to deconstruct her? … Clarissa, presumably, couldn't take a joke. … Warner … regards most critics as conspiring with the prim Clarissa to judge Lovelace in such shabbily undeconstructed terms as ‘seriousness, consistency, sympathy, maturity, a full deep heart, and belief in the “real”’.”13 Castle, who finds Clarissa “ethical” because it teaches us that readings are arbitrary and that we should “read ourselves” (presumably, arbitrarily) detects in Warner's glossing over what actually happens a failure to consider the politics of interpretation, a failure that takes the form of “ill-considered attacks” on Clarissa, “boyish expressions of admiration” for Lovelace, and a pervasive tone of “startlingly primitive misogyny. …”14 What is the standard against which Warner's words are measured to judge them ill-considered and boyish? Eagleton and Castle claim that those words fail to address the represented reality: Lovelace's abduction, drugging, and rape of Clarissa—the story that is there even though Richardson tells it through a series of letters.

Because the story provides nonarbitrary benchmarks against which the readings of the multiple correspondents may be judged, it establishes a means of determining whether a certain letter, a certain interpretation, even a certain voice is accurate or is refuted by the action the novel sets forth. Lovelace constantly proclaims that his success will be measured by his ability to subdue Clarissa's will. When abduction, deceit, and intimidation fail to achieve that result, he drugs and rapes her on the assumption that once subdued, always subdued. Clarissa, in turn, maintains that her will shall never be subdued. The events—Lovelace's need to resort to drugs, Clarissa's subsequent escape and steadfast refusal to marry him despite poverty, isolation, and ill-health—make Lovelace's boasts seem as ironically blind as Clarissa's naive conception of Mrs. Sinclair's. They back up Clarissa's claim to know her will and have the courage to hold to it. Instead of presenting mere “hermeneutical anarchy” and a “gabble of imaginary voices,” the novel shows experience subjecting some words, some interpretations, to ironic refutation while confirming others. We must emphasize that the represented experience, what actually happens, is a fiction, created by Richardson. One may reject the fiction as unrealistic or ideologically mystified: Richardson was himself aware of that possibility. We will address this difficulty later; here it is important to distinguish between standing outside the story in order to reject it and viewing the function of the story within Richardson's epistolary novel. Within Clarissa, the story constitutes a world of experience that justifies a context for irony: irony challenges the anarchy of a gabble of voices by setting them into an order of rank, by assaying their degree of truth.

Since the work of Mikhail Bakhtin has become available in the West in the last decade, critics have sought to apply his notions of dialogic narrative and multivoiced fiction to nearly every novel, including Clarissa. Eagleton believes that the letter in Clarissa is dialogic because it is both private expression and public discourse, “overhearing itself in the ears of its addressee. …”15 Bakhtin's description of Dostoevsky's novels as a “plurality of independent and unmerged voices and consciousnesses, a genuine polyphony of fully valid voices” stands behind the “gabble of imaginary voices” that Castle hears in Clarissa.16 As frequently occurs, the ideas a major critic develops to apply in a judicious, learned manner to particular types of work are appropriated for use everywhere. For Bakhtin, Dostoevsky originates the polyphonic novel as an exception to the standard, monologic European novel. Eagleton's claim that the letter is dialogic because it is both private and public and is “speech-for-another” makes “dialogic” so general a term that it is useless. In Bakhtin, it is discourse “directed both toward the referential object of speech, … and toward another's discourse, toward someone else's speech” (185). Eagleton's correspondent's words are not directed toward another's speech, but toward another's subjectivity: “you must write with a wary eye on the other. …”17 Emile Benveniste has argued persuasively that all language establishes an “I-thou” axis, that all language is both subjective and “speech-for-another.”18 As for letters being both private and public, Hegel has noted that all language objectifies subjectivity, externalizing the internal.

In addition to applying a trendy term so broadly that it loses its original discriminating value, critics frequently set up simple paired opposites, valorizing one side of the opposition: showing against telling; organic unity against editorial intrusions; disruptions against centeredness. Recently, multivocality has become valorized at the expense of irony. Roland Barthes argues that irony contradicts multivalence by giving speech a speaker, “the voice which would give the text its (‘organic’) unity. …” The multivalent (good) text would have a “wall of voices” not owned or subordinated and thus equally valid, whereas the classic (bad) text would order the voices into a hierarchy of value through irony.19

Although the conflict between multivocality and irony is real, the simple either/or paired opposition is not. To delineate how story allows irony to regulate a multiplicity of voices, we must recall Bakhtin's discussion of Dostoevsky. Whereas most European novels evoke a plurality of voices only to subordinate them to a “finalizing artistic vision” (5), Dostoevsky leaves the conflicting voices and consciousnesses unmerged, setting competing world-views alongside each other in “dramatic juxtaposition” (28). In contrast to a Hegelian artist like Goethe, who sees diverse consciousnesses as stages in a unified process, Dostoevsky conceives the diversity in “simultaneous coexistence” (29). Thus, the voices are not subordinated into a hierarchy, but are kept “fully valid” with each other in polyphonic juxtaposition. To maintain this full validity, Dostoevsky shuns “finalizing authorial words” and seeks “plot situations that provoke, tease, extort, dialogize,” that remain open-ended. There is, in fact, a conflict between the “fundamental open-endedness of the polyphonic novel” and the “conventionally monologic ending” that Dostoevsky provides for most of his novels (39). For our purposes, the critical point is that a completed story has the same effect as “finalizing authorial words”: it constrains multivocal plurality by establishing a basis for irony against which the various voices are measured and thus articulates a vision into which they are set. In the following discussion of Clarissa, we shall explore how story stands in for “authorial words” in Richardson's epistolary novel, how it imposes irony and thus places the heterogeneous material into a finalizing, monologic artistic vision.

The story does not merely impose a context for irony; it also justifies it. Bakhtin is led to downplay the role of plot in Dostoevsky lest the thesis of equal validity for every voice be compromised. It is unclear, at least in translation, whether the term “fully valid” (as in “a plurality of fully valid voices”) refers to realism of presentation or truth of content. Still, we may ask whether it is true that Dostoevsky simply juxtaposes competing voices in a spatial manner (28). The Brothers Karamazov tells a story of murder. Does Ivan's role in that murder have no effect upon the validity of his voice against the voices of Dmitri and Alyosha? The novel may present the three voices as equally real while the story indicates that they are not equally true or good. To put the question in a different way, is “The Grand Inquisitor” the same story and the same work of art when it is anthologized independently as when it is a moment in the action of The Brothers Karamazov? Ivan's ideas (and the character, voice, and consciousness fused to those ideas) are tested by the story in which he is placed. His ideas, as well as Dmitri's and Alyosha's, are judged against the context of a represented experience just as the ideas of Lovelace and Clarissa are judged against what actually happens, the reality their story bodies forth.

The story does not merely set different voices side by side; it tests the validity of each voice against the others. Indeed, Bakhtin argues that Dostoevsky's type of narrative derives from the method of “testing truth” (111) in Socratic dialogue and Menippean satire. The narrative propulsion of the Socratic dialogue lies in “collectively searching for truth, in the process of … dialogic interaction [between people]” (110). By anacrisis, provoking the words of one's interlocutor, Socrates elucidates the implications and consequences of ideas, thus testing their validity. “The dialogic testing of the idea is simultaneously also the testing of the person who represents it” (111-12). Menippean satire, according to Bakhtin, transposes Socratic testing into a story: the plot, by means of some anacrisis (some illuminating provocation), becomes “a mode for searching after truth, provoking it, and, most important, testing it” (114). The application of all this to Clarissa is apparent: the story tests the ideas Clarissa and Lovelace represent by presenting Clarissa and Lovelace in a conflict that makes their struggle a testing of truth. In fiction, if not in life, the testing yields some result and that result takes the form of irony. Irony may be provisional or final. As we shall see, the irony the story imposes upon Clarissa is eventually superseded by a higher irony imposed upon Lovelace. Irony may be, as Wayne Booth has noted, stable or unstable.20 It may invalidate a certain perspective by asserting the superiority of an opposite perspective, or it may juxtapose contrasting perspectives or meanings while coolly refusing to endorse any. Irony may finalize a unified, coherent worldview; it may, as in Friedrich Schlegel, endorse an ongoing interplay of separate local truths; or it may, as in Novalis and Samuel Beckett, subject every finalization to ironic subversion ad infinitum.21 The type of irony a particular story's testing of truth may justify varies, but the effect of this justification is to naturalize a particular interpretation of experience and thus to legitimate some ordering of multivocality, whether that ordering involves reducing all voices to one, distributing degrees of validity, or approving anarchy. The centrality of the novel to modern society derives in no small measure from its ability to legitimate an interpretation by using story to create a natural justification of a context for irony, a process first mastered by Richardson in Clarissa.

Clarissa draws on a type of story that predates epistolary fiction and does not derive from Socratic dialogue or Menippean satire. In the Middle Ages, exemplary tales, based loosely on Job, subjected extraordinary virtue to extraordinary trials. In Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, the heroine becomes an earthly image of heavenly patience as she endures a succession of calamities.22 The metaphysical assumptions behind such storytelling are directly opposed to those underlying the “dialogic means of seeking truth,” which is “counterposed to official monologism, which pretends to possess a ready-made truth. …” (110). Instead of testing a proposed truth against its implications and against experience, the exemplary tale seeks to illustrate a pregiven, supersensual reality. The story is exemplary because it directs attention away from the distortions of this life, picturing the essence of patience shorn of accidental dross. The notion that trials exhibit virtue led to a subgenre of tales such as Boccaccio's “Griselda” (Decameron, 10.10), in which a husband contrives a series of events to test the fidelity or obedience of a wife. The story becomes problematic when its portrait of experience ceases to be clearly subordinate to the illustration of an idea (fidelity or obedience as such), when the represented reality begins to provide a context for judgment. Whereas Boccaccio describes the husband's decision to test his wife in brief, formal, impersonal terms, Chaucer's version asks the reader to consider the decision's moral propriety:

He hadde assayed hire ynogh bifore,
And foond hire evere good; what neded it
Hire for to tempte, and alwey moore and moore,
Though som men preise it for a subtil wit?
But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit
To assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede,
And putten hire in angwyssh and in drede.(23)

Chaucer judges the merits of the husband's actions by their consequences in this life, while Boccaccio keeps the story focused on illustrating exemplary virtue. Richardson attempts to have it both ways. Lovelace's testing of Clarissa is a cruel attempt to be a “subtil wit” at the expense of another. By arranging to put Clarissa's virtue on trial, Lovelace seeks to attain a God-like control over experience. But Richardson's own storymaking endeavors, through showing in detail how virtue is rewarded, to place the reader in the God-like position of seeing through everyday events to the providential design underlying them. Richardson wishes to illustrate a received, orthodox, monologic truth, but in order to convince a skeptical public of the validity of his moral lessons, he must show that a certain (moral) interpretation arises naturally from a faithful representation of experience. The need to naturalize interpretation leads him to the testing of truth, to the development of a context for irony arising from a dramatized conflict of interpretations. Beginning with Pamela's rejection of Mr. B.'s assertion that he has a right to her, Richardson's stories test the strength of competing worldviews against the evidence of experience. By portraying how Pamela is able to move from being a servant to being an exemplary wife, by demonstrating that marriage can be an ennobling union of minds, Richardson indicates that experience legitimates the values by which Pamela defines herself. Conversely, the story endorses an interpretative framework that subjects Mr. B.'s attitudes and actions to increasing irony: the more cruelly he tests Pamela, the more thoroughly he disproves the assumptions behind the test.

Of course, the experience against which worldviews are judged is created by a story that is made up. If the story is rejected as fantastic or improbable, the context for irony it proposes is left without foundation. Fielding's parody of Pamela imposes a counterstory and thus endorses a quite different irony directed at Mr. Booby's victimization by the socially climbing Shamela. Richardson is keenly aware of the danger that his novels might be rejected as mere fictions. He casts his exemplary tales in the epistolary mode in order to create a sense of mimetic authenticity and immediacy, to give the reader the impression of “looking into the hearts of some [of the characters], through windows that at other times have been close shut up.”24 The mimetic illusion, reinforced in each scene, should be buttressed by a credible sequence of events.25 The point of constructing stories faithful to ordinary experience, of eschewing the marvelous in favor of the probable, is to allow moral judgment to arise naturally from the represented situation, so that the interpretation seems to belong to the events rather than to the beliefs of the author. Of course, arguments have raged from Richardson's time on about the probability of certain characters, episodes, and plot turns. Yet the very terms of the debate (“Would Lovelace really do that?”) assume that fiction may possess a type of truth that is distinct from both history and lying.26 A story acquires the authority of representing experience by showing what would happen if there were a Clarissa and Lovelace set in battle against each other. The reader's conviction that the story does portray what would happen makes the represented experience seem true and thus allows that experience to legitimate a context for irony toward each character's reading of experience.

Clarissa's trial, like Pamela's, places worldviews in conflict. But the story does not simply disclose the victory of one perspective, nor is victory without cost. Clarissa's nobility of soul makes her vulnerable to Lovelace's manipulations even as it saves her from his power. The story imposes and displaces a succession of ironic contexts: Clarissa's filial loyalty ensures that her family will misunderstand and mistreat her; her sense of right reinforces Lovelace's determination to conquer her; despite abduction and rape, Clarissa transforms Lovelace's victories into defeats by maintaining an integrity of will he is powerless to shake. The story's termination in Clarissa's death establishes a finalized perspective in which superseded readings of experience are accorded a place.

Clarissa defines herself by attempting to realize ideal standards in daily life. Her family basks in the glow of her exemplary behavior until it challenges their worldly ambitions. By inheriting her grandfather's estate and rejecting Solmes's suit, she inadvertently puts her individual merit in the way of the Harlowes' “darling view … of raising a family,” of using great wealth to acquire a title.27 Solmes's offer to settle his immense fortune on Clarissa would allow the Harlowes to buy their way into the nobility. Though lust for wealth and status is alien to her, obedience to parents is part of the ideal code Clarissa strives to realize. She is dutifully compliant in whatever does not compromise her moral integrity, offering to surrender her claim to the estate and never to marry against her family's will. Unappeased, the Harlowes insist that she prove her obedience by marrying Solmes. Much has recently been written about Clarissa's oppression by patriarchy, about her family's assumption that she is their property.28 While this is undeniably true, Clarissa's own objection to being treated like disposable property centers not on the violation this entails per se, but on its consequences upon her own ethical conduct: “To marry a man one cannot endure, is not only a dishonest thing, as to the man; but it is enough to make a creature who wishes to be a good wife, a bad or indifferent one … and then she can hardly be either a good mistress, or a good friend; or anything but a discredit to her family, and a bad example to all around her” (1: 307). As Jean Hagstrum points out, Clarissa's ideal of marriage rests upon the Miltonic conception of wifely obedience and a free communion of spiritually attuned minds.29 Since Clarissa's character is grounded in striving for unity of conduct and principle, the Harlowes are asking her to repudiate herself, to yield up her soul for worldly gain by introducing an ironic gap between what she is and what she ought to be.

Being thoroughly worldly themselves, the Harlowes naturally interpret Clarissa's refusal in terms of lust and self-interest. Clarissa's story hinges upon the cruel irony that all her efforts to maintain exemplary conduct turn into means by which she is brought to compromise it. She would live without introducing an ironic disjunction between principles and conduct into her being. However, the world—in the form of her family—insists upon this disjunction as the price of retaining the protection of a secure social position. Clarissa's motives are constantly misread as selfish and worldly because the idea that one might really mean to live by an ideal code is foreign to the Harlowes' conception of experience. Furthermore, since Clarissa really does mean what she says, she constantly disarms herself. To combine ideality and actuality, she must behave as an ideal daughter to her real family, which means that she must pretend not to see the ironic distance between the way an ideal family would behave and the way her real one actually behaves. Out of a sense of filial obedience, she rejects Miss Howe's advice that she assume her estate; instead, she surrenders control of it to her father. Each refusal to act according to self-interest narrows her options, rendering her more, not less, vulnerable to the demands for moral compromise voiced by the Harlowes and Lovelace. Richardson makes grimly clear that attaining a position in this life that will permit moral independence requires a degree of self-interest that compromises ideality and therefore must be rejected by Clarissa.

Unwilling to stoop in her battle against the Harlowes, Clarissa is increasingly compromised by Lovelace. After beginning a correspondence in order to prevent him from taking revenge against her family for their insults, she continues to write, despite her parents' prohibition, in hopes of averting mischief. Clarissa cannot bring herself to wash her hands of responsibility for her family, but by continuing the correspondence she slides into the very separation of principles and conduct she strives to avoid: drawn into clandestine communication with a libertine, she is forced to deceive her parents. This deception gives Lovelace a weapon he can use against her. Similarly, in renouncing her estate, Clarissa gives up the means of shielding herself from the Harlowes' plans to drag her to the altar. Finally, though Clarissa repents of agreeing to go off with Lovelace, she nevertheless decides to meet him rather than break a promise. Because she is determined to be faithful to her word, she gives him the opportunity to abduct her.

As R. F. Brissenden observes, Lovelace's treatment of Clarissa repeats the Harlowes' treatment of her in a more stark and intense way.30 Their conflict assumes the ferocity of a death struggle because Lovelace realizes that unless he can make Clarissa accept life without moral ideality the worldview by which he defines himself will stand refuted; she realizes that Lovelace is attempting, no less than her family, to separate her conduct from her values. Like the Harlowes, Lovelace struggles to assimilate Clarissa into an interpretative context of lust and self-interest. Unlike them, he is no hypocrite, asserting outright that virtue is a mask, that pride and the will to mastery provide the keys to any penetrating analysis of behavior. Behind Lovelace lie Mandeville, Hobbes, and the cultivated cynicism of the seventeenth-century libertinage tradition, summarized by the Earl of Rochester's lines: “Look to the bottom of his vast design, / Wherein man's wisdom, power, and glory join: / The good he acts, the ill he does endure, / 'Tis all from fear, to make himself secure.”31 Lovelace defines himself by his skill in manipulating people's hidden, base impulses. When his power is challenged, he constructs plots to compel experience to affirm his estimation of others and of himself; in effect, he invents stories to legitimate his context for irony. Lovelace spares the innkeeper's daughter, Rosebud, because her grandmother implores him to “be merciful to her.” There is no need to make a story out of her (1: 170).

Clarissa offers Lovelace different treatment: “her whole air … expressed a majestic kind of indignation, which implied a believed superiority over the person to whom she spoke” (2: 14). He expects her to realize that she is in his power and that thus it is in her interest to appeal to his generosity. Instead, she refuses expediencies such as a rapid agreement to marry him or even a pretense of flattery. Lovelace quickly senses that if Clarissa can be what she wishes to be, she will stand outside his context for irony and hence be living proof of the insufficiency of his vision and power. Thus, he turns his plotting against her, listing to his friend Belford a series of premises to be put on trial: “Importunity and opportunity no woman is proof against …”; “Is not, may not, her virtue be found rather in pride than in principle? (2: 35); “Is then the divine Clarissa capable of loving a man whom she ought not to love?” (2: 38). Lovelace hopes, by subjecting Clarissa's beliefs about herself to devastating irony, to legitimate his Hobbesian-Mandevillian premises, to confirm his own worldview. The rest of the novel, three-fourths of its bulk, describes in minute detail how Lovelace's effort to impose irony on Clarissa succeeds, ironically, in imposing irony upon him, granting Clarissa the opportunity to justify her view of herself at his expense.

At first, Lovelace's campaign follows the pattern established by the Harlowes' bullying of Clarissa. Virtue is apparently defenseless. Miss Howe urges Clarissa to realize that she has “a nice part to act,” that she should try to “engage [Lovelace's] pride, which he calls his honour …” (2: 44), but Clarissa cannot “palliate,” cannot deliberately mislead without renouncing unity of conduct and principles. In a grimly ironic manner, virtue seems to open itself for attack. Seeing her “believed superiority,” Lovelace's determination to defeat her is constantly renewed. Even her vigilance seems to turn against her. Each time she resists and sees through his schemes, he is driven to more elaborate and less merciful subterfuge. In the middle sections of the novel, Richardson appears to establish a context for irony that endorses neither Lovelace's cynical worldliness nor Clarissa's faith in providence. Instead, irony seems to rest upon a tragic view of experience in which genuine, innate nobility of soul provides persecutors the weapons that allow such nobility to be manipulated, deceived, and brought low.

Lovelace constructs a world where the ironic disjunctions that Clarissa discovered at Harlowe Place between appearances and reality, ideal standards and actual behavior, are radically intensified: the pious widow Sinclair turns out to be a madam of a brothel; her uncle's friend, Captain Tomlinson, who seeks her out to arrange a reconciliation with her family, is really one of Lovelace's tools; Lovelace's lady relatives who offer to welcome her into his family are actually prostitutes hired to take her back to the brothel. As Brissenden remarks, “Lovelace brings into existence a horrible parody of the world in which Clarissa places her faith, gets her to accept it, and then destroys it.”32 Being a type of artist, Lovelace constructs a lie that discloses the truth with a sharpness and clarity it would otherwise lack: the polite world of the Harlowes is a sham, a veil for the most mercenary of designs.

Although Lovelace's artifice works sufficiently to return Clarissa to the brothel, where he drugs and rapes her, his storymaking does not work out the way he intends. Instead of leading Clarissa to confirm the rake's creed, Lovelace's deceptions subject that creed to irony by eliciting behavior for which it cannot account. Like Anselmo in Cervantes's “El Curioso impertinente,” Lovelace is punished for his impious aspirations by a higher plotter. Anselmo places his wife's virtue on trial much the way Lovelace places Clarissa's virtue on trial.33 He induces his best friend, Lotario, to prove his wife's merit by attempting to seduce her. To the surprise of all three, Lotario and Anselmo's wife fall in love. Both Anselmo and Lovelace set stories in motion whose implications they cannot control. Whereas Anselmo learns, to his grief, that no woman can incarnate the ideal of chastity, Lovelace is taught much the opposite lesson: a real woman can be virtuous out of principle alone. By testing Clarissa and the values she seeks to realize, Lovelace unwittingly subjects himself to the type of devastating irony he would impose upon her. The tragic irony that makes Clarissa's vigilance a form of vulnerability is displaced by a higher irony in which Lovelace's exploitation of Clarissa's vulnerability makes manifest the falsity of his own worldview: after the rape, Clarissa steadfastly refuses to marry him.

Instead of simply setting a number of competing consciousnesses alongside each other in a spatial manner, the story exploits the temporal apprehension of narrative in order to create in the reader a sense that the progressive penetration of experience leads to a progressive refinement and alteration of contexts for irony. The generation of irony by story in Clarissa cannot be explained adequately by Bahktin's spatial deployment and juxtaposition of competing voices alone. Instead, narrative extension (the sequence of discrete scenes) is constantly composed into provisional unities in the (temporal) course of reading. Each provisional unity is then displaced by further extension, giving rise to new, reconfigured provisional unities, followed by new displacements by extension (something more happens). In a general way, this process accords with the phenomenologies of narrative cognition explored by Ingarden and Ricoeur.34 Each provisional unity connects the foregoing extension through some causal hypothesis, which in turn naturalizes a context for irony. The basis for irony seems to arise of itself from a realistic portrait of experience. Lovelace's ability to seduce Clarissa back to Mrs. Sinclair's suggests that virtue, no matter how scrupulous, is too good not to be vulnerable to artful, evil imposition: Clarissa simply fails to anticipate, until it is too late, that Lovelace might dress up prostitutes as his own aristocratic relatives. But once Lovelace rapes Clarissa the story's continuation, the narrative's further extension, reveals that irony against Clarissa's unworldliness is not the final irony. By tracing Clarissa's escape from the brothel and her resolute rejection of all his pleas for marriage, the story reveals that Lovelace's trickery has the ironic effect of unmasking his true character to Clarissa, which in turn ensures, ironically, that she will not be tricked by him, that she will never marry him.

But while Clarissa maintains her integrity against all efforts to subvert it, she becomes increasingly aware that earthly existence entails moral compromise. She was abducted by Lovelace because she refused to break a promise to meet him in her father's garden. She escapes Lovelace's power by resorting to breaking a promise in order to flee Mrs. Sinclair's brothel. When she recounts the deception to Miss Howe, Clarissa exclaims, “How hard, how next to impossible, my dear, to avoid many lesser deviations, when we are betrayed into a capital one!” (3: 20). However unwittingly, Lovelace's storymaking does subject Clarissa's desire to combine ideality and actuality to brutal irony. She strives after a greater-than-human moral conduct just as Anselmo yearns for a greater-than-human knowledge (he would know rather than trust that his wife is faithful). The effect of Lovelace's manipulations is to place Clarissa in situations where she cannot be in the right. Either the desire for ideality makes her demand, impiously, immunity from human imperfections, or her acquiescence in ambiguous actions (lying to escape Mrs. Sinclair's) makes her guilty of equivocations. In either case, her principles and conduct stand in ironic opposition. Rather than accept such a violation of her sense of herself as the price of existence, Clarissa longs for death: “and since all my own hopes of worldly happiness are entirely over; let me slide quietly into my grave …” (3: 374).

From Richardson's point of view, Providence kindly answers her wishes. Her death, alone, impoverished, disdaining Lovelace's offers to make amends through marriage, justifies and completes the self revealed through her writings. Richardson wisely resisted the pleas of his friends to save Clarissa. Anything less than a resolute and pious death would vindicate Lovelace's ironic worldview by showing that no matter how he has treated her, the consequences need not be serious because everything may be patched up after all. Instead, Clarissa's refusal of any compromise subjects the worldly irony of Lovelace and the Harlowes to a withering higher irony. Rather than being, as Eagleton would have it, an “aggressive onslaught on the whole social system,” Clarissa's death is an assertion of the superiority of spiritual values, of her “true home,” to the values of any social system.35 In the last fourth of the novel, the testing of truth, of competing worldviews and voices, shifts from getting along in this life to the manner in which one faces the next. When the arena of conflict moves from Harlowe Place and Mrs. Sinclair's to deathbed scenes, Clarissa's apparent defenselessness and vulnerability become, ironically, the only defense and strength that matter. Just as the change of scene from Harlowe Place to Mrs. Sinclair's involves, as Brissenden observes, a deeper penetration into reality and a raising of the stakes in the battle, so does the change of scene from Mrs. Sinclair's to the deathbed. Clarissa's dying is contrasted to the dying of Lovelace's minion, Belton, Mrs. Sinclair, and eventually Lovelace himself. Whereas they babble in mindless fear, Clarissa alone speaks composedly and meaningfully.

Castle argues that Clarissa chooses the silence of death once she has lost her (naive) faith in referential language.36 It is more accurate to say that she has discovered the sphere and the means by which she can secure referentiality for her language. Once her family has learned that she is truly ill, Uncle John Harlowe writes that her assertions had been discounted because “we know your talents, my dear, and how movingly you could write, whenever you pleased. …” (4: 352). Dying in an exemplary manner, Clarissa can back up her words, show that they really do refer to something, and close off at least the most slanderous misinterpretations that have plagued her. Quite simply, knowledge of Clarissa's manner of death colors a second reading of her early letters in a different way than would her marrying Lovelace, marrying Belford, escaping to her grandfather's estate, or running off to America. Far from sinking brokenly into silence, Clarissa goes on talking and writing until the hour of her death. What has changed is that all her words, past and present, come to revolve around that nodal point: her way of dying becomes the ever present signified towards which every remark, no matter how oblique, points.

The final testing of an idea and a character by experience lies in the confrontation with death. Hence Richardson gives over so much of his novel to a picture of how Clarissa's values permit her to put this transitory life behind her. Myopic modern readings fail to take seriously the structure of Clarissa, which is designed to drive home that the most important thing about this life is that it is a preparation for death. Castle argues, for example, that Clarissa's refusal to bring suit against Lovelace shows that she “now mistrusts any form of linguistic self-presentation,” citing as evidence not Clarissa's many explanations of her refusal, but Lovelace's jibes at lawyers and courts.37 Clarissa is interested in a different court. Indeed, her indifference to all lower courts has the effect, ironically, of advancing her earthly vindication by giving her history yet another instance of her refusal to confuse intrinsic rightness with the opinion of the world. For this reason she is able to face an apparently sordid death (abandoned by family, deprived of friends, without money, comforted by strangers alone) with composure and pious anticipation. Richardson's story, by testing competing claims of truth until the conflict yields a portrait of ideality in experience, justifies a context for irony that sets all the previous, superseded contexts into a “finalized artistic vision.”

Richardson's justification of irony by story establishes a model for naturalizing interpretation and adjudicating between the conflicting claims of juxtaposed voices and values. Such justification underpins the novelistic mode of organizing narrative, for the novel seeks to legitimate a certain reading of experience by showing, in a mimetically plausible manner, what would happen if fictional characters and situations were real. Confidence in this mode of demonstration underlies the historical development of the novel, and it is a faith to which novelists, however tenuously, still cling.


  1. The phrase, “the struggles of interpretation,” is borrowed from William B. Warner's Reading Clarissa: The Struggles of Interpretation (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979). The characterization of Clarissa as a “hermeneutic anarchy” is from Terry Castle, Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson'sClarissa” (Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982), 21.

  2. See Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1982), 44-45; Castle, 26; 89; 90.

  3. Castle, 45; see Eagleton, 40-51.

  4. Castle, 148, 165.

  5. See Castle, esp. 38-46; 148-80.

  6. See Eagleton; Ronald C. Rosbottom, Choderlos de Laclos (Boston: Twayne, 1978); Tzvetan Todorov, Littérature et signification (Paris: Larousse, 1967), 39-49.

  7. Castle, 41, 42, 43-44.

  8. Eagleton, 49.

  9. Castle, 94.

  10. Castle, 94.

  11. Castle, 46.

  12. Warner, 49.

  13. Eagleton, 67.

  14. Castle, 186, 194.

  15. Eagleton, 52.

  16. Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, trans. Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), 6. Further references are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  17. Eagleton, 52.

  18. See Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale (Paris: Gallimard, 1966).

  19. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 44, 45.

  20. See Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974).

  21. See Ingrid Strohschneider-Kohrs' definitive study of irony in Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, Die romantische Ironie in Theorie und Gestaltung, 2nd. ed., (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1977) esp. 7-91, 100-112.

  22. Chaucer's use of the genre in the Man of Law's Tale may be ironic. That question, however, supersedes the scope of this discussion.

  23. Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Clerk's Tale” (ll. 456-62), in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957), 106.

  24. To Lady Echlin, October 10, 1754; quoted in Donald L. Ball, Samuel Richardson's Theory of Fiction (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1971), 26.

  25. See Ball's discussion of probability in Richardson's theory of fiction.

  26. See Leopold Damrosch, Jr., God's Plot and Man's Stories: Studies in the Fictional Imagination from Milton to Fielding (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), 10.

  27. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, in 4 vols. (London: Everyman, 1932), (1:53). Further citations are to this edition and will be included parenthetically in the text.

  28. See Eagleton, 56.

  29. See Jean H. Hagstrum, Sex and Sensibility: Ideal and Erotic Love from Milton to Mozart (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), esp. 186-218.

  30. R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1974), 181.

  31. John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, “A Satyr against Reason and Mankind” (ll. 153-56) in The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, ed. David M. Vieth (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), 99.

  32. Brissenden, 181.

  33. The tale, of course, appears as an inset narrative in Don Quixote, Part One.

  34. Despite differences, both Ingarden and Ricoeur discuss the relation between narrative extension and the reader's act of (provisional) unification. See Roman Ingarden, The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art, trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1973), particularly “Temporal Perspective in the Concretization of the Literary Work of Art,” 94-145; Paul Ricoeur, Time And Narrative, vol. I, trans. Kathleen McLauglin and David Pellauer (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), particularly “Time and Narrative: Threefold Mimesis,” 52-87.

  35. Eagleton, 90.

  36. See Castle, 108-35.

  37. Castle, 128.

William Mead (essay date 1961)

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SOURCE: “La Nouvelle Héloïse and the Public of 1761,” in Yale French Studies, No. 28, 1961, pp. 13-19.

[In the following excerpt, Mead examines the impact of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïsewhen it was first published, and assesses its impact on the subsequent history of the novel.]

Towards the middle of the 18th century, the novel—or rather, the Novel—disentangling itself from wicked nurses, stolen wills, and the adventures of terribly handsome princes, and already beginning to demonstrate by actual examples that its natural domain was what Thomas Hardy called “the presentation of the uncommon in ordinary life,” faced a serious threat to its continuing development as a serious genre in the widespread human tendency to complicate simple things whenever possible. If any one thing is characteristic of advanced states of civilization, it seems to be a fatal weakness for talking about what one is doing, and enjoying the talk a good deal more than anything else. In 18th-century France, where conversation was, in the somewhat chilling words of Mme de Montpensier, “one of the greatest of the few pleasures of life,” a love of talk for its own sake was a national glory; I cannot think of any more striking reflection of the century than what one finds in the absurd so-called “philosophical” novels of the Marquis de Sade, where the characters, with an almost touchingly dogged persistence, work their way in a page or so through one or another of a methodical series of couplings and then calmly sit down for fifty or a hundred pages of the discussion it is obvious they find much more satisfactory. Such a fondness for talk, however, goes far toward explaining how it happens that, while there already existed in France admirable models of the sort of work the genre as a whole was then struggling to achieve, and would eventually achieve on all sides in the following century, these models—Mme de Lafayette's La Princesse de Clèves, for example, Crébillon Fils' Lettres de la Marquise de M——— au Comte de R——— remained without influence, and the majority of people who bothered themselves about novels from 1700 or so on, including, one is sorry to say, a great many of the people writing them, spent a large part of their time worrying about such red herrings as the differences between the Novel and the Epic and the Romance and, whether they managed to sort these out or not, an even greater amount of time worrying about the 18th-century equivalent of Mr. Podsnap's daughter, that formidable “young person” whom a novelist was under no circumstances to cause to blush, and who blushed with such alarming readiness. But progress in art, after all, rarely has much to do with art. It is something great artists and minor artist alike usually achieve because they are interested in something else, and easily manage to swallow the largest camel around at the moment while manfully setting their lips against some, to us, quite insignificant gnat. In 1761, the largest camel of this sort anywhere, if I may keep up this metaphor briefly, was Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse, and if ever a novel came at a moment when it was most needed and served both the novel and the novelist a good turn, this is that novel. As a camel, the Nouvelle Héloïse was the embodiment of everything in the form that at the time was new and revolutionary—it pretended to depict ordinary life, it claimed to be moral, it appealed to the heart. As a gnat, it violated every accepted canon of taste from common sense to common decency. And this was immensely to the good; for in view of its unheard-of popularity, the duty of every self-respecting novelist in Europe was plain. With people lining up in the streets outside the bookshops for a chance to spend half an hour reading it, La Nouvelle Héloïse clearly was not a book one simply talked about. It was a book one rewrote. And once these hundreds of ambitious, insignificant, exasperated pens were at work, the future of the novel was safe.

The crisis which marks and determines the history of the novel in the 18th century comes above all from a general and growing conviction that, in spite of its past, the novel ought to be a major genre. Heaven and Matthew Arnold alone can say what the term “major” when applied to literary works really means, but it is a fact that everyone who wrote novels from at least 1730 on, and possibly a great many of those who read them, felt some sort of resentment that people as a rule didn't thinks novels major at all, although tragedy was, and the epic was, and many kinds of perfectly silly poetry were. Weren't novelists, after all—wasn't even a lowly hack like Mme de Gomez, scribbling fiction in a rented room to keep meat in the pot and at least one decent velvet dress—writing about human beings in critical situations exemplifying moral truths? “If these are not pigeons, what are they?” as Gertrude Stein said. The century, however, remained largely unconvinced. Between novels for ladies which were elevated but incredible, and novels for men which were credible, all right, but not elevated, one had clearly no choice if one was a person of taste—as who indeed wasn't?

Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and above all his Clarissa (1747) at last provided the novelists themselves with the models they were seeking, models hallowed as it were and made authoritative by popular acclaim. Here were works which at the same time presented believable pictures of everyday, ordinary life, full of the housekeepers and hackney coaches for which novelists felt so natural an attraction, and yet which were also overwhelmingly moral, specifically intended in fact for the edification of Miss Podsnap, since, in Richardson's own words, they were “published in order to cultivate Principles of Virtue and Religion in the Youth of Both Sexes,” being “Entirely Divested of All those Images which, in too Many Pieces calculated for Amusement only, tend to inflame the Minds they should Instruct.” If, however, these sanctimonious narratives at last gave the general run of novelists a leg to stand on, the leg was nevertheless a wooden one. Richardson made the novel into something young ladies and their papas could unashamedly read in the parlor; but he did so by pretending that the novel was something it was not, thereby setting a precedent which has been faithfully adhered to ever since by any sort of fiction that is designed to sell. Today our commercial novelists pretend to be investigating social problems and making comments on life. Richardson simply pretended he was not writing novels. What he published, he said, were collections of real letters from real people to real people, and as you read them and wept, you said, with far greater feeling than mere art could ever evoke in you, there, but for the grace of God and the timely lesson this book has taught me, go I. Reading fiction, indeed, might be an idle pastime, but was this fiction? Surely if Clarissa's cousin Colonel Morden had not hunted down her vile seducer and run him through, many a young man would have recognized Lovelace in a back lane and drawn his sword on some unfortunate stranger in the name of Clarissa, of purity and of England.

In France, too, this “willing suspension of disbelief” eventually took hold: Diderot, in his Eloge de Richardson, speaks of a lady who asks an acquaintance leaving for England to convey her respects to Clarissa's friend Miss Howe, if he can find her, and if she still lives. But to the French of 1750, Richardson was still largely a foreign curiosity. The French, it would seem, could not come by the ability to swallow this particular camel—I mean this pretense on the part of the writer that he wasn't writing, and thus that his work should be judged morally as life is, rather than aesthetically—quite so easily as the already more sentimental English. That climate of immediate, enthusiastic, undifferentiating response which is the hothouse, so to speak, of all really significant spiritual transformations was slow to develop in the temperate atmosphere of the salons. The talkative French intelligence found in Richardson above all a further incentive to talk: about the odd ways of foreigners, their curious genius and their hopeless want of taste, all of which really left the novel just about where it was before, since one could scarcely look upon anything the English had done as literature.

With the 18th century, the old distinction between female and masculine readers had tended gradually to break down. French women had become intellectually emancipated, French men had become polished, and there had come into existence a neutral but hungry public which accepted as a novel anything and everything that called itself one, from La Vie de Marianne, which was a novel, to Mme de Graffigny's Lettres Péruviennes, which wasn't, and although it considered them all more less trifling if you put a fine edge on it, it really didn't much care, and couldn't be roused to make much of a fuss about the matter, except in the salons, where one could argue about anything and had, after all, to argue about something. Distinctions between the Epic and the Romance and speculations about moral usefulness are admirably suited to salon conversations because they are almost ideally gratuitous, and in any case it is more than doubtful that, in that blessed pre-Bovary era, anyone actually had anything whatsoever happen to his morals as the result of reading a work of fiction, or ever seriously entertained the idea that such a thing was possible. It was on the contrary merely something one said one thought was possible.

But as I said, if the novel was to grow and thrive and blossom and bear fruit, there had to be some sort of a fuss—not a lot of animated but empty controversy, but a real disturbance generating a good deal of heat and moisture, and producing in time an atmosphere so humid that, while anything would grow in it, it would be excessively difficult to see through it distinctly. Taking it all in all, this precisely what first Richardson and then Rousseau managed to accomplish.

Subversive is surely the best word for both as novelists. Richardson was perhaps the first great novelist who could not be dismissed either because he was merely an artist doing something ideally admired from a distance, or because he wasn't an artist, and thus failed to come up to scratch. He was the first great novelist whose principal function was that of making his audience uncomfortable by doing with it what it was ready to have done with it, but didn't readily know how to assimilate or discount. By most standards—and I mean French standards—Richardson was no artist at all. He wrote too much, he said too little, he played havoc with order, clarity, coherence, truth and common sense. Prévost's admiring translation of Clarissa is only occasionally a translation in the ordinary sense of the word; one thinks of Mme de Boufflers reading the Bible and remarking on its style: “What a pity the Holy Ghost was so lacking in taste.”

But how troubling Clarissa was. How moving in spite of everything. How true to what truth should be. You could laugh at Richardson if you liked, but you somehow couldn't laugh him away. Perhaps you did not feel more virtuous when you had finished reading him, but you felt you ought to be. Reading a romance, you might reflect that no one could ever embody the Illustrious Mandane or the Matchless Charicléa or the Divine Clélie, and sigh with pleasurable melancholy and that would be the end of it; but when you put down the tale of the Incomparable Clarissa you did so with an uneasy consciousness that your being incomparable to her was something for which you had no one but yourself to blame.

And thus, even in a public intellectually trained to look upon the novel as an “entertainment,” and naturally inclined to be severe in matters of taste as well as sceptical in matters of feeling, there is gradually built up a residuum of semi-vicarious sentimental experience, a vague backlog of doubts, uncertainties, unexpressed aspirations, half-formed and unknown yearnings, an indefinite awareness of something in the self that is as yet imperfect, unrealized, unfulfilled. There is a pronounced strain of masochism in the 18th-century novel-reading public; an agreeable sensation of guilt is quite as natural to the 18th-century novel-reader as his bag-wig and slippers.

Richardson, however, was, as I said, a foreigner, and since this was a misfortune which could not possibly be remedied, had there been no one of his kind but Richardson, it is doubtful whether the as yet unformulated appetite he aroused for the spectacle of high seriousness in lowly circumstances would have soon come to much in the France of Mme de Pompadour. If Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also foreign, he was, by the time he wrote the Nouvelle Héloïse, only foreign to the world of the Paris salons, and at that more in his own imagination than in reality. No one, I think, has ever had a more perfect, instinctive grasp of the mind of the public for whom he was writing. No one has ever chosen a more strikingly opportune moment to give the public what, unbeknownst to itself, it had so deep a longing to read. The explanation is not hard to come by, since Rousseau, as a reader of Richardson, wrote for the most representative of all readers of Richardson, himself, and was prompted by a desire to succeed where Richardson had failed—that is to say, to Rousseau's way of thinking, as a moralist. Richardson as an artist was of no interest to Rousseau, who sincerely believed he believed that art was generally beneath contempt; but Richardson, in attempting to be moral, had given his readers, in the person of his heroine, a paragon of virtue so awe-inspiring as to discourage any of the commonplace weaker vessels who stood in such need of good examples to keep them in the paths of righteousness. To call this moral was positively absurd, positively criminal. A genuine moralist has a better grasp of human nature. He, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Citizen of Geneva, would write the perfect moral novel, defeating Richardson on his own terrain, presenting his readers with the far more useful history of Julie, an ordinary (if not common-place) woman who was tempted, as women are, and fell as women do and will, but who was redeemed, as any woman can be and so few, alas, are: redeemed by understanding, by Nature and by voluntary submission to Divine Providence, as it lies within the grasp of any creature, however abandoned, to be. This, at last, would be truly moral fiction. And to do Rousseau the credit he deserves, the public, the suddenly vast public of young ladies with tear-stained cheeks and fathers of families past forty blowing their noses into immense handkerchiefs and of great ladies and of young men with pale faces and glittering eyes—the lacrymose public of 1761 which seemed, to the incredulous and die-hard rationalists of the salons, to have sprung up out of nowhere, welcomed La Nouvelle Héloïse with an enthusiasm that had never been seen before, and has not, I believe, been given to any work since that time, including My Fair Lady.

A résumé of the Nouvelle Héloïse, while it is likely to be quite amusing, a claim I am afraid I could not honestly make for the novel itself, would not convey what I am essentially dealing with here, the insidious and subversive play of the novel upon the reader's nerves and areas within himself of which he is scarcely conscious. Using again the pretense that the book has no author but was written as it was lived by the characters themselves, Rousseau gradually subverts the reader's objective determination to read the novel as a novel, gradually involves him, entangles him, commits him to love and hate, to long and enjoy, to such an extent that, although at any moment he can shake off the illusion and remind himself sternly that this is absurd, tedious, bad, he cannot really resist abandoning himself to the power and passion which so mysteriously and yet so splendidly animate the whole. It would be difficult for me to point to any one passage in the book which justified this abandonment or explained this seduction; but the ultimate experience, the effect of the whole, is undeniably that of beauty.

And it is precisely this aspect of the book I have wished to emphasize, this inequation between the whole and its parts. If one imagines for a moment ourselves as a group, cultivated, sensitive, clever, responsible people that we are, carried back into the intellectual atmosphere of April, 1761, what do we find ourselves doing? Why, I suppose we more or less resemble those advertisements in which one man is shouting at an octopus descending from a flying saucer and everyone else is buried in the Philadelphia Bulletin. Someone among us may be worrying about the seven years war or the common cold, but everyone else is reading La Nouvelle Héloïse, and most of us, I imagine, are on the point of doing something about it, because there never was yet a book that raised one in his own estimation to such an exalted height of feeling and gave one such a sight of what had to be done again, and done better, and of what, above all, remained to be done for the first time. I pay us the natural compliments of supposing that we would not have liked the book very much. Educated people in 1761 did not generally care for La Nouvelle Héloïse. Even if they read it four times, like Mme du Deffand, they didn't like it, and they had all sorts of excellent reasons. Of course they were wrong, some as I said because it was in their best interests and ultimately those of the genre not to see in it another masterpiece in whose shadow the novel would wither and die as tragedy had in the shadow of Racine, and some because, like most critics since that time, they misread it entirely and supposed it to be a defense of the rights of passion, a thing they most properly deplored. The great public, however, was not so misguided, and took from it no passion but a passion for goodness, an insatiable craving for more and more and more tableaux of the struggles of generous but fallible beings to rise above the snares of worldliness and the torments of the flesh into the pure, fresh, fantastic realm of Rousseau's imagination.

Rousseau, in telling this story, had managed to suggest not only that it had happened, but that it had happened to him, and that he who called himself Saint-Preux was that most outstandingly virtuous of men, the Citizen of Geneva. To satisfy their readers' new passion for virtue, novelists on every hand went industriously to work on tales crowded with sublimity, sacrifice and sermonizing; but they did not fail to include housemaids and hackney-coaches, and they did not miss the hint Rousseau had given them that the key to success was to make a prominent if disguised appearance themselves among the cast of characters. Thus, innocently—or is it slyly?—for reasons that have little or nothing to do with art, as such, and which spring even less from a concern for the perfection of the novel, the concept of subjective first-person narrative, which will soon prove so invaluable as a means of expression for the self-centered romantic temperament, is somehow established in works which purport to be serious studies of society as a whole and contributions to the betterment of public morality. Soon The Sorrows of Werther, the Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis, the fiery fantasies of Mme de Staël, the melancholy memoires of René will seize upon this discovery and exploit it to the full, creating in their turn new appetites in the public and new imitators hopeful of satisfying them; and so, eventually, the inheritance of the Nouvelle Héloïse will pass over into the next century to become a by then obscured but none the less vital part of the substance of Balzac, Stendhal, and the modern novel as a whole.

I love men too much to need to choose among them; I love them all, and it is because I love them that I hate injustice; it is because I love them that I flee them. I suffer less from their miseries when I do not see them.

Letter of 28 January, 1762

Josephine Grieder (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: Introduction to Letters From the Marchioness de M*** to the Count de R***, by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon fils, Garland Publishing, 1972, pp. 5-10.

[In the following introduction to a modern edition of Crébillon's novel, Grieder points out that the epistolary novel did not originate with Samuel Richardson in England, and explains how Crébillon's work uses the genre's strengths to build up sympathy for an amoral woman.]

The reader acquainted with the epistolary novel only through Pamela, Clarissa, or Sir Charles Grandison may be tempted to assume that the form sprang full blown like Athena from the brow of Samuel Richardson. Such is not the case, as Robert Adams Day thoroughly demonstrates in Told in Letters; and the Letters from the Marchioness de M*** to the Count de R*** (1735) by Crébillon fils is a good example of an earlier effort in the genre.1 The title page, in its quotation from the Journal Littéraire, indicates the work's immediate antecedents, the Lettres portugaises (1669) and the Lettres galantes du Chevalier d'Her** by Fontenelle (1683 and 1687); but Crébillon creates a heroine more sentimental and worldly than the passionate Portuguese nun and focuses less on satirical portraits of the beau monde, Fontenelle's chief interest, than on the Marchioness' inner joys and torments.

The technical problems involved in the composition of an epistolary novel—how to present differing points of view; how to provide the characters with enough motivation, leisure, paper, and ink to write—are here reduced to the minimum. The sole correspondent is the Marchioness. The sole recipient is the Count, whose alternating assiduity and indifference to his mistress occasion her correspondence. Short billets, generally setting assignations, contrast with longer letters concerning her emotions; she enlivens her pages with gossip about friends, her husband, and other suitors. Sometimes she writes to request his help in an amorous affair; sometimes to assure him of her feelings; and very frequently to reproach him for his coldness or inconstancy.

But Crébillon, in employing the epistolary form, seized on its essential virtue: because the reader sees without an intermediary the feelings of the Marchioness, he is directly engaged emotionally with her. The translator, Samuel Humphreys, makes this clear in his preface.2 He anticipates that those ladies “who pretend to be devoted to the severest Sanctity” will no doubt disapprove of the work, but “The amiable and generous Part of the Sex, will be soften'd into Compassion, for the Frailties of a Lady who was too lovely to be exempted from the Ensnarements that result from blooming Beauty, and shining Wit.” The Marchioness indeed deviates from virtue, but a consideration of circumstances “shall easily permit our Constructions of her Conduct to be moderated by the Sentiments of Humanity.” And particularly on reading of her death, “we intermix our Tears with hers; we intreat Heaven to be propitious to her … and wish to see her wafted, by Angels, to those blissful Regions where all Sorrows shall for ever cease, and where the Infirmities inseparable from the present State of human Nature, will no more be repeated” (no pp.). Such participation on the part of the reader is particularly necessary in a story where sentiment is the chief interest and morality depends rather on nuances of feeling than on rigid interpretation of actions.

The Marchioness is, as we first see her, a delightful, witty coquette, intrigued by the Count's passion. Men's “Follies contribute to my Amusement,” (p. 10), she declares; though she is not “insensible” to his charms, she suggests that he “endeavour to refine your Heart from this unavailing Passion” (p. 15) and try elsewhere. Besides, her idea of love as “a mutual Confidence, an untainted Friendship and a perpetual Sollicitude to please” does not correspond to the modern idea; “That Passion, as it is now conducted, is no more than a frail Intercourse formed by Caprice; cherished awhile, by a Cast of Mind, still more contemptible; and, at last, extinguished by both” (p. 22).

Nevertheless, little by little, passion makes inroads on this confidence. She finds in herself “something more lively than Friendship” (p. 27). In response to his reproaches on her sarcasm, she tergiversates: “How do you know but that the Vivacity you complain of, may be my only Expedient to conceal half your Happiness from you, and to preserve me from the Confusion of declaring that I love you?” (p. 37). She becomes seriously annoyed at his apparent infidelity and exclaims, “Good God! can I be weak enough to wish you may be able to justify yourself!” (p. 49). Finally, conscious of being led into “a dreadful Abyss … the fatal Gulph” (p. 51), she admits the force of her feelings: “O Heavens! whither shall I fly from such a Combination of fatal Foes! My Sighs and Tears, and even my strongest Oppositions, give new Vigour to my unhappy Passion” (p. 52).

Assured of her love, the Count urges her, as we learn indirectly, to grant the “last favours.” She is caught in the inextricable female dilemma: “How happy is your Sex, in their Prerogative to pursue their Inclinations without the Checks of Shame and Confusion! whilst we, who are under the Tyranny of injust Laws, are compell'd to conquer the Impulse of Nature, who has implanted, in our Hearts, the same Desires that predominate in yours, and are so much the more unfortunate as we are obliged to oppose your Sollicitations and our own Frailty” (p. 58). Nevertheless, she marshalls the usual prudent arguments against such a step. First, man's nature is inevitably inconstant; and she is “persuaded it would be better to lose a Lover who is dissatisfied with our Cruelty, than one who is satiated with our Favours” (p. 63). Second, she fears her conscience. The Count's discretion might be able to conceal their arrangement, “but alas! who would have the Power to screen me from the Remorse of my own Heart?” (p. 67). She temporarily concludes that “the Emotions of the Heart are not subordinate to the Judgment: But, surely, I have the Ability to be virtuous; and we never cease to be so, against our Inclinations” (p. 67).

Does the Marchioness actually capitulate? Her Letter XXVII informs the Count that “your impatient Ardours had almost surprized me into an absolute Insensibility of my Duty” (p. 106) when the arrival of her husband fortunately saved her virtue, and she swears never to have another such interview with him. But relenting, “You see the Perplexity in which I am involved,” she declares; “your Lordship in one Scale, and Virtue in the other: How difficult is it to adjust the Ballance! (109). Two quick billets follow, the second arranging an assignation; “Some Letters are here suppress'd” (p. 111), the editor informs us. And in the next letter, the Marchioness reproaches R*** for too warm a declaration of his affection in public. Crébillon originally wrote at this point, “Voulez-vous faire deviner à tout le monde que vous m'aimez, et qu'il ne manque rien à votre bonheur?” Mr. Humphreys chooses to translate this ambiguously: “Would you have all the World suspect your Passion for me; and are you desirous they should believe you want nothing to render your Happiness compleat …?” (p. 113).

Whatever the English reader may choose to decide, the Marchioness knows from this point on all the worries that a mistress is subject to. In order to keep him interested, she gives him frequent cause for jealousy because “I have observed that it is good to awaken your Passion” (p. 129); satirical portraits of amorous tax collectors, an old marquis, her philosophy professor, a fop, and a prince enliven her letters. She is concerned about her reputation—“From the first moment I lov'd you, every Instance of my Conduct has been a Deviation from my Duty” (p. 169)—but her husband troubles her less as a watchdog than as a person whose justifiable amorous solicitations prove troublesome to her passion. She is continually in dread of the Count's inconstancy and reproaches him for it, though she asks him to “Pity me, in some tender Moments; for I cannot presume to require, from you, any Sentiments that are more ardent” (p. 230). Hoping by her coldness to revive his interest, she declares to him that “I once lov'd you to Adoration, and my Passion was incapable of a Moment's Insincerity; but you have, at last, caus'd it to expire” (p. 258).

An unexpected event—her husband's promotion to a post abroad—triggers the denouement: the Marchioness' death from anguish at being obliged to part from the Count. All her guilty feelings now come forward to torment her: “I am constantly haunted by the most criminal Ideas, and find it impossible to chase them from my Remembrance” (p. 297). She is repentant—and yet she loves. “It is no longer the frail Person enslav'd by a fatal Passion, who writes to you now. It is an unfortunate Creature, who repents of all her Crimes; who reviews them with Horror; who is sensible of all their Weight, and who yet is unable to refuse you new Proofs of her Tenderness” (p. 302). She is, in fact, more concerned about the Count's despair at her death than about her own situation and urges him to be steadfast. At the end, she neither loses dignity nor recants her love. “I am now come to the last Period of my Days, and am preparing to end them with Fortitude. Adieu! Adieu! Adieu! for ever!” (p. 304).

The ordinary reader will see in these letters the progress of feminine sensibility from coquetry to a tender and sincere passion. The perspicacious reader will see as well a comment on woman's ambiguous position in contemporary society. The novel presents, in effect, a ménage à trois. But the husband is impossible: free to engage in the amours which please him; delighted to retail to her the history of his conquests; yet out of boredom capricious and demanding of his marital rights. The much-loved Count is scarcely less agreeable on close inspection. He parades his mistresses before the Marchioness; he brags to others of his inconstancy; he neglects her “with no other View than to satisfy your Curiosity whether the Loss of you will affect me” (p. 253); he neglects her for no reason whatever. But the Marchioness tacitly accepts the current code and lives as honorably as possible with it. Unlike later heroines who lament and repent at length their fall from virtue, she has no recriminations until the moment of her death. This perhaps makes her technically “immoral”; that she continues faithful and tender in such a situation makes her, however, extremely admirable and even lovable.


  1. The complete title of Mr. Day's work is Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction before Richardson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966); a brief discussion of the Letters will be found in pages 107-109.

  2. Humphreys (1698?-1738) was a poet and a respected, if minor, figure in the world of letters: he provided the texts to several of Handel's most celebrated oratorios; and he did translations from Italian and French, including Gueulette's Peruvian Letters (1734) and pieces from La Fontaine.

Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10841

SOURCE: “The End of Epistolarity: ‘Letters from an American Farmer,’” in Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 140-72.

[In the following excerpt, Cook contends that J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer laments the ending of the epistolary genre as it records life and customs in the newly independent United States.]

What the Lettres persanes has been for scholars of European Enlightenment, [J. Hector St. John de] Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) has been for American studies: a generic anomaly that generates ongoing intradisciplinary contestation. The terrain of the debate is familiar: while the book deploys some of the narrative techniques of conventional prose fiction, it is composed of a series of letters that provide cultural and natural-historical information about the American setting and events, to which plot and character development are subordinated. As a result, the Letters have often been treated as a collection of loosely related essays. Selections from the work are anthologized according to the ideological currents of the moment, while the rest is dismissed unread. For example, Gary B. Nash has examined how Letter III, “What Is an American?” has been used by American literature and history courses to support a “myth of a classless prerevolutionary American society … a sentimentalized, idealistic vision of a vanished, egalitarian America” (216). As Cathy Davidson points out, “predictably … the later sections of Crèvecoeur's classic are anthologized far less often than the exultant (if unrealistic) Letter III. For most readers of Crèvecoeur (who typically encounter his work in anthologies, if at all), the important analysis of American racism set forth in the latter portions of the book simply does not exist. It is not part of our literary inheritance.”1 The Letters from an American Farmer is seldom examined as a novel; it is even less often treated as an epistolary narrative. In fact, its epistolarity—its generic context and codes—is almost always ignored.2 As a result, no one has put to the Letters the questions that eighteenth-century epistolary narratives consistently raise about the meaning of publication itself. As this study has been concerned to demonstrate, contemporary print artifacts of all sorts existed in dialogue with a liberal ideology that bound together publication, civic identity, and subjectivity, so that this dialogue is formally and thematically implicated in the question of what any eighteenth-century letter-narrative “means.”

In a recent study of eighteenth-century American writing, Michael Warner claims that the concept of a print culture is crucial to all contemporary American literature. Warner shows that the colonies' identity was intimately tied to print, and that print was insistently thematized in all sorts of American publications, from ephemeral pamphlets to conduct books to the U.S. Constitution. American novels in particular differ from the Anglo-European models that literary critics have traditionally used as touchstones: “American novels before Cooper are all anomalous from the perspective of literary criticism.” These novels must be read in the context of American print culture: they are “better accounted for by treating them as features of a republican public sphere rather than a liberal aesthetic.”3 In other words, instead of invoking such literary critical concepts as organic unity, characterization, or narrative voice, we should rather attend to how these works thematize publication, privacy, civic virtue, and the gendered body of the citizen, issues that preoccupy contemporary letter-narratives. Here such attention makes visible a transformation over the course of the century in attitudes toward the Enlightenment ideal of a public sphere. This final chapter examines how an American letter-narrative written in the last decades of the century comments on the political and cultural values implicit in Enlightenment print culture.

In many ways, Crèvecoeur's letter-narrative is even more anomalous than the novels Warner examines, for one could argue that it is neither a novel nor American in any meaningful sense. The Letters was composed (apparently largely in America) by a naturalized British citizen and landowner who used the name J. Hector St. John; it was published first in England (1782) and then in Ireland. Translated, revised, much extended, and rededicated, it came out in France two years later, by which time its author had resumed his original French citizenship and name, Michel Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, and was back in the state of New York serving as French consul.4 It was not published in the United States until 1793, three years after Crèvecoeur returned to the Continent, but by this time its vogue had passed, and for many years the Letters remained unread by any but a few scholars.

The formal peculiarities and the odd publication history of the Letters from an American Farmer make perfect generic sense when it is read within the Anglo-European tradition of epistolary narrative defined by the thematization of the public sphere. The Letters from an American Farmer appeared as the popularity of the epistolary genre began to decline, and thus it can be read as an elegy for the political and cultural ideologies that had been implicit in the genre through the century. Americanists have long read Crèvecoeur's text primarily as commenting on the future of the American republic; however, returned to its generic context, the Letters is clearly about that republic's past: it mourns the end of the transatlantic Republic of Letters and of the cosmopolitan citizen-critic imagined and constructed in its narratives.

Michael Warner describes postrevolutionary America as a period of transition from an old paradigm of readership to a new one. The earlier paradigm, which he calls “republican,” imagines a reading subject resembling the one that I have argued is produced by the Lettres persanes: the republican text invents a disembodied citizen-critic whose reading is an act of public civic virtue. In contrast, the second paradigm of readership, which he calls “nationalist,” invokes a private subject, embodied in history and therefore necessarily gendered and classed, whose reading is above all sympathetic.5 In what follows, we will see that the Letters from an American Farmer stages the cultural transformation from republican to nationalist readership, and in so doing, it stages the eclipse of the Enlightenment ideal of the Republic of Letters and of its cosmopolite, supranational citizen-critic.

Letter III, famously, opens with the question, “What is this new man, this American?” Crèvecoeur shows that as “America” rewrites itself into the United States through a bloody internecine struggle, it distinguishes this “new man” from a figure like the cosmopolitan citizen-critic produced by Montesquieu. The distinction reveals the alienation from Enlightenment values inherent in the new notion of national citizenship. For Montesquieu, the roles of father, husband, political subject, and critic mutually complement one another, and their complementarity regulates both the political and the domestic orders. In contrast, in a country “convulsed” (to use Crèvecoeur's repeated expression) by civil war, private and public aspects of the self are in direct and radical conflict: public and private categories of identity represent mutually exclusive subject-positions. Corporeality can no longer be abstracted or transcended, its politically masculine status guaranteed by participation in the public sphere. Instead, the body in all its vulnerable materiality—resembling in this way the body of the Richardsonian epistolary heroine, ever subject to invasion and violation—returns to center stage as the site of a cultural anxiety about power and authority. The post-Enlightenment subject is definitively embodied, and is thereby consigned to the private sphere of particularity and self-interest. In a period of national revolution, which in Crèvecoeur's depiction closely resembles a Hobbesian state of nature, the ideal of open public exchange between disinterested citizens whose reason qualifies them to debate the actions of the state is necessarily discredited.

Against this transformation of the significance of public and private, the Letters defines the American subject at the end of a certain mode of transatlantic correspondence. Crèvecoeur's elegiac project is anchored by three figurations of the body/subject: the colonist's wife in Letter I; the slave in the cage in Letter IX; and George III in Letter XII. The bodies of women, slaves, and the monarch pose specific and intractable challenges to the ideology of anonymity and disinterestedness that sustains the Enlightenment public sphere; these challenges help explain the demise of both the public sphere and the epistolary genre in the new nation.6


The title of the much-anthologized Letter III of the Letters poses the compelling question “What Is an American?” In 1782, one answer might have been that an American is someone who has successfully negotiated a complicated transition from being a subject in the political sense to being a subject in the modern psychological sense: the movement is simultaneously from subject to citizen and from political subjecthood to psychic subjectivity. The American is someone who has come to live under the linked signs of personal identity and personal property that we now think of as making up possessive individualism.7 In Europe, the Letters tells us, immigrants “were not numbered in any civil lists of their country, except in those of the poor; here they rank as citizens. … The laws … protect them as they arrive, stamping on them the symbol of adoption; they receive ample rewards for their labours; these accumulated rewards procure them lands; those lands confer on them the title of freemen, and to that title every benefit is affixed which men can possibly require” (68-69). In colonial and revolutionary America, this transition from statistical cipher to individual freeman takes place through the power of the printed word to create the citizen-critic: “As citizens it is easy to imagine that they will carefully read the newspapers, enter into every political disquisition, freely blame or censure governors and others” (71).8 Against a critical tradition that dismisses the Letters as generically anomalous and aesthetically uneven, I argue that a reading focusing on the complicated intersection between (political) citizen and (psychological) subject mediated by writing will reveal the order and clarity—the secret chain, we might say—of Crèvecoeur's rich and peculiar letter-narrative.

The first letter introduces this constellation of issues. Here, James the self-taught colonial must negotiate an epistolary identity for himself between the history, politics, and linguistic conventions he inherits from the Old World and the as-yet untested frontiers of the New. This negotiation is both the subject and the effect of the act of writing that constitutes the Letters from an American Farmer as a whole, for the print artifact we are reading is made up of James's letters describing the natural and civic terrain of America to Mr. F. B., the “enlightened European” gentleman who has solicited this letter-exchange after staying with the family during an American tour (51). The first letter establishes how much is at stake in this proposed epistolary engagement by putting into print the debate about it between James, his wife, and the local minister. Their language frames the correspondence as a kind of dangerous expedition between opposed social and political allegiances. In the eighteenth-century generic context, we could see the eastern trajectory of James's letters as reversing the journey to the West undertaken by Usbek and Rica. The farmer's letters sketch a return to the East, albeit one that will be canceled out by his family's western flight at the close of the narrative. James defines his epistolary offerings as recompense for the discursive tour of the Old World that Mr. F. B. gave him during that gentleman's visit to America: “You conducted me, on the map, from one European country to another; told me many extraordinary things of our famed mother country, of which I knew very little, of its internal navigation, agriculture, arts, manufactures, and trade; you guided me through an extensive maze, and I abundantly profited by the journey” (39).

This model of complementary exchange is challenged by one party to the three-cornered debate staged in Letter I. James's wife insists on Mr. F. B.'s radical difference from James; his extensive travels, she thinks, make it unlikely that he really wants to read James's homely letters.

Only think of a London man going to Rome! Where is it that these English folks won't go? One who hath seen the factory of brimstone at 'Suvius and town of Pompeii underground! Would'st thou pretend to letter it with a person who hath been to Paris, to the Alps, to Petersburg, and who hath seen so many fine things up and down the old countries; who hath come over the great sea unto us and hath journeyed from our New Hampshire in the East to our Charles Town in the South; who hath visited all our great cities?

(40; my emphasis)

The wife's description of Mr. F. B.'s and James's relationship as “letter[ing] it” links cultural capital to correspondence as an index of difference that precludes correspondence between subjects of different nations and classes. In contrast, the minister suggests that for such readers as Mr. F. B., letters work in lieu of actual travel to unite individuals discursively across difference. He assures James that even if his American anecdotes “be not elegant, they will smell of the woods and be a little wild; I know your turn, they will contain some matters which he never knew before. … We are all apt to love and admire exotics, though they may be often inferior to what we possess” (41-42). Mr. F. B. reading James's letters—and by analogy the British readers of Crèvecoeur's Letters—will undertake a discursive voyage to the New World more instructive than any continental tour:

Methinks there would be much more real satisfaction in observing among us the humble rudiments and embryos of societies spreading everywhere. … I am sure that the rapidity of their growth would be more pleasing to behold than the ruins of old towers, useless aqueducts, or impending battlements. … I am sure I cannot be called a partial American when I say that the spectacle afforded by these pleasing scenes must be more entertaining and more philosophical than that which arises from beholding the musty ruins of Rome. … For my part, I had rather admire the ample barn of one of our opulent farmers, who himself felled the first tree in his plantation and was the first founder of his settlement, than study the dimensions of the temple of Ceres.


In short, the ideal enlightened reader is understood to possess a cosmopolitan benevolence that makes the print representation of America a source of pleasure regardless of nationality. Indeed, James later asserts that American identity is effectively transnational: “We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person's country” (80). In this sense, the discursive representation of America would be the natural topos of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters.

This representation of the Republic of Letters as transnational is itself bound to a particular historical moment. Taken as a whole, the Letters invites us to consider what happens to the Enlightenment ideal of the public sphere when political conditions preclude the fulfillment of the citizen-critic's rights and responsibilities. Specifically, the Letters exposes the challenges to the ideology of cosmopolitan citizenship that arise when the meanings of “private” and “public” are rewritten in the political context of the 1770s and 1780s. For instance, James's sharp-witted, cautious wife fears that if the epistolary exchange is publicized, her husband will be persecuted by suspicious neighbors and royal agents as “the scribbling farmer” (49). She urges that the correspondence be kept secret, because, as we gradually learn, the American “public” described in the Letters is not a rational forum of disinterested citizens, but rather a battleground of private interests.9 The wife is particularly alert to how self-interestedness may color interpretations of the act of writing.10 She urges, “For God's sake let [the correspondence] be kept a profound secret among us; if it were once known/abroad that thee writest to a great and rich man over at London, there would be no end of the talk of the people: some would vow that thee art going to turn an author; others would pretend to foresee some great alterations in the welfare of thy family; some would say this; some would say that. Who would wish to become the subject of public talk?” (47-48). Her anxiety about the figure of the writing farmer makes it clear that criticism according to properly literary criteria is impossible in this political context:

Wert thee to write as well as friend Edmund, whose speeches I often see in our papers, it would be the very selfsame thing; thee would'st be equally accused of idleness and vain notions not befitting thy condition. Our colonel would be often coming here to know what it is that thee canst write so much about. Some would imagine that thee wantest to become either an assembly man or a magistrate, which God forbid, and that thee art telling the king's men abundance of things. … Therefore, … let it be as great a secret as if it was some heinous crime.


In the crippled society of colonial America, with its divided proto-public of individuals who are not yet fully citizens, publicity is symptomatic of political transgression rather than of republican transparency, as it was for Montesquieu's limping woman. In such a culture it is assumed that one writes to promote one's private interests, rather than the public good; on these grounds James's wife recommends that he retain the private status (and, implicitly, the political gender) of that female figure crippled by publicity.

Unlike the Lettres persanes, however, Crèvecoeur's Letters does not propose a utopian restoration of the proper body through the public exercise of critical reason. Indeed, for James's wife, writing belongs to a world to which Americans have no access.11 “Great people over sea may write to our townsfolk because they have nothing else to do. These Englishmen are strange people; because they can live upon what they call bank notes, without working, they think that all the world can do the same. This goodly country never would have been tilled and cleared with these notes” (48). In contrast to America, England operates on a strange hybrid economy of paper money standing in for gold: “if they have no trees to cut down, they have gold in abundance, they say; for I have often heard my grandfather tell how they live there by writing. By writing they send this cargo unto us, that to the West, and the other to the East Indies.” This magic circulation of paper is utterly foreign to the American economy: “But, James, thee knowest that it is not by writing that we shall pay the blacksmith, the minister, the weaver, the tailor, and the English shop” (49). According to the wife, America is still a precapitalist agrarian economy in which value is generated by labor, not paper. Her description sounds very much like Locke's explanation of how property rights precede money: when the laborer mixes his body's labor capacity with the earth, the resulting product (say, the tilled field) belongs to him.12 The wife insists, “I am sure when Mr. F. B. was here, he saw thee sweat and take abundance of pains; he often told me how the Americans worked a great deal harder than the home Englishmen; for there, he told us, that they have no trees to cut down, no fences to make, no Negroes to buy and to clothe” (48-49).13 In the context of the politically and economically self-regulating and self-sufficient society she describes, writing, linked to an illusory paper economy, is inherently anomalous and even scandalous: “How would'st thee bear to be called at our country meetings the man of the pen? If this scheme of thine was once known, travellers as they go along would point out to our house, saying, ‘Here liveth the scribbling farmer’” (49).

Larzer Ziff emphasizes that the wife's position is complicit with the dominant political powers: “From the authorities' viewpoint, a writing farmer indicates a disordering of the hierarchy on which political stability rests.”14 But the wife seems even more concerned about the opinions of her neighbors than she is about those of the authorities. Ziff may be correct in reading these passages as evidence of the wife's understanding of writing as linked to society's secular fall, but we need not also infer a rejection of writing on Crèvecoeur's part. Read in relation to the Enlightenment ideal of the public sphere, it becomes clear that the Letters here draws attention to the dangerous absence of the civic conditions enabling publication to be part of a transparent order where citizens, divested of personalities and private interests, discuss public affairs.15

According to the ideal of the public sphere, to write is to participate in a public debate. Mr. F. B. invokes the epistolary trope that “writing letters is nothing more than talking on paper,” and the minister significantly develops the comparison into a kind of public performance. “Imagine, then, that Mr. F. B. is still here and simply write down what you would say to him. Suppose the questions he will put to you in his future letters to be asked by his viva-voce, as we used to call it at the college; then let your answers be conceived and expressed exactly in the same language as if he was present” (41). Here the domain of writing is constituted neither as a corrupter of idealized pure presence nor as its successful reconstitution, but rather as a formal technology of exchange.16 This epistolary exchange does not testify to a nostalgia for “immanence,” to use Ziff's word, but rather to a republican paradigm of writing as the forum of objective, disinterested debate and discussion under the supervision of the public. If the wife describes a society in which writing is a sign of divisive self-interest, then in contrast, the epistolary project envisioned by James, the minister, and Mr. F. B. would allow citizen-critics to shape and affirm a Republic of Letters through writing. This vision stands at the head of the text, but as we will see, it cannot be sustained in the warring state of nature to which we see America reduced in Letter XII, in which self-interest has become fatally paramount.

The wife's doubts articulate, in displaced and domesticated disguise, Crèvecoeur's own fears about how public authorial status can be established in the context of a literary and political culture in the throes of “convulsion”—a word he returns to again and again. Can one be a citizen of a transatlantic Republic of Letters when one's own society is in political turmoil? And if this ideal is no longer possible, how can authorship be imagined differently? We will return to these questions, but first let us consider the final disposition of Mr. F. B.'s proposal.

The three readers in this opening scene are preoccupied by the question of whether language is transparent: that is, does Mr. F. B. mean what he writes? The text for this exercise in group reading is a handwritten, private letter from an acquaintance and potential patron, but it nonetheless calls on its readers' highest exegetical skills, as though it were Holy Scripture. The wife exclaims, “James, thee must read this letter over again, paragraph by paragraph, and warily observe whether thee canst perceive some words of jesting, something that hath more than one meaning” (41). She then, as James tells Mr. F. B., “read it herself very attentively; our minister was present, we listened to and weighed every syllable; we all unanimously concluded that you must have been in a sober earnest intention, as my wife calls it, and your request appeared to be candid and sincere. … Our minister took the letter from my wife and read it to himself; he made us observe the two last phrases, and we weighed the contents to the best of our abilities. The conclusion we all drew made me resolve to write” (41). This community debate mirrors a miniaturized public sphere reinforced by public reading, a publicness that, James vows to the minister, will continue: “my letters shall not be sent, nor will I receive any, without reading them to you and my wife; … it will not be the first thing which I have submitted to your joint opinions. Whenever you come to dine with us, these shall be the last dish on the table” (45-46). With this guarantee, the epistolary engagement is accepted: James will represent America for Mr. F. B. In the process, Crèvecoeur seems to suggest, he will also write himself into being, as a subject of Enlightenment print culture and as a citizen of the Republic of Letters.

By thus defining and staging the literary construction of the private subject at this early moment of national history, Crèvecoeur distances the anxiety he himself shares with his readers about the definition and status of American authority in the 1780s. By the end of the letter-narrative we will see James not as the contemptible “scribbling farmer” his wife imagines, but instead as the full-blown “farmer of feelings,” Mr. F. B.'s “refined” denomination for his correspondent (53). Despite this apparently successful negotiation of the boundary between public and private at the level of individual subjectivity, the strategies that allowed earlier epistolary authors to employ the paradigms of the Republic of Letters in the construction of their authorial identities no longer serve James or Crèvecoeur himself in the same way. The “farmer of feelings” is not the citizen-critic: the image appeals to a very different paradigm of reading and interpretation, one that problematizes correspondence instead of idealizing it.

This problematization becomes evident in the imbalances of the epistolary exchange charted here. Although James and the minister suggest in Letter I that correspondence can circumvent class and national differences, it does not necessarily produce egalitarian relations or a true public sphere. Particularly where the American is anxious to prove himself on the European's intellectual terrain, his correspondence becomes vulnerable to charges of self-interest. This may be the case even when the American's own landscape is the basis of the epistolary exchange, as it so often is in the Letters. Laura Rigal has described how eighteenth-century American natural historians depended on a European “network of men of letters” who provided letters of introduction and recommendation, as La Rochefoucauld did for Crèvecoeur. On her account, Crèvecoeur's Letters illustrates how the claim to properly “American” independence and thus to an idealized republican moral purity is actually undermined by the workings of correspondence:

In Crèvecoeur's fiction, the letters themselves come to be objectified properties, serving, in effect, as heraldic devices which legitimate, and even prove the virtuous existence of the Pennsylvania yeoman. However, legitimation by letters to and from Europe is accomplished only at the expense of continuity with the Old World civilization in respect to which the Pennsylvanian hopes to distinguish himself. While serving as evidence of his virtuous character, therefore, the farmer's letters also serve to document the corruption and “interestedness” which are implicit in his trans-Atlantic social connections, and which reflect his own social origin.17

Rigal examines this collapse of a crucial distance between Old and New World in Letter XI, which recounts the visit to John Bartram of a Russian traveler named Iwan. Bartram is not ashamed to be found working beside his laborers, thus demonstrating his unpretentious, democratic “American” values, but he proudly cites his epistolary links with European aristocrats and royalty. He has corresponded with the British king about Florida; with Queen Ulrica of Sweden, whose “kind epistle” in Latin he displays to Iwan; and with various distinguished Europeans, exchanging seeds and specimens. The coat of arms of his French father's family, a token of his continued engagement with the values of the Old World, hangs in his study.

The idea of correspondence resonates throughout Letter XI in various ways. Iwan's desire to meet Bartram was stimulated by “the extensive correspondence which I knew he held with the most eminent Scotch and French botanists” as well as with Queen Ulrica (188), and Bartram was not surprised by Iwan's visit because he had received advance notice of his arrival from another correspondent. Bartram's transformation from a colonial farmer to a world-famous botanist who “walk[s] in the garden of Linnaeus” (194) with princesses and nobles is due to his knowledge of Latin, which permits him not only to grasp the “universal grammar of plants through the Linnaean system” but to correspond with a queen. Latin makes him a cosmopolitan citizen of the Republic of Letters; it also makes him botanically at home not only “all over [his] farm” but throughout North America, until by now, he says modestly, “I have acquired a pretty general knowledge of every plant and tree to be found in our continent” (195). This knowledge anchors a self-perpetuating chain of correspondence: Bartram's autobiographical account ends triumphantly, “In process of time I was applied to from the old countries, whither I every year send many collections,” and he offers to add Iwan to his list of natural-historical correspondents.

While Iwan's account emphasizes the reciprocality of Bartram's epistolary exchanges, the underlying hierarchialism implicit in them becomes clear when the epistolary metaphor is extended to Bartram's household economy, which Iwan describes as “the mutual correspondence between the master and the inferior members of his family” (195). Bartram's household is represented as an ideal patriarchy. Assembled around the dining table, its members exemplify the orderly Great Chain of Being, rising from “Negroes” and “hired men” to family and guests up to “the head, [where] the venerable father and his wife presided” (189). Here, the idea of correspondence accommodates a highly stratified social model, rather than that of an egalitarian exchange between citizens of the Republic of Letters.

Iwan ends the letter about his visit to Bartram by thanking his own correspondent for a letter of introduction: “It was to the letter you gave me that I am indebted for the extensive acquaintance I now have throughout Pennsylvania” (199). Rigal's reading asks us to de-figure this economic metaphor, in the sense of returning it to its literal meaning: such letters are indeed debts, for they entangle the American naturalist in the social hierarchies of the Old World and carry its corrupt values into the ostensibly objective, scientific study of the New World. As a result, the ideal of the disinterested citizen-critic is undermined. In this sense, Letter IX raises questions about correspondence between the New World and the Old that prepare us for the disastrous epistolary rupture that concludes Letter XII.


The fantasy of benevolent paternalism suggested in Iwan's image of the Bartram dinner table is crystallized in the figure of Mr. F. B., who authorizes, though he does not author, the correspondence that becomes the Letters from an American Farmer. As the narrative develops, however, this fantasy is disrupted by a series of challenges to the crucial guarantee represented by the father's body. In Montesquieu's work, the Persians' letters repeatedly invoke a real paternal body as the anchor of language and of narrative, but the Lettres persanes itself seeks to eliminate the connection between discourse and (gendered) body so as to open up a space for the disembodied citizen-critic. In the Letters from an American Farmer, the narrator's attempts to locate and affirm the inherency of meaning in the father's body are also exposed as fruitless. James's anxious discourse seeks the origin of language and property, and ultimately of the new nation itself, in corporeality. The anomalous body of the slave, however, calls into question the Lockean connections between body, property, and society.

In Locke's Second Treatise of Government, America as a concept is a sort of thought-laboratory in which the origin of society can be worked out: “in the beginning all the world was America.”18 In this Edenic New World, the individual exists very precisely as a body/subject: subjectivity and corporeality are coextensive and indivisible. This is clear in the famous passage on the origin of property:

every man has a property in his own person; this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.19

Locke asserts that the body's physical limitations ensure the essential fairness of the property system established by God. So long as there is no waste, defined by the limits of the capacity of the body to consume, the concept of property is unproblematic:

The same law of nature, that does by this means give us property, does also bound that property too. God has given us all things richly, 1 Tim. VI. 12 is the voice of reason confirmed by inspiration. But how far has he given it us? To enjoy. As much as any one can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in: whatever is beyond this, is more than his share, and belongs to others. Nothing was made by God for man to spoil or destroy.20

When this law is observed, property is justified by nature itself:

The measure of property nature has well set by the extent of men's labour and the conveniencies of life: no man's labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to intrench upon the right of another, or acquire to himself a property to the prejudice of his neighbour, who would still have room for as good, and as large a possession (after the other had taken out his) as before it was appropriated. This measure did confine every man's possession to a very moderate proportion.21

These passages justify property as a by-product of the body/subject. However, a categorical difficulty arises when another kind of body is considered: that of the servant. Initially, Locke presents the servant's body as simply a kind of prosthesis. In a passage summarizing how labor makes property out of nonproperty, he writes, “Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property without the assignation or consent of anybody.”22 The parallelism finesses a troubling question about the extension of agency through servitude, for the service of another, whether wage laborer, indenturee, or slave, is not the same as the pure effects of one's own bodily labor that provide an inalienable right to property. Such service must instead be a result of the invention of money, which replaces the natural corporeal index of legitimate consumption and waste by an artificial measure that allows the unjust distribution of goods: “this I dare boldly affirm, that the same rule of propriety, (viz.) that every man should have as much as he could make use of, would hold still in the world, without straitening any body; … had not the invention of money, and the tacit agreement of men to put a value on it, introduced (by consent) larger possessions, and a right to them.”23 The category of the servant's labor represents a point of entanglement in Locke's argument about the origins of property; it also underlines a confusion about the concept of the body in eighteenth-century Enlightenment culture.

The problem of the servant's labor, unresolved in Locke, becomes urgent in Letter IX, for what ultimately undermines the optimistic representation of America in James's early letters is the paradoxical body of the slave. In the New World, which Locke represents as the scene of property's legitimate birth, the slave's body stands as an emblem of the ethical, even the ontological, dubiety of property. It is also an emblem of the loss of civic values that leads to the despairing conclusion of the Letters. The themes of Letter IX echo the reflections of Montesquieu's Usbek on the rise of despotism, for both emphasize the cyclic decay of civic values and link bodily and economic health. James begins his description of Charles Town by referring to the “valetudinarians from the West Indies” he sees there, “at thirty, loaded with the infirmities of old age” (167), their health destroyed by the luxuriousness of their climate and the ease of their life. The idyllic climate of Charles Town encourages the excesses of its citizens, who resemble West Indian planters, notorious for dissipation and cruelty, in their moral and physical debility: “The rays of their sun seem to urge them irresistibly to dissipation and pleasure” (167). Land values there are very high, because of the “narrowness of the neck on which it stands”; nonetheless, this value does not remain in the land, but is progressively drained off into the hands of lawyers, a class that figures parasitical nonproductivity to James. “In another century, the law will possess in the north what now the church possesses in Peru and Mexico” (168).

These comparisons between the West Indies, Mexico, and Peru, all Enlightenment tropes for colonial despotism, set in play the question of slavery that dominates the rest of this letter. In Charles Town, James observes, slaves' bodies are invisible to their owners: “Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear, nor feel, for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labours all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen, and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans daily drop and moisten the ground they till” (168). The passage invokes obliquely, in relation to the slaves, the Lockean image of the mixture of the body's labor with the earth that constitutes and legitimates property; at the same time, it emphasizes how the invention of money makes that justification of property irrelevant. Because of the rise of a market in human bodies as slave labor made possible by money, the mixing of the human body with the earth, by its emissions of sweat and tears as well as by its labor capacity, no longer performs its proprietary magic. The wealth of Charles Town's planters derives less from agricultural productivity than from the gold-driven triangle trade that circulates from Peru to Guinea to North America, bringing captured Africans “to toil, to starve, and to languish for a few years on the different plantations of these citizens” (169). The slaves are not subjects in a money economy but objects of it, laboring for people “who have no other power over them than that of violence, no other right than what this accursed metal has given them!” (169).

In such a context, even paternity, that basic bodily function that anchors and stabilizes society for James and for Usbek, becomes an index of dehumanization. That the slave's body is not that of a body/subject is clearest when it is considered against contemporary models of fatherhood. By definition, the slave can never fully participate in the Enlightenment triad of masculine identity-categories celebrated by Usbek, that of husband, father, and citizen. James notes:

If Negroes are permitted to become fathers, this fatal indulgence only tends to increase their misery; the poor companions of their scanty pleasures are likewise the companions of their labours; and when at some critical seasons they could wish to see them relieved, with tears in their eyes they behold them perhaps doubly oppressed, obliged to bear the burden of Nature—a fatal present—as well as that of unabated tasks. How many have I seen cursing the irresistible propensity and regretting that by having tasted of those harmless joys they had become the authors of double misery to their wives … they are not permitted to partake of those ineffable sensations with which Nature inspires the hearts of fathers and mothers; they must repel them all and become callous and passive. … Their paternal fondness is embittered by considering that if their children live, they must live to be slaves like themselves. … The very instinct of the brute, so laudable, so irresistible, runs counter here to their master's interest; and to that god, all the laws of Nature must give way. Thus planters get rich.


The bodily paradoxes of slavery counter the Lockean representation of the New World as the space in which liberal humanism, founded on democratic capitalism, can freely unfold.

Slavery's corrosive effects on liberal idealism are most memorably presented in Letter IX's appalling spectacle of the slaves in the cage. This scene is traditionally read as an allegory of the excesses of revolution, but the suicide of Montesquieu's Roxane has taught us not to move too quickly from the body to its exegesis. The passage opens with a familiar Enlightenment evocation of the benign relations between humans and the natural world. On his way to a friendly dinner with a plantation owner, our narrator rambles through a pleasant pastoral landscape. However, this landscape is abruptly invaded by the tropes of despotism. The image of the caged and dying slave enacts the reversals of value that despotism sets into motion: in this terrible image of a World Upside Down, a man is trapped in a cage, while birds outside struggle to get in to feed on him. The caged slave's body is written over by wounds; since despotic power always leaves its signature on the eyes, the narrator observes that “the birds had already picked out his eyes; his cheek-bones were bare” (178). The birds have torn the slave's face so that he is literally “disfigured.”24

The effect of this spectacle on the beholder is just what the despot would desire: in the presence of these signs of absolute power, the narrator experiences a sublime disruption of apprehension and expression. The body/subject is disarticulated: “I found myself suddenly arrested by the power of affright and terror; my nerves were convulsed; I trembled; I stood motionless, involuntarily contemplating the fate of this Negro in all its dismal latitude.” In a pidgin English that signals his marginality to humanity itself, the caged slave utters “a few inarticulate monosyllables” (177). When he begs for a sip of water and then for the greater kindness of death, the goal of despotism—to display its absolute authority over the bodies of its miserable subjects—has been accomplished. That Crèvecoeur's slave must beg for his death marks how much greater is his abjection than that of Montesquieu's Roxane, who is able, at least, to end her own life. Even his death is not at the slave's disposal.25

Facing this spectacle, the narrator realizes that the ideals of Enlightenment are not sustainable in the face of human greed and cruelty. So-called Oriental tyranny exists even in the New World, and there is no escape from it: “History perpetually tells us of millions of people abandoned to the caprice of the maddest princes, and of whole nations devoted to the blind fury of tyrants. Countries destroyed, nations alternately buried in ruins by other nations, some parts of the world beautifully cultivated, returned again into their pristine state, the fruits of ages of industry, the toil of thousands in a short time destroyed by few” (173). Human societies are always in a state of nature: “Everything is submitted to the power of the strongest; men, like the elements, are always at war; the weakest yield to the most potent; force, subtlety, and malice always triumph over unguarded honesty and simplicity” (174). As Usbek's Troglodyte fable suggested, every political order eventually degenerates back into despotism: “Republics, kingdoms, monarchies, founded either on fraud or successful violence, increase by pursuing the steps of the same policy until they are destroyed in their turn, either by the influence of their own crimes or by more successful but equally criminal enemies” (177). While civilized society at its best may allow a degree of political stability, perhaps even temporary felicity, nonetheless human society “is a strange heterogeneous assemblage of vices and virtues and of a variety of other principles forever at war, forever jarring, forever producing some dangerous, some distressing extreme” (177). With this realization, the Enlightenment vision of an emancipatory public sphere of reasoning, disinterested citizens is exposed as an empty ideal. What follows is a depiction of the end of the Republic of Letters and of the correspondence that symbolized it.


The visit to Charles Town described in Letter IX offers a counter-Enlightenment narrative about the corrupting effects of the despotic tendency in human society. This narrative prepares us for the final phase of James's story: a vivid depiction of the actual “convulsion” of American society. If the ideal society is that in which the roles of husband, father, and citizen are mutually self-reinforcing, so that self-interest and public interest are the same, in a society in “convulsion” these roles become radically incompatible. In his last letter, James describes the anguish of this experience, which threatens the dissolution of the body/subject:

Never was a situation so singularly terrible as mine, in every possible respect, as a member of an extensive society, as a citizen of an inferior division of the same society, as a husband, as a father, as a man who exquisitely feels for the miseries of others as well as for his own! … When I consider myself as connected in all these characters, as bound by so many cords, all uniting in my heart, I am seized with a fear of the mind, I am transported beyond that degree of calmness which is necessary to delineate our thoughts. I feel as if my reason wanted to leave me, as if it would burst its poor weak tenement.


What is lost in the storm of revolution is the quintessentially human desire for sociability, for “of all animals that live on the surface of this planet, what is man when no longer connected with society, or when he finds himself surrounded by a convulsed and a half-dissolved one? He cannot live in solitude; he must belong to some community bound by some ties, however imperfect” (201). Now, however, “every one feels … for himself alone”; no man is truly a citizen in the Enlightenment's fullest sense of the word. Symptomatically, the gendered identity that underpins citizenship now becomes unstable: James's response to the dangers of attack is a kind of lability of gender. “Sometimes feeling the spontaneous courage of a man, I seem to wish for the decisive minute; the next instant a message from my wife, sent by one of the children, … unmans me; away goes my courage, and I descend again into the deepest despondency” (202). In the context of revolution, the roles of husband, father, and citizen clash and undermine one another. The Republic of Letters, grounded on that complementary trilogy, collapses in its absence.

At the end of the Letters, then, we return to the question raised in the first letter by the wife's anxiety about writing. How can a public authorial status be established in a society in the throes of “convulsion”? In this study's terms, the question can be framed even more specifically: how can one be a citizen of a transatlantic Republic of Letters when one's own nation is in political turmoil, so that local and larger identities clash? And if this ideal is no longer possible, how can authorship be imagined otherwise? James's reference to the conflict he experiences between being “a member of a large society which extends to many parts of the world” and “a citizen of a smaller society” (203) describes the author's dilemma as well as that of the colonial.

Letter XII describes life in America during this civil conflict as essentially unrepresentable. The loss of representability threatens the existing relation between author and reader, grounded in a model of readership that appeals above all to the exercise of reason. Up till now, a reading model based on sympathy and identification has been only implicit in the text, but here the interpellation of the disinterested, disembodied citizen is replaced by an interpellation that demands embodied identification.26 Since the representation of the distresses of civil war strains rational language past its limits, the Letters at last turns to the language and paradigms of sympathy and identification that Warner sees as characteristic of a nationalist model of readership: “men secure and out of danger are soon fatigued with mournful details: can you enter with me into fellowship with all these afflictive sensations; have you a tear ready to shed over the approaching ruin of a once opulent and substantial family? Read this, I pray with the eyes of sympathy” (203).

In this new kind of reading, the reader is deliberately invited to import self-interest into the text. Sympathetic reading calls on the reader not in the abstract, as one of the many anonymous and disinterested readers of print artifacts who constitute a public, but as a private person whose body necessarily engages his or her special interests. In short, what we might call the writing of sympathy creates its addressees as those body/subjects that Montesquieu, as I argued in Chapter 2, sought to deconstruct. As a result, the experiences of private subjectivity, not those of public criticism, become predominant. The concept of a disinterested civic debate in a public sphere defined by abstraction and impersonality becomes irrelevant, and the abstract tenets of jurisprudence and political philosophy are brushed aside as citizens are reduced to their bodies. The following passage maps out the transformation from impartial, disinterested, disembodied “spectator” and “citizen” to corporealized colonist:

The cool, the distant spectator, placed in safety, may arraign me for ingratitude, may bring forth the principles of Solon or Montesquieu; he may look on me as wilfully guilty; he may call me by the most opprobrious names. Secure from personal danger, his warm imagination, undisturbed by the least agitation of the heart, will expatiate freely on this grand question. … To him the object becomes abstracted. … But let him come and reside with us one single month; let him pass with us through all the successive hours of necessary toil, terror, and affright; let him watch with us, his musket in his hand, through tedious sleepless nights, his imagination furrowed by the keen chisel of every passion; let his wife and his children become exposed to the most dreadful hazards of death; let the existence of his property depend on a single spark, blown by the breath of the enemy; … let his heart, the seat of the most affecting passions, be powerfully wrung by hearing the melancholy end of his relations and friends; let him trace on the map the progress of these desolations; let his alarmed imagination predict to him the night, the dreadful night when it may be his turn to perish, as so many have perished before. Observe, then, whether the man will not get the better of the citizen, whether his political maxims will not vanish! Yes, he will cease to glow so warmly with the glory of the metropolis: all his wishes will be turned toward the preservation of his family!


The convulsion that reduces citizens to bodies acts even on monarchy. James assures himself that if George III found himself transported to America at this moment, he too would act as a father rather than as a ruler:

If a poor frontier inhabitant may be allowed to suppose this great personage[,] the first in our system[,] to be exposed but for one hour to the exquisite pangs we so often feel, would not the preservation of so numerous a family engross all his thoughts; would not the ideas of dominion and other felicities attendant on royalty all vanish in the hour of danger? The regal character, however sacred, would be superseded by the stronger, because more natural one of man and father. Oh! Did he but know the circumstances of this horrid war, I am sure he would put a stop to that long destruction of parents and children. I am sure that while he turned his ears to state policy, he would attentively listen also to the dictates of Nature, that great parent; for, as a good king, he no doubt wishes to create, to spare, and to protect, as she does.


Here the image of the paternal Farmer George meets that of an implicitly maternal Nature to create a natural family out of all the king's subjects, metropolitan as well as colonial.

This powerful invocation of the secular, corporeal, domestic aspect of the king's double body sets up the rhetorical climax of this letter, in which the vulnerable bodies of James's own family clinch the appeal to sympathy. Here again, the destructiveness of civil war is measured by how it opposes the body of the father and husband to the ideal of the disembodied citizen, defining these roles as radically at odds instead of mutually complementary:

Must I then, in order to be called a faithful subject, coolly and philosophically say it is necessary for the good of Britain that my children's brains should be dashed against the walls of the house in which they were reared; that my wife should be stabbed and scalped before my face; that I should be either murthered or captivated; or that for greater expedition we should all be locked up and burnt to ashes as the family of the B———n was?


These violent images of destruction and dismemberment testify to the end of the idealized disembodiment of the Enlightenment. If in 1721 Montesquieu uncoupled body from subjectivity to create the citizen-critic, 60 years later, in the collapse of the public sphere that is the subtext of the Letters from an American Farmer, Crèvecoeur obsessively returns to the body and mourns the death of the citizen. In a world barely distinguishable from the state of nature, the body becomes the vehicle of sympathy, which is all that is left in a society where citizenship is impossible.

Letter XII charts the destruction of the conditions that sustain the proper citizen-critic, and rematerializes the body as the site of civic anxiety. Symptomatically, unlike the Lettres persanes, Clarissa, or Fanni Butlerd, this letter-narrative does not close with an explanation of its own publication, a self-inscribed textual history. It records instead the rupture of the correspondence between Europe and America, the end of the narrative of epistolarity as well as of this particular epistolary narrative. James at last resolves to flee the war zone, taking his family west to the Indian villages far from the European settlements and their institutionalized connections with the Old World.

His final letter is oddly broken up by dashes standing for the names of the Indian tribes and their villages where his family will soon live. These blanks serve as typographical icons of the end of correspondence: the unmapped new spaces beyond the frontier are not on the embryonic postal routes of the new nation. In despair, James asks Mr. F. B., “Shall we ever meet again? If we should, where will it be? On the wide shores of ———.” The unnamable destination that concludes James's query stands, as it were, for “address unknown.” The elision marks both the expulsion of epistolarity from this troubled Eden and the passing from cultural authority of an entire constellation of images and values bound up with the idea of correspondence.27 With the fall of the Republic of Letters, transatlantic postrevolutionary and post-Enlightenment print culture will have to devise new metaphors of exchange, communication, and authorship, as well as new definitions of citizenship and indeed of subjectivity itself.


  1. Nash, ed., Class and Society in Early America, p. 21, cited in Cathy Davidson, Revolution and the Word, pp. 216-17. For a discussion of the publication history and critical reception of the Letters, see Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur, pp. 161-64, and Davidson, p. 257.

  2. Among the few exceptions to the suppression of the Letters' epistolarity are Philip D. Beidler's “Franklin's and Crèvecoeur's ‘Literary’ Americans”; Jean F. Beranger's “The Desire of Communication”; and Manfred Putz's “Dramatic Elements and the Problem of Literary Mediation.” These essays do not consider the relation between the epistolary genre and print culture that focuses my study.

  3. Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic, pp. 151-52. Warner examines a wide range of print artifacts, including pamphlets on such political matters as the 1765 Stamp Act; an account of a libel trial against a printer; Franklin's epitaph and Poor Richard's Almanac; and Charles Brockden Brown's novel Arthur Mervyn (1799-1800). While his treatment of each of these is valuable, I found particularly useful for my interests here his treatment of Franklin's periodical Silence Dogood letters of 1722.

  4. In the French edition, a dedication to Lafayette replaced the original dedication to the Abbé Raynal.

  5. See Warner, chap. 5.

  6. While the body of the citizen-critic is functionally gendered male, this serves not to particularize the citizen but to link him to the abstract “norm” from which all those who are not literate white male property-holders deviate into particularity. Warner explores the collapse of this model, the undoing of “the citizen's literate transcendence of his unacknowledged male body,” in Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn, another narrative about the crisis of the public sphere (170).

  7. C. B. MacPherson's The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism provides an indispensable discussion of the connection between capitalism and liberalism.

  8. This sense of Americans' self-definition through print culture has been explored, sometimes brilliantly, in American studies over the last decade. Examples include Davidson's Revolution and the Word, Larzer Ziff's Writing in the New Nation, and Warner's Letters of the Republic.

  9. Obviously, this public resembles the oppressive, tyrannical majorities of ignorant individuals envisioned, in somewhat different ways, by Rousseau, J. S. Mill, and Tocqueville. See Habermas's discussion in Structural Transformation, pp. 98-99, 132-38.

  10. In the Sketches, Crèvecoeur portrays such self-interestedness in his Patriot characters, whose desire to appropriate the goods of others is only thinly veiled by their hypocritical republican rhetoric. In the Fifth Landscape, a Patriot official's wife helps herself to the belongings of a Loyalist's widow and children, ostensibly to shield them from accusations of ill-gotten wealth when their household goods are publicly displayed for auction. This satirical depiction of self-interest in a feminized and domesticated mode suggests a powerful if displaced indictment of Patriot motives and actions.

  11. Larzer Ziff argues that the wife connects writing with the realm of market values, paper money, credit, and “representation,” as opposed to “immanence”; see Writing in the New Nation, p. xi.

  12. Locke's well-known discussion of labor and property is cited and discussed later in this chapter; see note 29.

  13. Her rhetoric makes slave-owning a self-justifying institution, analogous to the examples of labor Locke gives as the basis of the division of objects held in common into individual property before the invention of money. Just as the labor of one's body is combined with the tree by the act of cutting it down and with the fence by the act of building it, making the tree and the fence one's property, so slaves, she implies, become one's property through the labor of clothing them. However, the mention of buying Negroes smuggles the concept of money into the wife's precapitalist world somewhat as it is smuggled into Locke's justification of property in the Second Treatise of Government. In both contexts, a money economy complicates the justification of property, as I show below.

  14. Ziff, Writing in the New Nation, p. 28.

  15. Ziff's conclusion suggests something like a Whig reading of eighteenth-century history: the Letters is positioned at a “turning point” in a cultural teleology, necessarily bearing the traces of a representational economy's corruption but looking ahead to a post-Revolutionary Restoration through nature (33). It is not always clear whether Ziff intends to attribute the vocabulary of progress and nostalgia employed in this discussion to James or Crèvecoeur, or whether it is his own. To anticipate my conclusion, I emphatically disagree with Ziff's idea that James's flight to the Indian villages is simply a relocation of the happy society, which he justifies by asserting that there was no “idea of ruin in the [American] culture” (33). The Letters is itself vivid evidence to the contrary: the public sphere destroyed by “convulsion” won't be reconstructed in the anticivic space beyond the frontier to which James's family eventually flees.

  16. In this context the scholarly catechism could be linked to the contemporary use of the natural history questionnaire, which, with its set questions about soils, topography, ad flora ad fauna, was circulated to a range of informants and then collated to avoid the distorting effects of subjective, idiosyncratic observation. Perhaps the first such questionnaire in English was Robert Boyle's “General Heads for a Natural History of a Countrey, Great or Small,” printed in the first volume of the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions (1666). The questionnaire continued to be used in assembling natural histories through the early nineteenth century. Also relevant to the idea of the oral examination is Warner's discussion of the principle of supervision in the republican public sphere (Letters of the Republic, chap. 2) and James's interrogation of Andrew the Hebridean in Letter III.

  17. Rigal, “An American Manufactory: Political Economy, Collectivity, and the Arts in Philadelphia, 1790-1810,” pp. 188-89. Rigal discusses this aspect of the letter in a chapter on William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, East and West Florida. I thank her for making available to me an early version of this material, which I cite here. A more prosaic example of potential self-interest in James's correspondence with Mr. F. B. appears in the minister's comment, “You intend one of your children for the gown; who knows but Mr. F. B. may give you some assistance when the lad comes to have concerns with the bishop. It is good for American farmers to have friends even in England” (44).

  18. Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. MacPherson, p. 29.

  19. Ibid., p. 19. Locke's pronomial use is appropriate: his analysis applies to males only. Here and elsewhere, the italics that signal the key terms suggest the paradoxes of print culture: while the labor of the hand that made the manuscript is effaced by the conventions of typography, the italicization of the word “labor” calls attention to the artificiality of those conventions.

  20. Ibid., pp. 20-21.

  21. Ibid., p. 22.

  22. Ibid., pp. 19-20, emphasis mine.

  23. Ibid., p. 23.

  24. These references to despotism look back to the work of Alain Grosrichard discussed in connection with the Lettres persanes. The word “disfigured” resonates particularly richly for a native speaker of French like Crèvecoeur, given the range of meaning of the word “figure” in that language. I also recall here de Bolla's attention to “disfiguration” as a strategy that empties the represented body of figural meanings in order to return it to what is held to be its “original” significance. This strategy also militates against an allegorical reading of the disfigured slave.

  25. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry defines slaves in Lockean terms as those who have “ceased to exercise political autonomy over their own most intimate property, the human body” (156).

  26. The term “interpellation” is Althusser's, explained in his “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” p. 173-76.

  27. What Jay Fliegelman describes as “the sealing of the garden” in late-eighteenth-century America comes about in part as a result of this expulsion of epistolarity. See his Prodigals and Pilgrims, pp. 227-67.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” In Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.

Beidler, Philip D. “Franklin's and Crèvecoeur's ‘Literary’ Americans.”Early American Literature 13 (1978): 50–63.

Beranger, Jean F. “The Desire of Communication: Narrator and Narratee in Letters from an American Farmer.Early American Studies 12 (1977): 73–85.

Davidson, Cathy. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. London: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Fliegelman, Jay. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution Against Patriarchal Authority 1750–1800. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Grosrichard, Alain. Structure du sérail: La fiction du sepostisme asiatique dans l'Occident classique. Paris:Éditions du Seuil, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge, 1960; rprt. New York: Mentor-Penguin Books, 1965.

———. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. C. B. MacPherson. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1980.

MacPherson, C. B. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Hobbes to Locke. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Nash, Gary, ed. Class and Society in Early America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Philbrick, Thomas. St. John de Crèvecoeur. Boston: Twayne, 1970.

Putz, Manfred. “Dramatic Elements and the Problem of Literary Mediation in the Works of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur.”Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature 3 (1985): 111–30.

Rigal, Laura. “An American Manufactory: Political Economy, Collectivity, and the Arts in Philadelphia, 1790–1810.” PhD. Diss., Stanford University, 1989.

Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Ziff, Larzer. Writing in the New Nation: Prose, Print, and Politics in the Early United States. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Further Reading

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Ball, Donald L. “Richardson's Statement of His Theory of Fiction.” In Samuel Richardson's Theory of Fiction. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1971, pp. 23-30.

Clarifies the principal reasons Richardson prized the epistolary form over narrative fiction: because letters are by nature rooted in the present and because they most actively engage the attention of the reader.

Brophy, Elizabeth Bergen. “Epistolary Form: An Easy and Natural Style.” In Samuel Richardson: The Triumph of Craft. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1974, pp. 38-49.

Examines Richardson's reliance on the epistolary genre and claims that that Richardson found the form more realistic, flexible, and morally instructive than the narrative novel.

Cohan, Steven M. “Clarissa and the Individuation of Character.” ELH 43 (1976): 163-83.

Examines how Richardson uses the epistolary convention to explore the difficulties in understanding a complex human personality.

Day, Robert Adams. Told in Letters: Epistolary Fiction before Richardson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966, 241 p.

Comprehensive study of the epistolary genre; includes a chronological list of English letter fiction from 1660 to 1740 and provides notes on epistolary miscellanies as well as discussions of novels and major figures.

Doody, Margaret Anne. A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1974, 410 p.

Discussion of all of Richardson's novels, emphasizing the author's creative genius as revealed through the differences among the works.

Epstein, Julia L. “Fanny Burney's Epistolary Voices.” The Eighteenth-Century: Theory and Interpretation 27, No. 2 (Spring, 1986): 162-79.

Examines Burney's narrative strategy, paying special attention to the voices of female characters in her fiction.

Flynn, Carol Houlihan. Samuel Richardson: A Man of Letters. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982, 342 p.

Examines the tension between Richardson's moral and aesthetic principles in his novels and personal letters.

Gelley, Alexander. “The Two Julies: Conversion and Imagination in La Nouvelle Héloïse.Modern Language Notes 92, No. 4 (May 1977): 749-60.

Discusses the apparent discrepancies between the passionate and witty Julie D'Etagne of the early part of La Nouvelle Héloïse. to the preachy, mystically inclined Mme. de Wolmar of the last half of the work.

Gillis, Christina Marsden. The Paradox of Privacy: Epistolary Form in Clarissa. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1984, 173 p.

Examination of the historical and dramatic space of the novel followed by a literary-historical approach to Richardson's epistolary form.

Jensen, Katharine Ann. Writing Love: Letters, Women, and the Novel in France, 1605-1776. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995, 217 p.

Investigates literary and sexual inequality as depicted in feminine epistolary in ancien régime France.

Kinkaid-Weekes. Samuel Richardson: Dramatic Novelist. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1973, 506 p.

Interpretive readings of Richardson's novels followed by a general discussion of their social realism, psychology, and form.

Lindquist, Carol A. “Aphra Behn and the First Epistolary Novel in English.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 3, No. 2 (1977): 29-33.

Views Behn's Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sisteras the first English epistolary novel.

Preston, John. “Les liaisons dangereuses: An Epistolary Narrative and Moral Discovery.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 24 (1970): 23-36.

Explores the narrative method used to convey moral lessons in Laclos's novel.

Singer, Godfrey Frank. The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1963, 266 p.

Broad survey of the form that examines hundreds of epistolary works and discusses their place in the history of the genre.

Thelander, Dorothy R. Laclos and the Epistolary Novel. Geneva: Droz, 1963, 167 p.

Examines Laclos's novel Les liaisons dangereuses against the background of the European tradition of letter fiction.

Visconti, Laura. “The Beginnings of the Epistolary Novel in England.” In Contexts of Pre-Novel Narrative: The European Tradition. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1994, 397 p.

Traces the development of the epistolary form in its social and cultural contexts.

Warner, William Beatty. Reading Clarissa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979, 274 p.

Interpretation of Richardson's Clarissa, followed by a survey and analysis of previous critical approaches.

Würzbach, Natascha, ed. The Novel in Letters: Epistolary Fiction in the Early English Novel, 1678-1740. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1969, 288 p.

Examines the use of letters in fiction before Richardson.

Zaczek, Barbara Maria. Censored Sentiments: Letters and Censorship in Epistolary Novels and Conduct Material. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997, 209 p.

Examines the censoring practices that influenced female epistolary writing in the eighteenth century.

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