The Epistolary Muse

Women of Letters in England and France, 1652–1802

by Adrian Kempton (Author)
Monographs XXVI, 348 Pages
Series: European Connections, Volume 39


Epistolary fiction was in full flower during the period from 1652 to 1802, featuring the masterworks of Guilleragues, Richardson, Rousseau and Laclos. This study traces the development of the art of letter-writing and familiar correspondence and its adaptation by women writers into a remarkable range of literary genres, both fictional and non-fictional. In addition to the better known categories of the monodic love-letter sequence and the polyphonic epistolary novel, these sub-genres include letter miscellanies, essays, travelogues, educational novels and verse epistles. To all these, women writers made a valuable, and sometimes totally original, contribution. Indeed, it could be said that it was essentially through letter-writing that women achieved literary recognition.
This volume examines each of these epistolary categories in turn, revealing how women writers from either country excelled in a particular genre: the French, for example, in the epistolary monody and fictional foreign correspondence, the English in the miscellany and verse epistle, and both in the polyphonic letter-novel. Finally, the study notes how, despite the rapid decline of epistolary fiction in the nineteenth century, a select number of letter-novels by American, English and French women writers still continue to be published.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preamble
  • Part I: Exemplary Correspondence
  • Chapter 1: Model letter-writers
  • Chapter 2: Manuals and miscellanies
  • Part II: Letters of Instruction
  • Chapter 3: Educational letter-novels
  • Chapter 4: Epistolary essays and arguments
  • Part III: Letters from Abroad
  • Chapter 5: Travellers’ dispatches
  • Chapter 6: Letters home from exotic visitors
  • Part IV: The Monodic Strain
  • Chapter 7: Unreciprocated love-letters
  • Chapter 8: Epistolary memoirs, journals and diaries
  • Chapter 9: Letters and epistles in verse
  • Part V: Polyphonic Letter-Novels
  • Chapter 10: The multiple-voice letter-novel in England
  • Chapter 11: The multiple-voice letter-novel in France
  • Postscript
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

← viii | ix →


Ce sexe va plus loin que le nôtre dans ce genre d’écrire.


Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female.

JANE AUSTEN, c. 1798

The 110 years separating these two comments on women letter-writers witnessed the development, proliferation and decline in both England and France of a literary genre indissolubly associated with the Enlightenment – that of epistolary fiction. It is true that the great masterpieces of eighteenth-century literature in this sphere – Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) – were all written by men and that, until relatively recently, literary surveys of the period only mention one or two works by women writers worthy of being mentioned in the same breath; most notably Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Yet, largely thanks to a spate of critical studies over the past thirty years devoted to women’s writing, it is evident that, from Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684) to Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802), women on both sides of the Channel made a huge contribution to the development of epistolary fiction, producing works that were immensely popular at the time. Moreover, women writers also applied their letter-writing talents to a number of other literary fields, both non-fictional and fictional, such as the educational treatise, the travelogue, the scandal chronicle and the verse-novel. Again, while some seminal fictional works in the form of letters – Guilleragues’ Lettres portugaises (1669) and Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721), for example – were imitated by both male and female ← ix | x → authors, writers such as Mme Riccoboni and Mme de Graffigny produced variations on these that merit equal consideration.

It is the principal purpose of this study, by concentrating solely on the literatures of England and France over a century and a half, to trace the development of the art of letter-writing and its adaptation, largely by women writers, to a variety of forms. Epistolia, the epistolary muse, is less well known than her nine famous sisters, but she was the principal source of inspiration for a surprisingly large number of women writers during this period.

The art of letter-writing first flourished in both France and England in the seventeenth century and, with the example of Madame de Sévigné, followed by those of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Madame du Deffand in the eighteenth century, it was in this branch of literature that women were generally acknowledged to demonstrate expertise and excellence. Hence the two epigraphs to this preamble. But, although the two opinions quoted acknowledge women’s achievement in this particular form of written expression, when restored to their full context the comments can be seen to be hedged with reservations, condescension or irony. In entry 37 of ‘Des ouvrages de l’esprit’, the opening section of Les Caractères, ou les moeurs de ce siècle, La Bruyère begins by praising two letter-writers of the first half of the seventeenth century considered as stylistic models, Guez de Balzac and Vincent Voiture:

Je ne sais si l’on pourra jamais mettre dans des lettres plus d’esprit, plus de tour, plus d’agrément et plus de style que l’on en voit dans celles de Balzac et de Voiture; elles sont vides de sentiments qui n’ont régné que depuis leur temps, et qui doivent aux femmes leur naissance. Ce sexe va plus loin que le nôtre dans ce genre d’écrire. Elles trouvent sous leur plume des tours et des expressions qui souvent en nous ne sont l’effet que d’un long travail et d’une pénible recherche; elles sont heureuses dans le choix des termes, qu’elles placent si juste, que tout connus qu’ils sont, ils ont le charme de la nouveauté, semblent être faits seulement pour l’usage où elles les mettent; il n’appartient qu’à elles de faire lire dans un seul mot tout un sentiment, et de rendre délicatement une pensée qui est délicate; elles ont un enchaînement de discours inimitable, qui se suit naturellement, et qui n’est lié que par le sens. Si les femmes étaient toujours correctes, j’oserais dire que les lettres de quelques-unes d’entre elles seraient peut-être ce que nous avons dans notre langue de mieux écrit.1 ← x | xi →

That last sentence, with its enigmatic proviso, tentative declaration, and singling out of a few unnamed practitioners, slightly undercuts the preceding eulogy. As for those male models of epistolary excellence, Balzac and Voiture, La Bruyère’s view – shared by most of his contemporaries – has not been borne out by the judgement of posterity.2 In any survey of French, or even European, literature – excluding, of course, the great letter-writers of Classical Antiquity – the first exponent of the art of correspondence is generally recognized as being Sévigné.3 However, her letters were not published in any quantity until 1725, thirty years after her death in 1696, coincidentally three weeks before that of La Bruyère, who could not therefore be expected to know of her epistolary prowess. In ‘Des femmes’, the third section of Les Caracterès, among the many insightful, enigmatic and provocative maxims and anecdotes, one of the briefest – ‘Les femmes sont extrêmes, elles sont meilleures ou pires que les hommes’4 – could well be applied to La Bruyère’s view of women’s artistic abilities measured by the yardstick of their male counterparts.

That attitude of somewhat begrudging admiration can be found a century later in the work of another social observer, whose views on women’s literary aspirations can be seen by standards of the time as relatively enlightened. Louis-Sébastien Mercier, in the section ‘Femmes auteurs’ of Le Tableau de Paris (1781–8), remarks on how impoverished French literature would be without the works of seventeenth-century women writers as various and talented as ‘l’ingénieuse Scudéry’, ‘l’inimitable et tendre Sévigné’, ‘l’amusante d’Aulnoy’, as well as contemporary writers such as Riccoboni and Olympe de Gouges. However, at the end of this panegyric, in which Mercier discusses the wary or dismissive attitudes of men towards women writers, he himself cannot resist a facetious volte-face:

Et, s’il faut un luxe aux grandes sociétés, quel luxe plus heureux et plus agréable que les ouvrages d’un sexe, où nous aimons à aller chercher les idées et les sentiments qui reposent au fond de leur âme, et qui se développent peut-être avec plus de franchise dans leurs écrits que dans leurs regards et dans leurs paroles.5

To turn to our second epigraph, we might expect the young Jane Austen, writing a decade after Mercier, to acknowledge unreservedly women’s talent for letter-writing. Her own flair in this sphere can be seen in the witty and ← xi | xii → observant letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra. Moreover, Austen had already, by the time she wrote this sentence from Northanger Abbey, written several works of epistolary fiction. Some of these feature in her ‘juvenilia’; namely the very brief sketches, ‘Amelia Webster’ and ‘The Three Sisters’, and the longer and more accomplished ‘Love and Friendship’, ‘Lesley Castle’ and ‘A Collection of Letters’ (the last three between 1790 and 1792). Indeed, by the mid-1790s she had also produced two important letter-fictions: ‘Elinor and Marianne’ – the first version of Sense and Sensibility – and Lady Susan (probably 1793–4). The latter polyphonic letter-novel is remarkable for its brevity, fine characterization and intriguing plot. It also constitutes the swansong of epistolary fiction by both women and men writers in England. In this it is comparable to what is undoubtedly the greatest of all epistolary fictions and – if we discount the less masterly nineteenth-century works in this genre by Staël (1802) and (Honoré de) Balzac (1842) – the last French letter-novel of importance: Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses.

Despite her early experiments in letter-fiction and the great literary merit of Lady Susan, it would seem that Austen had realized that the popularity of epistolary fiction was on the wane and its literary potential more or less exhausted. This needs to be borne in mind when we put the quotation in context. There, the view that women excel as letter writers is voiced by the teasingly ironic Henry Tilney in his first conversation with the novel’s heroine, Catherine Morland:

‘My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalizing which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female. Nature may have done something, but I am sure it must be essentially assisted by the practice of keeping a journal.’

‘I have sometimes thought,’ said Catherine, doubtingly, ‘whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen! That is – I should not think the superiority was always on our side.’

‘As far as I have had opportunity of judging, it appears to me that the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars.’

‘And what are they?’

‘A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.’6 ← xii | xiii →

Tilney’s negative comments about women correspondents are intended to be witty and memorable – note the Wildean rhythm and balance of the final sentence – and cannot be taken seriously, however much they may reflect the self-mockery of an author on the way to shedding a form of composition no longer suited to her more mature literary aims.

Tilney’s correlation of letter-writing with ‘journalizing’, though, is a point worthy of consideration. Evidently, there is a very close alliance between letter-writing and the writing of journals and diaries. The overlap can be seen both in ‘real life’ – for example, Swift’s Journal to Stella, or the publication together of Frances Burney/Mme d’Arblay’s mingled Journal and Letters – and in prose fiction. In the first of Richardson’s three letter-novels, the unposted missives Pamela Andrews accumulates about her person constitute a series of logbook entries on the precarious isolated predicament she finds herself in; while in one major eighteenth-century French memoir-novel – Diderot’s La Religieuse (1760, published 1796) – the heroine’s long uninterrupted first-person account of her life and adventures is set within a discreet epistolary frame.

In studies of early prose fictional genres, considerable space has been devoted to writers’ exploitation of letter and journal frameworks to enhance the verisimilitude of their fiction, through the resemblance of these forms to found or ‘edited’ real documents. Clearly, in the early days of the development of the novel, novelists wished to establish their credentials through the credibility of their fiction by using the guise of ‘true story’, ‘history’ (herstory?) rather than ‘story’ – although the ambivalence of histoire in French conveniently overrides such a distinction – and thus marking themselves off from purveyors of escapist ‘romance’. While this would certainly account for both men and women writers choosing the memoir or epistolary form to relate their stories, there is a more important reason why women in particular should do so.

Both letters and diaries are essentially private ‘closet’ media, and as such they were seen, by the male-dominated world of publishing and literature in the period under discussion, as permissible forms of writing for women. Not feeling their own pretensions to literary fame in any way threatened, men might, echoing La Bruyère, accord them a certain talent in this sphere of writing. As Virginia Woolf said in A Room of One’s Own ← xiii | xiv → (1929), while speaking with admiration of Dorothy Osborne’s letters and at the same time with irony of men’s patronizing attitude towards such a harmless pastime:

And so, since no woman of sense and modesty could write books, Dorothy, who was sensitive and melancholy, (…) wrote nothing. Letters did not count. A woman might write letters while she was sitting by her father’s sick-bed. She could write them by the fire whilst the men talked without disturbing them.7

Apart from the private modes of expression of diaries and letters, in which women might, it should be added, find an outlet for their more intimate feelings, there was another area in which they were recognized as having more experience than men and on which they were even encouraged to express themselves openly. Domestic matters, in particular the upbringing and education of children, were considered a feminine preserve. Related to this field were didactic works and treatises, of a pious rather than philosophical nature, on morality.8 Following the example of correspondence such as Sévigné’s, which frequently concerned itself with such topics, women writers were not slow to adopt and adapt the epistolary format as a suitable vehicle for airing opinions in a more attractive manner than that afforded by the dry didacticism of the essay or pamphlet. It was Virginia Woolf, too, who in her appreciation of Osborne, observed that the art of letter-writing is often the art of essay-writing in disguise.

Obviously, women were not alone in this choice of medium for unexpected purposes and they may well have had in mind the examples of some of their illustrious male counterparts. Vivienne Mylne, in a chapter devoted to the history and technique of letter-novels in her pioneering study of the eighteenth-century French novel, talks of ‘the long established tradition of using the letter-form for any and every kind of subject’. Having mentioned in this respect, among well-known French writers of works in the form of, or entitled, Lettres – Pascal (Les Provinciales, 1656), Montesquieu (Lettres persanes, 1721) and Voltaire (Lettres philosophiques, 1733/4) – Mylne adds: ‘One could extend ad nauseam the list of authors, famous or obscure, who utilized the letter-form for various themes and purposes.’9 Dr Johnson, too, in his essay on epistolary writings, had already remarked on how the letter form could be used to cover a surprisingly wide range of subjects: ← xiv | xv →

As letters are written on all subjects, in all states of mind, they cannot properly be reduced to settled rules or described by any single characteristic, and we may safely disentangle our minds from critical embarrassment by determining that a letter has no particularity but its form, and that nothing is to be refused admission which would be proper in any other method of treating the same subject.10

A glance at the table of contents and at the list of primary works in the bibliography gives some idea of the broad range of literary purposes, both fictional and non-fictional, for which women writers between 1650 and 1800 elected to use an epistolary framework. In adapting and developing the epistolary mode, women writers displayed considerable ingenuity and artistry. Not only can they be credited with the creation of the epistolary educational novel and the epistolary verse novella, but they also enriched the main epistolary fictional genres – those of the monodic letter-sequence and the polyphonic letter-novel – through the in-depth psychological and emotional portrayal of their female correspondents.

As far as the heroines of these two fictional genres are concerned, women writers of letter fiction, like their male counterparts, were influenced by the epistolary masterworks of the age, in particular by Guilleragues’ Lettres portugaises, Richardson’s three massive novels and by Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse.11 What is of interest for our present study is that what these literary models provided, over and above their plots, settings, cast of characters and certain formal and stylistic elements, is their representation of the heroine as, above all, a letter-writer. The Portuguese nun Mariane, Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlowe, Harriet Byron and Julie d’Etange provided women writers with not just models of spirited or virtuous behaviour but also with examples of letter-writing as a passionate and persuasive means of self-expression and self-assertiveness.

Finally, apart from the reasons of verisimilitude or acceptability discussed above, a third, less conscious, reason for the adoption of letter-writing as a literary form by women is surely the etymological proximity of ‘letters’/lettres and ‘literature’/littérature. In the Foreword to what is possibly the last major – both in bulk and manner – letter-novel to be written in English, John Barth gives a threefold definition of ‘letters’: ← xv | xvi →


XXVI, 348
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (November)
epistolary letters correspondence women writers
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XXVI, 348 pp.

Biographical notes

Adrian Kempton (Author)

Adrian Kempton was formerly lecturer in French, English and Comparative Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, University College Cork and the University of London Institute in Paris. He specializes in comparative eighteenth-century studies, with particular interests in epistolary writing, robinsonades, early children’s literature, salon art criticism and gardens. His publications include Survey of English Literature: From the Restoration to Pre-Romanticism, English for Science and The Mind’s Isle: Imaginary Islands in English Fiction (Peter Lang, 2017). He is at present preparing a two-part study of the verse novel and poetry in the novel.


Title: The Epistolary Muse