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The Epistolary Muse

Women of Letters in England and France, 1652–1802


Adrian Kempton

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.

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Chapter 1: Model letter-writers


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Model letter-writers

‘It is a rule with me, that a person who can write a long letter, with ease, cannot write ill’, Caroline Bingley says in response to Darcy’s remark that the letters he writes are generally long.3 The statement may simply imply that the penning of a good letter is the mark of a proficient writer. The length of a letter is not a serious issue, and whether it has actually been written with ease or painstakingly is of little importance, provided it gives the appearance of effortless composition and can be read with ease by the recipient.

The ability to write a good letter may or may not be a valid criterion for assessing literary worth in general; but it is certainly true that some of the most prominent writers of the Enlightenment have also been the period’s most accomplished letter-writers, notably Madame de Sévigné, Lady Mary Montagu, Voltaire and Horace Walpole. Of these, only the first has achieved renown solely as a letter-writer, the other three being equally famous in various branches of literary or cultural activity. Paradoxically, though, it was Sévigné, with ‘only’ almost 1,400 extant letters to her credit, who wrote the smallest number. Montagu is known to have written more than this, although a large number are missing or were destroyed. The epistolary productivity of both women letter-writers is nevertheless somewhat dwarfed by that of their male counterparts, Walpole’s...

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