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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 3: Educational letter-novels


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Educational letter-novels

Mothers and daughters

When Madame de Sévigné’s husband was killed in a duel, he left his twenty-five-year-old widow with two small children to bring up. Concerned with her children’s education, Sévigné personally took in hand the teaching of Latin and Italian to her daughter, Françoise-Marguerite, whom she idolized. After Françoise-Marguerite married and moved to Provence to join her husband, Sévigné’s letters to her daughter display constant concern about the latter’s state of health, about the Comte de Grignan’s financial situation, and about the welfare of her three grandchildren. At the age of five the eldest child, Marie-Blanche, was sent to a convent – where she would spend the rest of her life – and Sévigné, speaking from personal experience, draws her daughter’s attention to the expediency of such a measure:

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