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The Epistolary Muse

Women of Letters in England and France, 1652–1802

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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 4: Epistolary essays and arguments

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← 88 | 89 →

CHAPTER 4

Epistolary essays and arguments

Education, and the education of girls and young women in particular, was one of the most important subjects of ideological debate throughout the eighteenth century. It gave writers, a majority of whom were women, the opportunity to champion, develop or challenge ideas that had been expressed by forerunners in the field in the closing years of the seventeenth century, notably by Locke (Some Thoughts concerning Education, 1693) and by Mary Astell (A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of their True and Greatest Interest, 1694–7) in England, and by Fénelon in France. Rousseau’s Émile had enormous repercussions on educational thought in both France and England in the latter part of the century. Madame de Genlis’ response to it has been referred to, and a far stronger reaction can be found in Mary Wollstonecraft’s first published work, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787).1

In this chapter we look at four seminal works on women’s education, all written in the revolutionary final decade of the eighteenth century, all either having an influence on, or being influenced by, Mary Wollstonecraft’s classic feminist manifesto A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and all purportedly written as letters. Argumentative in substance, the four works are essays in the original experimental sense of the term and demonstrate different applications of epistolary form to a common topic. ← 89 | 90 →

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