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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 8: Epistolary memoirs, journals and diaries


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Epistolary memoirs, journals and diaries

French epistolary memoir-novels

The previous chapter has shown how the epistolary monody, in which the addressee’s replies are either not forthcoming or not revealed, comes to resemble the journal or diary – a series of dated entries recorded by one person essentially for themselves. As noted in the preamble, the diary and the letter were the two principal non-fictional forms of writing that women, up until the time of the Enlightenment, could indulge in with the condescending approval of men, who considered that such private boudoir pastimes represented no threat to their own domination of the literary and publishing world. The development of prose fiction, as from the second half of the seventeenth century, saw the emergence of, on the one hand, the memoir-novel as an offshoot of the personal diary or journal, and, on the other, the epistolary novel as an offshoot of written correspondence. These two first-person novelistic genres, represented respectively by Defoe and by Richardson, plus the ‘omniscient narrator’ third-person narrative, represented by Fielding, make up the quasi-totality of prose fiction during the period 1650 to 1800. Although the increasing number of women novelists produced works of great merit in all three genres, our concern in this study is limited to their contribution to the development of epistolary writing and epistolary fiction, a genre in which they showed themselves to be particularly prolific and creative; not surprisingly, given their generally acknowledged...

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