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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 11: The multiple-voice letter-novel in France


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The multiple-voice letter-novel in France

Les Liaisons dangereuses is generally considered to be not only the most accomplished epistolary novel ever written but also one that constitutes a devastatingly subversive critique of the literary genre itself and the society that is reflected in it. That point is emphasized in the final words and scenic directions of Christopher Hampton’s superb 1985 stage adaptation of Laclos’ novel, a script which served as the screenplay for Stephen Frears’ excellent film three years later:

MERTEUIL: I dare say we would not be wrong to look forward to whatever the nineties may bring. Meanwhile, I suggest our best course is to continue with the game. (Her words seem to exert a calming effect on her companions: and indeed they resume playing. The atmosphere is serene. Very slowly the lights fade; but just before they vanish, there appears on the back wall, fleeting but sharp, the unmistakable silhouette of the guillotine.)1

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