Re-Visions, Re-Flections, Re-Creations: Epistolarity in Novels by Contemporary Women

By Campbell, Elizabeth | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Re-Visions, Re-Flections, Re-Creations: Epistolarity in Novels by Contemporary Women


Campbell, Elizabeth, Twentieth Century Literature


During the last twenty years a significant number of epistolary novels by women have appeared, of the type which first flourished in England and France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Unlike the eighteenth-century sentimental examples, however, the epistolary novels emerging now radically rewrite women's lives in a postmodern genre. Although such novels have always been about sexual politics, contemporary ones are more blatantly political in theme and more radical in form, and many are written by women in post-colonial cultures, in which women have been doubly oppressed, from outside by a chauvinistic imperialism and from within by a patriarchy which itself has felt oppressed by outside forces. From Senegal we have Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter (1980); from India, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust (1975); from Australia, Elizabeth Jolley's Miss Peabody's Inheritance (1983); from the United States, African-American Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982); from Brazil, Helena Parente Cunha's Woman Between Mirrors (1983); from Argentina, Sylvia Molloy's Certificate of Absence (1981); and from Canada, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986).(1) With the exception of Ba and Walker, whose books are traditional epistolary novels in structure, the above writers play in a postmodernist sense with epistolary conventions to produce revolutionary texts. All, however, use the letter as a subversive and freeing agent and also as a mirror in which they not only seek themselves and/or another but attempt to change their lives to reflect the mirror image. This essay will focus on the works of Jhabvala, Jolley, Cunha, and Molloy to illustrate the ways in which women writers from around the world rework the epistolary novel.

In many contemporary women's novels, women find their freedom and their selves in the act of writing. Women today are doing consciously what women writers have always done, what French feminist theorists call l'ecriture feminine, or writing in the feminine - that is, writing themselves in a way which reflects their experience as the "other" in a culture in which they have been traditionally voiceless and thus powerless. In the epistolary novel and in the many modern women's novels which play (and I use the word "play" deliberately) with epistolary conventions, the writing itself is action and plot, action and plot which refuse the kind of closure informing other narratives. The epistolary novel and women's writing subvert the language and values of the dominant culture. In open epistolary fiction, the process of writing, the attempt to be heard, is more important than working toward an ending, than imposing closure. Eighteenth-century literature without closure (Francoise de Graffigny's Lettres d'une Peruvienne, Montesquieu's Lettres persanes, Rousseau's La Nouvelle Heloise, Smollett's Humphry Clinker) reflects the questioning of received ideas and power structures. Sartre associates the open (epistolary) literature of the eighteenth century with "doubt, refusal, criticism, and contestation" (MacArthur 19). If epistolary writing, which I will show is l'ecriture feminine, is a revolt against the dominant culture, it should not be surprising that most epistolary literature from Ovid's Heroides to present-day novels has been written in a woman's voice and usually by women writers.(2)

What, then, is an epistolary novel? Basically it is a novel written in the form of letters, either an exchange of letters between two or more correspondents, or a single letter, or number of letters, from one correspondent to one or more recipients. Novels which are not composed exclusively of letters can also be classified as epistolary, but only if the plot is determined, advanced, and resolved by letters.(3) As we shall see in the novels I discuss, letters (most of them never seen by the reader of the novel) determine, advance, and resolve the plot but more importantly act as psychological motivators on characters in the novels. …

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