The Epistolary Novel: Representation of Consciousness

The Epistolary Novel: Representation of Consciousness

The Epistolary Novel: Representation of Consciousness

The Epistolary Novel: Representation of Consciousness


The epistolary novel is a form which has been neglected in most accounts of the development of the novel. This book argues that the way that the eighteenth-century epistolary novel represented consciousness had a significant influence on the later novel. Critics have drawn a distinction between the self at the time of writing and the self at the time at which events or emotions were experienced. This book demonstrates that the tensions within consciousness are the result of a continual interaction between the two selves of the letter-writer and charts the oscillation between these two selves in the epistolary novels of, amongst others, Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney and Charlotte Smith.


Richardson and the experiencing self

This chapter examines the novels of the most widely-admired epistolary novelist in the English language, Samuel Richardson. More than any other writer in this study, his epistolary style has been characterised as spontaneous and ‘to the moment’. Critics have often suggested that his letter-writers record what is passing through their minds at the time of writing. Yet the tension discussed in the first chapter between a present, narrating self and a past, experiencing self is vital in Richardson’s novels. His narrators explore what Dorrit Cohn calls ‘their own past inner lives’ (1978:14) far more often than they have been given credit for. In her account of the rise of the ‘consciousness novel’ Monika Fludernik notes that ‘the work of Richardson, especially Clarissa (1747-48), earns pride of place’ (1996b: 170), and that this novel provides some of the first examples of first-person free indirect thought, since in Clarissa’s letters ‘the perplexities of the experiencing self are elaborated in unprecedented detail’ (171). Yet this chapter demonstrates that these perplexities are in fact explored more fully in Richardson’s neglected third novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54), as well as revisions he made to his first, Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded (1741). In these texts in particular Richardson’s letter-writers allow full expression to the past thoughts and feelings of their experiencing selves.

As discussed in Chapter 1, Richardson often stresses the ‘instantaneous’ nature of his letter-writers’ thoughts and feelings, for example defending the length, or ‘enormous Luxuriance’ of his novels to Lady Bradshaigh by claiming that ‘the new Manner of Writing - to the Moment - betray’d me into it’ (Forster Collection, XI, 190). This ‘new Manner of Writing’ is described more fully in another letter to her two years earlier:

Let me, resuming myself, the Scribbler, observe, that it is inconceivable how much advantage, in my proud heart, is given me, of peeping into the hearts of my readers, and sometimes into their heads, by their . . .

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