Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters

Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters

Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters

Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters

Synopsis

Proceeding from the perspective of Jurgen Habermas's public sphere theory, this book studies the popular eighteenth-century genre of the epistolary narrative through readings of four works: Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721), Richardson's Clarissa (1749-50), Riccoboni's Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757), and Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The author situates epistolary narratives in the contexts of eighteenth-century print culture: the rise of new models of readership and the newly influential role of the author; the model of contract derived from liberal political theory as it relates to new writer/reader relations; and the techniques and aesthetics of mechanical reproduction. Writing at the paradoxical crossroads of public and private, epistolary authors used the genre to formulate a range of responses to a cultural anxiety about private energies and appetites, particularly those of women, as well as to legitimate their own authorial practices. Just as the socialcontract increasingly came to be seen as the organizing instrument of public, civic relations in this period, the author argues that the epistolary novel serves analogously in the ostensible private sphere of affective relations to produce, socialize, and regulate the private subject as a citizen of the Republic of Letters.

Excerpt

The seven volumes of the copy of Clarissa that its author, Samuel Richardson, presented to his friend Lady Bradshaigh testify to the degree of Bradshaigh's--and Richardson's--engagement with her role in the novel's composition. These volumes have been passed back and forth between author and critic, an exchange documented by the annotations in two hands that appear in the margins of the printed text. The visual effect of printed letters, manuscript annotations, and comments on those annotations is palimpsestic: on some pages, the faded script overruns the empty space of the margins and extends into the interstices of the darker bars of print, an irregular manuscript tracery against the formal lines of typography. The back flyleaves of the seventh volume are entirely covered with Bradshaigh's distinctive scrawl, setting forth a proposed revision of the novel's ending: the virtuous Clarissa is to be allowed an exemplary single life; Lovelace also is to live, at least long enough for repentance.

As you sit in the hushed, auratic environs of Princeton's Rare Books reading room, opening the slipcase of each volume, lifting out the small book inside and turning its pages in search of the manuscript traces of an authentic historical exchange, this unique and irreplaceable copy of Clarissa begins to suggest the epistemological complexities that underlie eighteenth-century epistolary . . .

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