This chapter turns to the period generally associated with the decline of the novel-in-letters, the end of the eighteenth century. It suggests that one reason for this fall lies in the letter’s inability to continue representing the psychological tensions outlined in previous chapters. However, although it is indisputable that fewer epistolary novels were written after the 1790s, the influence of the letter in the English novel is not confined to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One of the key arguments of this study is that the epistolary novel had a significant impact on the style of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel. Jane Austen did not pursue her early experiments with epistolary form, yet, as this chapter demonstrates, the struggles of subjectivity explored in earlier epistolary fiction can also be found in her third-person narratives. The tensions within consciousness which have been explored in this book are played out in the interaction between character and narrator, as Austen displays her mastery of the style which has dominated the history of the novel from the early nineteenth century onwards: third-person free indirect thought.
As demonstrated in previous chapters, free indirect thought can occur in the first person as, in Dorrit Cohn’s words, ‘autobiographical narrators also have inner lives (their own past inner lives) to communicate’ and ‘retrospection into a consciousness, though less “magical,” is no less important a component of first-person novels than inspection of a consciousness is in third-person novels’ (1978:14). Her ‘self-narrated monologue’ occurs when ‘the narrator momentarily identifies with his past self, giving up his temporally distanced vantage point and cognitive privilege for his past time-bound bewilderments and vacillations’ (167). ‘Narrated monologue’ grew, Cohn believes, when ‘third-person fiction enter[ed] the domain previously reserved for first-person (epistolary or confessional) fiction, and [began] to focus on the mental and emotional life of its characters’ (113). She identifies Austen’s novels as turning-points: ‘in her narrated monologues Austen seems precisely to cast the spirit of epistolary fiction into the mold of third-person narration’ (113).