Publishing without Perishing:
Isabelle de Charrière,
a.k.a. la mouche du coche
SUSAN K. JACKSON
Since Habermas, the eighteenth century has been considered decisive in the coming into being, self-consciousness, and influence of a bourgeois public sphere—essentially discursive, increasingly political, but always distinct from the inner sanctums of public office holding. As a result, eighteenth-century literary studies have extended their focus on the production and meaning of texts to include publication and reception. It has become important to ascertain how texts were edited, censored, printed, distributed, and debated. In such efforts to reconstruct the public life of literature lies a further potential for acknowledging that the conditions of publication to which eighteenth-century authors were subject also conditioned and fired their imaginations. An unprecedented number of literary works not only documented the real life of publication, but fantasized about it. By reading those works, we can recognize that the discursive public, like other facts of history and biography, was experienced, embraced, internalized, and reinvented to varying degrees and to various effect by individual authors. Fiction excels at accommodating nuance and idiosyncrasy. Where better to appreciate that, just as unprecedented access to print culture shaped those who participated in it, so did these participants dream of putting their personal stamp on the culture's further evolution? For some, there was a profound sense of self and purpose to be derived from the incessant interplay between facts and fictions of publication.
The case I make here for factoring the discursive public into literary readings centers on a novel, Lettres de Mistriss Henley publiées par son amie, by an accomplished and prolific writer, Isabelle de Charrière ( 1740-1805), whom many readers will nonetheless have encountered, if at all, only as