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

By Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
"My Father's House" BODY LANGUAGE AND AUTHORITY IN 'CLARISSA'

Samuel Richardson Clarissa, like the Lettres persanes, addresses a question central to the Enlightenment: the relation of private passions and public order. But while Montesquieu writes from within the specific cultural field of French absolutism, Clarissa's very different context is mid- eighteenth-century British society. Although the two texts adopt the same literary form, critics have paid more attention to their differences than to their similarities. Indeed, they have come to typify a distinction, which I argue is in important ways illusory, between the sentimental letter-novel and the philosophical epistolary narrative or cultural critique in letter form.

The issues of public and private, gender and authority that organize Montesquieu's text are crucial to Richardson's as well; however, Richardson's responses to these issues are significantly different from Montesquieu's. While Clarissa resembles the Lettres persanes in redefining literary authority by emphasizing the importance of a reading public constituted as such by these very works, Richardson's novel ultimately modifies Montesquieu's idea of the Republic of Letters, proposing a more limited enfranchisement of its citizen-critics and a less radical form of the author/reader relation. This modification is motivated, I propose, by Richardson's anxiety about the gender of the citizen-critic.

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