Musings on your comments

You all had some excellent questions and comments on my Evelina post, and I’ve been thinking about them a lot over the last couple days. One of the things I find most interesting about eighteenth-century literature, particularly the novel, and particularly novels written by women, is the way they explore what critics like to call the “literary marketplace” – the relationship of writers, booksellers, publishers, and readers. This stuff gets explored in novels that don’t appear to be about the literary marketplace at all, and Evelina is one example. Selling books to strangers and working with publishers and booksellers to do so is new in the eighteenth century; writers are no longer writing for patrons and getting support from them, but are figuring out ways to make money off writing by dealing with the public. And this is cause for a lot of anxiety. It’s particularly tough for women, because publishing involves entering the public sphere, engaging in public discourse, which wasn’t quite “ladylike.”

Victoria, in her comment on my Evelina post, brings up the issue of public/private worlds, and how the epistolary form bridges the gap between the those worlds in interesting ways – letters being private, but publishing them a very public act. Women, although they did sometimes have a place in public spheres, were most often relegated to the domestic and private world, and entering the public sphere was fraught with anxiety. This problem becomes part of the plot of Evelina when Evelina’s letters are in danger of getting lost and getting into the hands of the wrong reader. Her letters, coming straight out of the most private of private places – her closet (meaning a small room like a study or sitting room) or her bedroom – get sent out of the house and into the public world, and from there they can be intercepted or lost. This happens to Evelina, with some consequences that keep the plot going for quite a few pages. And this isn’t so different from what Burney herself might experience: her collection of letters, the novel itself, will, upon publication, get sent out into the world where she has no control over what will happen to them. They will be bought by strangers, reviewed by strangers, or, perhaps worse, ignored by strangers, interpreted by strangers, and there is absolutely nothing she can do about it, except write a dedication to book reviewers, which, of course, they can ignore or misinterpret.

Stefanie asked why the epistolary form is so popular among eighteenth-century writers, and I think part of it is because of the enormous influence Richardson had on writers – he was so successful with the form that others followed – and part of it is technical – letters provide a kind of immediacy in a first-person voice that could create narrative tension. Other first person narratives from the eighteenth century, such as Defoe’s, were written at the end of the narrator’s life, from the perspective of having been through everything all ready, so compared to that kind of summing-up, letters are immediate and in the moment.

Another part of the reason letters were so popular though, I’m thinking, is because of the way they let writers explore problems of how identity is formed in the tension between the public and private. Evelina is essentially a nobody – with no name, no family, no history – and by writing her letters she is writing herself into existence. The same is true for Richardson’s novel Pamela: Pamela’s letters and journals let her write her way into a much better social position than she could have originally expected. And Burney herself uses letters to write her own way into the position of famous and successful novelist. She does so only tentatively, however; she published the novel anonymously, and so was establishing her identity as a novelist by sending her work out to the public but at the same time keeping her name private. This provides her with some degree of protection, a space in which to do something dangerous and brave.

Others of you asked about differences between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, and I’m probably going to think about that question some more because it’s really interesting to me – both the question itself and the larger questions that arise from it about the value of designating literary periods and categories. I mean, is such a question useful, or is another formulation of it more helpful? Thoughts anyone?

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