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Epistolary Origins of English Fiction

ENGL 245.301
instructor(s):
fulfills requirements:
Pre-1900 Seminar Requirement of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major

 

Epistolary fiction is fiction presented in the form of letters ("epistles"). Sometimes an epistolary writer wants us to believe that he/she is merely an "editor" who has published a set of private letters (with or without their authors' permission). Some epistolary fictions look much like novels except for the inclusion of a letter-convention "frame." In all cases, epistolary fictions add a layer of distance between the tale and its readers, and make peculiar authenticity claims.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the great age of epistolarly fiction in Britain. The form proliferated starting in the 1660s, but by the time of the French Revolution its use had dwindled markedly. (A few epistolary fictions continue to appear even today, but the form is usually considered atavistic now.)

This course will consider the functions and appeal of British epistolary fiction in its hey-day, between the late seventeenth and the late eighteenth centuries, reading such authors as Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Samuel Richardson, and Frances Burney. Why, we shall ask, did the epistolary form take off to such a spectacular extent during the eighteenth century, what made it so popular, and why did it fade from the scene when it did? What was at stake -- in aesthetic, political, moral, and religious terms -- in producing novels that pretended to be made from private letters? What might account for the strong eighteenth-century association of epistolary fiction with women's voices and experiences? What part does eighteenth-century epistolary fiction play in later British and American literary history?