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British Epistolary Fiction

ENGL 345.301
TR 12-1:30 pm

Epistolary fiction is fiction presented in the form of letters ("epistles"). Often epistolary fictions invite readers to take voyeuristic pleasure in reading supposedly personal, even intimate, letters not "addressed" to us. Sometimes an epistolary writer pose as an "editor" without responsibility for the content of the letters he or she makes public.  Some epistolary fictions look much like other kinds of novels except for the inclusion of a letter-convention "frame." In all cases, epistolary fictions incorporate specific kinds of distance between tales and readers, suggest the possibility of readerly transgression, complicate the supposedly clear space between public and private, and make peculiar authenticity claims.

The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the great age of English-language epistolary fiction. The form proliferated starting in the late 1660s, but by the beginning of the nineteenth century its popularity had dwindled markedly. Epistolary fiction was considered largely atavistic for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, though it never really disappeared. Remarkably, it is making something of a comeback today.

This course will consider the functions and appeal of epistolary fiction. We'll concentrate largely  on texts from the form's hey-day between the mid-seventeenth and late-eighteenth centuries, but we'll also look at examples from the 19th and 20th centuries and consider some recent works.  We'll ask what  is at stake -- in aesthetic, political, moral/religious, and market terms -- in writing and publishing novels that pretend to be collections of private letters.  Why did the epistolary form take off to such a spectacular extent during the "long eighteenth century" and why did its appeal dwindle when it did? What might account for the strong eighteenth-century association of epistolary fiction with women's voices and experiences? What part does epistolary fiction play in later  British and American literary history, including contemporary fiction?  Authors will include Aphra Behn, Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Samuel Richardson, Nick Bantock, and Lydia Davis, among others.

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