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Epistolary Literature

45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 15 March 2007

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the great 18th Century fashion for epistolary literature. From its first appearance in the 17th Century with writers like Aphra Behn, epistolary fiction, fiction in the form of letters, reached its heyday in the 18th Century with works like Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. At over a million words, it's a contender for the longest English novel. It inspired impassioned followers such as Denis Diderot who described reading Richardson's novels like this: “In the space of a few hours I had been through a host of situations which the longest life can scarcely provide in its whole course. I had heard the genuine language of the passions; I had seen the secret springs of self-interest and self-love operating in a hundred different ways: I had become privy to a multitude of incidents and I felt I had gained in experience.”This sense of the reader gaining a privileged peek into the psychology of the protagonists was a key device of the epistolary form and essential to the development of the novel. Its emphasis on moral instruction also propelled the genre into literary respectability. These novels were a publishing sensation. Philosophers like Rousseau and Montesquieu took up the style, using it to convey their ideas on morality and society.So why was letter writing so important to 18th Century authors? How did this style aid the development of the novel? And why did epistolary literature fall out of favour?With John Mullan, Professor of English at University College London; Karen O’Brien, Professor in English at the University of Warwick; and Brean Hammond, Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Nottingham.

  • Further Reading


    Austen, Jane, Lady Susan reprinted in Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon ed. John Davie, intro. Terry Castle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971, reissued 1990)

    Behn, Aphra, Love-Letters between a Noble-Man and his Sister, 3 vols (London, 1684-87)

    Burney, Frances, Evelina; or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, ed. Margaret Anne Doody (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994)

    Fielding, Henry, ‘The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his Friend Mr. Abraham Andrews’ and ‘An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews’, ed. Douglas Brooks-Davies, rev. Thomas Keymer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)

    Richardson, Samuel, Clarissa; or, The History of a Young Lady, ed. Angus Ross (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985)

    Richardson, Samuel, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, intro by Thomas Keymer (Oxford’s World Classics, new ed. 2001)

    Smollett, Tobias, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, ed. Lewis M. Knapp (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966; rev. edn, 1984)

  • .


    Altman, Janet, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981)

    Castle, Terry, Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982)

    Eagleton, Terry, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982)

    Gooding, Richard, ‘Pamela, Shamela, and the Politics of the Pamela Vogue’, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 7 (1994-95), 109-30

    Hammond, Brean and Shaun Regan, Making the Novel: Fiction and Society in Britain, 1660-1789. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006)

    Keymer, Thomas, Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ and the Eighteenth-Century Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

    Keymer, Thomas and Peter Sabor, “Pamela” in the Marketplace: Literary Controversy and Print Culture in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

    McKeon, Michael, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987)

    Mullan, John, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988)


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