The Power of Letter Writing

Among the many narrative techniques which were experimented by the authors of the eighteenth century, the epistolary novel was by no means the form which had the most effective and powerful impact on the mind of readers. Just guess, it was as if you could intercept some correspondence which was not addressed to you and you were free to peep into somebody else’s live, having knowledge of their emotions, secrets and confessions without even feeling guilty. You have also to consider that it was a time when people had no many other chances of diversions like today and while reading you were not distracted by notification beeps, telephone calls and modern noise in general. Therefore, letters, with their dates, names of the places, recipient names and even the time of the day, gave that sense of realism which made the reading seem more true and therefore, intense.

The greatest proof of what I’m saying  is  Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, whose impact was enormous in the Europe of the eighteenth century. Werther ‘s agonies of love were shared by an entire generation of readers, who were so affected by the overwhelming power of the emotions, which seemed uncensored as made accessible by the letter form, which provoked the first – and dangerous – process of mass imitation. Thousands of young men copied Werther’s outfit, which consisted of a strange combination of colours: custard yellow trousers and waistcoat plus an electric-blue jacket. If you wore those clothes, it meant  that you were or you wanted to be thought of as a brokenhearted, sensitive young man, exactly like their hero. Yet, this collective folly took a very dangerous turn, in fact, the imitation process didn’t stop at clothes, they wanted to live the life of their idol and even make his tragic end, therefore, The Sorrows of Young Werther led to as many as 2,000 cases of copycat suicides among young men.

Yet, this impressive power of epistolary novel could be experimented on women as well, to convince them, for example, of the advantages of pursuing a highly moral conduct. Of course, it was a man who took a trouble to endeavour such enterprise, Samuel Richardson, who created on this purpose  two opposite characters both for station and choices of life: Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela apparently seems to be the less fortunate of the two heroines.  She is a beautiful maidservant, whose country landowner master, Mr. B, attempts to seduce and rape her multiple times, but unsuccessfully. Eventually, Mr B  changes attitude and ends up falling in love and marry her. The entire title is, in fact, “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded”, so the moral was that any correct behavior would have rightly compensated sooner or later. The story, you may well understand was quite unlikely to happen at those times. A rich man marry a servant at those times? Impossible. By the way,  Pamela was such a great success that Richardson  even wrote a sequel.  But what would happen if one yielded, for any reason? That was the lesson that Richardson would have imparted in his other, very long, masterpiece: “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady“.

Clarissa Harlowe is an extremely beautiful tragic heroine, who, differently from Pamela, seems to be destined to a brighter fate. She belongs to the upper class and has inherited a large sum of money from her grandfather, but she is not free. Her family wants her to marry Mr Solmes who is a rich, but ignorant and unrefined sort of person, a man she despises.  To avoid this marriage, she consents to an elopement with Mr Lovelace (nomen omen, watch out Clarissa!!), but the latter turns out to be a very violent man who will drug and rape her. She eventually manages to escape from Lovelace’s clutches, but she gets sick and finally dies like a saint. So women, choose! I you don’t want to end up like Clarissa you know what to do. By the way, I guess, Richardson must have thought it a very difficult task to convince us to behave properly, as he employed one million words to write Clarissa. Did it work? I don’t think so. I would suggest any man with such and intent to be a bit shorter, as I/we usually get lost after a thousand words. Top.







20 thoughts on “The Power of Letter Writing

    • I agree , Cindy, ” Les Liaisonsns Dangereus” is my favourite too, even if I don’t ejoy much epistolary novels or even when letters are introduced in a narration. Cheers.

      • In my opinion, the epistolary novel is an excellent kind of literature. Between Richardson’s two novels, Pamela and Clarissa, I prefer Pamela, because Richardson makes possible what was impossible at the time.

  1. Concordato! Criticizing Richardson is sacrilegious in UK, where the insurmountable is often mistaken for higher intelligence. I agree with Cindy Bruchman that Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an exceptional use of epistolary medium – as forensic and psychological evidence. Fanny Burney was also adept, perhaps? Final say: Jane Austen got rid of it.

    • Now, let me think, I must have read something about Fanny Burney, Evelina, maybe, but I can’t remember much. For what concerns Richardson I would really like to know how many did read the whole Clarissa ( or Joyce’ s Ulysses) and enjoyed it , of course.

      • As PJR writes, Jane Austen seems to have finally put paid to the medium with her juvenilia and, especially, with Lady Susan, though Mary Shelley used the epistle as a clumsy frame in Frankenstein (to go with the even more clunky reported speech of the middle sections). It wasn’t finally put to rest, I don’t think, until ghost tale and horror story writers like M R James and more especially H P Lovecraft rendered it faintly risible with fictional letter-writers hastily scribbling their final gibbering phrases as some nameless creature approaches…

        I wasn’t ever tempted by Richardson and now after your excoriations, Stefy, I shall avoid him like the plague!

  2. I enjoyed your post, e-Tink. Although I don’t believe I have ever written a million words, I have been accused of being too verbose, especially in my posts. I usually use about three to four times the words that you recommend when I do post. My excuse is that I post rather infrequently so I have more feelings and thoughts to convey when I do write. Thank you for this …

    • I guess, we write for many reasons, but above all, because we enjoy writing, so it doesn’t matter the number of words we use. Yet, if we are looking for a wider public it would be more sensible to cut them drastically. This is the age of Instagram, pics a few words. That is all.
      Cheers 🙋

  3. As a ‘big fan’ (I know it sounds very american but I hope you’ll forgive me) of fantasy novels, I have no problem with extremely long books, or series of them, with intricate plots. It goes without saying, the whole thing needs to be engaging or I would stop even before the above mentioned 1000 words.

    Though I had never heard of Richardson’s work (if we covered it at school, then I forgot, ops..), I have always been curious about Joyce’s Ulysses and I would like to try and tackle it. At least the beginning, though I know it can be a hard task.

  4. I have really enjoyed the letter writing of samuel richardson during christmas break. I read the story of pamela and i think i have found myself in those “pamelists” beacause i had a positive impression of the book, yet, even if someone at the time thought that she had had a bad behavior, i think that Pamela did the right thing, despite she was of a lower class than his master, she dares to resist to his master’s sexual wishes, becoming -in my opinion- a great model for the middle class women.

  5. I think that what the two novels have in commom, which is the violence or attempted violence against women, is an issue that we still have to face every day, unfortunately.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.