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.








The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in smaller spaces: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family circles and their connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that is his thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of “la durée”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and  placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course: “the genious touch”.