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It was not easy to pin down the true identity of an occasional self that normatively acted and presented itself differently on different occasions according to the ever-changing and recombining relations in which it stood to other people – a self moreover, whose occasional character was tirelessly promoted by conduct books prescribing the proper conduct of the same person in different social and interpersonal relations (as master and servant, husband and wife, parents and child, mistress, companion, daughter, sibling or friend, etc.). Considered empirically, such a self was almost inevitably deceptive – as deceptive as only viewing the side of Plato’s table that presented itself to one’s gaze and assuming or imagining the rest. As we saw in the Introduction, Locke described ascriptions of identity to this empirical self as forensic fictions – constructions of some part(s) of the subject that shifted according to the interlocutor, the observer and the occasion on which a self was invoked, and left the subject’s true being as indeterminate and mysterious as “the thing in itself” to an observing eye. As Locke stressed, no one could observe what was really going on inside someone else’s head or heart; and what was going on inside one’s own was changing all the time. The problem was compounded by a culture of politeness, which required the well-bred to conceal their thoughts and passions behind agreeable sentiments, complaisant conduct, and an amiable demeanor. Since polite letter-writers too assumed any character required by the occasion and the relation in which they stood to their addressee(s), letters were paradigmatic instantiations of the deployment of shifting occasional selves, and of the problems of identity they posed, especially since, like people posing on the internet, letter-writers could assume characters that did not exist.
From the middle of the eighteenth century, narrative-epistolary novelists tended to distinguish investigation of the past from investigation of expectations of the future. Expectations are convictions about the probability of future conduct or events based on the likelihood that what mostly happened in the past and mostly happens in the present will also happen in the future.1 Given the supposition of Romanticists that concern with “futurity” was new in their period, it is important to notice that efforts to foresee or predict the future were intrinsic to probabilistic reasoning in science, commerce, and law from the seventeenth century, especially in areas where prudent practical action depended on a person’s ability to make rational “prognostications” or to proportion risk to gain.2 The financial instruments introduced during the 1690s, for instance, caused merchants, insurers, sellers of annuities, and speculators in joint-stock companies to bet on the future based on “reasonable,” because probable, expectations about what was likely to happen to a ship, company, stock, or human body in future time.
Narrative-epistolary fiction often centered reversals in knowledge and revolutions in the course of events on letters. We have already encountered several such letters in passing: in Behn’s Love Letters, Silvia’s transformation from manipulated victim into manipulating siren turned on Philander’s “Blame the Victim” letter; in Haywood’s The City Jilt, a correspondence with her “ungrateful” lover marked the revolution in Glicera’s treatment of men and of letters; in Pride and Prejudice, Darcy’s letter-narrative occasioned a reversal of Elizabeth’s previously ignorant judgments and later, of her previous action in refusing him. We have also encountered in passing, cases involving empirical tests where epistolary peripeteiae were complicated by the coupling of false and true anagnorises (discoveries or revelations) as well as by exploration of the associated hamartia – a term encompassing character flaws (such as excesses of passion, drunkenness, or madness) and errors in reasoning or judgment. In Betsy Thoughtless, Miss Flora’s anonymous letter instigated a false discovery due to Truelove’s false reasoning, which created a reversal on the level of the plot; both were later corrected by Truelove’s accidental discovery of the truth about the letter and, once they were both free to marry, by another reversal in the plot.
Nineteenth-century novels such as Redgauntlet (1824), Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), No Name (1863), or The Moonstone (1868) eliminated any permanent omniscient narrator and gave the perspectives of different characters, or of the same characters at different times, different generic forms – including letter-narratives, narrative-epistolary writing, and letter-narratives containing narrative-epistolary narration – to tell the story entirely through the perspectives afforded by a discontinuous patchwork of genres. Telling a story through characters’ partial and conflicting perspectives was not new – it had been done by eighteenth-century epistolary novels, and other nineteenth-century novels fragmented their story into personal narratives that recounted the story from different narrative perspectives (for instance, Wuthering Heights) or used genre-switching to mark different phases or views of the same story (for instance, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Lady Audley’s Secret) without, for all that, eliminating the connecting and guiding narratorial voice. Superimposing generic and personal perspectival boundaries in the absence of an omniscient narrator was different.
William Jones observed in 1780 that “compositions are like machines, where one part depends upon another: the art is to use method as builders do a scaffold, which is to be taken away when the work is finished; or as good workmen, who conceal the joints in their work, so it may look smooth and pleasant to the eye, as if it were all made of one piece.”1 As he noted, relations between parts of a composition are not necessarily obvious because, in good writing, the method of construction is artfully concealed. The same may be said of the contemporary thinking on which a method of construction draws and upon which it rests. This chapter therefore offers an overview of the scaffolding. It addresses the formal conventions and the ideas that good narrative-epistolary builders used their joints to connect during the period book-ended by Trollope and Behn, and concludes by discussing some key continuities and changes during this extended period in writers’ treatment of history, narrative, and letters.
When Henry Fielding embedded two satirical letters in Joseph Andrews in 1742, he and Samuel Richardson were still aspiring newcomers on the novel-writing scene. Eliza Haywood’s enormous popularity as a narrative-epistolary novelist dated from 1719, when her first novel Love in Excess outsold Robinson Crusoe; and Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684–1687) had recently been reprinted for the ninth time.1 Modeling an Enlightenment hermeneutics of suspicion, both women authors had used their narrative frames to warn readers against taking letters at face value as honest brokers of their authors’ thoughts and feelings. In Joseph Andrews, Fielding was alluding to their narrative-epistolary fiction as well as to Richardson’s recent, wildly successful epistolary novel, Pamela, when he embedded a letter from Joseph to his sister, Pamela, at the outset of his third-person narrative. Critics who only recognized the allusion to Pamela argued that this letter continued Fielding’s attack on Richardson’s novel by showing that Joseph was as hypocritical and manipulative behind his “pretended innocence” as Pamela was in Shamela.
The long tradition of mixta-genera fiction, particularly favoured by women novelists, which combined fully-transcribed letters and third-person narrative has been largely overlooked in literary criticism. Working with recognized formal conventions and typical thematic concerns, Tavor Bannet demonstrates how narrative-epistolary novels opposed the real, situated, transactional and instrumental character of letters, with their multi-lateral relationships and temporally shifting readings, to merely documentary uses of letters in history and law. Analyzing issues of reading and misreading, knowledge and ignorance, communication and credulity, this study investigates how novelists adapted familiar romance plots centred on mysteries of identity to test the viability of empiricism's new culture of fact and challenge positivism's later all-pervading regime of truth. Close reading of narrative-epistolary novels by authors ranging from Aphra Behn and Charlotte Lennox to Frances Burney and Wilkie Collins tracks transgenerational debates, bringing to light both what Victorians took from their eighteenth-century forbears and what they changed.