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Epistolary Fiction in Europe: 1500-1850
Epistolary Fiction in Europe: 1500-1850, by Thomas O. Beebee; x & 277 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, $64.95.
What a timid title for such a seductive book! Beebee's thesis is simple--"the letter is a set of functions and capabilities" (p. 202)--and his elaboration of the epistemological consequences of this thesis is admirable. The work demands respect from all of us who have tried to understand and explain the manifestations of "epistolarity" in European fiction. His subject is really the relationship between writing in general, Literature (with that big, capital "L"), history, and ideology during the early modern and modern eras. In his conclusion, he states that "epistolarity [a term made current by the landmark work of Janet Altman] is never a single, stable authorial strategy, but is continually breaking its old combinations with different discursive practices and entering new ones" (p. 200). Beebee analyzes the letter within a context of social, intellectual, psychological, historical, political, and affective dynamics and he comes as close as anyone has to defining this textual will-o'-the-wisp. [End Page 230]
Beebee argues that fiction is the most influential discursive practice of the period he discusses, and, for him, fiction is not just the opposite of non-fiction; it is normative, so much so that "non-fiction" might be seen as an artificial construct itself. Such semantic paradoxes inform his work, and make it not only a challenging but a therapeutic read. In seven chapters and a postscript (as well as a good bibliography and a very helpful chronology of epistolary works published between 1473 and 1848), Beebee shows that he is both an excellent literary historian and an imaginative theorist. He never allows himself to get too far lost in his analyses of under-read (if not un-read) epistolary novels so that his reader cannot focus on the larger picture, namely, how the letter has informed our evolution as political and self-reflective citizens of the modern world. Chapter I ("Introduction: Letters, Genealogy, Power") shows a decided debt to Michel Foucault's cultural theories. Beebee tells us that he will discuss epistolary fiction as "a pan-European form of vital importance to all the major European languages. . . . While my focus will be on epistolary fiction, my point is that such fiction can be found everywhere, and not just in texts aimed specifically at aesthetic consumption" (p. 3). He decides to eschew the traditional--and misleading--arguments that categorize the evolution of epistolary fiction as part of the development of the novel (a "sin" that many of us have committed). Epistolarity is much more than a transitional stage on the way to the realist novel of the nineteenth century; rather, it comes close to being an attitude which enabled generic experimentation, a "cultural soup" from which evolved all sorts of textual variety. Making use of Foucault's concept of "genealogy," Beebee argues that the history of the letter is the story of the confrontations of resistances, tensions, appropriations, negotiations, variabilities--in all the domains of civilized activity--that never reach any "end," but that provided the means for the necessary adaptations European societies had to make as capitalism, industrialization, and revolution re-made perceived landscapes. The letter was no less than a site of power, and its history is, of course, an analysis of the negotiations of power.
Chapter 2 ("Ars dictaminis: The Letter-writer in the Machine") explains in engrossing detail the circuits of epistolary discourse. Beebee reminds us of the "physics" as well as the "metaphysics" of letter-writing. For instance, he explains the evolution during the 17th-century from using varieties of letter-writing as models of appropriate conduct towards using letters as literal examples of that conduct, as messages with value and meaning independent of didactic motive. He refers to letters and their use as "power gradients," part of the dynamics of the allocation and assumption of power, and explains how the upper classes adapted the form's heterogeneity...