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Clarissa's Treasonable Correspondence: Gender, Epistolary Politics, and the Public Sphere Rachel K. Camell In a letter to Lady Bradshaigh, Samuel Richardson emphasized the importance of generating active debate among his readers. He even went as far as to suggest that the readers themselves may become almost author-like in their participation in the public reception of his novels: The undecided Events are sufficiently pointed out to the Reader, to whom this Sort of Writing, something, as I have hinted, should be left to make out or debate upon. ... It is not an unartful Management to interest the Readers so much in the Story, as to make them differ in Opinion as to Capital Articles, and by Leading one, to espouse one, another, another, Opinion, make them all, if not Authors, Carpers.1 Richardson's fascination with the public debate about his novels and his empowerment of readers to participate in debates about their meaning place him squarely within the eighteenth-century social phenomenon that Jürgen Habermas has described as the public sphere. Although Richardson obviously did not employ the vocabulary of a twentieth-century social critic, the rational debates and exchanges that 1 Samuel Richardson, letter to Lady Bradshaigh, 25 February 1754, in Selected Letters ofSamuel Richardson, ed. John Carroll (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), p. 296. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 10, Number 3, April 1998 270 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION his novels generated—through letters, periodical reviews, private conversations , and public discussion in coffee-houses—correspond closely to Habermas's description of the bourgeois public sphere, in which private individuals participated in critical public debate through the universalizing capacity of rational thought. Habermas even refers to the public reception of Richardson's novels, in which "Richardson wept over the actors in his novels as much as his readers did," as part of the cultural context that created the "family's self-image as a sphere of humanitygenerating closeness." This perception of shared humanity permitted rational men of different ranks to engage in public debate "without regard to all preexisting social and political rank."2 In Habermas's analysis, Richardson belongs not to the political public sphere, in which opponents of the Whig government "raised to the status of an institution, the ongoing commentary on and criticism of the Crown's actions and Parliament's decisions," but to its somewhat tangential stepsister, the literary public sphere. Habermas acknowledges that these two spheres were interconnected and "blended with each other in a peculiar fashion," but he never fully explains how the literary public sphere is connected to the realm of political debate. One of his few observations about the distinction between the two spheres is that "female readers as well as apprentices and servants often took a more active part in the literary public sphere than the owners of private property and family heads themselves."3 Exactly in what way women and other dependents were active participants in the literary public sphere remains opaque in Habermas's analysis. Their role as readers seems limited to helping bourgeois household heads conceive of themselves as humanized through the sphere of the family: literature and public discussions about literature enable private individuals to see themselves in the universalizing terms of "love, freedom, and cultivation—in a word, as humanity."4 Habermas thus considers the role of literature apolitical, except in its humanizing influence on political players. This strand of thought in a work of social theory first published in 1962 should not surprise us, given that the political basis of the early British novel has only recently been reasserted.5 If, however , we develop Habermas's provocative claims about the public sphere 2 Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformation ofthe Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge : MIT Press, 1989), pp. 50, 48, 54. 3 Habermas, pp. 60, 55, 56. 4 Habermas, p. 55. 5 See, for example, Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); Carol Kay, Political CLARISSA'S TREASONABLE CORRESPONDENCE 271 through an analysis of the political discourse of Richardson's fiction, we will comprehend the non-partisan...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-0243
Print ISSN
0840-6286
Pages
pp. 269-286
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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