Letters, both political and amorous, prove vital to the plot of Maria Edgeworth’s Helen (1834), but to this point no text had been so concerned with the potential hazards of epistolary promiscuity once handwriting is transformed to print. Edgeworth champions the subjectivity of handwriting over the machinery of print because the former reveals hidden attributes about the writer’s character. Edgar Allan Poe follows Edgeworth in placing importance on the intersections between chirography and character, but that is not where the influence between the authors stopped. In Helen, the eponymous heroine demonstrates her dynamic agency through a capacity for detective work, as she solves a vital case of theft and extortion through visual and circumstantial evidence. Although Lady Davenant keeps her letters in a desk equipped with a reliable lock, the Portuguese boy she employs nevertheless manages to steal them. Helen’s detective work places the agency of perception squarely on the shoulders of a woman and prefigures the customs of detective fiction later recognizable in Poe’s short stories.


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pp. 178-198
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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