The Legal Fiction and Epistolary Form: Frances Burney’s Evelina
Abstract

Abstract:

This article argues that Frances Burney’s Evelina uses the resources of epistolary form to intervene in eighteenth-century debates concerning the “legal fiction” of paternity. In doing so, Burney makes epistolarity into a technology of subjectivity that refuses the subsumption of the subject into the powerful symbolic discourse of the law, and also refuses her definitive attachment to the materiality of biological paternity. Burney locates the “epistolary fiction” at precisely the point at which the subject is split between materiality and discourse: the letter. By reading the way in which Caroline Belmont is, in a posthumously delivered letter, unable to definitively address Sir John Belmont as husband, lover, or father of her child, this piece argues that it is the question of address, the letter’s material link to the world, that Burney makes crucial to epistolarity. Evelina shows that paternity (like the letter itself) is too sensuous to be a mere fiction of the law (or of literary style). The epistolary mode is not simply a conceit that allows an author to realistically explore the interiority of the subject, but a technology that marks the subject’s “entrance into the world” as irreducibly material.