Book Review

Beebee, Thomas O. Epistolary Fiction in Europe, 1500-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook | July 19, 2000

Thomas O. Beebee’s ambitious study opens and closes under the sign of poststructuralism. His Introduction cites Derrida’s now-familiar pronouncement about epistolarity: “the letter, the epistle is not a genre but all genres,literature itself” (15); his Postscript closes with an allusion (oddly unattributed) to Lacan’s equally famous assertion that “the letter always arrives at its destination.” As Barbara Johnson points out in “The Frame of Reference,” this claim, properly interpreted (that is, not as Derrida interprets it), signals “the impossibility of any ultimate analytical metalanguage.” Beebee is indeed an adept of the indecidabilities and paradoxes of the letter. The poststructuralist bookends suggest one way in which this is a courageous project; the dates in Beebee’s title, 1500-1850, suggest another. While in the mid-1990s, New Historically-inflected studies by, say, Mary Favret or Nicola Watson (or, full disclosure, myself) linked letter-narratives to what these studies argued were coherent and relatively limited historical periods, and restricted their focus to primary texts in one or two languages, Beebee’s chapters examine literary letters from the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, with frequent side excursions to England and Russia. Beebee explicitly proposes a “pan-European” (3) Metaphysics of the letter, its feedback loops, power-gradients, and white-noise effects. Beebee is frank about the challenges of working at the interface of the Rare Book Room and the dynamic zones of poststructuralist philosophy. His “middle way” between what he calls the “Scylla and Charybdis” (9) of either history without form or form without history is to write a “genealogy” of epistolary literature, in which “fictional forms, no longer viewed as autonomous, become nothing other than the series of differentia and camouflages which fiction assumes vis-à-vis other, ‘non-fictional’ texts” (11). The crosspollination of fictional and historical letters drives Beebee’s second chapter, a survey of letter-manuals from the medieval artes dictaminis to early-nineteenth-century examples. Beebee argues that critics of letter manuals and critics of letter-novels have ignored the continuous interinfluence of these forms in producing ideologies of social order. An illustration keyed to this chapter (from a 1662 German manual of love letters) shows a wealthy lover scribbling a letter in front of a smoking bed into which Cupid is firing arrows; a servant stands at the ready to deliver it. Beebee reads this as an image of the “letter-writer in the machine” (20), and uses it to set up his argument here and in the next chapter about the “power gradient” and “machinic power differential” (22) operating each of the texts he examines. The chapter combines useful (if necessarily somewhat generalizing) intellectual-historical overviews with persuasive, well-reasoned close readings of individual letter-manuals, from Renaissance Italian revisions of Cicero’s letters, to a Spanish collection of model bishop’s letters, to Gellert’s widely read 1751 Letters, with a practical treatise on good taste in letters, to the letter-collections and -novels of Johann Jakob Dusch. Ducange’s Secrétaire des enfans (1827), with its ceremonial procession to judgment of the letter portfolios of a thoroughly surveillés group of schoolchildren, stands as the culmination of the transformation of epistolary form into disciplinary technology. The third and fourth chapters are organized around what Beebee identifies as central functions of the letter, “cathection” and “defamiliarization” respectively, and broadly follow the trajectory of prose fiction traced by Michael McKeon toward “a novelistic world of experience” (70). The letter’s slippery relation to documentary authenticity makes it especially attractive to early modern writers surfing between public and private. Chapter 3 considers texts that draw attention to the materiality of the letter itself, from Segura’s Processo de cartas of 1548 to Poe’s “Purloined Letter” (1846) and the poststructuralist essays it inspired; its core is a survey of the two centuries of “postboy robbed” letter-collections that follow Pallavicino’s Courier Robbed of his Mail (1641). The fourth chapter develops the idea of the unstable epistolary interplay of fact and fiction, public and private in epistolary travelfictions that enable different sorts of “defamiliarization” of national identity, of the psychological subject, of the “literary” itself. Beebee touches on the well-known examples of Marana, Montesquieu, Goldsmith, Graffigny, Smollett then turns to extended readings of Cadalso’s 1789 Moroccan Letters and Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler (1802). Chapter Five explores the figure of the “lettered woman” as a “dialectical image,” a “site of cultural contestation which moves [sic] in many directions at once” (105). Beebee is covering broadly familiar ground here, but his archival erudition means that readers will encounter unexpected primary materials: an Italian Renaissance letter collection purporting to be by Lucreticia Gonzaga; rival eighteenth century scandal chronicles claiming to give the secret erotic history behind the duel between John Law and Edward Wilson. On the other hand, Beebee’s breadth of reading in primary texts sometimes entails a loss of depth in secondary criticism: those familiar with accounts by Rosalind Ballaster, Paula McDowell, or William Beatty Warner, among others, of women writers in the context of the exploding media culture of the period will feel that this comparative survey spreads itself too thin at points. The chapter closes with a survey of turn-of-the-century German women’s letter-novels, which develop Beebee’s claim that toward the end of the eighteenth century, letter-fictions lose their earlier affiliation with the “world of experience” and instead take as their project “the construction of subjectivity out of the differentia of conversation, travel, and writing” in the “absence of any grounding center” (131). This post-Enlightenment model of epistolarity carries through the next two chapters on French Revolutionary and nineteenth-century letter-novels. Epistolary fictions by Marat, Williams, Stael, Meilhan, Sade, and Genlis published between 1785 and 1795 document “a full spectrum of attitudes and premonitions” about the Revolution. The seventh chapter, asking how nineteenth-century writers responded to the exhausted cultural authority of the letter form, opens with competent readings of texts by Scott, Balzac, and Austen, takes a refreshing detour through Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk (1846) and Valera’s Pepita Jiménez (1879), and wraps things up with Immerman’s fascinating Paper Windows of a Hermit (1822), which “reenacts the death of epistolary fiction on its surface” (198). But in the last few decades, the letter-novel has been culturally resurrected: Beebee’s brief Postscript sketches “the distinctive features of the revival of epistolary fiction under the aegis of postmodernity” (200), which include not only the “deconstruction of nationalism” but other “problems commonly associated with postmodernism”: the nature of the signifier; the dialectic of private and public, presence and absence; the status of the fictional itself. Clearly, the scope of the projected “volume devoted to ‘modern’ rather than early modern epistolary fictions” (200) that Beebee gestures toward here will have to match in ambitiousness the work he has already published.

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