THE LETTERS IN THE STORY: NARRATIVE-EPISTOLARY FICTION FROM APHRA BEHN TO THE VICTORIANS by Eve Tavor Bannet, Reviewed by Laura Rotunno
 


THE LETTERS IN THE STORY: NARRATIVE-EPISTOLARY FICTION FROM APHRA BEHN TO THE VICTORIANS
By Eve Tavor Bannet
(Cambridge, 2022) xviii + 276
Reviewed by Laura Rotunno on 2022-03-20.

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Eve Tavor Bannet established her foothold in epistolary scholarship with Empire of Letters (2005), which argued that letter manuals taught 18th-century novel readers how to grasp the epistolary structure--letter literacy or "letteracy"--of fiction. Having further pursued this argument in Eighteenth-Century Manners of Reading (2017), she takes her latest book into the nineteenth century. Expanding her focus on the cultural meanings of letters, she now considers how 19th-century fiction reflects epistemological, psychological, and historical debates.

This new book, then, tells two intertwined stories. One uncovers the unique mixed genre of "narrative-epistolary fiction"; the other examines how 18th- and 19th-century narrative-epistolary fiction joined with romance and mystery genres to engage with empiricist and positivist thought. Foregrounding a group of novelists, Bannet chronicles not only their ongoing dialogues about whether one can truly know another or find truth, but also what letters can do to highlight or obscure those inquiries.

Rather than equating "embedded letters with letters in epistolary fiction" (x), as some other scholars have done, Bannet reads the letter as pivotal to the plot of a novel and its exploration of the sociopolitical implications of communication methods. She thus follows studies such as Catherine Golden's Posting It (2009), Kate Thomas's Postal Pleasures (2012), and my own Postal Plots (2013). Along with Thomas Karshan's "Notes on the Image of the Undelivered Letter" (2011), which identifies the "undelivered letter" as a central modernist image, these studies closely read fictional narratives in light of Victorian postal policies and material culture. But Bannet goes further. Explaining how fictional narratives "scaffold" their letters, she posits the existence of a unique kind of fiction: narrative-epistolary.

Bannet recognizes that her argument is provocative. She admits that like epistolary fiction, a genre notoriously nebulous in its boundaries, narrative-epistolary fiction prompts us to ask, for instance, whether an epistolary novel might have just one letter. Rather than evading such questions, however, she welcomes them, calling her book an "initial foray" (xvi) offering "preliminary soundings" (xii) that ultimately "invite[] further experience, further knowledge, and novel work" (222).

As Bannet's invitation to such inquiry, the book's five chapters each chronicle dialogues begun in narrative-epistolary novels of the 18th century and expanded in such novels of the 19th century. The first two chapters focus on fiction that explores the process of verifying the identities and motivations of others. Chapter 1 revisits the seminal epistolary exchange between Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) and Henry Fielding's Shamela (1741) as well as exploring other epistolary novels that show how letters can reveal the truth about their writers. Including also the hugely popular novels of Eliza Haywood, Bannet argues that Haywood adopts and expands on Aphra Behn's scaffolding of letters--specifically narratives about the writing and reading of letters--to reinforce her warning that readers must arm themselves against rhetorically skilled but questionably motivated letter writers. Complicating the narrative techniques of both Haywood and Fielding, Bannet notes, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) highlights the education of a letter reader. In Austen's novel, Elizabeth Bennet not only reads but also re-reads Darcy's long letter in order to test the truth of its assertions.

Empirical verification and its limits dominate the second chapter, where Bannet shows how novelists could scaffold letters by juxtaposing them with empirical evidence. Drawing examples from the novels of Mary Davys, Eliza Haywood, and Charlotte Smith as well as from Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret (1862). Bannet argues that these books challenge the reliability of empirical evidence, including "'Conjectures or Speculations' . . . presented and remembered as historical truth" (103), the admission of circumstantial evidence into courts, and positivism's privileging of " 'facts' [as] the only scientifically valid objects of knowledge" (128). By illustrating the necessity of retaining letters and other first-person evidence and combining them with other kinds of evidence, the novels examined here are said to critique all such assertions of truth. Only combinations of evidence could make them credible. By intertwining letters and narrative, the novels exemplify this combinatory approach to the quest for truth.

Turning to theories about the formation, use, and reversibility of expectations, chapters 3 and 4 consider what novelists did with such theories. In chapter 3, Bannet shows how the novelists attacked "probabilistic thinking," which claimed that empirical evidence accurately shapes one's expectations of and predictions about the future. Novelists, Bannet argues, attacked this theory by means of "encapsulating letters"--letters that "epitomize relationships or summarize situations rooted in the past" and thereby stand as potential predictions of the future (135). Novels by Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth are said to show how letters collide with the predictions made by empirical evidence and even undercut the predictive power of such evidence in general. In these novels, we are told, letter writers and readers often rely on conduct books (and other socially received presumptions) as much as on their own sensory experiences.

Further challenges to the predictive power of empirical evidence, Bannet argues, can be found in the indeterminate and unforeseeable circumstances deployed in the novels of Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope. In Collins's Dead Secret (1856), for instance, an encapsulating letter remains unseen though linked to a pivotal secret, and thereby embodies both the unexpectedness and the suspense of its always imminent arrival. By contrast, we learn, Trollope's Phineas Finn (1867-1868) opens with an encapsulating letter that enumerates the range of possible expectations for Finn's personal and professional life. But without confirming or denying any of those predictions, the novel ends by holding them still open. This narrative-epistolary novel thus denies the hope of predictive certainties or retrospective clarity.

In chapter 4, Bannet examines what she calls "epistolary pivots": reversals in plot and knowledge that are accentuated by letters, just as the reversal of expectations (peripeteia) in Aristotle's version of tragic plot can lead to understanding (anagnorisis). This chapter links the epistolary pivot to the popular "dilatory lover" story, firmly positioning it within the romance genre to show how letters can derail the assumption that plot reversals will correct characters' knowledge. Using Jane Barker's Love Intrigues (1713) as an early example of this derailing, Bannet then considers how plot reversals can be misconstrued in the novels of Austen as well as in Brontë's Villette (1853) and Trollope's Phineas Finn. According to Bannet, these novels use epistolary pivots to show how different characters interpret plot reversals and how such reversals may bring no new understanding, nor even be universally noticed. Critiquing the notion that Romance and Realism faithfully represent reality by leading to neat closure, these novels are said to show that because their characters exist in different realities with different concerns and knowledges, no single narrative can offer total truth.

Pursuing this line of argument, chapter 5 argues that narrative entails a multiplicity of perspectives. "In reality," Bannet writes, "there are only multiple, shifting, incomplete and discontinuous narrative perspectives, each of which contains some truth" (219). In Sir Walter Scott's Redgauntlet (1824), a novel selected for its variety of narrative-epistolary interactions, Scott's narrator is shown to justify these interactions by comparing them to the versatility of dragoons, who fight by turns on horse and foot as circumstance dictate. In light of this analogy, Bannet notes, narrative-epistolary fiction demands that both narratives and letters be recognized as dynamic, interdependent agents.

Yet she finds Redgauntlet's combination of letters and narrative ultimately limited, and she questions the claim that this combination will reveal definitive truth. By contrast, she argues, the more engaged narrative-epistolary novelists whom she considers elsewhere expand the interaction of letters and narrative to expose, rather than explain away, complexities and contradictions of truth and reality. In other words, Bannet argues, they deploy the narrative-epistolary form for a significant social purpose: to contest contemporary definitions of truth and reality, which inhibit society's power to develop, thrive, and respect the needs of all.

Based as it is on Bannet's extensive knowledge of 18th- and early 19th-century novels and the ideological discussions surrounding them, this book gives relatively short shrift to Victorian writers. But in reading the novels of Braddon, Collins, Charlotte Brontë, and Trollope, Bannet is provocative enough to prompt the inference that her arguments might apply to other novelists such as Dickens and Anne Brontë, both of whom she mentions. In foregrounding the dialogues between Victorian novels and their late 18th- and early 19th-century predecessors, Bannet shows how we might still further probe these interactions as well as finding more of them in fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Unfortunately, Bannet's readings stop short of fully exploring relevant topics--such as that of women's legal standing and agency in romantic relationships, especially as they apply to contemporaneous ideological debates about truth. Rather than making the most of her fascinating ideological and cultural insights, Bannet's close readings--often quite lengthy and dense--tend to overplay the minutiae and complications of the novels she examines. Instead of largely confining her ideological overview to the introductory chapter, she could have combined within each chapter her exegeses of the novels, the history of ideas, and their interconnected social developments.

Nevertheless, I applaud Bannet's experimental re-investigation of letters in fiction, which inaugurates a different, important way of reading them as purposefully bound to narrative. As a preliminary foray meant to provoke thought and further scholarship, this book could stimulate further explorations of letters and narrative, further studies of how we define truth in our worlds, how we do or do not acknowledge the existence and worth of multiple perspectives. I realize that like the scholarship surrounding epistolary fiction itself, such work could become mired in debates about definitions of genre. But I hope those debates will not stifle the more ideologically engaged narrative-epistolary scholarship that could and should arise from Bannet's book.

Laura Rotunno is Associate Professor of English at Penn State Altoona.


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