In Barbara Zaczek's book, "Censored Sentiments: Letters and Censorship in Epistolary Novels and Conduct Material', Zaczek explores the role of epistolary novels and letters written by women as conduct material for eighteenth century readers. She explains the role of a letter as a strong indicator into the female character and as a reverent guide into the moral and societal lessons of the eighteenth century female. Zaczek explains, "'The disruptive potential of female sexuality and its associated epistolary' turned a female letter in the eighteenth century into a gauge which conduct books in conjunction with the disciplines used to probe and measure the sentiments that could hamper the construction of the new feminine identity" (23). The chapter of Zaczek's book "Female Letters in Conduct Material", deconstructs the role that the epistolary novel, a novel made of letters, had in creating the image of the "ideal" female women of the time. She uses the tension between the public and private spheres to examine the "manipulative potential as material evidence" and the complete exposition of female thought. The aspects of secrecy and private thought create a rift between disputed purposes of the epistolary novel. Zaczek argues the role of the epistolary novel in creating a moral lesson versus being a form of entertainment.
Zaczek models Samuel Richardson's view on the epistolary novel as a moral guide for eighteenth century readers; "Sententious Maxims and Moral Aphorisms, collecting into a point and concisely but strongly expressing elevated thoughts, beautiful sentiments, or instructive lessons have always been well received by the public"(25). Zaczek further explains literary fiction as an "embellishment, a mere supplement to the moral framework"(26).
As Richardson once said, the makeup of epistolary or sentimental novels has always been popular in the public sphere. We see a conjoining of moral lessons with entertaining aspects that form a novel praised by the public. In our current class reading, "Evelina", we are exposed to the common techniques of eighteenth century entertainment. The aspect of privacy, and the fact that the reader is being exposed to the inner thoughts and emotions of the writer is a common technique for literary entertainment; it's as if we are reading a diary. In addition, we see the moral lessons that Evelina learns through her exposure to upperclass society. She learns who she can trust, who she cannot, and how to emulate the most ideal version of an eighteenth century woman.
I think that Zaczek's evaluation of the epistolary novel is extremely useful to understanding the role of this genre in the eighteenth century. Throughout our class discussions, we have dissected the aspects of entertainment; what aspects of this book are supposed to keep us interested and which ones serve an important purpose? It is interesting to note how closely entwined entertainment and didactic purpose are, and I wonder what the eighteenth century public looked most for in their search for literature.
How do you think Evelina compares with the picture that Zaczek has drawn of the eighteenth century epistolary novel? Does "Evelina" fulfill the roles of being both entertaining and didactic? In an earlier post, it was mentioned that the book is "too entertaining" to create a serious moral lesson in the end. Do you think that, in this genre, the aspect of entertainment overshadows the presentation of a didactic lesson? Also, do you agree with Richardson's presentation of these novels as an "embellishment"? Do you think that this genre simply "imitates" real life? That is, are the moral lessons taught applicable to the real life lessons of eighteenth century readers, or does the aspect of entertainment ruin any chance of real life application?
Works Cited: Zaczek, Barbara Maria. Censored Sentiments: Letters and Censorship in Epistolary Novels and Conduct Material. Newark: University of Delaware, 1997. Print.