Saturday, November 5, 2011

James Scholar Post 2: Censored Sentiments

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. 


  1. Evelina shows how difficult a time young women of breeding can have fitting in to high society if they were not brought up in it, and the perils as well as the rewards inherent to trying to raise their standing and status therein. Evelina has more than her fair share of potentially disastrous experiences owing to her combination of beauty and naive vulnerability, yet so far (to my memory) she has managed to make the best of any given situation and avoid ruination. Those circumstances and her performance in them thoroughly fulfill the didactic and moralizing aspects of the epistolary form.

    The series of letters showing many viewpoints proves to be a strength of this novel far greater than was present in Pamela, for instance. Whereas Pamela could almost as easily have been written purely as a diary with some changes, Evelina takes great advantage of the epistolary form as a tool for utilizing the perspectives of many different characters, giving a better rounded and broader picture of the action than one person's reporting could provide.

  2. I feel like Evelina possesses both entertaining and didactic elements. The entertainment definitely is present and perhaps overshadows the moral lesson, but not completely. Obviously, her story is a staple fantasy that exists still today in movies, books, etc. That fantasy being the young(but pretty and bright), unfamiliar with high society, small town girl finds wealth, love, happiness via some well off gentleman. Is this story entertaining? Yes. Is it realistic(in that it will happen to everyone)? Not so much.
    However, if you get beyond the entertainment aspect a moral lesson still exists. Evelina is a good person. She is kind, thinks before she acts, and strives to do the right thing. The giving of her entire purse to the homeless man comes to mind as an example of her good character. I do think at times she allows herself to be used by the other people because she tries to be too agreeable perhaps. I think that a moral lesson can be taken away from the novel, the message being: be a good person, kind, generous, watch out for those who would abuse your goodwill, and you can end up happy.

  3. Evelina possesses entertaining and didactic elements. Evelina as a novel is more entertaining than anything, but it does "teach" the readers a lesson. When compared to Pamela, the latter novel has more didactic elements. After reading Pamela we discussed in class that 18th century mothers would make their daughters read that novel in hopes they would mirror similar qualities to Pamela. Oppositely, Evelina did not have as major as an impact on its' readers in that sense. Evelina is just an entertaining and fun novel to read. Evelina does face similar issues to that of a real girl in the 18th century could face and have to over come. I think current readers are able to make the didactic connection more than the 18th century readers were able to with Evelina. A didactic realistic element from Evelina could be all the suitors that are trying to pursue the young girl. She doesn't whore herself out to all of them (I don't consider the letter to qualify). She, as we would say in the current day, played hard to get. I feel that many mothers in the present day would want their daughters to act the same way.

  4. I agree with the other responses to this post. Evelina is both didactic and entertaining. Unlike Pamela, which was obviously written as an example for young girls, I don't find myself questioning or doubting Evelina's sincerity or naivete. Pamela, compared to Evelina, seems like a bad influence for young girls for one can easily question her motives.

    Because this novel is entertaining, I think it's better at be didactic. It's easy to pick out the situations we are supposed to find ridiculous or moralizing. Unlike Pamela, it's easier to find the bits of this novel that are supposed to teach us (and 18th century readers) something and actually believe them. I find this novel much more entertaining which in turn makes the didactic parts less pushy and unbelievable.

  5. Unlike the posts above me, I am having a hard time pointing out the didactic elements in Evelina. Although it is very entertaining, finding a moral lesson is quite hard. So yes, I believe that the entertaining elements overshadow the moral lesson. At most, Evelina teaches the reader that manners are important , and that it is important for women to know how to act in public, while still being true to their morals. However, Evelina's ridiculous scenarios might make it harder for the reader to connect, due to the fact that these moments of old lady foot races, fake robberies, and other silly events might not apply to the average reader.

  6. I think that Evelina may be too entertaining for the moral that Burney was trying to portray (if she was indeed trying to make a moral statement with the novel) be clear to the readers. Unlike in Pamela where the readers can conclude that she was rewarded at the end of the novel for keeping her virtue despite being tempted with money, in Evelina there does not appear to be any real moral issue that Evelina is struggling with. After finishing the novel, the only moral that I could possibly draw from it was the importance of forgiveness. Despite being wronged by many people in her life (Willoughby trying to ruin her relationship with Lord Orville and her father not claiming her as his own until he is faced with the facts), Evelina is able to forgive those that wronged her; this virtue is one that is admired by Lord Orville and I guess her "reward" is that she is able to marry the man that she chooses. Overall, I think (at least for me) the parts of this novel that will be remembered by readers are the crazy situations that occur, such as the footrace between the old ladies, the "kidnapping" of Madame Duval, and the guest appearance by the monkey.