Letters and Correspondence in Austen's Emma

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Letters and Correspondence in Austen's Emma

Emma as the next step in the epistolary novel

Jane Austen’s novel Emma was written at a time when the epistolary novel had just passed its peak (Cousineau, 32). Not only do letters and correspondence feature heavily in the novel, but according to April Alliston, “elements… characteristic of novels of women’s correspondence recur in Austen” (221). Some examples of these elements that Alliston provides are the existence of young marriageable heroines; deceased mothers, or threatening ones which, in Austen’s novels, have become merely negligent; and substitute mothers who pass advice on to the daughter (221).

As epistolary novels were comprised entirely of letters, early novelists could assert the pretended truth of their work rather than label it as fiction (Cousineau, 28). However, one disadvantage to this practice is that artefacts such as letters are “inscribed in doubleness and contradiction" (Cousineau, 14). Letters serve as a medium between the letter-writers and the reader, a medium which has the potential to warp the truth according to the private and unknown whims of the writers. By adopting an omniscient narration of her characters’ thoughts instead, Austen “[focussed] the reader’s “gaze” on the private space from which the heroine gazes out, thus fixing her more squarely in its exemplary frame than letter fiction ever could” (Alliston, 234). Although this method of narration “sacrifices the “documentary status”… that eighteenth century fiction strove to achieve” (Alliston, 236), Austen’s novels allow us to see directly into a character’s thoughts. This both promises a more reliable version of "truth" by enabling the reader to learn a character’s genuine motivation, an...

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