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Epistolary Culture in the English Restoration

 

This research project, funded by Fritz-Thyssen-Stiftung für Wissenschaftsforschung (2018-2020), joins together a range of aspects of early modern literary culture that will contribute significantly to how we understand the late seventeenth-century as a moment whose generic instability within the area of narrative prose fiction gave rise to various forms of experimentation and import from other genres and modes. For this research project, the main focus rests on matters related to epistolary media. The historical context of the English Restoration – a period frequently taken as referring to the half-century that began with the re-instalment of the Stuart Monarchy with Charles II’s ascension to the throne in 1660 and ended with the Copyright Act in 1710 – sheds light on a moment in the history of English literature that is marked by major political, institutional, religious, and cultural revolutions; and whose massive impact on theatrical traditions is already well documented. Restoration England provided the breeding ground for numerous literary innovations that only fully bloomed in the early eighteenth century, as did the novel with the publication in 1719 of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

The present research project will add to our understanding of literary culture at this particular point in time, and it will do so with a specific focus at the role played by epistolary culture. The various publications to come out of this project will jointly address the status of epistolarity in early-modern British literary culture and will demonstrate that the form of the letter contributed substantially to the introduction of new literary forms. The specific media context of epistolary writing allowed writers to challenge the supposed veracity of mediated communication and simultaneously to alert readers to the increasing importance of becoming knowledgeable about the dynamics and potential of print culture, both in a positive and in a critical sense.

Contrary to the widely held consensus that the letter added to the early novel a modicum of reliability and enabled writers to represent their characters’ interiority in more nuanced manners, recent scholarship on forms of epistolary writing has stressed the form’s deconstructive potential, discussed the subversive element that the medium of the letter introduced to prose fiction, and stressed the importance of epistolary culture for the formation of how individuals related to their personal and socio-political environment. The changing media environment of the English Restoration age, benefitting as it did from a more liberal attitude towards censorship and progressive legislation about copyright, brought forth an unheard-of increase in literary culture, including the birth of periodical and newspaper publishing on a large scale. It is in this cultural environment, driven by a public sphere as staged in the coffee houses, that new forms of communications were tried out; and that the newly popularised form of the letter, both personal and in print, gained importance. The letter was seen as an easily available commodity, greatly supported by the recent establishment of the penny post; yet it was also understood to be a form of communication that was easily corrupted and hence habitually used for deceptive purposes. The very principle of deception turned into a major trope within Restoration and early eighteenth-century literary culture: there existed a general understanding within literary circles that the impersonality of epistolary communication lent itself perfectly to the kind of cultural criticism – criticism, that is, of the excessive Baroque culture that was clearly at odds with the lived experience of the non-courtly population – that found an outlet in this generic focus on the force of deception.

It is from this point of the current scholarly debate that the present project will take off and present Restoration epistolary culture as implicated in a discussion that was intimately tied to media criticism, new forms of corporeality, and changing literary values while remaining committed to investing into literary discourse as a means and platform of both aesthetic innovation and social critique. The research to come out of this project will show that epistolary culture contributed substantially to the shaping of early-modern English literary culture, doing so specifically by dint of its potential to toy with the medial status of letter writing and the concomitant engagement with matters of truth and veracity. The letter as a tool of literary forms of representations allowed both readers and writers to reflect on the mediated nature of writing; and it invited a form of reception that grew increasingly aware of the tenuous relationship between sign and reality. The larger implications of this realisation were tested out in how early modern literary culture attached to epistolary forms of communication a modicum of scepticism and a whiff of disrespect. Through studying early-modern epistolarity, we stand to gain a significantly better understanding of the history of realism and thus also of the generic developments within narrative prose fiction.

Gerd Bayer (PI)

NN (doctoral researcher)