A Novel Affair

Feminism in Epistolary Fiction

Feminism, both in the form of subtle undertones as well as in the form of the principal theme, is a theme regularly included in epistolary novels. Of the 92 novels analyzed, approximately 20% from across time included elements of feminism. This theme is complex in that the concept of feminism is relatively new (within the last 100 years or so). However, prior to its official establishment, many of the epistolary novels included in this research include elements of it. For example, in many of the novels dating to the 18th or 19th centuries, simply having a dynamic female character was progressive. For this reason, such novels have been included as abiding by the feminist theme. An example of this is Maria Edgeworth’s Leonora (1806). Edgeworth’s novel follows two strong-willed female characters, Leonora and Olivia, whose deviant opinions on marriage and social norms make this novel stand apart as an early feminist piece.1

Part of the reason that epistolary fiction is likely a good format for the expression of female voices, especially in earlier novels, is due to women’s role in letter-writing culture. In periods where public spaces were considerably dominated by men (such as largely for the centuries preceding the 20th century), women were not able to express their experiences or thoughts with the same freedom as their male counterparts. While it is important to note that elements of this public space domination by men still exist, women’s place in the public sphere was even more constrained in earlier centuries. And, in light of these public constraints and social taboos, personal interactions were often the space where women could express their personal sentiments. By this, letters served as a forum for women to communicate their perspective to a friend or relative, without breaking the social norms that regularly kept them from the public arena. Therefore, feminism in early epistolary novels is logical, as women were better able to act as independent and dynamic characters in this format in spite of their marginalized social position.

In modern epistolary novels, despite women having more opportunity to participate in the public space, the theme of feminism persists. It is sometimes manifested in a manner reminiscent of the older feminist epistolary texts, specifically in those novels set back in time. For example, Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity (2013) is set during World War II and, therefore, takes on the characteristics of the female experience at that time.2 Other times, the theme of feminism is presented in the modern context. In Mariama Bâ’s 1981 Si Une Longue Lettre (So a long Letter), Bâ brings the modern position of Senegalese women to the forefront, detailing the inequalities still faced by women in the modern day.34

(1) Edgeworth, Maria. (1893). Leonora. London: J.M. Dent & Co.
(2) Wein, Elizabeth. (2013). Code Name Verity. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike Press.
(3) Bâ, Mariama. (1981). Une Si Longue Lettre. (Modupé Bodé-Thomas, trans.). London: Heinemann.
(4) Other such examples of this theme include: Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Jack London and Anna Strunsky’s The Kempton-Wace Letters, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Gilbert Imlay’s The Emigrants.