The History of Emily Montague

The History of Emily MontagueThe History of Emily Montague is probably one of the less “serious” epistolary novels I’m reading, and I wasn’t expecting a lot from it. While those expectations were largely confirmed, the reading of it was extremely enjoyable and there were really an awful lot of things I liked.

Written in 1769, this is mostly a sentimental novel about several young people courting and getting married. The epistolary form is of the “many to many” variety—that is, each of several people writes to just about all the others at one time or another, with a couple less prominent characters shooting things off in a single direction as well. This is more complex than a one-to-one or one-to-many system of letters, and I found it especially well-suited for telling this type of story—young men and women gossiping to each other and trying to catch each other’s eye and get together one way or another.

Making things a bit more complex, or at least more interesting, Frances Brooke does not include every piece of relevant correspondence in the novel. We see replies without the originals, and counter-replies without the replies. In addition, since the main action of the novel takes place in Quebec, and some of the interlocutors remain in England, the chronology is complicated. Letters shoot back and forth between Quebec City and its environs in a matter of hours, between Quebec and Montreal in a few days, while between Quebec and England it takes months at the best of times, and even longer in the winter. This also means that while the romances of a few of the characters in Canada are foregrounded all winter, behind the scenes, as it were, in England, events equally worthy of gossip are happening without time for the sometimes frantic correspondence included in the novel itself.

I would say that in general the letters fall into three categories: narrative, descriptive, and injunctive. The narrative letters probably form the greatest part, relating the actual events concerning the romances and friendships of the characters. The descriptive ones are like travel writing, and in the case of The History of Emily Montague are especially interesting because of the unusual look they provide of Canada.* And the injunctive letters put me in mind of the seventeenth-century “letter writers” I’ve read about, which teach people how to chide wayward sons regarding proper morality and such.

With the relatively complex form out of the way, I’ll get on to discussing what these letters are actually about for the rest of the week and maybe part of next. As I go back through the passages I’ve marked, getting ready to write about them now several weeks after I first read the book, I feel more and more confirmed in my opinion that while this might not be a brilliant or terribly original work, it has things to recommend it and was a more absorbing illustration of the epistolary form than much else I’ve looked at so far.**

*I believe the history of Canada touched upon in this novel deserves a post of its own.
**Except, notably, Humphry Clinker.

6 comments to The History of Emily Montague

  • Sounds fun, and different from any other epistolary novel I’ve read. I like the fragmented aspect to it and look forward to hearing more this week.

  • What a look of curious features. Quebec City!

    I was thinking of the more focused Humphrey Clinker while you were describing this book. I see that Brooke is actually two years earlier. But I guess Smollett’s key innovation was that we keep getting different voices describing the same events, which is something different than Brooke’s gossipy chaos. It sounds like it would be hard to control, but it would give the author enormous freedom to tell the story.

  • nicole

    Yeah, it’s quite different in effect from the Smollett, which I finished last night, and which was Awesome. I like that style better, really, because I like the effect of multiple voices describing the same events. This is much more of a free-for-all, but I thought that worked really well for the subject matter. “OMG I love him!” “OMG come over right now!” “OMG he’s so far away in Montreal!” “OMG she doesn’t like me!”

    Only, you know, in 1769. But when I was reading it I kept thinking how much it should appeal in a romancey sort of way. Also in a flash fiction sort of way. I feel like epistolary novels make better commuter reading than the recently touted short stories…although that does not apply to Pamela, so.

  • I probably read most of Pamela on the Brown Line. Sir Charles Grandison, too! Pamela was just too big, though, so it never went on the El. But I’m probably not the test case for what makes good commuter reading.

    Something more restful than tense, hysterical Pamela would be better.

  • nicole

    You’ll appreciate this, from The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence (is a subtitle that complete self-annihilating?) by Godfrey Frank Singer (1933):

    We must remember that today one is hardly expected, unless he is a student of Richardson, to read any one of this author’s novels word for word and page by page. He simply has not the time. The epistolary method is, of necessity, slow moving. Richardson, however, had no intention of writing for the amusement of the railway traveler who found himself in the deplorable state of having half an hour to kill by reading.

    (This book is a trip.)

    I am also not the test case. For one thing, I don’t commute. And for another, I get motion sickness.

  • 2 points:
    1. Not only did I read Richardson on the Brown Line, but I was mostly, standing, holding on to a pole with one hand.

    2. I’m going to use that title sometime soon. Wuthering Expectations: It’s Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence.

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