The 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.