The Mutual Constitution of Femininity and Privacy in 18th Century Epistolary Novels

Part I: Reading Secondary Sources in Order to Trace The Public/Private Binary

The gender binary is not only a system of ordering bodies and families, but also of ordering ideas, art, and literature. Abstract concepts are associated with supposedly physically manifested genders in the collective consciousness of the West – vanity with womanhood, bravery with men, etc. Such simplistic assignments of values, ideas, and emotions to gender are easily recognizable as stereotypes. The rather subtler, but no less insidious, association of women with privacy fascinates me, given my own practice of keeping a diary. The history of the diary form as intimately linked with masculinized colonialism throughout the seventeenth century, but then, starting in the eighteenth and nineteenth, feminized domesticity and interiority, intrigues me – how did the shift occur?

My interest in the diary novel has found expression in an investigation of epistolary novels. The two forms are closely linked: Martens describes the evolution of the form of the diary novel when she writes that, in eighteenth century England, “These works [books of letters], and their fictional counterparts, are called ‘journals’ instead of merely ‘letters’ because, in accordance with the eighteenth-century meaning of the word ‘journal,’ their authors wrote with the intention of conveying a circumstantial record of the events of each day” (76). The diary novel as we know it – usually written by a woman, usually a white woman, and ranging in fictionality from edited journals not originally intended for publication to popular novels – actually explores some of the same themes as eighteenth century epistolary novels, such as interiority, privacy, female friendship, objectification, and the male gaze. The insistently gendered and feminocentric nature of both these genres begs the question: what about epistolarity is feminine, or what is feminine about epistolarity?

It seems that the values and themes that shape the epistolary novel as a feminine form also shape the diary novel as a feminine form – interiority, exploration of close relationships, the woman as one who is observed and on display, but not quite a public figure. As E.H. Cook writes, “While keeping its actual function as an agent of the public exchange of knowledge, [the letter] took on the general connotation it still holds for us today, intimately identified with the body, especially a female body, and the somatic terrain of the emotions, as well as with the thematic material of love, marriage, and the family” (6). This conflation of embodied gender and disembodied “thematic material” is less straightforward than it appears; instead of asking, are letters gendered (yes, of course) I’m trying to ask, why? How so? What about these characteristics of letters are feminine? Closely reading E.H. Cook shows that it is not despite, but because of, the functionality of letters as carriers of public discourse as well as communications about familial and feminine affairs that created the identification of epistolary novels with female bodies.

Much of the closeness of the relationship between femininity and epistolarity has to do with the concurrent rise of capitalism and the nuclear family. Capitalism’s deployment and reliance upon the nuclear family created, but also complicated, a private/public divide. For it is the nuclear family, according to Habermas, that nurtured the modern notion of individual subjectivity, but it is only capable of full expression when oriented towards the public, or at least, another person. He writes, “Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience …The diary became a letter addressed to the sender, and the first-person narrative became a conversation with one’s self addressed to another person. These were experiments with the subjectivity discovered in the close relationships of the conjugal family” (49). Here, we can understand private and public spaces not as dichotomous but instead as mutually constitutive. Habermas, in describing the evolution and growth of a public sphere, demonstrates the ways in which such separations actually bely understandings of private and public as totally separable and discrete.

The prevalence of women writers in the latter half of the eighteenth century speaks to the difficulty of discretely separating public and private roles. Jane Spencer, in her article “Women Writers and the Eighteenth Century Novel,” asserts that the gendered nature of romantic fiction, which is usually posited as a direct predecessor to the novel, reflects both womens’ desire for a public voice as well as misogyny that confines that voice. “That women’s concerns and desires are important, and that a woman’s story can be the center of a narrative, are the claims that make eighteenth-century women’s fictions ‘romantic’ …[and] still devalued in comparison to other genre fiction” (214). Indeed, the very nature of the themes represented in womens fiction contributed to a complexity and blurriness of privacy, instead of its neat delineation; “The new evaluation of privacy and domesticity encouraged by sentimental ideology contributed to the ambiguity of public/private distinctions” (Spencer, 217). Spencer’s argument that women positioned themselves as moral leaders demonstrates both the strength of ideology that assigns values to women associated with privacy – i.e. familial virtue, virginity, etc. – and the youth of this same ideology in the eighteenth century. The assignment of privacy to women could only happen once the private and public spheres were delineated due to the rise of capitalism, and the ties between the nuclear family and its women were firmly established. By reading secondary sources, we can come to an understanding of the ways in which epistolary novels both reflected and created a discourse of gendered privacy.

Of course, the very act of reading an epistolary novel means that it is public, in a fashion. The line between participation and voyeurism is very thin, and made to be teetered on; “Despite Richardson’s claims to the contrary, Pamela was a sexy book; Richardson’s own affection for his creation turned the scenes of her virtue in distress into an opportunity for voyeurism” (McGirr, 88). I say this not to condemn the notion of voyeurism but to highlight the instability of a gendered privacy, which, in representation, becomes inherently un-private. “Letters routinely transgress the boundary of inside and outside, public and private, within the narrative itself; and at a meta-narrative level, the published letter (the novels being entirely constructed of letters) is the private made public, closeted ruminations revealed to the gaze of a reading public” (Clery, 138). A feminine privacy enacted in epistolary novels is paradoxical; for a novel to contain private correspondence is impossible, if private correspondence is defined by how few people it reaches. Instead, privacy becomes abstract and can only be grasped through its feminine nature. Understanding the necessity of femininity in the construction of privacy illuminates the ways in the capitalist nuclear family created something supposedly ahistorical; it is not such a stretch to trace the evolution of privacy in the West from epistolary novels to Griswold vs. Connecticut. In understanding not only that it is gendered, but that privacy actually needs femininity to operate as a concept, we can historicize that which has been decontextualized and posited as natural, i.e. gender.

Part II: Topic Modeling

I started my project hoping to find clear patterns linking words associated with privacy – closet, domestic, interior – next to words associated with femininity – miss, fair, etc. While my secondary sources seem to support such connections, the nature of topic modeling makes it less suited for testing hypotheses and more suited for exploring a large corpus of texts. In his article “Probabilistic Topic Models” in the April 2012 issue of Communications of the ACM Princeton professor of Computer Science David Blei writes, “Topic models are algorithms for discovering the main themes that pervade a large and otherwise unstructured collection of documents. Topic models can organize the collection according to the discovered themes” (77). The idea that one can discover something as nebulous as a “theme” through computerized number-crunching is intriguing, and, arguably, a key part of digital humanities scholarship. In my case, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to “discover” a theme in a large corpus of texts, for my collection of documents was actually small and structured.

All the texts I chose are all epistolary novels, because of my interest in privacy and letter-writing. They are all be women authors, except for Pamela: for the many women authors writing in the long eighteenth century, epistolary novels were a very popular form. It’s hard to say if most women authors wrote epistolary novels or if most epistolary novels were by women, but there is a strong connection between female authorship and epistolary novels that adds another, intriguing dimension to representations in those novels of femininity and epistolarity. Here is where topic modeling is useful: instead of hypothesizing that women authors will automatically write about femininity or use words recognizably associated with the concept, and looking for a yes or a no, we have a chance to ask an open-ended question exploring the “main themes” and then examining our results.

The books I used were:

Brooke, Frances. The History of Lady Julia Mandeville. London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1763. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Brooke, Frances. Emily Montague. London: J. Dodsley, 1769. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Burney, Fanny. Evelina. London: T. Lowndes, 1778. Plain text source: Project Gutenberg

Fenwick, Eliza. Secresy. London, 1795. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Fielding, Sarah. The Countess of Dellwyn. A. Millar: London, 1759. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. Samuel Etheridge: Boston, 1795. Plain text source: Project Gutenberg.

Gunning, Susannah. Barford Abbey. T. Payne: London, 1768. Plain text source: Project Gutenberg.

Keir, Elizabeth. The History of Miss Greville. Edinburgh: E. Balfour & W. Creech, 1787. Plain text source: The Internet Archive.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa. Samuel Richardson: London, 1751. Plain text source: Project Gutenberg.

Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London: J. Newbery, 1765. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Sheridan, Frances Chamberlaine. The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. London: J. Dodsley, etc. 1772. Plain text source: Literature Online.

I chose these books because I could find their full texts online, a necessity for topic modeling. They range in publication date from 1751 to 1795, a range of dates small enough for some cohesion but long enough for a look at the latter half of the eighteenth century, the time that saw the epistolary novel peak in popularity and the novel take a form recognizable to contemporary readers. I topic modeled and looked for twenty topics. My results:

While the results are too varied – excitingly so! – to take one look at them and declare unequivocally that letters are a feminine form, it is certainly exciting to see, in the first line, a group of words that reads “letter friend friends lucy richman happy mamma dear love hartford virtue life heart honor”. “Mamma dear love” is particularly indicative of the feminine content and themes that pervades this corpus. There are fewer topics that directly relate to privacy, a concept not quite as huge as femininity; “room” in line 5 and “house” in line 20, however, are words that reflect a theme of interiority. Interiority is closely related to privacy, for there is an elision between the physical space inside a house and the abstract notion of a woman’s space or realm. The space of the home and its attendant nuclear family is essential to a private/public divide. Just as Lara Cohen pointed to a conflation of underground spaces and underground/subversive ideas in nineteenth century city mysteries, so too are the interior spaces of the home and of the female mind conflated. Such an analysis comes from a reading of secondary sources and a close reading of the texts, particularly Clarissa (which sees a heroine literally writing from a closet – women had the closet, men had the coffee-house) but topic modeling both enforces and complicates that conclusion. Here, topic modeling doesn’t give us enough evidence as readers to assert that femininity is a key part of privacy, but it does point to the presence of interiority in a very literal sense. An observation of the presence of these physical spaces in these novels is key to a more in-depth exploration of the ways in which their literal presence is a key part of their thematic and abstract presence; a novel cannot represent a home as a key part of the inherently feminine private realm without actual rooms and houses.

“Letter,” “write,” and “read” in line 6 point to a self-awareness of the epistolary form. This self-awareness points to the letters status as an object and medium that is both public and private, indicating the necessity of one concept in the other’s existence. Embedded in the idea of a book of private letters between two individuals is the knowledge that other eyes, outside of the universe of the story, will be looking; the real world/fictional world divide brings to light the contradictions embedded in a femininity that is both private and subject to the male gaze.

Of course, not all words seem to point to valuable insights – “gutenberg” in lines 11, 13, and 15 points to the fact that many of the plain text files are from Project Gutenberg and thus have “Gutenberg” at the beginning of and throughout the text. It would have been nice to have a larger, cleaner corpus of texts, but given the obviousness of most words not actually in the text, this type of word popping up seems to be a very minor flaw in topic modeling.

In my investigation of femininity and privacy in eighteenth-century epistolary novels, largely written by women, topic modeling has proved itself to be an extremely exciting tool, though one that should not be understood as a wholly comprehensive close-reading replacement. Topic modeling cannot replace close reading; nothing can. And that is fine, because they accomplish different things. Close reading is fabulous for an in-depth examination of a books relationship to the characters, themes, or ideas, it represents; topic modeling is wonderful for figuring out what, exactly, these characters, themes, or ideas are. How often are they represented? Where are they represented in relation to one another? The presence of so many names indicates both an intriguing insight into the “experiments with subjectivity” these novels engage in, and the utility of topic modeling. Here, the model shows us what seems so obvious – names come up a lot – but that, as readers, we could very easily take for granted.

The digital is central to my project in that I have relied upon it to shake up underlying assumptions about what is or isn’t important in these books, and how that priority of themes relates to the gendered nature of epistolarity. The relationship between old books and digital methods is dynamic and productive: I can use topic modeling to gain new insights into eighteenth century novels. These insights are supported and fleshed out in reading secondary sources, and make me want to read these books even more!


Blei, David. “Probabilistic Topic Models.” Communications of the ACM 55.4 (2012) 77-84. Web.

Clery, E. J. The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce, and Luxury. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Habermas, Jurgen. Trans. Thomas Berger. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. PDF from Web.

Martens, Lorna. The Diary Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

McGirr, Elaine. “Interiorities.” The Cambridge History of the English Novel. Ed. Robert L. Caserio, Clement Hawes. 80-96. Web.

Spencer, Jane. “Women writers and the eighteenth-century novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John Richetti. 212-235. Web.

About the Author

Katy Frank

Student Researcher

Katy Frank
Katy Frank is an English major concentrating in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Haverford College. Katy's interest in diaries spans the scholarly and personal realms, and as an Student Researcher, she wants to find fiction written in diary or journal-esque formats. Katy works at the Haverford College Women*s Center and is an editor of Margin, Haverford's academic and artistic journal. She lives in environmental haus during the school year.