The history of letter writing is part of women’s history. Writing letters to family and friends was one of the new pastimes enjoyed by 18th century middle class women. Although the Post Office had been open since 1660  it was not until the 18th century that the use of letters for private correspondence took off and middle class women began to enjoy what had been until then an aristocratic luxury.

Should letters be personal and private, public, or works of art were the questions being debated in the parlours of the 18th century chattering classes. For the 18th century household the distinction between public and private was seldom straightforward. Controlling relatives or husbands could become concerned by the potential secrecy between correspondents, especially female ones, and this gave rise to a general unease about  the propriety of women’s letter-writing.

Although Samuel Richardson’s fictional heroines, Pamela and Clarissa are repeatedly praised for their talents in letter-writing, it seems to be an insult to a host if a lady refuses to read aloud the contents of the correspondence she has received. The contents of women’s  letters are viewed by many in society as public property a place where a woman might show off her literary prowess  in the same way she might demonstrate her ability on the pianoforte. But, as Richardson wrote to one of his female correspondents, Sophia Westcomb, in 1746, letter-writing was not only a superficial social talent: ‘the Pen is almost the only Means a very modest and diffident Lady (who in Company will not attempt to glare) has to shew herself, and that she has a Mind. … her Closet her Paradise … there she can distinguish Her Self: By this means she can assert and vindicate her Claim to Sense and Meaning.’ (Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson)

Richardson’s sentiment was echoed and expanded by Virginia Woolf two centuries later when she wrote; ” A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” This is the central theme of her book ‘A room of One’s Own’ in which Woolf explains the lot of women against the predominantly male assertion that women produce inferior works of literature. Woolf asserts that unlike their male counterparts, women are routinely denied the time and the space to produce creative works. Instead, they are saddled with household duties and are financially and legally bound to their husbands. By being deprived of rooms of their own, there is little possibility for women to rectify the situation. Woolf’s assertion, even in the mid 20th century was deemed revolutionary. Evidently, the implication of Richardson’s correspondence is that the letter itself is crucial in a society where women are expected to be ‘modest and diffident’ and to shy away from expressing themselves “in Company”.

Women like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu used letter-writing to assert their intelligence and enter the public sphere. Montagu’s Letters from Turkey, written between 1716 and 1718 and published in 1762, were influential both as models of epistolary style and as anthropological works. Several women published letters outlining political or moral arguments; Mary Masters’ ‘Familiar Letters’ (1755) discussed women’s education and domestic abuse, and Hester Chapone published her ‘Letters on the Improvement of the Mind’ in 1773. She and Elizabeth Carter, whose letters to Catherine Talbot were published in 1809, are referred to by Elizabeth Gaskell in ‘Cranford.’

The letter certainly allowed one woman a voice: after being estranged from her husband, Lady SarahPennington wrote ‘An Unfortunate Mothers Advice to Her Absent Daughters’ a book instructing women on religion, prayer, dress, needlework, the theatre, marriage, dancing, and other “feminine” pursuits in 1761. She wrote that a good marriage is rare: “So great is the hazard, so disproportioned the chances, that I could almost wish the dangerous die was never to be thrown for any of you.” Lady Sarah also discusses the need for a certain “cheerful compliance” when it comes to men and their disagreeable habits. The book enjoyed much popularity and three print runs, the last in 1803. ((See Vivien Jones, “Mary Wollstonecraft and the literature of advice and instruction,” in Claudia Johnson, ed., Cambridge Companion to Mary Wollstonecraft (2002), 119-40, at 124).

In one of life’s ironies it was men not women who would excel when it came to transposing the letter into literature and commercialising it. Perhaps this was because writing for a living was considered morally suspect for women, in an ideal world women had no reason to seek financial independence. Nevertheless several of the major female novelists of the period began with the epistolary form, eventually abandoning it as they gained confidence in their own voices. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, Fanny Burney abandoned the epistolary form after her first novel Evelina and, most famously, Jane Austen dabbled with the form in her short story ‘Lady Susan’ subsequently finding a more satisfying form in the omniscient authorial narrative.

In its private capacity, the letter allowed a woman confined to the home to communicate outside the home with both men and women, while in the form of published letters it was a valuable platform from which publicly to assert women’s intellectual capabilities. Of course, the eighteenth century did not wholeheartedly embrace the potential of such a development; both kinds of letters aroused contemporary criticism, but it was the suspicion aroused by private, domestic letters that inspired many of the novels of the period, exploiting as they do the potential scandals and secrets and it was women novelists like Jane Austen who by abandoning the epistolary form created the modern novel.

This article is based on an original article by Mona: