Beyond Introspection Rethinking

May 9, 2011

Beyond Introspection Rethinking Novelistic Space in Isabelle de Charrière’s Lettres de Mistriss Henley Marta Figlerowicz
Marta Figlerowicz
Rethinking Novelistic Space in Isabelle de Charrière's 
Lettres de Mistriss Henley


I discuss  Lettres de Mistriss Henley (Letters of Mistriss Henley), an eighteenth-century novel by the francophone Swiss writer Isabelle de Charrière. Lettres de Mistriss Henley has been applauded as a psychologically nuanced, socially involved work. Yet, no framing convention has been found that would explain what makes Charrière’s characters so lifelike. I show that Charrière constructs characters through externalization. The protagonists’ interiority is represented as a collection of physical objects and spaces, as a series of external rather than internal events. Throughout the novel, she has us follow the fates of objects and beings that surround her protagonists. We come to understand the emotions and thoughts of Mistriss and M. Henley by observing their pets and their children’s clothes; by hearing about their friends and witnessing rearrangements of furniture in their house. These constant transpositions allow us to see the couple’s inner lives with precision and clarity. They make their feelings seem intense and important through the sheer physical space they come to occupy; they also make these feelings seem complex given how diverse external canvas they are given, and how differently either spouse reads or inscribes himself or herself onto their external media. Charrière finally uses this technique to show ways in which her central character is frequently objectified. This opens up within her novel a strong feminist critique of eighteenth-century gender dynamics.


(Posted May 2011)


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