The Novel and Moral Philosophy 2: Telling and Feeling, Aunts and Letters

Before I begin commenting on what I see in Serendip’s findings, I think it is worth providing some general information about the work from which the screen shot below is taken. The author, Charlotte Lennox (1730-1804), is most known for her novel The Female Quixote (1752), a picaresque about a romance addict who perpetually confuses the plots of the novels she reads as reality itself. Euphemia (1790), the last novel Lennox (1730-1804) published before she died, unfolds its narrative through the 12-year correspondence between two friends, Maria Harley and Euphemia Neville. The young women are separated by Euphemia’s move to colonial America with her husband, a British lieutenant. As a domestic novel, Euphemia devotes part of its narrative to depicting the unhappiness of this marriage. The novel is also remarkable for its depiction of American colony life in the province of New York during the middle of the eighteenth century from a British female perspective. In this novel and in her earlier Harriot Stuart (1750), Lennox drew on her own experience of growing up in colonial Albany. True to epistolary format, individual letters from the correspondents organize the novel, rather than chapters. The screenshot I am commenting on comes from Letter II.


When looking at the screen shot of Euphemia labeled TEXT: K062108.001 above, I saw what Witmore saw: words identifying social titles such as “Sir” and “Lady,” as well as family relations such as “aunt,” score highest as novel words. Yet there are slight distinctions between the familial words themselves. While “aunt” is shaded most deeply as a novel word, “uncle” is a shade lighter, and “daughter” is a shade lighter still.

The obvious conclusion to draw from these slight distinctions of shading is that the word “aunt” appears more frequently in novels than the word “uncle,” and the word “uncle” features more in novels than the word “daughter.” This is not to say, though, that eighteenth-century novels are more about aunts and uncles than about daughters. In fact a number of them are about or feature female characters that are at the stage in their lives where they are transitioning from being daughters to wives, and the novels themselves have the didactic purpose of educating female readers. In this regard, I think it’s important to recognize that topic word frequency might tell a different story from the frequency of a topic itself. The distribution of words in a topic matters.

Other high scoring novel words are “told” and “dear.” Both words in themselves are interesting to me as they are highly suggestive of the eighteenth-century novel’s history. “Dear,” for instance, is doubly significant in that history. It is a word that can be used to convey affectionate regard for someone when referring to or addressing them, or to address someone at the beginning of a letter. Both senses of the words are used on this page. Why does Serendip mark the word “dear” so intensely red in both cases?



The word “dear,” in its guise of addressing or referring to someone with affection, registers the age of sensibility in which the novel genre developed. (It does so without being an invention of the epistolary novel.)  Sensibility celebrated the ready expression of sympathy and feeling for other humans as a mark of high moral standing as well as social prestige. It promoted a language pattern that displays one’s emotional disposition towards another, such as attaching the word “dear” as a term of endearment to someone’s name. In its function of representing social relations between characters in day-to-day contexts, the eighteenth-century novel would inevitably capture such language patterns. As a popular medium of entertainment, the novel promulgated the patterns further. One might argue that the rise of the novel was in itself a major factor in sensibility’s growth and development as a pervasive cultural movement.

On the other hand, the word “dear” as a form of address used to begin a letter is also a high scorer as a novel word. Like the other usage of the word, it is invariably attached to a proper name, or the role of an identified person, such as “friend.”  The first canonical novel to spur the cultural movement of sensibility was an epistolary novel, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. So influential was this novel on the development of the novel genre, literary historians of the early 20th century identified it as the “first novel” written in English. This passage from Richardson’s Pamela (volume III, letter II) displays the same pattern observed in Euphemia:


A high number of eighteenth-century novels were written as epistolary narratives. Fiction that presented a series of letters written from the point of view of a character created a sense of intimacy and immediate involvement with narrative events in recognizably day-to-day contexts. Such experiences were not available in earlier forms of literature. This is one of the reasons why epistolary narrative was such a novel (new-seeming) and popular genre for eighteenth-century readers, and why it was conducive to the flourishing of sensibility in eighteenth-century culture.

A key moment in the novel takes place when one of the main characters, Mr. B., undergoes a conversion from villainous sexual aggressor to loving suitor of the heroine because he was so “moved” by the letters to her parents in which she details her ordeals: “O my dear girl!  you have touched me sensibly with your mournful tale, and your reflections upon it.”  Likewise, eighteenth-century readers were “sensibly touched” by Pamela’s letters—the very letters that make up the novel—to the extent that they could not get enough of the style of fiction in which they appeared. Eighteenth-century fiction writers imitated Pamela’s epistolary format as well as theme of “virtue in distress” for several more decades of the remaining century. It is no surprise, then, that in the epistolary novel Euphemia (1790) by Charlotte Lennox (a novelist Richardson whom admired and supported), Serendip is picking up on “dear,” used as a form of address in beginning a letter, and as a more general novel topic word that appears over and over again.

It should not be surprising that the word “told” is picked up as a high scoring novel topic word as well. Telling is an activity of narration, and the novel itself is a narrative genre:


Narratives in eighteenth-century novels often involve the revelation of stories about unhappy or unfortunate events that happened in the past, events that affect the characters of the novel. This is certainly the case with Gothic novels, which derive their narrative tensions and conflicts from the inadvertent uncovering of long suppressed criminal events and actions. For instance, the epigraph for Ann Radcliffe’s non-epistolary Gothic novel, A Sicilian Romance, is a line from Hamlet spoken by Hamlet’s father: “I could a tale unfold.” In an epistolary narrative, where the fictional letter writer is reporting to the addressee what has already happened, the act of telling would be in the past tense, “told.”

“Telling,” as Stuart Sherman reminds us in Telling Time,is not only what narratives do (they tell what happens in time), but also what clocks do with time. The fact that Serendip shades “hour” a deep red conveys the time-specific quality of narrative during this period, its concern with the quotidian and the everyday above all. A sentence from the screenshot of a page from Lennox’s Euphemia certainly captures this sense of “hour”: “She complains of a pain in her breast; of shortness of breath; and declares, that when she has read to you an hour or two, she feels as if she was ready to expire with a strange oppression and faintness.” In this sentence, the quotidian context of the word “hour” is strikingly apparent in its connection to the experience of a character’s body at a specific moment in time.

The very premise of epistolary correspondence is to overcome not just spatial distance, but also temporal disconnection. The letter-writer wants to replace one’s absence from another’s life with a sense of living through the same experiences one has had by retelling those moments through the medium of the letter. By being specific about time—how long things take by the hour, for instance (“when she has read to you an hour or two”), this sense of intimacy with someone else’s everyday experiences becomes possible.

In shading darkly those words that denote familial relations and social standing (aspects of subjectivity that render oneself legible in day-to-day social settings), as well as words related to conventions of epistolary and emotional address such as “dear,” as well as words signifying temporality, such as “hour,” Serendip picks up on the novel’s reality effects. It picks up, in other words, the features of eighteenth-century novels that defined its groundbreaking method of realism.

Even as it confirms and reinforces critical commonplaces about the novel’s generic markers—especially those concerning its status as a unique mediator for realism, verisimilitude and individual personhood—Serendip also reveals generic tendencies that have not been so well-covered by literary historians. The words shaded blue—or, the words strongly related to moral philosophy—indicate this. Scholars such as Ian Watt have argued that the novel’s generic identity lies in the way it represents experience through seventeenth-century epistemologies, such as the subjectivism of René Descartes and the empiricism of John Locke. These philosophical tendencies are already apparent in the novel words—red-shaded—I have commented on above; the words all relate to the assumption that events and experiences derive from subjective standpoints, and are realizable through their placement on the time-space continuum.

However, the words shaded blue by Serendip reveal another level of philosophical realism in that they come out of a vocabulary of moral philosophy that Serendip helps us to recognize. What I notice about these words is that they are abstract nouns and impersonal words that are detached or detachable from human agents. They are also adjectives or adverbs that relate to philosophical measurements such as “natural,” “perfect,” “perfectly” and impersonal seeming actions, such as “enumerate” and “produced.”

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I also notice that some “moderate” or “light” novel words—words shaded medium or light red as opposed to dark red—do not seem as if they would be out of place in the list of philosophy words from moral philosophy texts. These include “mind,” “consequence,” “opinion,” “life,” and such abstract nominalizations as “viewing” and “disposition.”  (Indeed, given the way that the topic model works, some of these words would at times belong to that topic, but that is for Eric and Mike to explain in a future post.) This notable tendency toward abstraction in the novel might express some historically distinctive formality of social language in eighteenth-century England, or even a higher state of fusion, during this time, between works of fiction and non-fiction, or both. We should investigate these possibilities a more focused way, perhaps with some of the techniques we are getting a glimpse of here.


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