The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great

BookThe Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great

The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2019:08


August 12th, 2019



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The Epistolary Art of Catherine the Great is the first study to analyse comprehensively the letters of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (reigned 1762-1796) and to argue that they constitute a masterpiece of eighteenth-century epistolary writing.

In this book, Kelsey Rubin-Detlev traces Catherine’s development as a letter-writer, her networking strategies, and her image-making, demonstrating the centrality of ideas, literary experimentation, and manipulation of material form evident in Catherine’s epistolary practice. Through this, Rubin-Detlev illustrates how Catherine’s letters reveal her full engagement with the Enlightenment and further show how creatively she absorbed and responded to the ideas of her century.

The letter was not merely a means by which the empress promoted Russia and its leader as European powers; it was a literary genre through which Catherine expressed her identity as a member of the social, political, and intellectual elite of her century.

Winner of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL)'s Best First Book Prize 2020. Winner of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES)'s Alexander Nove Prize 2019.

'The monograph truly brings to life the complexity of Catherine’s voice as reflected in her letter writing art as it evolved over decades. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the cultural history of the eighteenth century, and an inspiring example of cultural and literary analysis of epistolary heritage.'
American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), from their 2020 book awards.

'The book exhibits great imagination in the range of skills Rubin-Detlev demonstrates in spanning the broad historical grasp, theorisations of the letter genre and of gender construction as well as a fine sense of nuance when teasing out subtleties of evolving word usage or cliché, the nuances of Catherine’s switching between languages, and textual detail. All of these facets are seamlessly integrated with an engaging and imaginative writing style especially impressive in a first book.'
Prof. Judith Pallot (Christ Church, Oxford) and Prof. Jeremy Hicks (Queen Mary University of London), judges of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) Alexander Nove Prize 2019.

Author Information

Kelsey Rubin-Detlev is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Southern California. Her work focuses on the literature and culture of eighteenth-century Russia in European context, in particular correspondence, women’s writing, and Catherine the Great. She is the co-translator with Andrew Kahn of 'Catherine the Great, Selected Letters' (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
List of illustrations11
List of abbreviations15
Note on dates, quotations and transliteration19
Introduction: Catherine the Great, letter-writing and the elite Enlightenment21
The letters of Catherine the Great28
The elite Enlightenment of Catherine the Great39
1. Catherine the epistolarian53
Catherine’s epistolary education: 1742-176254
Catherine’s début: 1762-177468
In transition: 1774-178176
Mastery: 1781-178981
An Enlightenment monarch in a Revolutionary world: 1789-179690
Catherine’s epistolary geography93
Catherine and her contemporaries95
2. Catherine the Great and eighteenth-century epistolary style105
Lettres galantes110
Lettres familières129
Portrait and narrative letters141
Love letters144
3. Fashioning the great Enlightenment monarch155
Gender and epistolary self-fashioning155
Catherine’s image as an Enlightenment intellectual163
Fashioning greatness171
The correct exercise of military might177
Compensating for military heroism: flourishing provinces182
Patronage of the arts and sciences188
Ethical greatness192
The legislator198
4. The play of authority in epistolary form205
Authority and linguistic mastery208
Authority and writing practices213
Epistolary etiquette222
Paper use223
Foregoing etiquette248
Affection-seeking formulae256
Signatures, addresses and attachments264
5. Epistolary publicity and the audience for Catherine’s correspondences283
The injunction against publication286
Building reputation through networks of epistolary sociability296
Managing celebrity through epistolary circulation305
From reputation to glory: writing for posterity by addressing gens de mérite313
6. Greatness contested: Catherine’s epistolary response to the French Revolution321
Chronology of Catherine’s epistolary actions against the French Revolution323
Old and new in Catherine’s epistolary style336
Greatness contested: confronting the past347
Conclusion: new readers and new ways of reading Catherine’s letters365
Bibliography of works cited373
Archival Sources373
Editions of Catherine's letters374
Secondary sources: English379
Secondary sources: French387
Secondary sources: Russian395
Secondary sources: German398
Secondary sources: Italian399