Hufstader talks about the life and work of four Georgian sisters of the quill, forerunners of the great 19th-century women novelists. In an age when ""distance was a commodity readily available,"" they put conversation on paper, leaving volumes of letters--some charming and informative, some as parochial as the age--but all a kind of warm-up for the full-scale novel. Brilliant Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose views on smallpox inoculation and the seraglio seemed equally bizarre, wrote from wandering exile. Conventional Mary Granville Delaney described the conventional life around her from Ireland to Windsor Castle, and so took the measure of her times. Elizabeth Robinson Montagu (younger cousin-in-law of Lady Mary), an overachiever ""not inconvenienced. . . by genius,"" wrote a critical volume on Shakespeare, became a lion of the Bluestockings, managed coal mines, and threw an annual May Day party in Portman Square for London's chimney sweeps. Fanny Burney, who turned epistles into the epistolary Evalina, capped this tradition and started a new one: among subscribers to her second novel Cecelia is Miss J. Austen of Steventon, Hants. Hufstader is as immersed in that small world as were these gossipy sisters; the background swarms with figures and events from Dr. Johnson twitching to the royal family going out for breakfast with a retinue of eighty. And Hufstader writes with less pretention and as much charm as her 18th-century sisters. (Example: ""Mrs. Montagu planned her nephew with as much care as her house."") Her study is as informed, balanced, newsy, and felicitous as a good letter.