From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. The word epistolary comes from the word epistle, meaning a letter.
There are two theories on the genesis of the epistolary novel. The first claims that the genre originated from novels with inserted letters, in which the portion containing the third person narrative in between the letters was gradually reduced. The other theory claims that the epistolary novel arose from miscellanies of letters and poetry: some of the letters were tied together into a (mostly amorous) plot. Both claims have some validity. The first truly epistolary novel, the Spanish "Prison of Love" (Cárcel de amor) (c.1485) by Diego de San Pedro, belongs to a tradition of novels in which a large number of inserted letters already dominated the narrative. Other well-known examples of early epistolary novels are closely related to the tradition of letter-books and miscellanies of letters. Within the successive editions of Edmé Boursault's Letters of Respect, Gratitude and Love (Lettres de respect, d'obligation et d 'amour) (1669), a group of letters written to a girl named Babet was expanded and became more and more distinct from the other letters, until it formed a small epistolary novel entitled Letters to Babet (Lettres à Babet). The immensely famous Letters of a Portuguese Nun (Lettres portugaises) (1669) attributed by many to Marianna Alcoforado, and by some to Gabriel-Joseph de La Vergne, comte de Guilleragues ), is claimed to be intended to be part of a miscellany of Guilleragues prose and poetry.
The founder of the epistolary novel in English is said by many to be James Howell(1594-1666) with "Familiar Letters", who writes of prison, foreign adventure, and the love of women.
The first novel to explore deeply the complex play that the genre allows was Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684), which appeared in three successive volumes in 1684, 1685, and 1687. The novel tested the genre's limits of changing perspectives: individual points were presented by the individual correspondents, and the central author's voice and moral judgement disappeared (at least in the first volume; her further volumes introduced a narrator). Behn furthermore explored a realm of intrigue with letters that fall into the wrong hands, with faked letters, with letters withheld by protagonists, and even more complex interaction.
The epistolary novel as a genre became popular in the 18th century in the works of such authors as Samuel Richardson, with his immensely successful novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749). In France, there was Lettres persanes (1721) by Montesquieu, followed by Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), which used the epistolary form to great dramatic effect, because the sequence of events was not always related directly or explicitly. In Germany, there was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther (1774) (The Sorrows of Young Werther) and Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion. The first North American novel, The History of Emily Montague (1769) by Frances Brooke was written in epistolary form.
Later in the 18th century, the epistolary form was subject to much ridicule, resulting in a number of savage burlesques. The most notable example of these was Henry Fielding's Shamela (1741), written as a parody of Pamela. In it, the female narrator can be found wielding a pen and scribbling her diary entries under the most dramatic and unlikeliest of circumstances.
The epistolary novel slowly fell out of use in the late 18th century. Although Jane Austen tried her hand at the epistolary in juvenile writings and her novella Lady Susan, she abandoned this structure for her later work. It is thought that her lost novel "First Impressions", which was redrafted to become Pride and Prejudice, may have been epistolary: Pride and Prejudice contains an unusual number of letters quoted in full and some play a critical role in the plot.
The epistolary form nonetheless continued to be used, surviving in exceptions or in fragments in nineteenth-century novels. In Honoré de Balzac's novel Letters of Two Brides, two women who became friends during their education at a convent correspond over a 17 year period, exchanging letters describing their lives. Mary Shelley employs the epistolary form in her novel Frankenstein (1818). Shelley's novel is her "hideous progeny", as she stated in a Preface to her story in 1831. Her "hotchpotch" of a story strains the limits of the epistolary form, involves the letter in murder most foul and undermines the effectiveness of the letter medium itself.
Types of epistolary novels
Within the genre of the epistolary novel one can distinguish three narrative types: monologic (giving the letters of only one character, like Letters of a Portuguese Nun), dialogic (giving the letters of two characters, like Mme Marie Jeanne Riccoboni's Letters of Fanni Butlerd (1757), and polylogic (with three or more letter-writing characters). In addition, a crucial element in polylogic epistolary novels like Clarissa, and Dangerous Liaisons is the dramatic device of 'discrepant awareness': the simultaneous but separate correspondences of the heroines and the villains creating dramatic tension.
Epistolary novels have made several memorable appearances in more recent literature.
- Fyodor Dostoevsky used the epistolary format for his first novel, Poor Folk (1846), as a series of letters between two friends, struggling to cope with their impoverished circumstances and life in pre-revolution Russia.
- The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins uses a collection of various documents to construct a detective novel in English. In the second piece, a character explains that he is writing his portion because another had observed to him that the events surrounding the disappearance of a certain moonstone might reflect poorly on the family, if misunderstood, and therefore he was collecting the true story. This is an unusual element. Most epistolary novels present the documents without questions about how they were gathered. He also used the form previously in The Woman in White (1859).
- Kathrine Taylor's Address Unknown (1938) was an anti-Nazi novel in which the final letter is returned as "Address Unknown", indicating the disappearance of the German character.
- Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) uses not only letters and diaries, but also dictation discs and newspaper accounts. While the novel draws on the epistolary form, by the end of the story it reduces it, along with other media, to a monstrous "mass of typewriting".
- C. S. Lewis used the epistolary form for The Screwtape Letters (1942), and considered writing a companion novel from an angel's point of view -- though he never did so. It is less generally realized that his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (1964) was a similar exercise, exploring theological questions through correspondence addressed to a fictional recipient, "Malcolm", though this work may be considered a "novel" only loosely in that developments in Malcolm's personal life gradually come to light and impact the discussion.
- Theodore Sturgeon's short novel, Some of Your Blood (1961), consists of letters and case-notes relating to the psychiatric treatment of a non-supernatural vampire.
- Alice Walker employed the epistolary form in "The Color Purple" (1982). The 1985 film adaptation echoed the form by incorporating into the script some of the novel's letters, which the actors spoke as monologues.
- Avi used this style of constructing a story in Nothing But the Truth (1991), where the plot is told using only documents, letters, and scripts.
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) was written by Stephen Chbosky in the form of letters from an anonymous character to a secret role model of sorts.
- Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan (2001) uses letters and journal entries to weave the story of a middle-aged woman in the 1930's.
- The Boy Next Door (2002) by Meg Cabot is a romantic comedy novel dealt with entirely by emails sent among the characters.
- Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography (2002) by Lemony Snicket/Daniel Handler uses letters, documents, and other scripts to construct the plotline.
- Several of Gene Wolfe's novels are written in the forms of diaries, letters, or memoirs.
- We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003) is a monologic epistolary novel, written as a series of letters to the narrator's husband Franklin.
- In the Ross O'Carroll-Kelly novels, out-of-context text messages, usually humorous, mark transitions between sections.
- Griffin and Sabine by artist Nick Bantock is a love story written as a series of hand painted postcards and letters.
- "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" by Andrew Sean Greer - 2004
- World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) by Max Brooks is a series of interviews from various survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
Literary and intellectual points
- Sometimes epistolary fiction is used to create a Russian-doll-like effect of letters within letters within letters. This can confuse the reader as to who is actually talking at any one time, and whose account is being told.
- Love letter
- Dracula (novel)
- Les Liaisons dangereuses
- The Lustful Turk
- The Sorrows of Young Werther
- Mademoiselle de Maupin (novel)
- Pamela (novel)
- Julie, or the New Heloise