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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. Recently, electronic "documents" such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter (see epistle).
The epistolary form can add greater realism to a story, because it mimics the workings of real life. It is thus able to demonstrate differing points of view without recourse to the device of an omniscient narrator.
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 were 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) generally attributed to Gabriel-Joseph de La Vergne, comte de Guilleragues, though a small minority still regard Marianna Alcoforado as the author, 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" (1645–50), who writes of prison, foreign adventure, and the love of women.
The first novel to expose the complex play that the genre allows was Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which appeared in three volumes in 1684, 1685, and 1687. The novel shows the genre's results of changing perspectives: individual points were presented by the individual characters, and the central voice of the author and moral evaluation 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, faked letters, 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 Werthers (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.
Starting 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 unlikely of circumstances. Oliver Goldsmith used the form to satirical effect in The Citizen of the World, subtitled "Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in London to his Friends in the East" (1760–61). So did the diarist Fanny Burney in a successful comic first novel, Evelina (1788).
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 (1794), 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 saw continued use, 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 uses the letters as one of a variety of framing devices, as the story is presented through the letters of a sea captain and scientific explorer attempting to reach the north pole who encounters Victor Frankenstein and records the dying man's narrative and confessions. Published in 1848, Anne Brontë's novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is framed as a retrospective letter from one of the main heroes to his friend and brother-in-law with the diary of the eponymous tenant inside it. In the late 19th century, Bram Stoker released one of the most widely recognized and successful novels in the epistolary form to date, Dracula. Printed in 1897, the novel is compiled entirely of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, telegrams, doctor's notes, ship's logs, and the like, which Stoker adroitly employs to balance believability and dramatic tension.
Types of epistolary novels
There are three types of epistolary novels: monologic (giving the letters of only one character, like Letters of a Portuguese Nun and The Sorrows Of Young Werther), 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, such as in Bram Stoker's Dracula). 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:
- John Cleland's early erotic novel Fanny Hill (1748) is written as a series of letters from the titular character to an unnamed recipient.
- The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797) by Hannah Webster Foster is a series of letters between several characters.
- Sophia Briscoe used the form in both her novels: Miss Melmoth... (1771) and The Fine Lady... (1772).
- Marianne Ehrmann wrote the epistolary novel Amalie and Minna around 1787.
- 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, as 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).
- Spanish foreign minister Juan Valera's Pepita Jimenez (1874) is writing in three sections, with the first and third being a series of letters, while the middle part is a narration by an unknown observer.
- Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) uses not only letters and diaries, but also dictation cylinders 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".
- Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs (1912).
- Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace's The Documents in the Case (1930).
- Haki Stërmilli's novel If I Were a Boy (1936) is written in the form of diary entries which documents the life of the main protagonist.
- 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.
- 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.
- Thornton Wilder's fifth novel Ides of March (1948) consists of letters and documents illuminating the last days of the Roman Republic.
- 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.
- Saul Bellow's novel Herzog (1964) is largely written in letter format. These are both real and imagined letters, written by the protagonist Moses E. Herzog to family members, friends, and celebrities.
- Up the Down Staircase is a novel written by Bel Kaufman, published in 1965, which spent 64 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list. In 1967 it was released as a movie starring Patrick Bedford, Sandy Dennis and Eileen Heckart.
- The Anderson Tapes (1969, 1970) by Lawrence Sanders is a novel told primarily in the form of transcripts of tape recordings.
- 84, Charing Cross Road (1970), though not a novel, is a true account by Helene Hanff written in epistolary form as an exchange of letters between the writer in New York City and a bookseller in London over the course of two decades.
- Stephen King's novel Carrie (1974) is written in an epistolary structure, through newspaper clippings, magazine articles, letters, and excerpts from books
- In John Barth's epistolary work, Letters (1979), the author interacts with characters from his other novels.
- 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.
- Michael Dibdin's A Rich Full Death (1986) is an epistolary crime novel set in 19th century Florence.
- John Updike's S. (1988) is an epistolary novel consisting of the heroine's letters and transcribed audio recordings.
- 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.
- Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding was written in the form of a personal diary
- Last Days of Summer (1998) by Steve Kluger was written in a series of letters, telegrams, therapy transcripts, newspaper clippings, and baseball box scores.
- 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 1930s.
- The Boy Next Door (2002) by Meg Cabot is a romantic comedy novel dealt with entirely by emails sent among the characters.
- The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot is a series of ten novels written in the form of diary entries.
- 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 from Eva, Kevin's mother, to her husband Franklin
- The 2004 novel Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell tells a story in several time periods in a nested format, with some sections told in epistolary style, including an interview, journal entries and a series of letters
- 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
- Where Rainbows End (alternately titled "Rosie Dunne" or "Love, Rosie" in the United States) (2004) by Cecelia Ahern is written in the form of letters, emails, instant messages, newspaper articles, etc.
- Uncommon Valour (2005) by John Stevens, the story of two naval officers in 1779, is primarily written in the form of diary and log extracts
- 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
- The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star (2007) by Nikki Sixx is an entire year (Dec. 25, 1986-Dec. 25, 1987) in diary form co-written by Nikki Sixx, bassist of the 80's rock band Mötley Crüe, and Ian Gittins. Additional reflections on the period from Sixx and others are interspersed throughout the book. The book also includes many black-and-white photographs, lyrics, random thoughts and artwork. The book was designed by Paul Brown, according to page 406. With his other band, Sixx:A.M., Sixx recorded a concept album called The Heroin Diaries Soundtrack as a musical accompaniment for the book. The album was released in 2007.
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2007) by Jeff Kinney is a series of fiction books written in the form a diary, including hand-written notes and cartoon drawings
- The White Tiger (2008) by Aravind Adiga, winner of the 40th Man Booker Prize in the year 2008. The novel is a series of letters, written by an Indian villager to the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is written as a series of letters and telegraphs sent and received by the protagonist
- A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan has parts which are epistolary in nature
- Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart
- Burley Cross Postbox Theft (2010) by Nicola Barker is a polylogic epistolary novel consisting of a bundle of 26 undelivered letters stolen from a mailbox in the village of Burley Cross
- Midnight Movie (2011) by Tobe Hooper and Alan Goldsher is written as a series of emails, Tweets, texts, and oral histories
- The Antagonist (2011) by Lynn Coady is a monologic epistolary novel conveyed through increasingly unanswered email messages
- Why We Broke Up (2011) by Daniel Handler and illustrated by Maira Kalman
- "Exit the Actress" (2011) by Priya Parmar is an historical novel which stars early stage actress Nell Gwyn, the infamous mistress to Charles II of England, as its protagonist. Through her diary entries, play bills, and gossip columns, Nell's life as everything from an orange seller in her youth, an actress in her teens, and her years as mistress to the king bring the world of seventeenth century restoration England vividly to life..
- Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (2012) by Maria Semple has parts which are epistolary in nature
- Dear Bob and Sue (2012) by Matt and Karen Smith is a non-fiction work by a couple who traveled to all 59 US National Parks and wrote about their travels to their friends Bob and Sue as a series of emails
- The Lawgiver (2012) by Herman Wouk is a fictional novel of his adventures, recounted through emails, text messages, and letters. The story includes himself and his wife, and their quest to modernize themselves.
- Permission (2013) by S. D. Chrostowska, an illustrated book of experimental fiction, was written as a series of unanswered emails to a stranger, who also happens to be a well-known visual artist
In other media
- "Dear Dad", episode twelve of the first season of M*A*S*H, used the framing device of a letter written by Hawkeye Pierce to his father to describe the events of the episode.
- "The Stackhouse Filibuster", episode seventeen of the second season of The West Wing, used the framing device of emails sent by C.J. Cregg, Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to their respective parents to describe the events of the episode.
- Epistolary songs include The Beatles' "P.S. I Love You", Eminem's "Stan", Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat", Tom Waits's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" and Bloodhound Gang's "The Ballad of Chasey Lain".
- Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Marjorie Daw and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper are two examples of epistolary short stories.
- The works of Christine Love all share an epistolary style; from the forum documents and e-mails of "Digital: A Love Story", the e-mails and chat logs of students in "Don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story". "Analogue: A Hate Story" and "Hate Plus" are tales told in the form of diary entries and letters between residents of the colonial spaceship, the Mugunghwa.
- Dear Esther is a 2012 video game by thechineseroom that allows the player to traverse an uninhabited Hebridean island; as the player does this, letters and diary excerpts are recalled audibly by the narrator to reveal the story and encourage progression towards certain areas. These narrations are randomly chosen, and so a different story (or more details of the same story) are revealed during multiple playthroughs of the game.
- The Frictional Games video games Penumbra: Overture (2007) and its sequel Penumbra: Black Plague (2008) are framed in the form of an e-mail written by the protagonist Philip to an outside contact and the story culminates at the point of writing. The developer's later 2010 title Amnesia: The Dark Descent would also frequently refer to letters as a means of exposition, as well as flashbacks, but this time read through by the original writer Daniel after chemically inducing memory loss.
- The entire Star Trek franchise can be described as epistolary to a degree, as its protagonistic characters are frequently heard making entries in their personal or official logs, whichever is applicable.
- The text portions the multimedia webcomic Homestuck are largely composed of online chats between characters, interspersed with commentary by several omniscient in-universe narrators who interact with the plot.
- E.Th. Voss. Erzählprobleme des Briefromans, dargestellt an vier Beispielen des 18. Jahrhunderts. Bonn, 1960.
- B.A. Bray. L'art de la lettre amoureuse: des manuels aux romans (1550-1700). La Haye/Paris, 1967
- G. de Guilleragues. Lettres portugaises, Valentins et autres oeuvres. Paris, 1962
- BBC Radio 4's "15 March 2007 edition of 'In Our Times" edition on Epistolary Literature. Hosted by Melvyn Bragg.
- The Heroin Diaries The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star