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Epistolary novel

epistolary novel, epistolary novel examples
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


  • 1 Early works
  • 2 Types
  • 3 Later works
  • 4 Other media
  • 5 See also
  • 6 Footnotes
  • 7 External links

Early worksedit

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 reduced1 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 plot2 Both claims have some validity The first truly epistolary novel, the Spanish "Prison of Love" Cárcel de amor c1485 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 poetry3 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 tensioncitation needed


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

Later worksedit

See also:List of contemporary epistolary novels

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
  • The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ 1982 by Sue Townsend - comedy diary set in 1980s Britain
  • The Good War:An Oral History of World War II 1984 by Studs Terkel is a compilation of interviews with people who lived the events that went from the beginning of America's involvement in World War II, Pearl Harbor, to the end
  • 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
  • Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecelia 1988 is an epistolary fantasy novel in a Regency setting, from the first-person perspectives of cousins Kate and Cecelia, who recount their adventures in magic and polite society This work is unusual in modern fiction in being an epistolary novel written using the style of the letter game4
  • 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:AM, 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
  • The Closeness That Separates Us 2013 by Katie Hall and Bogen Jones is almost exclusively written as an exchange of e-mails between the two forbidden lovers, Lena and Ed
  • The Martian by Andy Weir, written as a collection of video journal entries for each Martian day sol by the protagonist on Mars, and sometimes by main characters on Earth and on the space station Hermes

A stage play by Tony Broadwick, "Used Hearts" 2014 is constructed using notes, letters, emails and such The play is available from offthewallplayscom ; a Spanish translation is available from espanolfree-ebooksnet

Other mediaedit

  • "Dear Dad", episode twelve of the first season of MASH, 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 CJ Cregg, Josh Lyman and Sam Seaborn to their respective parents to describe the events of the episode Aaron Sorkin also used this device on his earlier show Sports Night
  • Epistolary songs include The Beatles' "PS 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

See alsoedit

  • Novels portal
  • Epistolography
  • Epistolary poem
  • The Heroin Diaries:A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star
  • List of fictional diaries
  • List of contemporary epistolary novels


  1. ^ ETh Voss Erzählprobleme des Briefromans, dargestellt an vier Beispielen des 18 Jahrhunderts Bonn, 1960
  2. ^ BA Bray L'art de la lettre amoureuse:des manuels aux romans 1550-1700 La Haye/Paris, 1967
  3. ^ G de Guilleragues Lettres portugaises, Valentins et autres oeuvres Paris, 1962
  4. ^ "Interview with Patricia C Wrede" The Enchanted Inkpot Retrieved 27 February 2016 

External linksedit

  • BBC Radio 4's 15 March 2007 edition of In Our Times, "Epistolary Literature" Hosted by Melvyn Bragg

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