Fall in love with letters: exploring letter writing novels

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Derived from the Greek word episto, meaning letter, epistolary novels are stories composed mainly of letters. In recent years, this genre has expanded to include books with emails, diary entries, and other material. Aphra Behn’s love letters between a nobleman and her sister are often cited as the first English epistolary novel, but the form had also been used in ancient texts. Heliodorus Ethiopian history, for example, was recorded as early as the 3rd century, although it was translated from the original Greek much later. Epistolary novels these days encompass everything from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being..

There is something fundamentally romantic about a book written in a series of letters. Of course, I’m not the first to think so. Some of my favorite romances feature love letters, whether they are slow romantic relationships characterized by deep conversations of kindred spirits in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. and Meet Me at the Museum or more contemporary romances in the tradition of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda or This Is How You Lose the Time War. Older authors have also contributed to the genre of love letters.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen, who is part of her youth, is an epistolary novel. Although Pride and Prejudice isn’t written just as a string of correspondence, letters play an important role in the story. All the great twists and turns of the plot have to do with the letters. Pamela by Samuel Richardson, and her delirious parody, Shamela by Henry Fielding, are famous examples of the eighteenth-century epistolary novel – although Shamela mocked both Richardson’s story and the form in which it was written.

Despite the number of epistolary novels published during the 18e and early 19e centuries, the mixture of letters and stories was appreciated neither by the public nor by the critics. The Smithsonian National Postal Museum, which has a wonderful epistolary fiction research project, postulates that this was due to the importance of letter writing during this period. It would be a bit like we come across a genre based on stories mixed with phone conversations – a weird mix of fiction and banality.

Another interesting theme that the Smithsonian study found was that 20% of the 92 letter-writing novels analyzed contained elements of feminism. This can be explained, in part, by the role of women in drafting correspondence. Company in the 18e and 19e centuries have excluded women from the public sphere and as a result women have turned to personal conversations to express their thoughts and ideas. “The feminism in early letter-writing novels makes sense,” the study explains, “because women were better able to act as independent and dynamic characters in this format despite their marginalized social position”.

The cover of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I was surprised to learn that the greatest number of epistolary novels published in any given period was not during the 18e and 19e centuries, but rather after the 2000s. The Smithsonian study ended in 2016 and suggests that this may be more due to an overall increase in global literacy and publication rates rather than an increased popularity of the form. This does not mean that our love of letters has died out. On the contrary, writers seem to become more creative with the epistolary novel.

No wonder, given the unique characteristics of the shape. Reading a letter is a personal act, offering a subjective point of view. Similar to listening to someone’s voice late at night on the phone, reading a letter or diary creates an intimacy that’s hard to find elsewhere. Books written in the first person come together, but they’re not quite the same. The epistolary novels immerse us in the head of the character and we become the first contact of his feelings and thoughts, with the recipient of the letter. Part of the reason On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous stole hearts was because of the intimacy – the trust and vulnerability – that the characters in this story reveal in their missives. Coming of age stories are made more poignant by the epistolary form.

Of course, depending on what kind of story you’re telling, the subjective nature of these novels can be put to good use. Sara Collin’s Confessions of Frannie Langton was a tale of mystery and suspense written in letter-writing format. A darker shade of the same can be found in Jenn Ashworth and Richard V Hirst’s The Night Visitors.

the cover of Confessions by Frannie Langton

Writing about why this form worked so well in their book, Jenn Ashworth tells readers of The Guardian, “A correspondence may seem like a rather complicated and archaic way of telling a story, but the disorienting subjectivity of the epistolary form deserves its postmodern glory: the timeline is derailed and the reader is required to understand what is going on based on it. different, sometimes contradictory stories.

Other authors have also played with the epistolary form, with varying effects. In Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, the reader watches the protagonist get smarter on the page from diary entries that get more sophisticated over time, while Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies mixes fact and fiction. to deliver a captivating account of the revolution in the Dominican Republic. Republic.

The first epistolary novel I read was Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days, which I fell in love with long before I knew what epistolary meant. My fondness for this genre is deeply rooted in a multitude of reasons: I love the feel of speaking to the characters on the page, the nostalgia that the letters evoke, the sense of history and time stretching across a narrative, and of course, all the new variations and stories that are made more interesting by the format. With the number of epistolary novels, I can’t wait to fall in love with letters again.