“A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog, with minor modifications.

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” -Emily Dickinson, quoted in To The Letter by Simon Garfield

An epistle, from the Latin epistulais a letter: a composition in prose sent from one person to another, or from one person to a group of people. An epistolary novel is a novel in letters, a unique style of narration. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first novel written in this way was Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1740; Richardson employed the form again with Clarissa in 1748. Other authors began to write epistolary novels as well, including Goethe, who published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. And one of the most well-known epistolary novels is Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Acquaintances), which has been adapted into film more than once (Dangerous Liaisons in 1988Cruel Intentions in 1999).

Why are epistolary novels so compelling? One reason may be that they feel intimate. There’s the illegal thrill of reading someone else’s mail, but there’s also a first person voice, usually one character writing to another that they know well, or come to know well. The pace of the correspondence may heighten the suspense as characters – and readers – wait for a reply.

griffinandsabineMost epistolary novels are printed in the same way as regular books, but some go as far as to include actual envelopes and letters. Nick Bantock’s beautiful, mysterious Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence is one of these: Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem correspond in handmade postcards at first, then move on to longer letters, which the reader pulls out from an envelope and unfolds to read. (A word to the wise: there are six of these books. You may want to get them all at once and set aside a day or two to read them. You will want to know what happens next.)

guernseyOne deservedly popular novel in letters is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. This book has had lasting appeal, and at least some of that appeal must come from the style in which it is written. The characters’ letters are direct, honest, funny, sorrowful, angry, heartbreaking, and romantic in turn. The reader feels as though she has direct access to the characters, without the authors as intermediaries.

attachmentsOther authors use a more traditional style of narration, but employ letters, journal entries, or – more recently – e-mails, text messages, and chats. A significant chunk of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, is told through two characters’ e-mail exchange – an exchange read by a third person, their company’s IT manager. Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia includes text messages and facebook status updates. The young adult favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient; Roomies by popular YA authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando also includes lengthy e-mails between the two main characters, high school graduates who are to be roommates in the fall.

lettersfromskyeOther recent epistolary or semi-epistolary novels are Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, set in Scotland and America, and The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, set in France. These two novels don’t just use the contents of the letters to tell the reader a story; the letters’ discovery by other people becomes part of the plot. Letters are physical: they can be lost, delayed, delivered to the wrong address, or received, read, and tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until someone else comes along and finds them.

Letters often become a part of history, like journals, newspapers, books, and other documents. Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing provides dozens of examples of historical letters, from Cicero to Kerouac. Many biographies include a subject’s letters and journals (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in LettersThe Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen’s Letters). There is even a website, Letters of Note, that gathers fascinating letters from a variety of letter-writers, such as this one from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife.

There are far more epistolary novels and excellent collections of letters than I have mentioned above. What’s your favorite? What are your thoughts on this manner of telling a story? And when was the last time you wrote (or received) a pen-and-paper letter?

“Men and women have been collecting letters since letters began. Unlike other collecting hobbies, philately say, or beautiful antique cars, the collecting of letters has always been a wholly natural endeavor. If you treasured what was said in a letter you kept it, and once you have three, you had a correspondence, and no one would accuse you of being a nerd or obsessive.” -Simon Garfield, To The Letter

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3 thoughts on ““A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

  1. Of course I’m going to nominate Kafka’s letters, which have been collected in a few different books. By the far the most famous (basically a short story in itself) is the one to his father, but I also like the ones he wrote to Felice and Milena.

    At the end of Mike Tyson’s autobiography, he recommends The World’s Greatest Letters: From Ancient Greece to the Twentieth Century and quotes a few of them: http://books.google.com/books?id=mV4TAAAAQBAJ&lpg=PT346&ots=-Ng8iRZWqr&dq=the%20world's%20greatest%20letters%20ancient%20greece%20mike%20tyson&pg=PT346#v=onepage&q&f=true

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