DCSIMG

By Olivia Haas

WHAT IS AN EPISTOLARY NOVEL?

An epistolary novel has a plot that is either partially or entirely comprised of correspondence, usually in the form of letters, as opposed to simply a collection of letters. For this research, correspondence in modern forms, such as emails or text messages, is also included in order to better understand the adaptations and developments of communication over time. Some classifications of the term ‘epistolary’ include diaries. However, this being the National Postal Museum, we confine our definition to letters written in correspondence form (the inclusion of a salutation) or with the intent to exchange or present the letter for an audience to read.

HOW DOES CORRESPONDENCE FUNCTION WITHIN A NOVEL?

Letters (which included modern forms of correspondence) contribute to novels in two principal ways.

  • They can serve as “communicative letters,” meaning that the letters are used to describe the plot. They “narrate the present action but are not themselves part of the action.”1 For example, in Jean Webster’s Dear Enemy (1915) the protagonist, Sally McBride, runs an orphanage and, in her letters, details the daily activities and needs of the institution to her employees and friends.2
  • They can be “kinetic letters,” meaning that the letters drive the plot. The “action progresses through the letters themselves, as they provoke reactions or function as actual agents in the plot.”3 An example of this is in Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence (1991). The storyline of Bantock’s book is entirely driven by the discussions, questions, and reactions between the two characters, Griffin and Sabine.4

(1) Rosenmeyer, Patricia A. Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2001. Page 65.
(2) Webster, Jean. (1915). Dear Enemy. New York: The Century Company.
(3) Rosenmeyer, page 65.
(4) Bantock, Nick. (1991). Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Open pages from Griffin and Sabine. The back of a postcard with text and red and purple stamps on one page, and the front of a postcard with a pink flower, three seashells, and an address with striped border on the other page.
Pages from Griffin and Sabine

EPISTOLARY FORM IN OTHER TYPES OF FICTION

For this project, the focus and analysis is centered around novels that abide by the epistolary form. However, it should be noted that epistolary fictions come in many sizes and formats. They come in the form of children’s books, such as Voss by David Ives, Dying to Meet You by Kate Klise, and The Beatrice Letters by Lemony Snicket. They also come in the form of poems, such as the 1764 “The Origin of the Veil” by John Langhorne. Additionally, they come in the form of short stories, like Geoffrey Kerr’s 1926 “A Western Reunion.”

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