Epistolary Fiction: A Novel Affair
Does the epistolary format tend to be used for a particular theme? For example, is it most commonly used for love stories? To answer this question, this research compiled a list of 138 epistolary works — 130 modern novels and eight ancient texts. Of these 138, data was gathered on 92, spanning a majority of the time periods in a representative sample. It then looked at the themes that each includes throughout their text and compiled a list of the most common themes across the board. The most common themes are romantic love, feminism, and new encounters, with the intimacy as an overarching quality within epistolary novels across the board. This section explores these four areas.
EPISTOLARY NOVELS AS AN INTIMATE SPACE
One of the main draws of epistolary novels is their capacity for the creation of an intimate space between the characters and the readers. As letters (including modern correspondence) are intended for a particular audience (the recipient of the letter), they are often written in more personal terms. In fictional letters, authors are able to engage this intimate space by using the personal relationships of the characters to reveal their firsthand experiences and inner thoughts through their correspondence. As letters are usually intended to be a closed communication, the readers are allowed to peer into the relationship created by the author. The epistolary style then allows the reader to see not only into the personal experience and thoughts of just one character, but potentially of multiple through their exchange.
While the letter format is generally an intimate forum to begin with, some of the epistolary novels are even more personal as a result of the specific audience to whom their letters are intended. The epistolary novels whose letters are written to an ambiguous or imaginary party tend to be even more intimate than those written to friends, family, or partners. For example, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Walker’s main character, Celie, writes a large number of her letters to God. With God being an unresponsive audience who is already assumed to have omniscient understanding of Celie’s life, she is better able to be considerably candid. Despite the profundity of the abuses Celie endures, she is still able to articulate them as a result of her audience, God.1 Similarly, in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), the protagonist, Charlie, writes to an imaginary friend. By writing to an ambiguous party, Charlie is able to talk in more intimate detail about his personal struggles with mental illness and interpersonal relationships.2 While epistolary novels that are written between two or more distinct individuals can be revelatory of the personal experiences of the characters through their inherently intimate exchange, the epistolary novels which include pieces written to ambiguous recipients open an even greater space for the reader to gain an intimate understanding of the character.
(1) Walker, Alice. (1992). The Color Purple. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
(2) Chbosky, Stephen. (1999). The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Pocket Books.
The most popular theme throughout epistolary novels over time is by far that of love letters. Of the 92 novels analyzed for content, 51 of them (55%) included some aspect of love letter exchange. Epistolary novels, then, are used regularly as a forum for the establishment of love stories, not only in aggregate, but also across individual periods. While no data was collected for the 1400-1600 periods, the subsequent four centuries, as well as the post-2000 period, were each comprised of heavily romantic epistolary examples. Over 40% of novels in each of these periods has focus placed on love letters. The age of the novel, the 19th century, was the period with the highest proportion of novels with at least some parts devoted to romance (90%). For example, Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (1816) develops a deeply romantic relationship between the protagonist, Adolphe, and his lover, Ellénore.1
Likewise, love stories are often at the crux of ancient texts (which date to roughly between 0 CE and 500 CE). In the ancient text by Xenophon, Ephesian Tale, the entire story centers around the love story of Habrocomes and Manto. Here, the developments of the plot are centered around their love and the jealous conflict that arises as a result of it.2 Similarly, inHeliodorus’ Ethiopian Story, “the romantic adventures of the lovers also often involve near-death experiences, and letters are convenient methods of contacting a person who has given up all hope of a beloved’s survival.”3
However, not all are exclusively love letters. Many of the 51 examples of love letters include romance simply as a topic in correspondence between two people who are not romantically involved, such as exchanges between friends or relatives. For example, Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister by Aphra Behn (1687) uses a correspondence between a nobleman and his sister to reveal the personal details of their respective love interests, as well as business and religious engagements. The main focus of the novel is, despite the inclusion of other subjects, love. Therefore, woven into the letters between the main characters are some letters between each character and their love interests in between. However, throughout much of the novel, the details on each character’s love life is confined to the descriptions each provides the other.4 Set in a similar style over 300 years later, Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments (2011) uses email correspondence between two friends to detail the development of their respective love lives, rather than centering the novel around the correspondence between two lovers.5 6
(1) Constant, Benjamin. (1964). Adolphe. (L.W. Tancock, trans.). Baltimore: Penguin Books.
(2) Rosenmeyer, Patricia A. Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print. Page 155.
(3) Rosenmeyer. Page 167.
(4) Behn, Aphra. (1687). Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister. London.
(5) Rowell, Rainbow. (2011). Attachments. New York: Dutton.
(6) Other such examples of this theme include: Alyson Foster’s God is an Astronaut, Mac Lethal’s Texts from Bennett, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Steve Kluger’s Almost Like Being in Love, Tim Parks’s Home Thoughts, Laurence Housman’s An Englishwoman’s Love Letters, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, Anne Louise Germaine de Staël’s Delphine, Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hyperion oder Der Eremit in Griechenland, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, ‘Françoise De Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne.
FEMINISM IN EPISTOLARY FICTION
Feminism, both in the form of subtle undertones as well as in the form of the principal theme, is a theme regularly included in epistolary novels. Of the 92 novels analyzed, approximately 20% from across time included elements of feminism. This theme is complex in that the concept of feminism is relatively new (within the last 100 years or so). However, prior to its official establishment, many of the epistolary novels included in this research include elements of it. For example, in many of the novels dating to the 18th or 19th centuries, simply having a dynamic female character was progressive. For this reason, such novels have been included as abiding by the feminist theme. An example of this is Maria Edgeworth’s Leonora (1806). Edgeworth’s novel follows two strong-willed female characters, Leonora and Olivia, whose deviant opinions on marriage and social norms make this novel stand apart as an early feminist piece.1
Part of the reason that epistolary fiction is likely a good format for the expression of female voices, especially in earlier novels, is due to women’s role in letter-writing culture. In periods where public spaces were considerably dominated by men (such as largely for the centuries preceding the 20th century), women were not able to express their experiences or thoughts with the same freedom as their male counterparts. While it is important to note that elements of this public space domination by men still exist, women’s place in the public sphere was even more constrained in earlier centuries. And, in light of these public constraints and social taboos, personal interactions were often the space where women could express their personal sentiments. By this, letters served as a forum for women to communicate their perspective to a friend or relative, without breaking the social norms that regularly kept them from the public arena. Therefore, feminism in early epistolary novels is logical, as women were better able to act as independent and dynamic characters in this format in spite of their marginalized social position.
In modern epistolary novels, despite women having more opportunity to participate in the public space, the theme of feminism persists. It is sometimes manifested in a manner reminiscent of the older feminist epistolary texts, specifically in those novels set back in time. For example, Elizabeth Wein’s novel Code Name Verity (2013) is set during World War II and, therefore, takes on the characteristics of the female experience at that time.2 Other times, the theme of feminism is presented in the modern context. In Mariama Bâ’s 1981 Si Une Longue Lettre (So a long Letter), Bâ brings the modern position of Senegalese women to the forefront, detailing the inequalities still faced by women in the modern day.3 4
(1) Edgeworth, Maria. (1893). Leonora. London: J.M. Dent & Co.
(2) Wein, Elizabeth. (2013). Code Name Verity. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike Press.
(3) Bâ, Mariama. (1981). Une Si Longue Lettre. (Modupé Bodé-Thomas, trans.). London: Heinemann.
(4) Other such examples of this theme include: Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Jack London and Anna Strunsky’s The Kempton-Wace Letters, Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Gilbert Imlay’s The Emigrants.
NEW ENCOUNTERS THROUGH CORRESPONDENCE
While letters are often regarded as personal forums for expression, many of the epistolary novels explored in this research began with two characters encountering one another for the first time through correspondence. The epistolary novels which follow this theme tended to eventually become intimate spaces for exchange between the characters who, over the course of novel’s plot, develop a relationship with one another. This theme was most popular during the 20th century, with 80% of epistolary novels in this period including some aspect of new encounters as as the premise for the start of the novel. For example, in Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence (1991), the characters live on opposite sides of the globe and first encounter each other through a letter written from Sabine to Griffin, a well-known artist. Then, over the course of the plot, the two are able to develop a deep friendship through their correspondence.1 Similarly, in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), the protagonist, Judy, writes tobenefactor who agreed to pay for her college education with the stipulation that she must write to him often about her progress. However, despite having no clear idea of who the donor is, Judy begins to write more comfortably and openly with him as the novel progresses.2 3
(1) Bantock, Nick. (1991). Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence.San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
(2) Webster, Jean. (1913). Daddy-Long-Legs. New York: The Century Company.
(3) Other such examples of this theme include: Sara Zarr’s Roomies, Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, Douglas Coupland’s The Gum Thief, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside, Saul Bellow’s Herzog.
While love, feminism, and new encounters were the most common themes discovered in this research, other common themes were found to a lesser degree. Epistolary novels deal with a range of other thematic areas, such as wartime correspondence, letters depicting business transactions, and epistolary novels that follow the mystery genre.
Some of the epistolary novels explored in this research fall into the category of wartime novels. As letters were the principal form of correspondence for many centuries, it is logical that they would be employed in times of war. For a large majority of history, letters were the way that combatants were able to keep in touch with and have a physical piece of home while on the front. Of the total 92 novels analyzed, seven used this theme. The majority of the novels that deal with this theme are from the post-2000 period. Five novels of the 36 analyzed in this period deal with wartime correspondence.1 All five of these novels are set back in time in order to account for the use of letters, with three of the five being set during World War II, and the other two being set during the Vietnam War. The other two novels date to 1942 (C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters) and 1650 (James Howell’s Familiar Letters).
While the majority of epistolary novels use letters that are more personal in nature, some of the novels used the included letters as a forum for discussions of business matters. Six novels from across the list fall into this category.2 These novels, rather than focusing on the development of a relationship, whether romantic or otherwise, between characters, as do novels that talk more strictly about personal topics, focus their attention on the development of one character in particular. The protagonist in these novels, then, is defined largely in relation to their work.
MYSTERY EPISTOLARY NOVELS
A sizable number of epistolary novels fall into the mystery genre. 20 of the 92 novels examined included some element of mystery.3 The use of the epistolary style as a means by which to convey a mysterious plot is tricky. While the letters can serve to add to the mystery of the plot, with the readers having the opportunity to work through the mystery along with the characters, the letters can also serve as a barrier to better understanding of the plot development. For example, in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the characters try to decipher the mystery of Count, around whom many abnormal and sinister occurrences transpired.4 In this novel, the readers are able to work through the mystery as it unravels and reveals more to the characters themselves. However, in Zachary Thomas Dodson’s Bats of the Republic (2015), critics claimed that the novel was “marred by wooden dialogue” that, in trying to be too complex in its plot, inhibited the movement and comprehension of the text.5
(1) Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from the Skye, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, and Alfredo Bryce-Echenique’s Tarzan’s Tonsilitis.
(2) Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Matt Beaumont’s e, Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, Jean Webster’s Dear Enemy, James Howell’s Familiar Letters.
(3) Examples include: Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Steven Brust and Emma Bull’s Freedom and Necessity, Stephen King’s Carrie, Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White.
(4) Stoker, Dracula.(2003).Dracula.Philadelphia: Chelsea House Press.
(5) “Bats of the Republic.” (August 17, 2015). Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from: www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-385-53983-8. Accessed July 21, 2016.