Cover of Evelina by Fanny Burney
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