Beyond the importance of looking at the trends within the novels themselves, looking at the ways that the novels play a role in the society is revelatory of not only the culture of epistolary fiction, but also of letter-writing culture, by extension. In order to gauge the public interest in epistolary novels, as well as in letter-writing, this research looks at book reviews of the novels this project details. However, as such records of public opinion (largely through newspapers as the primary medium) are not available for the periods preceding the start of the 19th century, this data is confined largely to the comparisons of public opinion between approximately 1800 and the 2015. For those novels published prior to this time period, reviews can sometimes be found dating from later periods. For example, Montesquieu’s 1721 Persian Letters can be found to have been retrospectively reviewed in a New York Tribune article from 1918.1 For such instances, the review is taken into consideration as contributing to the public opinion of epistolary fiction from the period within which the review is published. For this example, then, the review of Persian Letters would contribute to the aggregate public opinion of epistolary fiction in the early 20th century.
Public opinion of epistolary novels between 1800 and the early 1900s (about 1920) is overwhelmingly negative. Repeatedly, epistolary novels are cited as being an antiquated format for novels. When the novels are regarded as successful, they are often so in spite of the perceived inherently problematic format. For example, E. Lucas’s 1906 Listener’s Lure was regarded as a “quaint, original piece of composition” despite that epistolary novels were considered “apt to be terribly dull.”2 It was considered “a dangerous experiment [to put a] story in the form of letters” in the late 19th and early 20th century, as the public opinion of the epistolary form was so abysmal.3 This is in part due to the association with epistolary fiction at the time. During this period, epistolary novels were regularly regarded as “the ancient epistolary form of novel.”4 With the association of epistolary as outdated, books such as H.G. McVickar and Percy Collins’s A Parish of Two (1903) were cited as “badly done and over-strained” as a result of their attempts to write in this style.5 Often, the novels were considered to be detestable simply on the basis of their use of the style. Reviews went so far as to claim that the epistolary style “disfigured” the novels within which it was used.6 A “bastardized blend of fiction and nonfiction,” epistolary novels during the age of letter-writing and of the novel were vigorously disliked by critics.7
In the cases where an epistolary novel is looked upon favorably, it is almost always attributed not to the style but rather to the tact and renown of the author. For example, while Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) was met with favorable reviews, the reviews rarely detailed any specifics about the text itself and, rather, focused on the renown of the author. This case is particularly interesting because the popular response to the novel was largely a result of the association with the author. However, as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was originally published under Brontë’s pen name, Acton Bell, the papers incorrectly speculated that the novel was actually written by Anne Brontë’s then popular sister, Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre had been a success the prior year.8 Similarly, reviews of Elinor Glyn’s The Visits of Elizabeth (1900) were positive simply on the basis of the author’s sensational celebrity status,9 while the sensational popularity of The Kempton-Wace Letters (1903) was attributed to the popularity of the of the man who penned it, Jack London, with his close friend, Anna Strunsky.10
Meanwhile, the public opinion of the epistolary style from the mid-1900s through the present day is far more favorable. The correspondence style is regularly noted as interesting and fresh, regarded as “not conventionally narrated”in a way that “puts the act of writing center stage.”11 Rather than perceiving the style to be pushing obsolescence , as was the sentiment prior to the mid-20th century, the style is, at present, regarded more as a “unique [...] literary voice.”12 Despite some possible criticism of the “gimmicky” nature of epistolary fiction, the style was still more often thought of as effective for the given audiences.13 One particularly renowned piece of epistolary fiction of this modern period is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Walker’s book is regarded as a widespread success largely as a result of her “choice of narrative style that, without the intrusion of the author, forces intimate identification with the heroine.” Further, Walker’s employment of the epistolary style develops as the novel progresses: “as Celie grows in experience [...] the letters take on authority.”14 This idea that the epistolary novel is a revelatory form that gives the reader a closeness with the character is a consistent appraisal of epistolary fiction in the modern period. Reviews of modern epistolary fiction are thereby often acclaimed as being tactfully complex and tenderly poignant in their intimate relation with the characters.
While the perception of epistolary novels in the modern period is more positive than that of the past, the style is still met with criticism for the inherent constraints it places on the development of the characters and plot. Some modern critics disagree with the general idea that epistolary novels are uniquely intimate and rather claim that “the epistolary form prevents the reader from becoming completely immersed in the story”15 as the narrative style sometimes “struggles to sustain momentum.”16
Regardless, the period between about 1950 and 2015 has produced significantly more epistolary novels than did the 1800-1950 period, clearly pointing to some positive sentiments towards the format. So why are there so many more epistolary novels, and why are they viewed so positively? Are they perhaps viewed positively because there is a wide array of epistolary novels from which the reader can choose? Or are there more epistolary novels because authors see the success of other epistolary novels and then elect to follow that format? The causational argument here is unknown. However, by all accounts, with the popularity of novels and the importance of letter-writing during the 19th and early 20th centuries, epistolary fiction should have been more popular then than it is now. However, the reason for the upturn in popularity of the epistolary style in between 1950 and 2015 can perhaps be discerned by looking at the respective culture of letter-writing in each of the periods. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, letter-writing culture was vibrant simply because it was a necessity. With the telephone’s popularity and accessibility not coming about in the cities until 1900, and other communities following suit in the subsequent 30 years17, and the telegraph’s extremely inaccessible nature as a result of its expensive and restrictive format18, letters were the available and meaningful form of correspondence during this period. For this reason, perhaps letters were a tired form of communication. They perhaps had no allure simply because everyone used them. They were mundane and familiar and, therefore, not an entertaining novel format. Then, with the dwindling letter-writing culture from 1950 through 2015, perhaps the appeal of novels containing letters increased. Since in this period letter-writing was not a necessity as it was in the 19th century, perhaps the public was more intrigued to be able to read novels written in the epistolary format. Without an established letter-writing culture, the novelty and allure of it is likely far greater than when letters are the mundane and essentially only form of communication.