A Novel Affair

Love Letters

A black and white cover of Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister with the text: Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister; with the History of Their Adventures. In three Parts. The Fourth Edition. London: Printed for D. Brown, J. Tonson, J. Nicholson, B. Tooke, and G. Strahan. 1712.
1712 Cover of Love Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister by Aphra Behn

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.56

(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.