A Novel Affair

Other Themes

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.


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