A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Epistolary Novels
Last week I wrote about the complementary lost arts of letter writing and handwriting. Literary correspondence, once such a venerable genre, just hasn’t been the same since the advent of e-mail and text messages. And yet the epistolary novel – a novel made up of letters and other documents – has been a popular form ever since the eighteenth century. It remains a useful way of introducing multiple voices and styles of writing into one book, although nowadays the composite texts might indeed include e-mails, texts, faxes, memos, diaries or other internal monologues, blog posts, and Facebook status updates as well as old-fashioned handwritten letters.
A Brief History
Novelists first began inserting letters into their books in the fifteenth century; perhaps the first example of the experiment was Cárcel de Amor (Prison of Love) by Spaniard Diego de San Pedro, from 1485. The European tradition of ‘miscellanies,’ linking letters and poems through a romantic plot, paved the way for more epistolary novels such as Edmé Boursault’s Letters of Respect (available online in its original French) and Marianna Alcoforado’s Letters of a Portuguese Nun (both from 1669), along with James Howell’s Familiar Letters and Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684-7).
Epistolary novels increased in popularity through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, with some of the finest achievements including: Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721), Samuel Richardson’s two sensational seduction epics, Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie (1761; abridged French text available here), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), portions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and Honoré de Balzac’s Letters of Two Brides (1842). Even Jane Austen tried her hand at the epistolary in her 1794 novella Lady Susan – and it’s possible that First Impressions, an early version of Pride and Prejudice, may have experimented with a similar format.
Nineteenth-century novels, whether consciously epistolary or not, often rely on letters to advance the plot. Think of that heartbreaking moment in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) when Tess’s urgent letter to Angel goes astray, trapped under the carpet in his doorway. The receipt (or non-receipt) of a letter can often make all the difference in a Victorian novel. A few such books that depend heavily on letters are Fyodor Dostoevksy’s first novel, Poor Folk (1846), Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), and Wilkie Collins’s top-sellers, The Woman in White (1859) and The Moonstone (1868). Nowadays, any Victorian pastiche worth its salt must include letters as at least one way of furthering the plot: see my #4-5 choices below, as well as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and the recent Booker Prize longlisted behemoth, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
There are hundreds of contemporary books that model themselves on the traditional epistolary novel; you might browse through this Goodreads list for ideas of some to try. A few that I have read and enjoyed in recent years are Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
I also look forward to trying Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine series (complete with pull-out letters and postcards), Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard (inspired by the letters between Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell, it has two characters meeting in a writers’ colony in 1957), N. John Hall’s Correspondence (in which a retired New Jersey bank clerk finds an invaluable cache of Victorian letters), and Nick and Jake by Jonathan and Tad Richards, which imagines a correspondence between The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway and Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises.
So there’s plenty to choose from, to say the least. But I’ve managed to whittle it down to my ten favorite classic and modern takes on the epistolary novel, listed below.
1. Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782)
Start with an early epistolary landmark: Les liaisons dangereuses is Laclos’ tale of seduction and revenge set among the eighteenth-century French aristocracy. I read this classic in translation during my freshman year of college, for a course on novels on screen. It’s been adapted for the cinema many times: by Roger Vadim in 1959, Stephen Frears in 1988, and Miloš Forman in 1989 (titled Valmont), but also by Roger Kumble in 1999, who turned it into raunchy teen comedy Cruel Intentions.
The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont treat sex as a sadistic game, setting each other seduction challenges that will wreak vengeance on their former lovers and enemies. Their scheming letters contrast with the trusting, guileless notes exchanged with their ‘victims,’ young Cécile de Volanges and happily married Madame de Tourvel. Duplicity goes head to head with virtue, and only by following the trail of letters will you find out who wins and who loses in this moral battle of wills.
2. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740)
Although Clarissa is meant to be one of the best novels in the English language (as well as one of the longest), I haven’t attempted it and would recommend, for a more manageable dose of what to all intents and purposes sounds like the same plot, Richardson’s previous epistolary shocker, Pamela. I wrote a paper about it during my study abroad year in college, comparing and contrasting it with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), another book where a haughty gentleman attempts to seduce the upstanding young woman in his employ.
There’s no denying that the novel becomes tedious after a time – there’s only so much randy scheming you can handle from brooding hero Mr. B, and only so much self-righteous prudery you can take from Pamela herself, before you want them to just get on with it – but as with Dangerous Liaisons, there’s a certain meandering pleasure to watching the plot pan out through the accretion of one-sided letters.
3. Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Though now remembered above all as the vampire novel that started a more than century-long craze, Dracula is also one of the first examples of the documentary novel: it builds a gripping story through letters, telegrams, diary entries, ship’s log entries, and newspaper articles. English lawyer Jonathan Harker undertakes the long quest to Count Dracula’s eerie castle in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania to conduct a business deal; shortly thereafter, an empty, ghostly ship turns up on the northern English coast, and a young lady of the town falls mysteriously ill. At times the build-up of disparate documents makes for a scattered narrative, but as the peculiar happenings in Transylvania and Whitby come to light, it becomes a delicious test of the reader’s tenacity in slotting together the pieces of a creepy Gothic puzzle.
4. Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (1990)
Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning homage to Victorian literature bursts with period charm and intrigue. Her two contemporary characters, Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, are professors researching the shadowy private lives and loves of poet Randolph Ash (likely based on Robert Browning) and free-spirited poetess Christabel LaMotte. Rich with allusions and genuine-sounding Victorian poetry (all of which Byatt penned herself), the novel is equal parts pseudo-biography, intellectual mystery, academic satire, and fairy tale romance.
One of the myriad ways Byatt achieves her Victorian authenticity is by including journal entries and letters that passed between Ash and Christabel. Indeed, it is through letters that their forbidden love affair is revealed; Ash refers to their correspondence as “that space of freedom,” while Christabel calls letter-writing “an Addiction.” Letters are at the very heart of the romance plot and serve as the crux of the literary mystery Maud and Roland attempt to solve in the present day.
5. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (1996)
In 1843 Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, a Scottish landowner and his uppity housekeeper (who also happened to be his pregnant lover), were murdered at their isolated farmhouse outside Toronto. Real-life accessory to murder Grace Marks tells her story in Atwood’s accomplished historical reconstruction. Grace’s first-person narration of her past is interspersed with present tense omniscient passages chronicling Dr. Simon Jordan’s psychiatric examination of her at the provincial penitentiary in Kingston. These two narrative strands are supplemented by letters and other historical documents, including epigraphs taken from homesteader Susanna Moodie’s contemporary account, Life in the Clearings.
The novel is full of arresting imagery that is somehow both domestic and surprisingly sensual: chapters are entitled after quilting patterns, but blood-red peonies keep recurring in Grace’s dreams, and her memories are sexually frank in a way that echoes The French Lieutenant’s Woman – a level of honesty that only postmodern revisionings of the Victorian novel can get away with. Moreover, Grace is an unreliable narrator extraordinaire; Atwood always denies certainty so that readers can never be entirely sure what happened at Kinnear’s house that day. Is Grace a murderess, an accessory to murder, or an innocent bystander caught up in sordid events? As Dr. Jordan concludes, “Not to know – to snatch at hints and portents, at intimations, at tantalizing whispers – it is as bad as being haunted.”
6. Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)
I defy you to find a more delightful pair of experimental novels than Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea and Ibid: A Life (2004). The latter is a novel told entirely through the footnotes of a biography, giving the reader the devilish task of splicing together what has actually happened to the characters. It takes ‘reading between the lines’ to a whole new level of playful challenge – and also contains one of my favorite out-of-context (precisely because there is no context here) sentences ever: “Once you’ve seen one blue tit, you’ve seen them all.”
Ella Minnow Pea, Dunn’s first novel, is a book of letters – in more senses than one. It is a fairly traditional epistolary, yes, but it also toys with the letters of the alphabet: the wordy citizens of the island nation of Nollop are zealously engaged in creating pangrams (pithy sentences that contain each letter of the alphabet) in tribute to their founder Nevin Nollop, who authored “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” the original pangram displayed in ceramic tiles on his statue in the public square. But things go awry when particular letters start falling off the monument.
A superstitious lot, the Nollop Council decide that the fallen letters can no longer be used, and so the characters’ missives become increasingly constrained as they have to avoid certain vowels and consonants. Their writing grows exponentially avant-garde and hilarious as they resort to circumlocutions, phonetic spellings, and not-quite-right synonyms – as is the case with Christian Bök’s poetry collection of univocal lipograms, Eunoia (reviewed here back in June), extreme creativity often arises out of a tough linguistic stricture.
Before long only L, M, N, O, and P can be used – which, handily, still allows for an approximation of the title character’s name, but offers very few other coherent language options. Like Ibid and Eunoia, Ella Minnow Pea is a madcap journey through the English language and its use in literature: enjoy the ride.
7. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (2012)
(See Lauren’s full review here.)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a fully modern take on the epistolary structure: it’s made up of notes, e-mails, memos, a school report card, police reports, video transcripts, blogs, and so on, all linked by main character Bee’s narration. Bee (short for Balakrishna) is a 15-year-old student at Galer Street School, stunted and weak due to a childhood heart condition; her voice echoes Hazel’s in John Green’s similarly wonderful YA novel, The Fault in Our Stars.
Bee’s mother, Bernadette Fox, is a reclusive former architect, and her father, Elgin Branch, a Microsoft robotics genius. They live in a crumbling hilltop house in Seattle, having moved there 20 years ago after Bernadette’s Los Angeles designs failed. Bernadette detests Seattle; she hates people, too, particularly the other Galer Street parents, whom she refers to as ‘gnats’ – and most especially Audrey Griffin, their nosy neighbor down the hill. In a telling commentary on detachment from reality in contemporary society, Semple has Bernadette withdraw from life by hiring a virtual personal assistant out in India to essentially run her life for her (and at just 75 cents an hour!).
Although the novel’s plot gets a bit too silly for my liking, I love the modern epistolary approach, which here allows for a striking multivocality, as readers hear everything from Bernadette’s sarcasm and Audrey’s busybody routine to Bee’s worldly but sweet teenaged attempts to make sense of her quirky family.
8. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)
Shriver had her first major success with this bleak novel set in the aftermath of a school shooting. There have been many high school massacre novels, but it’s Kevin’s structure that makes it unique: it’s presented as a set of letters from the perpetrator’s mother to her estranged husband, pondering what went wrong in their parenting of Kevin and how she will bear visiting him in prison from now on. The book hangs on a wonderful (or do I mean horrible?) twist, which I certainly won’t give away here, in case you haven’t read the book or seen the darkly beautiful movie version; I will just say that the letters take on a completely different meaning as the true extent of Kevin’s crimes comes to light.
9. The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland (2007)
Two Staples employees strike up an unlikely friendship in this, my favorite of Coupland’s novels. Bethany is a recovering Goth in her early twenties; Roger is a middle-aged divorcé who spends his breaks writing diary entries from Bethany’s perspective. Their peculiar real-life correspondence shares time with Roger’s truly awful novel, a John Cheever parody of unhappily married couples having drink-soused and nourishment-free dinner parties (it does, however, include a fantastic coined word: “beweeviled” as a descriptor for ancient pancake mix found in a cupboard). Coupland too often trails off into postmodern wishy-washiness, but in this book he gets it all just right.
10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008)
And, last but not least, a cozy read to share with your book club, your mother, your grandmother, or, well, just about anyone. (Is it a women’s book? Perhaps primarily, but there’s no reason why men wouldn’t enjoy it too.) There’s nothing objectionable in it; it’s one of those heart-warming tales that has almost universal appeal. The novel is inspired by a tiny footnote to history: the Nazi occupation of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands off of France, from 1940 to 1945 – the only part of Britain that was invaded.
The island’s residents, clinging to normality in any way they could, formed an impromptu book and baking group (that other part of the club’s name referring to the ‘creative’ cooking required during rationing) to disguise their curfew-breaking. As the war ends, a London receives an unexpected letter from Guernsey and, interest piqued, decides to journey to the island to hear the Society’s stories in person – and see if therein lies a book. Her letters to her publisher recall the breezy pleasures of 84, Charing Cross Road (for which, see last week’s article) but also reveal the history of Guernsey’s German occupation in subtle and touching detail. An idyllic island setting, letters and books, and a gently unfolding romance: what could be better for a summer book club?