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What is an Epistolary Novel?

An epistle is an old term meaning a letter, and an epistolary novel is one told through letters or journal entries.
Epistolary novels occasionally contain newspaper reports.
The narration of epistolary novels takes place in the form of letters, journal entries, and newspaper reports.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 April 2014
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An epistolary novel is also called a novel of letters, because the narration takes place in the form of letters, possibly journal entries, and occasionally newspaper reports. An epistle is an archaic term for a letter. This type of novel uses an interesting literary technique, and it allows a writer to include multiple narrators in his or her story. This means the story can be told and interpreted from many viewpoints.

The first true epistolary novel was the 17th century work, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister penned by Aphra Behn. Unlike many novels to follow, several volumes of the work also include the voice of a narrator, who ties together letters and comments on all of the characters. This aspect would disappear in later works when this type of novel became popular in the 18th century.

Of these 18th century works, the most famous were those of Samuel Richardson. Both his novels Pamela and Clarissa were novels of letters. The French novelist Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos wrote one of today’s most recognizable epistolary novels Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liasons), which has been the inspiration for modern plays and two popular films.

As with any novel form, the epistolary novel fell out of favor and began to be copied and mocked by writers. Jane Austen did try to write a successful one in the short work Lady Susan, however. Still, parodies like Henry Fielding’s Shamela began to emerge by mid-century.

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Though this form of novel became less popular, efforts to revive it continued in the 19th century, and several extremely well known writers showed great skill in the form. Among these, the mystery works of Wilkie Collins, especially in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, use letters, reports, transcriptions, and diary entries to convey multiple viewpoints and advance the plot. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is also considered an epistolary novel that is very effective and continues to capture the imagination of modern audiences.

Alice Walker also did great credit to the form in her novel The Color Purple, representing a modern take on the form. Stephen King’s first well-known novel, Carrie, also combines epistolary elements. Like Aphra Behn’s work, it also includes an omniscient narrator.

Perhaps the most fascinating modern takes on the epistolary novel are the current “novels of emails” that have been written in the last few years. As formal letter writing has become less and less common, using email has become relatively standard for many people. Of these recent examples, perhaps the most fascinating is Matt Beaumont’s novel e. Using multiple person narrative, the novel is entirely composed of emails written by people working in an advertising agency. The book is a darkly comic look at the advertising world, in which Beaumont once worked, and does justice to the modernized form.

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Discuss this Article

croydon
Post 4

@umbra21 - The epistolary style works particularly well if you want to use an unreliable narrator in your work, whether that's through letters or through journal entries. A really good example of this is "Letters from the Inside" by John Marsden, which is basically a book of letters from two girls who are writing to each other as pen pals, but both are hiding secrets that are gradually hinted at through what they write.

I kind of want to find an epistolary novels list now and see what else is on there, since I quite enjoy that sort of format if it is done well.

umbra21
Post 3

@softener - Flowers for Algernon is one of my favorite stories of all time, although it's not actually a novel, it's considered a novella because it's under 40,000 words.

I think it was perfectly told the epistolary format (in journal entries) because the reader can pick up on information in the subtext of the words. The character who is writing in the journals is involved in an experiment changing him from being far below average in intelligence to far above average and his writing reflects that, as well as telling the actual story.

I think that purpose is what is missing in a lot of epistolary works. You can't just be putting the story in letter form because it's funny or different. You have to have it like that for a reason.

hidingplace
Post 2

@softener - You could probably make a case for The Sorrows of Young Werther being the most influential epistolary novel of all time, if only for the fact that it drove many people across Europe to commit suicide! It also had a massive cultural impact in other ways where young men started dressing like the title character. It's still relatively popular today.

softener
Post 1

A popular epistolary novel some of you might have read in high school is Flowers of Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The Perks of Being a Wildflower by Stephen Chbosky is another well read epistolary novel. I wonder what would be the most influential epistolary novel of all time?

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