Let’s Get Epistolary (Novels)


My spring break ends tomorrow and I’ll be heading back to Yale, so naturally my thoughts are turning to correspondence and keeping in touch.  I’ve never been a dependable letter-writer, enthusiastic as I am about it as an art.  I blame advances in technology- email, texting, phone calls- that make writing (and asking people to write to you) feel pedantic, obsolete, and kind of unrewarding.
I wish I didn’t feel that way because there is something so gratifying in receiving a letter in the mail, something very grand in ‘conducting a correspondence’, and something so much more personal about handwritten thoughts tucked into an envelope just for you.
It makes you shiver, thinking of the things we stand to lose: heartfelt love letters, correspondence between great thinkers… We’ve replaced the first with sexts and FaceTime. The correspondence of Anais Nin and Henry Miller will be replaced by an endless chain of “U up?”s night after night.  We replaced the latter with… I don’t know? Tweets to followers?

And I love letters as a frame for novels. A lot of the earliest novels were epistolary and it’s a tactic that pops up every now and again in fiction (though I haven’t read many (any?) contemporary examples- hopefully I’ll get to House of Leaves soon).

My favorite “novels in letters” below…

Dracula, Bram Stoker: I am a fan of Dracula for so many reasons. I remember the addition I read being excellent- there was an illustration of a wolf that practically burst from the page (Children of the night, how something is their something something, and all that). Great source of baby names too- the names of 1897 (when Dracula was published) are returning to popularity, though I wouldn’t recommend Renfield.  The letter format is kind of thrilling because, as the reader, you know everything that’s going on with everyone and can sense the impending horrors that the heroes are walking into unawares.  It was tough to put down- so I didn’t.

Clarissa, Samuel Richardson: Clarissa is from 1748 and it is both great and hilariously outdated. It tells the story of “a heroine whose quest for virtue is continuously thwarted by her family.”  All the dirty and unsavory goings on were seen as unmentionable so you must use the letters to figure out what everyone is so worked up about. It’s a real period piece.

Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos: Published in 1782 and so much more explicit that Clarissa. One viable explanation is the passage of some decades between the two publications. The more likely explanation: the cultural differences between France and England.  This novel is a completely melodramatic, wallow in the mud kind of guilty pleasure about love and sex and elaborate machinations to achieve your goals and attain your desires. You may have seen the 1988 film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich, which is, as one might expect, similarly exceptional. Both book and film can be trusted to get you breathing a bit fast. 😛
The letters let you in on all of the behind the scenes conniving and cross-purposes.

The Moonstone, The Woman in White, both by Wilkie Collins: Wilkie Collins writes spectacular quasi-mystery dramatic novels. Both of these are fantastic and a bit nail-biting. Lengthy but they don’t feel like it, since you’re too busy trying to figure out what could be going on and what will happen next. As an author, Collins uses the epistolary style to get you very familiar with and invested in his characters. Years and years after reading it I still feel very attached to the elderly man in The Moonstone who would turn to a random page of Robinson Crusoe whenever he needed some words of wisdom. My heart.

Two epistolary novels I liked less were Lady Susan, by Jane Austen (one of her earlier works, and rather short) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte.  The former I found a bit under-developed and caricatured. The latter I couldn’t get invested in because I very much disliked the main character (said tenant) for being a prudish religious hypocrite. Put a damper on things.

So what do you think? When will the first novel written in texts be published? Or is it published already?

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