The Epistolary Novel

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

The Epistolary Novel

Thomas O. Beebee

In an epistolary novel, the narrative is conveyed mostly or entirely in one or more sequences of letters. The term epistolary derives from the Latin epistula, meaning “letter.” Fiction in letters was practiced by Egyptian, Greek (e.g., Alciphron), and Roman (e.g., Ovid) writers, but the stories were brief, and we do not know of a novel produced in this manner. The epistolary novel proper originated in the late seventeenth century and peaked in the later half of the eighteenth century, before falling into disfavor. The last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a revival of the form, with new innovations such as the email novel.

The epistolary novel played a fundamental role in the European rise of the novel, ca. 1670—1800. The 1669 publication of the Lettres portugaises (1669, Portuguese Letters) by Gabriel-Joseph de Guilleragues opened this era, while the last great product was the Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (The Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis), written by Ugo Foscolo in 1802. This period coincided with the increasing importance of Enlightenment thought, culminating in the American and French revolutions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. During this time, the letter form fulfilled a number of expectations for fiction, arising from its increased marketing toward middle-class and women readers. Perhaps most importantly, it democratized literary discourse, in the sense that the practice of letter writing was deeply embedded in the European middle class and embraced by both genders. It was thus natural for authors of the novel, who frequently did not have training in classical literature or formal rhetoric, to use the letter as a basic building block of longer narratives. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), Jürgen Habermas identifies the letter as a technological breakthrough of the Enlightenment and a fundamental component of the emergent public sphere. The publication of the private through letters, including especially the epistolary novel, had crucial political and social import. Elizabeth Cook has applied Habermas's idea to epistolary fiction, noting: “Just as the social contract produced citizens of political republics ... the literary contract of the epistolary novel invented and regulated the post-patriarchal private subject as a citizen of the Republic of Letters” (Epistolary Bodies,1996, 16).

Second, the letter form is inherently dialogic, in the sense developed by Mikhail bakhtin in The Dialogic Imagination (1981) and other writings. An epistolary novel may put ideas in conflict, using as its medium the exchanges between different epistolary correspondents. A letter calls for a response and implies a partial point of view rather than an objective “truth.” Instead of relying on omniscient narration (see NARRATOR), letters recount events from partial perspectives: different correspondents report on the “same” event from different viewpoints. Taken together, these characteristics meant that the epistolary novel could be used to decenter the master narratives of European thought.

Letters as News

As one of the earliest and most fundamental forms for reporting events, letters played a central role in the development of fiction. Like poetry, letter writing was taught in schools as a pragmatic topic and a branch of rhetoric, but the method of teaching involved the imagination to some extent. During the Renaissance, the speeches of Cicero (106—43 BCE) were reformulated as letters, and students wrote letters from or to famous historical or mythical persons (see MYTHOLOGY). Early newspapers were essentially letter collections from correspondents in various parts of the world (see JOURNALISM), and the letters of travelers became bestsellers during the early modern period of Europe. For example, the letters of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454—1512), in circulation around 1502, were so well written that they caused his name to become associated with the new hemisphere of the globe readers encountered in his writing.

The new fictional twist that the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries gave to letters of travel reversed the situation of travelers and the objects of their inquiries: rather than a European in the Americas, Ispahan, or Constantinople, epistolary travelers' fictions represent a Turk in Paris (Marana), a Chinese in London (Goldsmith), or a Moroccan in Madrid (Cadalso). The novelist, working as both a philosopher and a social critic, has only to imagine someone traveling in an unfamiliar land, but one known to the reader, so that the customs and habits of the place strike the fictional traveler as unusual. An alienation effect results that doubles as philosophie, that critical confrontation with the here-and-now of Europe essential to the Enlightenment. This fictional line descends from L'esploratore turco (1684, Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy) by Giovanni Paolo Marana through Lettres persanes (1721, Persian Letters) by Montesquieu, Lettres d'une péruvienne (1747, Letters of a Peruvian Woman) by Françoise de Graffigny, and Lettres chinoises (1740, Chinese Letters) by Argens, to The Citizen of the World (1762) by Oliver Goldsmith and Cartas marruecas (1793, Moroccan Letters) by José de Cadalso y Vázquez.

Reading Marana, the French baron Montesquieu was struck by the letter's ability to create a hitherto unseen type of long narrative. In the preface to his Persian Letters, called “Quelques réflexions sur les Lettres persanes” (“Some Reflections on the Persian Letters”), he provides crucial testimony for at least part of the appeal of the letter format:

In ordinary novels, digressions are permissible only when they themselves form a new story. Serious discussion has to be excluded; none of the characters having been introduced for purposes of discussion, it would be contrary to the nature and intention of the work. But in using the letter form, in which neither the choice of characters, nor the subjects discussed, have to fit in with any preconceived intentions or plans, the author has taken advantage of the fact that he can include philosophy, politics, and moral discourse with the novel, and can connect everything together with a secret chain which remains, as it were, invisible. (1973, trans. C. J. Betts, 283)

The letter's capacity for linking philosophy, politics, morals, and news to the outline of a plot centered on the adventures of the main letter writer allowed the novel to achieve more prestige in the course of the eighteenth century.

The so-called “rifled mailbag,” another form of letter fiction in the early modern period, employs a frame-tale narrative device, in which the contents of a postal sack are opened and discussed. The highly political Il corriero svaligiato (1644, The Courier Relieved of his Bag) by Ferrante Pallavicino originated the form, although there are examples in most European languages, including the French La valise trouvée (1740, The Found Mailbag) by Alain-René Lesage. Such fictions publicize the private (see Habermas) in a negative sense, exposing for example the discord between public dignity and private sordidness through the candid confessional mode of the letter.

The Epistolary Novel as a Love Story

Correspondence also forms affective ties. Letters were crucial to the development of the plot type most associated with the novel, the love story. The letter form is well adapted to the fictional love plot, since the letter represents or substitutes for the lover and is therefore a sign of an interrupted, broken, or unconsummated affair.

Ovid's Heroides (ca. 8—5 BCE), a series of letters written by various mythological women to their departed male lovers, was one of the most frequently printed early books of fiction in Europe. The genuine letters between Peter Abelard (1079—1142) and Héloise d'Argenteuil (1101—64), written in Latin around 1128, were also published, translated, and adapted. As with travel letters, the authenticity of such models led to fictionalized versions that were interpreted by many readers to be real. The Lettres portugaises form an epistolary soliloquy of extraordinary erotic and rhetorical power. They report the abandonment of a Portuguese nun who alternately curses her lover, a French officer, begs him to return, and remembers her past with him. Until the twentieth century, the letters were believed to be the genuine writings of the Portuguese nun Mariana Alcoforado (1640—1723). Today they are considered fiction, likely written by the French author Gabriel de Guilleragues. Whether real or fiction, the letters helped shape the tradition of the epistolary love story, influencing writers such as Aphra Behn, whose Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684—87) is one of the earliest English epistolary novels.

In 1740 Samuel Richardson published Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded, an innovation in the epistolary love plot that was to change the course of the epistolary novel (see Fig. 1). Pamela works as a servant in a household of the local gentry. She is pursued by her master, who goes so far as to sequester and nearly rape her, but Pamela resists him until he marries her. Pamela's letters are not passionate outpourings to her master but ones to her parents, seeking solace and advice, and ultimately to herself as they become diary entries when she is sequestered. Letters here and in the subsequent Clarissa (1747—48) and Sir Charles Grandison (1753) function as mirrors for the soul to reflect upon itself, introducing a depth of psychology hitherto unseen in the novel, although some might compare it with Robinson Crusoe (1719—22) by Daniel Defoe. Richardson's novels contributed two developments to the epistolary novel. One leads to the “novel of manners,” in which letters are used in a realistic fashion to develop and in most cases successfully conclude a marriage plot. The best epistolary novel example in English is Evelina (1778) by Fanny Burney. The simultaneous culmination and deconstruction of this genre occurs in Choderlos de Laclos's Liaisons dangereuses (1782, Dangerous Liaisons), one of the few early epistolary novels still widely read today and adapted for the cinema more than once.


Figure 1 Pamela's master intercepts her letter to her parents in Samuel Richardson's Pamela, 1740. Illustration by Gravelot, 1742 ed., facing p. 4. Reproduced with the permission of Rare Books and Manu-scripts, Special Collections Library, the Pennsylvania State University Libraries

The second line of development leads through the gothic via Sophia Lee's The Recess (1783), to Denis Diderot's posthumous La religieuse (1796, The Nun), Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La nouvelle Héloïse (1761, The New Héloïse), Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Leiden des jungen Werther (1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther), Friedrich Hölderlin's Hyperion (1799), and Foscolo's Ultime lettere. In this line of the epistolary novel, marriage is impossible for one reason or another, and social and political relations play a secondary role to the direct outpouring of the sentiments of the main correspondents. Goethe's novel provides the ne plus ultra here, because Werther writes to his friend Wilhelm, of whom not a single letter is reproduced, as though Wilhelm were merely an imaginary friend invented by the morbid Werther. The monologic, solipsistic nature of correspondence and writing is intimately connected with the suicide of the protagonist.

For those who emphasize the dialectic of literary form, the epistolary novel would seem to exhaust itself in Goethe and Foscolo. In the nineteenth century, the increasingly important historical novel and panoramic urban novel, including the works of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens, provided plots and themes that necessitated omniscient narration, for which the letter is not the optimal form.

The Feminist, Poststructuralist, and Postcolonial Epistolary Novel

After remaining dormant for more than a century, and in what might be considered a revisiting of and confrontation with the Enlightenment epistolary novel, twentieth-century epistolary novels were published in diverse parts of the globe by men and women of color. Examples include Sengalese Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre (1980, So Long a Letter); African American Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982); Chicana author Ana Castillo's Mixquiahuala Letters (1986); Taiwanese Li Ang's An Unsent Love Letter (1986); Angolan José Eduardo Agualusa's Nação crioula (1997, Creole); and Mexican Carlos Fuentes's La silla del águila (2002, The Eagle Throne). This list of writers is as distinguished as the assembly of eighteenth-century European authors and shows how important the epistolary form has been both to postcolonial letters and to international feminism (see FEMINIST). The letter provides an obvious format for postcolonial subjects to “write back” to the empire. Agualusa's epistolary novel, for example, is both a continuation and contestation of the Portuguese writer José Maria de Eça de Queiroz's epistolary fiction, the Correspondência de Fradique Mendes (1900, The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes), whose protagonist is a cultural hero who travels the globe. The letters exchanged follow the routes of trade between Angola, Brazil, and Portugal, and the last letter is written by the native Angolan whom Fradique marries. The first three novels named above also explore feminist themes and thus demonstrate the intersection of issues of gender with those of racism and colonization (see RACE). Linda Kauffman posits that what makes the epistolary mode attractive for postcolonial, feminist, and postmodernist writers alike is that it “enables each writer to illustrate how the text is produced, while simultaneously exposing the mechanics of repression” (265).

At the same time, the aesthetics of postmodernism that favored narrative play and parody of past forms also led to revivals of the epistolary novel by “first-world” writers, including John Barth's Letters (1979), A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990), Paige Baty's E-mail Trouble (1999), and even philosopher Jacques Derrida's La carte postale (1980, The Postcard), a work of philosophy and theory that begins with a long epistolary fiction. This hyperconscious use of the genre for the creation of critifiction was anticipated in the Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky's Zoo, or Letters Not About Love (1923; see METAFICTION).

The Epistolary Novel in New Media

As email and text messaging became integrated into people's daily lives, they furnished the basis for a new appropriation of the real into novelistic scenarios. Criticism has only begun to approach the most recent recastings of the epistolary novel in media such as email and text messages. Two distinct formats have emerged. The first reads much like a traditional epistolary novel, except that instead of letters, we read email messages. Examples of this include Avodah Offit's Virtual Love (1994), a traditional erotic exchange in electronic format, and Matthew Beaumont's e: A Novel (2000), which consists of the intra-office electronic correspondence of an advertising company. A second type of email novel is composed of actual emails or text messages sent to the address of the reader-subscriber. The latter form is popular in Japan where companies do not restrict the length of messages. Application of data-mining technologies to this form allows information specific to the subscriber to be entered into the text. There is a strong realism effect, since messages can be linked to existing websites. An example of the novel as a series of emails is Michael Betcherman and David Diamond's “email mystery” Daughters of Freya (2002), about a California sex cult that the protagonist exposes as an enforced prostitution ring (see Fig. 2). The email novel and other twenty-first-century innovations show that the epistolary mode will remain an important option for the creation of novels.


Figure 2 The Epistolary Novel Goes Digital. “Chapter” 45 of The Daughters of Freya (2002) displayed among the email messages in the author's Yahoo account. Photograph by author

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Life Writing, Narrative Perspective, Philosophical Novel.


1. Altman, J. (1982), Epistolarity.

2. Beebee, T.O. (1999), Epistolary Fiction in Europe 1500-1850.

3. Favret, M.A. (1993), Romantic Correspondence.

4. Gilroy, A. and W. Verhoeven, eds. (2000), Epistolary Histories.

5. Goldsmith, E.C., ed. (1989), Writing the Female Voice.

6. Kauffman, L.S. (1986), Discourses of Desire.

7. MacArthur, E.J. (1990), Extravagant Narratives.

8. Perry, R. (1980), Women, Letters, and the Novel.

9. Simon, S. (2002), Mail-Orders.