Epistolary novel: A novel whose plot is entirely developed through letters, whether through an exchange of letters among multiple characters or through the correspondence of only one character. The epistolary form enables authors to directly reveal the intimate private thoughts of characters and lends immediacy to narratives in permitting events to be recounted just after — and occasionally even during — the moment of their occurrence. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa Harlowe (1748) are early examples that are generally considered to have established the genre, which was extremely popular during the eighteenth century but fell out of fashion thereafter.
EXAMPLES: Aphra Behn’s three-part roman à clef Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684—87); Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771); Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774); Isabelle de Charrière’s Les lettres de Mistriss Henley (1784); Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) (1784); Hannah Foster’s The Coquette: or, The History of Eliza Wharton (1797); Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806); Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), a Gothic horror novel composed of diary and journal entries, letters, and telegrams.
Contemporary examples include Mariama Bâ’s Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter) (1981); Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982; adapted to film 1985); Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine (1991) and Sabine’s Notebook (1992), which include actual envelopes, removable letters, and postcards; Stephen Chbosky’s bildungsroman The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999; adapted to film 2012); Kalisha Buckhanon’s Upstate (2005), an exchange of letters between two Harlem teenagers that begins “Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?”; Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003; adapted to film 2011), told through the protagonist’s letters to her husband after their son commits a massacre at his high school; and Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye (2013), which follows a mother’s and daughter’s wartime relationships with men and with each other.