An epistolary novel is written as a series of letters.  It may also contain diary entries, clippings from newspapers or magazines, etc., and more recently, Email. But it is not an epistolary novel unless it is composed primarily of letters.[1]

Letters and other primary sources add immediacy and verisimilitude to the novel. They provide variety in the ways a writer can impart information to the reader, break up long passages of narrative summary or dialogue, and allow the writer to express multiple points of view, using numerous characters.

The first epistolary novel was Aphra Behn’s 1684 three volume Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. The novel in letters became popular in England in the eighteenth century, with the 1740 publication of Samuel Richardson’s highly successful Pamela, and in 1748, Clarissa; followed by Tobias Smollett’s 1771 Humphry Clinker, and Fanny Burden’s Evelina of 1778.

The flood of epistolary novels in England slowed at the end of the eighteenth century. The flow sometimes became a trickle, but it never entirely dried up.  I think the best nineteenth-century epistolary novel is Jane Austen’s 1871 Lady Susan, comprised of letters from the selfish and self-centered title character. The book is a marvelous example of unintentional revelations by and about the woman writing the letters.[2] (See a Jane Austen link,  But the most famous nineteenth-century epistolary novel is Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, composed mostly of letters, but also containing diary entries, a newspaper clipping, and what is listed in the book’s table of contents as a “phonograph diary.”

The first U.S. novel, The Power of Sympathy, published in 1789, was in epistolary form, and was once thought to have been written by Sarah Wentworth Morton. That attribution is now uncertain, and the book is rarely read. A number of forgotten books in letters were published in the U.S.A. in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But it was not until the twentieth century that U.S. writers produced epistolary novels that were both popular and memorable.[3]

The popularity of epistolary novels in the U.S. grew in the twentieth century just as interest in the genre was fading in Europe.[4] Jean Webster’s charming 1912 Daddy-Long-Legs was a best-seller, a successful play, and inspired two films, including one in the 1950s starring Fred Astaire. Daddy-Long-Legs’s sequel, Dear Enemy, published in 1915, also became a best-seller. Both are still fun to read.

John O’Hara’s 64-page paperback—it sold for ten cents—Pal Joey of 1939[5] began its life in 1938 as fictional letters from Pal Joey to Pal Ted in The New Yorker.  The collected letters formed a popular novel, and in 1941 became a hit musical, with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The letters in Helene Hanff’s 1970 novel, 84 Charing Cross Road, later a successful play, are by a fictional American author writing to a London book dealer for a twenty year period beginning in 1946.

John Barth’s 769-page Letters of 1979 is subtitled “An Old Time Epistolary Novel.” He described the book as “eighty-eight epistles from seven correspondents,” and characterized it as complicated. (He also quoted others who have used “interminable,” and “unreadable” to describe the book.)

The best known twentieth-century epistolary novel is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple of 1982, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Fiction. Walker’s protagonist, Celie, writes her sad letters to God, and to her sister.

The ways in which writers have used the epistolary form seem almost limitless. George Plimpton, best known for his elegant prose and as a founder of The Paris Review, wrote the hilarious Pet Peeves or Whatever Happened to Doctor Rawff, 2000, which consists of letters to a pet problem advice columnist and veterinarian.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s delightful and popular The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society of 2008 has been published in many countries, and occupies numerous “Best-seller” lists.  Set in 1946 in Guernsey, the writer used letters, hand-delivered notes, cables, telegrams, night letters, and “detection notes” to tell her story. Part of its convincing tone comes from the various types of epistles employed, some of which are no longer used.

Almost as soon as it became available, writers began to utilize Email in novels. Some of the early Email books are difficult to find, but a growing number of recent Email novels can be bought in bookstores, or borrowed from libraries. Among them are:

Avodah Offit’s Virtual Love of 1994 composed of Emails between two therapists about sexual dysfunction; Stephanie Fletcher’s 1996 Email, A Love Story, made up of Email and electronic bulletin-board posts; the 2002 ChaseR: A Novel in Emails by Michael Rosen told from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old boy; Cecelia Ahern’s 453 page Where Rainbows End of 2004 composed of notes written in class by children, Valentine cards, instant messages, notes from teachers to parents, bills, text messages, Email, Christmas cards, newspaper clippings, faxes, post cards, birthday cards, etc.; and Lucy Kellaway’s Who Moved My Blackberry? of 2006, an amusing business satire set in England, composed of Email, interoffice memos, and text messages mostly from Martin Lukes, an obnoxious executive on his way down. It resembles Lady Susan in that Lukes unintentionally reveals through his correspondence just how awful he is.

What’s the future of the epistolary novel? The growing number of Email novels suggest that the future is now.  The U.S. Postal Service was described on August 8, 2009 in The New York Times as “today’s Pony Express,” and snail mail may, like telegrams, become obsolete. Where the electronic world takes us, for better or worse, writers will surely follow. We have already seen the charming You’ve Got Mail.

I found two types of epistolary novel as especially interesting, regardless of the type of epistles used. The first is the novel—like Lady Susan and Who Moved my Blackberry?—in which the letter writer unintentionally reveals his or her true character.

The second is Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, in which the variety of epistles authenticates the novel’s time frame. But when establishing that the book takes place in the twenty-first century, the writer should take care not to overdo it. Ahern’s Where Rainbows End is overwhelming both in length and in the number of types of epistles used.

[1] “Epistolary” is an adjective, meaning related to the writing of letters or literary works in the form of letters (New Oxford Dictionary) In my search for epistolary novels, I encountered many imposters. The culprits who spread the bad information seem to be those who make lists for the Internet. They copy each other’s lists, thus perpetuating errors.

[2] Some Janeites have used the epistolary form for writing “After Janes.” See Paula Atchia’s Mansfield Letters, a sequel to Mansfield Park, 1996; Jane Dawkin’s Letters from Pemberley, the First Year: a continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 1999; More Letters from Pemberley, 2003; and Mrs. Goddard, Mistress of a School, 1993; and  Elinor and Marianne is an epistolary sequel to Sense and Sensibility, written by Emma Tennant.

[3] For a long list of pre-twentieth century epistolary novels published in the U.S., see Godfrey Frank Singer, The Epistolary Novel, 1933, Chapter IX, “Epistolary Fiction in America.”

[4] Among the epistolary novels published in England in the early twentieth century was Dorothy L. Sayer’s The Documents in the Case, 1930, which used the form to present an absorbing murder mystery.

[5] The caption on the book jacket is “a crooner not above borrowing for keeps from any reasonably attractive mouse,” and is described on the title page as “About a Hard-Luck Guy and His Babes.”