The Epistolary Novel

From a strictly dictionary point of view, the epistolary form “pertains to, or consists of letters.” (1) In other words it is a story conveyed by a list of documents. The word epistolary comes from the Latin word epistola, meaning a letter.(5) Usually letters between people are used, but more modern forms are being explored and created-emails/ blogs, newspapers, etc.

The form allows the reader to build an idea about a character from multiple points of view, and the writer can create a more realistic flow of time.(3) The addition of more modern techniques lend additional information through the selection of media-which can inform the reader of the location, time, and other factors pertaining to character’s motivation and background. The unrestrained point of view has naturally allowed the form to explore morality from new perspectives. (6)

The Epistolary Poem dates back to Classical Antiquity. The Roman poet Ovid wrote “Tristia”, “Letters of Heroines”, and “Double Heroides” The first about his exile technically ‘Elegies of Gloom” and the second between women and their heroes.(2) The form was mostly neglected for around a thousand years before being adapted into the Epistolary Novel and gaining popularity during the late 17th century.

The arrival of the new technique was in the late 15th century. “Carcel de Amor” 1495 in Spanish ‘Prison of Love’ by Diego de San Pedro is agreed by most scholars to be the first truly epistolary novel. In the late 17th century Edme Boursault’s “Letters to Babet” was published in French. James Howell (1594-1666) is said to be the founder of the English tradition with “Familiar Letters” about adventure, women, and prison.

During the 18th century the form was used prominently in the telling of many famous works. Samuel Richardson is one of the most famous with his monstrous works “Clarissa” and “Pamela”. Frances Brooke wrote “The History of Emily Montaque” in 1769 which has been labeled the first north american novel. The form was popular at the same time in France and Germany, and philosophers Rousseau and Montesquieu used the epistolary as well.

After falling out of favor for a brief period of time, and being the subject of some satire, some works continue to be famous beyond their time. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, has gone on to be the adapted for the big screen as Cruel Intentions(4) Bram Stoker’s Dracula is written as a series of letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings. The form was also chosen by Fyodor Dostoevsky for his first novel “Poor Folk”

Continuing into the 20th century the form is still helping convey a deeper meaning to a number of novels. Stephen King’s “Carrie”, Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”, Max Brooks “World War Z”, and Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” continue the tradition of the form in new ways, and have gone on to be successful screenplays and movies.

1- “Epistolary” Dictionary.com 2012<http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/epistolary?s=t>

2-Cook, James Wyatt. “Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto of Ovid.” Encyclopedia of Ancient Literature. 2008<http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?

3-Marchini, Tracy. “6 Tips for Writing an Epistolary Novel” WordPress 2011<http://tmarchini.wordpress.com/2010/09/09/epistolary/>

4-Semple, Maria. “On Writing an Epistolary Novel” The Wall Street Journal 2012 <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443989204577603381884068566.html>

5-Chaney, Allison. “Epistolary Novel” Princeton.edu 2012 <http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Epistolary_novel.html>

6-Bragg, Melvyn. “In Our Time, Epistolary Literature” BBC Radio 4 2007 <6-http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00775dh>







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