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The Epistolary Novel

The epistolary novel was one of the first and greatest forms of literature. Popular during the 18th century, an epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. Usually consisting of letters, more recent epistolary novels have used everything from diary entries and newspaper clippings to e-mails and text messages. The world epistolary comes from the Greek word epistolē, meaning a letter.

The origin of the epistolary novel was been disputed. Some say the form came from a tradition of novels where inserted letters dominated the story, with the third person narrative in between letters gradually reducing over time. An example of this is Diego de San Pedro’s Prison of Love (1485), which is considered by some to be the first epistolary novel. Others say the form came from collections of letters and poems that tied together into a plot. Either way, the epistolary novel has become a significant part of literary history.

The form became more realized in the late 1600’s with Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister (1684), which was the first epistolary novel to use changing perspectives. It’s also famous for its complexity with letters falling into the wrong hands, faked letters, and letters being withheld by certain characters. The following century would see an explosion in the form’s popularity, with works such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749) and Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782). These novels were popular because they added greater realism to a story, the use of letters being better geared to showing the workings of real life than a traditional novel. Even the first North American novel, Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769), was an epistolary novel.

There were three general types of epistolary novels:

Monologic: Using the letters of only one character.

Dialogic: Using the letters of two characters.

Polylogic: Using letters from three or more characters.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the epistolary form became more ridiculed and slowly fell out of use. Henry Fielding’s Shamela is a popular parody of Pamela, in which the narrator finds herself writing in her diary under the most dramatic and ridiculous circumstances. Jane Austen was one of the last authors of that era to experiment with the epistolary form with her novella, Lady Susan. It is said that the first draft of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, one of the most famous novels ever written, started out as an epistolary novel until Austen redrafted it and abandoned the concept.

Although it would never see the same level of popularity again, the epistolary form continued to be used, even up to this day. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) used everything from letters and diary entries to doctor’s notes and ship logs, and is one of the most famous contemporary epistolary novels. While the epistolary form has its drawbacks, like fragmented story-telling and unstable settings, this unique form has stood the test of time. It allows for better characterization and diversity in the ways a story can be told, and there is no doubt it will continue to live on in the future of literature.

Sources:

– “Epistolary Novel.” Wikipedia. Web. 10 Mar 2013.

– “What Is An Epistolary Novel?” WiseGEEK. Web. 10 Mar 2013.

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