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The Epistolary Novel

An epistolary novel is one written in the forms of documented truths.  Forms can vary from standard letters (the word ‘epistolary’ derives from the Greek word for letter) to diary entries to travelogues.  One author traces the form from the “transmission of messages on tablets of bronze or stone” to 1928’s Show Girl–“the novel in telegrams” (Sutherland).  There are two main theories as to the origin of this type of writing.  The first is that the letters that had been inserted in novels for quite some time gradually expanded until the intermingling narration was eliminated altogether by the authors who became epistolary pioneers.  The second theory asserts that the epistolary form was derived from miscellanies, which were collections of letters and poems written by several different authors and woven together to form some kind of a single narrative.

Corresponding with the first-, second-, and third-person points of view generally ascribed to works of literature, the epistolary novel comes in monologic, dialogic, and polylogic varieties.  The monologic form is presented as a series of documents or accounts written by a single character.  One could argue that eighteenth-century works, such as Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), might belong in this category, as they were both originally presented as having been written by their respective eponymous characters.  A dialogic epistolary work, like Marie Jeanne Riccoboni’s 1757 novel Letters of Fanni Butlerd, consists of the correspondence of (and likely between) two characters.  Perhaps obviously by now, a polylogic epistolary novel contains the writings of three or more supposed authors.  Tobias Smollett’s 1771 novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker is a great example of the polylogic epistolary novel, because it is written in the form of letters exchanged between six different characters.

The epistolary form allows for novels to take on a greater degree of perceived realism, because they readers are familiar with the types of documents presented in the works.  An epistolary novel allows an author to move between points of view without the use of an omniscient narrator, and it provides a compelling way to build on devices such as ‘discrepant awareness’ between characters, especially as the number of characters grows in a polylogic form.

The epistolary form arrived in England by way of James Howell in the mid-seventeenth century, and it first appeared in novels there later in the sixteen-hundreds with Alphra Behn’s Love Letters Between a Nobelman and His Sister.  During the eighteenth century, the English epistolary form really began to gain ground in terms of popularity.  It could be seen in many of types works–from ‘novelettes’ in magazines to the immensely popular novels of Samuel Richardson.  Though the epistolary form continues to provide more modern examples–even in the twenty-first century– it has never since the late seventeen hundreds seen the popularity it enjoyed during that century.

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One thought on “The Epistolary Novel

  1. There is most definitely a place for epistolary novels in today’s day and age. One of my current favorite book series uses an epistolary form, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones). Each chapter is written from the perspective of a different person. I hadn’t even thought of ASOIAF and books like Humphry Clinker and Robinson Crusoe as being in the same category of books, but they do share similarities. I feel like the epistolary format works very well for these books, and lends to the scope of each book. Robinson Crusoe has a very narrow scope, which works great for a story about a man isolated on an island. ASOIAF has an enormous scope with a large number of perspectives. This helps the book maintain many different story/timelines, which makes it feel more like an epic compared to other contemporary novels.

    Are there any other current popular series that utilize the epistolary format?

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