An epistolary novel is also called a novel of letters, because the narration takes place in the form of letters, possibly journal entries, and occasionally newspaper reports. An epistle is an archaic term for a letter. This type of novel uses an interesting literary technique, and it allows a writer to include multiple narrators in his or her story. This means the story can be told and interpreted from many viewpoints.
The first true epistolary novel was the 17th century work, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister penned by Aphra Behn. Unlike many novels to follow, several volumes of the work also include the voice of a narrator, who ties together letters and comments on all of the characters. This aspect would disappear in later works when this type of novel became popular in the 18th century.
Of these 18th century works, the most famous were those of Samuel Richardson. Both his novels Pamela and Clarissa were novels of letters. The French novelist Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos wrote one of today’s most recognizable epistolary novels Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), which has been the inspiration for modern plays and two popular films.
As with any novel form, the epistolary novel fell out of favor and began to be copied and mocked by writers. Jane Austen did try to write a successful one in the short work Lady Susan, however. Still, parodies like Henry Fielding’s Shamela began to emerge by mid-century.
Though this form of novel became less popular, efforts to revive it continued in the 19th century, and several extremely well known writers showed great skill in the form. Among these, the mystery works of Wilkie Collins, especially in The Woman in White and The Moonstone, use letters, reports, transcriptions, and diary entries to convey multiple viewpoints and advance the plot. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is also considered an epistolary novel that is very effective and continues to capture the imagination of modern audiences.
Alice Walker also did great credit to the form in her novel The Color Purple, representing a modern take on the form. Stephen King’s first well-known novel, Carrie, also combines epistolary elements. Like Aphra Behn’s work, it also includes an omniscient narrator.
Perhaps the most fascinating modern takes on the epistolary novel are the current “novels of emails” that have been written in the last few years. As formal letter writing has become less and less common, using email has become relatively standard for many people. Of these recent examples, perhaps the most fascinating is Matt Beaumont’s novel e. Using multiple person narrative, the novel is entirely composed of emails written by people working in an advertising agency. The book is a darkly comic look at the advertising world, in which Beaumont once worked, and does justice to the modernized form.