Lots of people I talk to about books say they don’t enjoy books made up of letters. Not letters as in the alphabet, but epistles. I try to understand where they’re coming from, but I think they must have just had a bad experience. Think of all the great books made up of letters! For example: The Screwtape Letters. I do understand that books solely or largely made up of letters can be harder to follow. You have to read between the letters, imagine what is happening and realize that each time you read someone’s accounting of an event, it’s already happened and so much can change between one letter to the next. In our world of email and instant messages, maybe it’s become difficult to imagine a dependence on snail mail.
I, for one, love epistolary novels. My current favorite is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. My friends are probably getting tired of me recommending that book. It’s great to listen to on audio book. I love all the characters, even the villains. They are hilarious. Except for the Nazis. However, the book does portray some of the Nazis as who I’m sure some of them were: unable to fight the tide and swept into something they wanted no part of. But the book is about much more than that. Set first in post World War II London, it starts with a writer named Juliet who is trying to pick her life up and move on after the war, along with the rest of the nation. She is stuck in a kind of dreariness, until she receives a letter from a man on the island of Guernsey, an island in the English Chanel. The man’s name is Dawsey Adams, and he found Juliet’s address in a favorite book he has and is asking her to assist him in finding more books by the same author. Juliet, a true lover of literature, is thrilled that her old book of Charles Lamb has connected her with someone else, and a correspondence ensues. She also corresponds with friends, literary agents, and eventually, the folks that make up The Literary Society in Guernsey. The setting of the book comes to include Guernsey, which sounds like a beautiful place to visit. I didn’t think the letters were hard to follow at all. Each character is portrayed so well by his or her letters, or by letters about them. I can’t recommend it anymore. Just read it.
84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, begins on a similar premise as Guernsey. The author, Helene, is a script writer in New York with a love of books. She’s barely making ends meet, but she strikes up a correspondence with a bookshop in London (84, Charing Cross Road is its address) and in between obtaining the exact editions of books she wants, builds a lasting friendship. If you read for personalities more than plots, you’ll love this book. There is a sequel, too, when Helene finally makes it to London, called The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. Both books are equally delightful. They will make you wish all business could be conducted via traditional written letters.
Jane Austen was not one to turn her nose up to the epistolary novel. Lady Susan, Austen’s unfinished work, tells the tale of the pernicious Lady Susan Vernon. Or is she truly villainous? This is a book where you have to keep reading to figure out true characters. The reliability of the narrator is questionable throughout. Because it’s Austen, many people don’t like Lady Susan. It is very different than her other books, mostly because of the format and because the main character is not a noble heroine. Even Emma, though flawed and sometimes vicious, was a lovable and “round character” (a character who develops and changes through the book). I, too, would put Lady Susan at the bottom of my Austen favorites list, but I still enjoyed it. I think the fact that it’s made up of correspondence enhances its mystery.
Austen and many Victorian novelists used correspondence to make up their books. For example, Evelina by Frances Burney, though not popular now, was a big favorite at the time of its publication. It is written from Evelina’s perspective as she enters society in London. Burney’s writing has a strong undercurrent of criticism for how the English society made young women so vulnerable and dependent. I read Evelina and can see why it’s not as popular now as it used to be. Its plot centers so much on manners and social norms of the time, the characters are rather forgettable, the plot predictable. It’s still worth a read if you’re a fan of Victorian Literature. Much more worth the read is The Tenant of Wildfell Hall . If you’ve read Charlotte and Emily Bronte but not Anne, you should give her a try. The Tenant is more intriguing in plot than Agnes Grey, which seemed very similar to Charlotte’s work (governess story). Both are great, but the setting of a great manor and first person description of a “good marriage” gone bad, especially considering Anne’s personal experience with alcoholism in her family. Bleak House by Charles Dickens is not technically an epistolary novel, but large portions of it have that feel to me. Andrea L. Ray expounds on this idea on Krook’s Rag-and-Bone Blog. The parts written from Esther’s perspective are the ones I like best, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that those are the parts with letter or diary feel.
Last but not least, one of my favorite books, Anne of Windy Poplars, is composed of the letters Anne writers to her fiance, Gilbert, while she is teaching school in Summerside and he finishes medical school. The book stretches over the course of four years. For fans of the PBS miniseries Anne of Avonlea, this book is where all the content comes from involving Pringles and the boarding school where Anne teaches while living in Kingsport. Like all the Anne books, this one is full of funny and memorable characters, amusing scrapes Anne gets herself into and out of, and a touching sub-story weaving in and out of the plot.
Technically, the term epistolary novel includes those that are written to a diary. Diary books seem to be a lot more popular than those written through correspondence. Some examples are The Diary of Bridget Jones, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Princess Diaries, etc. I like some of those books, too, (my favorite is I Capture the Castle) but there’s something missing that a book of letters to someone else includes. The fact that there really is a reader on the other end, supposed or actually writing back, makes the books more interesting to me. If you think you hate books made of letters, I’d encourage you to try again! You may be missing out on a new favorite.