The Anglophone Epistolary Novel

Dearest readers,

About a hundred pages in to Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778), the titular heroine writes the following: “How many long letters has this one short fortnight produced!” This might be an axiom for the epistolary novel, which tends to assume that no sooner is life experienced than it is converted into letters, stamped, sealed, and addressed. The eighteenth-century epistolary novel is associated with the rise of realism—Samuel Richardson’s enormously popular Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) is often considered a landmark text in this regard—but there is a sense in which the genre depends on a fantasy: that one might be at one’s writing desk perpetually. (In Shamela, Henry Fielding’s ruthless send-up of Pamela, the nonexistent gap in Pamela’s life between experience and writing comes in for some satiric abuse.) The epistolary form continued to be popular throughout the nineteenth century: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is just one well-known example. More recently it’s been kept alive by such injections of energy as John Barth’s Letters (1979) and Dodie Bellamy’s Dracula-riffing cult classic The Letters of Mina Harker (1998), not to mention the four modern works among those discussed below.

Yours ever,

Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson (1747)

Because of its forbidding length (roughly 986,000 words, some 400,000 words longer than War and Peace), Clarissa finds its way onto college syllabi a lot less frequently than its author’s more approachable Pamela. This is too bad, because Clarissa is an astonishingly powerful novel, a shattering masterwork of Puritan morality and unrelenting psychological intensity. No other novel I have read induces such total absorption in its emotional universe—an absorption achieved by the novel’s great length in concert with the sense of psychic access generated by its characters’ brilliantly differentiated voices. When Clarissa Harlowe refuses parental pressure to marry an older man whom she finds repellant, she is effectively imprisoned in her own home and subjected to a blistering familial campaign of shaming and contempt. Desperate, she allows her brother’s enemy Robert Lovelace to begin a correspondence with her, and eventually runs away with him. The sinister rake Lovelace is a frightfully appealing villain, and his verbal brilliance—he is a master prose-stylist, and knows it—seduces the reader into compromising sympathy. (Indeed, there was at one point a whole academic cottage-industry devoted to arguing over the appropriate attitude towards Lovelace.) In a turn of events as shocking now as it must have been to Richardson’s first readers, Lovelace imprisons Clarissa in a brothel, drugs her, and rapes her. The “mad papers” that follow—Clarissa’s fractured attempts at writing following the rape—render her damaged interiority with a formal daring that permanently expanded the technical resources of the novel.

Evelina: Or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World by Fanny Burney (1778)

In many ways an epistolary forerunner to Jane Austen’s comedies, Evelina is a hilarious eighteenth-century rom-com. Its satisfying courtship plot plays out against the dissonant counterpoint of a social satire almost cruel in its keenness. Her mother dead and her father refusing to own her, the beautiful and virtuous Evelina has reached the age of seventeen in the care of the kindly Reverend Villars. But when Evelina joins a friend’s family in London, her beauty attracts unwanted rakish attention—as well as the eye of the virtuous Lord Orville. With proto-feminist verve and in a comic mode verging on slapstick, Burney uproariously lampoons contemporaneous courtship rituals and patriarchal pretensions. The bulk of the letters that make up the novel are from Evelina to Mr. Villars, so Burney’s satiric authorial eye comes filtered through Evelina’s putative naïveté. The caricatures are often broad (my favorite is Mme. Duval, Evelina’s vulgar French grandmother, prone to perpetual ungrammatical complaint) and the plot twists farcically implausible. But Evelina is also a novel of sentiment, and its portraits of emotional ties, especially those between Evelina and Mr. Villars, are truly affecting.

A Year’s Letters by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1877)

Swinburne’s strange epistolary novel pits two couples from the extended Cheyne family—Amicia’s married to Edmund, and Clara to Ernest—against the temptations of marital infidelity. Clara’s brother Frank is in love with Amicia, while Amicia’s half-brother Reginald pines for Clara. Making matters worse, or better, Amicia and Reginald’s grandmother Lady Midhurst is stoking fires all around, at once encouraging and prohibiting the leap into adultery. (Keeping the relationships straight is a labor; a Victorianist friend of mine kindly made me a family tree.) A Year’s Letters is very much an epistolary novel about epistolary novels, with Lady Midhurst in the role of author, her skillful letter-writing actualizing scandalous emotions and forbidden sexual impulses where there were none before. But Lady Midhurst is also a critic. In her judgment, Clara’s “style is something too awful, like the most detestable sort of young man.” But then, Clara doesn’t care for Lady Midhurst’s writing either. “[S]he “has fallen into a sort of hashed style, between a French portiere and a Dickens nurse.” If you begin to suspect that the promised adultery might founder amidst all this talk of prose, you’d be right—unlike the French novels it’s riffing on, A Year’s Letters delivers no consummated dangerous liaisons.

Yage Letters by William S. Burroughs (1963)

In 1953, William S. Burroughs trekked across South America in search of yage, a hallucinogenic vine, and recorded the experience in wry dispatches to his friend, collaborator, and sometimes-lover Allen Ginsberg. Or at least, that’s how people often read Yage Letters—as the record of an actual correspondence. But Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris insists that “Al or Allen is not Ginsberg” (indeed, Allen’s last name is never given) because these are not, in fact, “real” letters: “For only four out of the twelve letters in ‘Yage’ are there originals that match in any way those of the published text.” In other words, Yage Letters is an epistolary novel. It’s a strange little book, a mordant litany of the discomforts of adventure: “Sure you think it’s romantic at first but wait ’til you sit there five days onna sore ass sleeping in Indian shacks and eating Yoka and some hunka nameless meat like the smoked pancreas of a two toed sloth….” While initial experiments with Yage are less than transformative, the final letter recounts a visionary experience of a Yage-rendered “Composite City,” ridden with “maladies of the ocean floor and the stratosphere, maladies of the laboratory and atomic war, excisors of telepathic sensitivity, osteopaths of the spirit.” Burrough’s Composite City resonates with the symbolist fantasias developed more fully in Naked Lunch and the cut-up trilogy.

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews (1975)

Towards the end of the American Oulipian Harry Mathews’s epistolary husband-and-wife treasure-hunt novel The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, you will find a letter written entirely in an imaginary Asian language, and you will (sort of) be able to read it: “Piu Lemu! lemö vin maï uüax pristwi. Theu mau neng, wey tharaï duvaï. Wuc Lao stheu atran, tichaï maï slop, naï: theu sheenö laï nob lucri nam äindap.” (To preserve the satisfaction of discovery, I’ll refrain from offering a gloss, though you can find some online.) Tro-tsi Twang and her American husband, Zachary McCaltex, are searching for buried Medici treasure, he in Florida, she in Italy. Luckily for us, McCaltex peppers his letters with phrases in Twang’s language, which we slowly pick up. Twang’s English starts off rough (“Hwile your answer was come I have a to-meet with a man strogn in know-lege”) but grows progressively competent across the novel. Letters are lost; suspicions aroused; secret societies penetrated; clues misunderstood. Odradek is a miracle of inspired verbal play, one of the most charming, and most ingenious, works of American high postmodernism.

S. by John Updike (1988)

Loosely inspired by the The Scarlet Letter, S. finds Updike in a light mood, his genial comic generosity alloyed by a sharp vein of satire. Middle-aged New England housewife Sarah Worth has left her philandering physician husband for the spiritually refining rigors of a Hindu religious commune in Arizona. In letters and tape-recordings to her husband, her daughter Pearl, her friend Midge, and her spiritual advisor-cum-lover the Arhat, Sarah describes the pleasures and frustrations of single life in a cult. Updike has a lot of fun at the expense of trendy Western attraction to Eastern religion, though Sarah’s wit and writerly skill make her less Updike’s victim than his ally.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003)

In Lionel Shriver’s chilly shocker—a first-person recollection cast in epistolary form—Eva Khatchadourian’s letters to her husband Franklin recount their psychopathic son Kevin’s disturbed childhood and eventual perpetration of a high-school massacre. Shriver’s nightmarish narrative is fiction’s answer to filmmaker Michael Haneke’s “glaciation” trilogy, in which the violent propensities of troubled children are taken as symptoms of the larger culture’s sickness. One of Shriver’s innovations is to yoke this allegorical impulse to a clinically precise portrait of childhood sociopathy. Kevin is a bad seed from birth—endless, unmotivated tantrums as an infant, then maliciously delayed potty-training (he’s in diapers till six, purely out of spite), murdered pets, etc. Or at least that’s how Eva presents it. In many epistolary novels, the multiplicity of letter-writers results in choral polyphony, but not so here. All the letters are Eva’s, and she’s an expertly manipulative storyteller. As she reminds Franklin—and us—about halfway through the novel, “I intend to take ruthless advantage of the fact that this is my account, to whose perspective you have no choice but to submit.”

Len Gutkin is a PhD Candidate in the English Department at Yale. He has written about books for MAKE, the Brooklyn Rail, and Rain Taxi.