The epistolary form is characterized by letter writing, or sometimes journal / diary entries, which provides insight into the character’s motivations and advances the plot. The epistolary novel gained popular in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries and marked the beginning of the English novel, first noted with the publication of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded in 1740.
Pamela was widely popular in England and often referred to as “the first English novel.” In this groundbreaking work, Samuel Richardson, 1689-1761, examines the complexities of the eponymous protagonist’s life through a series of letters. Richardson employs the epistolary form to create an intimate setting where readers connect with Pamela and rally for her freedom. Through the epistolary form, readers experience the character development and the psychological realism popularized by Pamela and the English novel.
Interestingly, Pamela was an experiment; however, Richardson’s success with the epistolary form led him to write Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady (1748), a more complex exercise in epistolary writing. Later, Richardson composed The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753), commonly believed to be the most dynamic of his three epistolary novels. More generally, epistolary novel writers often embraced topics of morality and sentiment in nature. Additionally, much epistolary writing addresses domestic issues, owing a great deal to the private, intimate nature of the form. Thus, many of the protagonists of epistolary novels are women and the form opened one of the earliest avenues for women writers to gain public recognition.
Pamela showcases themes of morality, virtue, innocence, class struggle and sexual politics. Virtue is, arguably, the most important theme in the novel, as alluded to by the subtitle. Ultimately, Richardson rewards Pamela’s virtue and, by the conclusion of volume 2, readers note the power shift from Squire B to Pamela, whose moral rectitude ultimately redeems her character.