The epistolary novel, a prominent form among modern fictions, is defined as a novel presented wholly, or nearly so, in familiar letter form. Its history reaches back to classical literature, taking special inspiration from the separate traditions of the Roman letter writers Cicero and Pliny, and of Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.; English translation, 1567), a series of verse letters celebrating famous heroines of myth. Familiar letters, as such, developed slowly in a world where literacy was rare; but the epistle, a classic rhetorical form, defined by the rules of oratory, was a favorite means of expression for many scholars of the European Middle Ages and Renaissance, yielding learned letters in both prose and verse, most common at first in Latin, then in the vernacular.
The sixteenth century saw the first dated translation of Ovid’s Heroides into French, in 1500. The midcentury welcomed with great enthusiasm the first “pure” epistolary novels: Juan de Segura’s Processo de cartas (1548) and Alvise Pasqualigo’s Delle Lettere amorose (1563). Letters were used as tools in the earliest modern novels and romances, for they answered the frequent problem of communication between separated lovers, as well as giving the opportunity to multiply complications and mischances by having letters discovered by enemies, lost and intercepted, misinterpreted, or received out of time and season. For example, within the five-volume bulk of Honoré d’Urfé’s pastoral novel L’Astrée (1607-1628; Astrea, 1657-1658), there are 129 letters that are hidden in hats, stolen, found floating down rivers, or recited from memory.
The seventeenth century in France saw the development of a climate in which letters were one of the most popular forms of written material. The first printed edition of the letters of Abélard and Héloïse came in 1616, and the verse translation published in 1678 by Bussy-Rabutin (himself a celebrated social épistolier) was greeted with great enthusiasm. The collected...
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