The Epistolary Novel
A genre of fiction which first gained popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epistolary novel is a form in which most or all of the plot is advanced by the letters or journal entries of one or more of its characters, and which marked the beginning of the novel as a literary form.
Epistolary fiction dates back at least to ancient Roman times, but the epistolary novel as a distinct genre first gained prominence in Britain in the mid-eighteenth century. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Aphra Behn in Britain and Charles Louis de Montesquieu in France produced works of fiction told through the medium of letters, but many scholars still regard Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) to be the first example of the epistolary novel—and indeed the first mature novel to be written in English. Richardson's ground-breaking work is marked by a coherence of characterization, plot, and theme that had been missing in earlier fictional efforts, and his use of the epistolary form lends realism, complexity, and psychological subtlety to his story. The epistolary novel enjoyed its greatest popularity in England and France from the mid-1700s to the end of the century, a time when literacy was on the increase and the public sought literary works with more depictions of ordinary experience and greater psychological realism than were found in the old heroic romances. With its reliance on subjective points of view, the epistolary novel by its very nature offers intimate insight into characters' thoughts and feelings without interference from the author, and advances the plot with dramatic immediacy. Epistolary authors commonly wrote about questions of morality, and many epistolary novels are sentimental in nature. Because of the “private” nature of the form, with the depiction of domestic and personal concerns, much epistolary fiction was written by or about women, and the letter-novel was one of the earliest avenues for women writers to achieve public recognition for their art.
Female characters in the novels often wrestle with sexual temptation and moral propriety and find that the only way to express themselves honestly and thoroughly is by confiding in a trusted friend through letters. Many critics in Richardson's day regarded the letters he wrote in the voices of his female protagonists to be the finest expression of feminine concerns and sensibilities of the period. Genuine female voices are also to be found in the some of the most popular and best-known epistolary novels of the eighteenth century. Mary Davys, one of the first women to support herself through her writing, produced several epistolary works, including The Reform'd Coquet: or Memoirs of Amoranda (1724), which tells of the “taming” of Amoranda, a good but flighty young woman, and Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady (1725), a satire about politics and women's place in society. Fanny Burney's Evelina: or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World (1778) is a novel of manners that explores a young, innocent woman's entrance into society. Marie-Jeanne Riccobini's highly successful Les Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757), an exchange of letters between a simple young Englishwoman and her aristocratic lover, makes clear the division between private and public spheres that were a feature of women's social reality in the eighteenth century. Many women writers of the period in their novels point out women's exclusion from public matters, and often their female characters seek to transcend social barriers by making their own autonomous decisions.
While women novelists were certainly read during the eighteenth century, the bias prevailed that serious literary work was conducted by men. The acknowledged great British epistolary novelists of the period included Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollet. Richardson had enjoyed a career as a successful printer, and was asked to compose a guide to letter writing. He worked around a central theme and the result was his moral novel Pamela: or, Virtue Unrewarded, the story of a servant girl's victorious struggle against her master's attempts to seduce her. The work was an unprecedented popular and critical success and spawned dozens of imitations and burlesques, the best-known of which was Fielding's An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews. Fielding with his parody points out some of the inherent problems with the epistolary form, including the fact that simple, uneducated characters convey their sentiments through sophisticated literary means. Still, Richardson continued to favor the form, declaring that it was much better suited to realistically portraying the lives and dilemmas of characters than straightforward narrative fiction. The fact that the important and well-respected novelist Tobias Smollet, who had already achieved fame with his narrative fiction, turned to the epistolary form with The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771) indicates the popularity of the genre in England in the last decades of the eighteenth century.
Fiction told through the medium of letters was also popular on the European continent, and by the mid-sixteenth century in Spain and Italy letters were often used to tell stories of the trials of illicit and prohibited love. Over the next 150 years, letter-writing became increasingly popular in travel books, news stories, and published personal correspondences. The rise of the epistolary novel as a form on the continent roughly parallels its development in England. Charles Louis de Montesquieu's 1721 Lettres persanes and Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, fils's 1735 Lettres de la Marquise de M*** au Comte de R*** lacked the realistic novelistic structure and complexity of Richardson's fiction, but those works certainly influenced Richardson as well as later French epistolary writers. Some of the great French epistolary novels in the eighteenth century include Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 Les Liaisons dangereuses. These novels, like their English counterparts, are redolent with sentimental romance and melodrama, and a great deal of attention is paid to questions of morality. Several popular but little-remembered epistolary novels appeared in the United States at the end of the century, just as the greatest vogue of the genre was past in Europe and Britain. As the century drew to a close the novel letter as a form had fallen into disfavor, as readers and writers of popular fiction increasingly turned to Gothic romances, and serious novelists, too, adopted the more straightforward narrative form.