The Epistolary Novel - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Representative Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Olinda's Adventures: Or the Amours of a Young Lady 1693

Frances Burney
Evelina: or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World 1778

Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon, fils
Letters from the Marchioness de M*** to the Count de R*** 1735

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Letters from an American Farmer 1782

Mary Davys
The Reform'd Coquet: or Memoirs of Amoranda 1724
Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady 1725
The Accomplish'd Rake: or a Modern Fine Gentleman 1727

Henry Fielding
An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews [Shamela] 1741

Choderlos de Laclos
Les liaisons dangereuses [Dangerous Liaisons] 1782

Charles Louis de Montesquieu
Lettres persanes [Persian Letters] 1721

Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni
Les Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd 1757

Samuel Richardson
Pamela: or, Virtue Unrewarded 1740
Clarissa: or the History of the Young Lady 1747
History of Sir Charles Grandison 1750

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
La Nouvelle Héloïse 1761
Letters of an English Nun and an English Gentleman 1781

Tobias Smollett
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker 1771

Godfrey Frank Singer (essay date 1933)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Epistolary Fiction (Particularly the Novel) in France and in Italy,” in The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence, Russell & Russell, 1963, pp. 181-94.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1933, Singer examines the popularity of the epistolary genre in France, Italy, and Germany, countries whose works he says most critics neglect because of the prominence of Samuel Richardson and other English authors.]

The casting of narrative works of fiction, which we have designated novels, into epistolary form, was a practice by no means limited to the land which gave the greatest examples of the art...

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Charles E. Kany (essay date 1937)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Sixteenth Century: The First Epistolary Romances in Prose,” in The Beginnings of the Epistolary Novel in France, Italy, and Spain, University of California Press, 1937, pp. 69-79.

[In the following excerpt, Kany discusses two sixteenth-century Spanish works that he considers to be the first true epistolary novels, and he examines their influence on European romantic and pastoral literature.]

In 1548 … there appeared in Spain the Processo de cartas, a full-fledged epistolary novel made up entirely of prose letters. Fifteen years later (1563) a still longer romance wholly in letter form, Pasqualigo's Lettere amorose, appeared in Italy....

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Dorothy R. Thelander (essay date 1963)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Laclos and the Epistolary Novel, Librairie Droz, 1963, pp. 11-17.

[In the following introduction to her study of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons dangereuses, Thelander discusses in general terms why the epistolary form was thought to be more realistic than narrative fiction and how it allowed the author to depict characters from multiple perspectives.]

Today, so few epistolary novels are published that we tend to forget that the genre is more than another eighteenth-century phenomenon like the mania for parfilage which, one year, threatened all the epaulettes of Paris. Long before Richardson, the basic premises of the novel by...

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Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Eighteenth Century Epistolary Body and the Public Sphere,” in Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 5-29.

[In the following excerpt, Cook discusses Charles Louis de Montesquieu's 1721 Lettres persanes, Samuel Richardson's 1747 Clarissa, Marie-Jeanne Riccoboni's 1757 Fanni Butlerd, and J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, works which, she argues, illustrate the epistolary genre's evolving concern for the boundaries between public and private domains.]


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Robert Adams Day (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Olinda's Adventures: Or the Amours of a Young Lady, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California—Los Angeles, 1969, pp. i-vii.

[In the following introduction to his edition of the anonymous 1693 epistolary narrative Olinda's Adventures, Day claims that the story is interesting because it contains many elements that precede the works of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson and that anticipate aspects of later realistic novels.]

A standard modern history of the English novel speaks of “the appearance of the novel round about 1700. Nothing that preceded it in the way of prose fiction can explain it.”1...

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Ruth Perry (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Letter Fiction and the Search for Human Nature” and “Romantic Love and Sexual Fantasy in Epistolary Fiction,” in Women, Letters, and the Novel, AMS Press, 1980, pp. 1-26; 137-67.

[In the first excerpt below, Perry describes the social and economic conditions of early eighteenth-century England and their influence of the surging popularity of epistolary fiction, a literary genre that offered unprecedented opportunity for women writers and their concerns. In the second excerpt, she discusses the changing sexual mores of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and how this was depicted in the romantic fantasies of epistolary fiction.]


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Irene Tucker (essay date 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Writing Home: Evelina, the Epistolary Novel and the Paradox of Property,” in ELH, Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer 1993, pp. 419-39.

[In the following essay on Frances Burney's Evelina, Tucker discusses issues the story raises concerning intellectual property rights and personal identity.]

On June 4, 1741, Alexander Pope filed suit against Edmund Curll, the prominent London bookseller who had just published Dean Swift's Literary Correspondence, for Twenty-Four Years, a volume comprised of letters written by Pope as well as those he received from such literary luminaries as Swift, Gay and Bolingbroke.1 Pope claimed rights over not only...

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Martha F. Bowden (essay date 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to The Reform'd Coquet: or Memoirs of Amoranda; Familiar Letters Betwixt a Gentleman and a Lady; and The Accomplish'd Rake, or a Modern Fine Gentleman, by Mary Davys, edited by Martha F. Bowden, University of Kentucky Press, 1999, pp. xxvi-xlvi.

[In the following introduction to three eighteenth-century epistolary novels by the British author Mary Davys, Bowden discusses how The Reform'd Coquet, Familiar Letters, and The Accomplish'd Rakeprefigure stories and styles later made famous by Samuel Richardson.]


The Reform'd Coquet tells the story of Amoranda, an essentially...

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Ian Watt (essay date 1956)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Shamela,” in Fielding: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Ronald Paulson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 45-51.

[In the following essay, which first appeared in slightly different form in 1956, Watts claims that Henry Fielding's intention in Shamela, a satire on Samuel Richardson's Pamela, is to attack religious ideas of virtue and to undermine Richardson's interpretation of his heroine's character. Watts argues further that this latter purpose gives the novel its basic narrative form, as it begins and ends with letters exchanged between two parsons about Richardson's novel.]

Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded was published on...

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David K. Jeffrey (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Epistolary Format of Pamela and Humphry Clinker,” in A Provision of Human Nature: Essays on Fielding and Others in Honor of Miriam Austin Locke, edited by Donald Kay, The University of Alabama Press, 1977, pp. 145-54.

[In the following essay, Jeffrey compares Samuel Richardson's Pamela and Tobias Smollett's Humphry Clinker, and argues that by using letters, the heroines of the two novels are able to create their own portraits of themselves and construct stable, artistic versions of reality that are less painful than their real lives.]

Samuel Richardson would doubtless disapprove the mating of his first heroine with...

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Donald R. Wehrs (essay date 1986)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Irony, Storytelling, and the Conflict of Interpretation in Clarissa,” in ELH, Vol. 53, No. 4, Winter 1986, pp. 759-77

[In the following essay, Wehr argues that deconstructionist interpretations of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa miss the ways the author uses irony to impose a single, moralizing narrative judgment on the story's characters and actions.]

In recent years dour, didactic Samuel Richardson has become a proving ground for deconstructionist criticism. The epistolary mode, in which different characters read experience according to their irreconcilable value systems, interests and desires, and the author withdraws behind an editor's mask,...

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William Mead (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “La Nouvelle Héloïse and the Public of 1761,” in Yale French Studies, No. 28, 1961, pp. 13-19.

[In the following excerpt, Mead examines the impact of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's La Nouvelle Héloïsewhen it was first published, and assesses its impact on the subsequent history of the novel.]

Towards the middle of the 18th century, the novel—or rather, the Novel—disentangling itself from wicked nurses, stolen wills, and the adventures of terribly handsome princes, and already beginning to demonstrate by actual examples that its natural domain was what Thomas Hardy called “the presentation of the uncommon in ordinary life,” faced a serious...

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Josephine Grieder (essay date 1972)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Letters From the Marchioness de M*** to the Count de R***, by Claude Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon fils, Garland Publishing, 1972, pp. 5-10.

[In the following introduction to a modern edition of Crébillon's novel, Grieder points out that the epistolary novel did not originate with Samuel Richardson in England, and explains how Crébillon's work uses the genre's strengths to build up sympathy for an amoral woman.]

The reader acquainted with the epistolary novel only through Pamela, Clarissa, or Sir Charles Grandison may be tempted to assume that the form sprang full blown like Athena from the brow of Samuel Richardson. Such...

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Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The End of Epistolarity: ‘Letters from an American Farmer,’” in Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters, Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 140-72.

[In the following excerpt, Cook contends that J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer laments the ending of the epistolary genre as it records life and customs in the newly independent United States.]

What the Lettres persanes has been for scholars of European Enlightenment, [J. Hector St. John de] Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) has been for American studies: a generic anomaly that generates...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Ball, Donald L. “Richardson's Statement of His Theory of Fiction.” In Samuel Richardson's Theory of Fiction. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1971, pp. 23-30.

Clarifies the principal reasons Richardson prized the epistolary form over narrative fiction: because letters are by nature rooted in the present and because they most actively engage the attention of the reader.

Brophy, Elizabeth Bergen. “Epistolary Form: An Easy and Natural Style.” In Samuel Richardson: The Triumph of Craft. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1974, pp. 38-49.

Examines Richardson's reliance on the epistolary genre and...

(The entire section is 697 words.)