The Epistolary Novel

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The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries

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Love themes are given a special privilege in the epistolary fiction derived from the tradition of Ovid, Abélard, and Héloïse, while the tradition descending from Cicero and Pliny to Guez de Balzac encourages the use of letters to treat a variety of topics of more general interest with the familiar touch of friends in social conversation. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the rise of the epistolary novel to a dominant prose form throughout Europe, first in France and England, then in Germany and Eastern Europe. Three of the most influential novels of the eighteenth century, Richardson’s Pamela, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie: Ou, La Nouvelle Héloïse (1761; Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters, 1761; also as Julie: Or, The New Eloise, 1968; better known as The New Héloïse), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1779), were all in letter form. It was certainly the exploitation by the writers of the epistolary form itself that gave their novels their immense impact.

In The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, the epistolary novel is given an emotionally concentrated model, inspiring numerous translations, “completions,” and imitations. The French edition of 1669, for example, was translated into English several times between 1678 and 1716. With its five letters, La Vergne’s work is extremely brief, especially considered in the context of novels such as the five-volume L’Astrée. Presented by the author, in his guise as editor, as “a correct copy of the translation of five Portuguese Letters which were written to a noble gentleman who served in Portugal,” the letters are univocal; that is, the reader hears only the voice of one correspondent. Every attempt is made to establish the credibility of the letters, which are said to have been circulating in private hands. Publication is resorted to only to ensure that a “correct copy” rather than a spurious compilation is in public circulation. The nun’s voice cries in genuine pain, expressed through a correspondence whose failure destroys the romantic ties with her French lover. The expectation of a response is inherent in the nun’s use of the letter and in the I-you couple that defines the alternate composers of a correspondence. Direct address calls for direct response. The nun’s letters begin in answer to a letter from the absent lover, and a two-sided exchange is expected. In fact, while requesting frequent letters, the nun also tries to set the tone and admonishes her lover not to talk of useless things, nor ask her to remember him. The correspondence, and the romance, have run their course by the fifth and final letter, because the Frenchman does not respond within the expectations of the nun. At first he does not write at all; then his letters are inadequate to feed her passion.

Sentimental analysis, so important in this novel, is doubled by the analysis of the specific written form involved, by the problem of maintaining a satisfactory exchange of letters between parted lovers. The wounded heart of the nun is expressed in complaints of the lack of proper response in the letter chain, as well as of the lack of love. The author exploits the value of the letter as a tool for immediate access to his heroine’s emotions, setting the tone for many later epistolary novels in the impassioned style of the nun’s effusions. Even Madame de Sévigné joked that if she responded in like tone to a tender note from a gentleman friend, she would have to write a “portugaise.”

In 1721, Persian Letters was published anonymously by...

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Montesquieu. The introduction once again insists that the letters are a collection chosen from a great number written and received by Persians lodging with the author, letters copied and kept sometimes without the knowledge of the foreign travelers. The editor has “translated” the letters and adjusted them to European tastes, leaving out the flowery language, “sublime expressions,” and long complimentary formulas of the originals. In choosing Persians for the chief characters of his novel, Montesquieu gave his novel an exotic background; in professing to adapt this exoticism to European tastes, he could add just as much as he liked for seasoning, without worrying about authentic Asian style. The choice of Persians also greatly emphasizes the theme of absence inherent in epistolary form; it is the chief difficulty facing Usbek in the administration of his distant harem and the reason for his ultimate downfall as a domestic tyrant. This exotic flavor also allows for comic exploitation in the naïve reactions of the Persians as their letters recount the manners and morals of Montesquieu’s world.

Persian Letters includes letters attributed to numerous pens, although the chief correspondents are Usbek and his younger companion Rica. Usbek’s exchange with the members of his harem and their keepers provides the story without which this would be no true novel, but this story is only one of the two major strains in the novel. There are a great many letters that serve as discussions of current events in France or deal with moral and philosophical questions. In all the letters, the name of the writer is given, in many of them a definite correspondent. All are dated according to the Persian calendar, covering a span of eight years. There are several complete letter circuits, letters given with their direct response, and subsequent letters to and from that same correspondent. There are also letter exchanges between secondary characters, such as that between the chief eunuch of Usbek’s harem and a young protégé destined to replace him. The lapse of time indicated in the complete circuit of response is given great weight, especially at the denouement of the harem intrigue, when Usbek helplessly rages at the distances which make his own responses inadequate.

In letter 155, Usbek announces his return to Ispahan. His letters have often been received as much as six months late, and it is abundantly clear that he will not return to his harem until well after the horrible events chronicled in subsequent letters. Letter 148, Usbek’s reply to letter 147, giving the chief eunuch universal power over the harem, arrives after the death of the addressee and is kept by his elderly successor as a sealed relic (noted in letter 149). Letter 150, from Usbek, seeking to “reactivate” the sealed letter, is either intercepted by harem rebels (version given in letter 151) or lost during a robbery (letter 152). The last letter of the novel, 161, written by Usbek’s favorite, Roxane, is composed after a self-administered dose of poison, noted in the text, and the process of death defines the compass of the letter. In this letter, the writer details the end of the harem world in her own death and ends the novel’s text and her life when the pen falls from her hand and she dies.

The varied stylistic possibilities of letters are explored in the harem series; different writers are given different tones in which to express their characters, and the tones of the correspondents change as they address different people. Usbek does not write in the same manner to two different wives, and his tone and subject matter change again in addressing the chief eunuch or his own friend Nessir. The means of transmission of letters across the great distances is noted; letter 150 is to be delivered by some Armenian merchants traveling to Ispahan, but since the harem has moved to Usbek’s country house, a servant is sent to fetch it; it disappears during a robbery on the servant’s return trip. Letters are objects subject to many strange fates.

Letters serve a different function in the parallel series devoted to the exploration of various themes of French society and thought through the eyes of the Persian visitors. Here the epistolary form is used much as Voltaire later used it in his Lettres philosophiques (1734; originally published in English as Letters Concerning the English Nation, 1733; also as Philosophical Letters, 1961), where no story line is imposed within the letter framework to produce a true epistolary novel. In this use of the letter form, the epistolary license to touch on any subject with a light and familiar tone is the desired feature. The necessary epistolary use of the first person and direct address to the fictional correspondent gives the opportunity for the epistolary writer to build an automatic bridge of sympathy with the reader. In general, the formal fiction of the letter is given less weight as more is given to thematic development of the individual argument. In the Troglodyte series of letters (10 through 14), Usbek writes to his young friend Mirza, with the correspondence acting as a simple frame, an excuse for thematic development. Within the series, there are only the most perfunctory references to the correspondence, none to the letters themselves. Several texts succeed one another with no transition or attempt to explain differing circumstances of composition for different dates. Although written as a “response” to Mirza’s letter, this series is a finished whole and requires no answer to complete it.

Persian Letters was followed by many epistolary novels set in exotic locales or using foreign characters for added interest and a pretext for letters. Laurent Versini, in his Roman épistolaire (1979), notes that half of the French epistolary novels between Montesquieu’s success and 1750 were exotics. The great novels of the eighteenth century, however, concentrate on domestic situations, set within the countries of origin of their authors: Pamela in England, The New Héloïse in French Switzerland, and The Sorrows of Young Werther in Germany. These three works had enormous influence on the European reading public. All were translated into many tongues and inspired many imitators, both in literary terms and within the realm of everyday life. The Sorrows of Young Werther, said to have taken inspiration from The New Héloïse, in its turn supposed a direct descendant of Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady (1747-1748), was not only one of the great propulsive works of German Romanticism but was said to have inspired a rash of suicides on its publication as well.

Pamela appeared in print one year before The Complete Letter-Writer, begun earlier, in which Richardson had set down the novel’s premise: a series of letters telling a true story of a virtuous servant girl who defends herself from her employer’s advances and eventually is rewarded by his hand in marriage. What is a skeleton in the letter manual is fleshed out to great length in the highly detailed development of the novel. Translated by no less a light than the Abbé Prévost, and succeeded by Richardson’s own Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison (1753-1754), Pamela was parodied by Henry Fielding in An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741), and by his The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). Pamela continues to arouse debate. Critics have often seen prurience in Richardson’s theme and hypocrisy in his happy ending. Pamela’s letters chronicle successive scenes of attempted seduction and rape in panting detail, while steadfastly defending the strictest principles of female chastity. Were Pamela’s sufferings in some way a calculated “come-on” to a dupe due to be seduced into marriage? Although psychological credibility may be strained by the union of so much innocence and vulnerability with such a ferocious determination to resist and to recount every evidence of Mr. B.’s passion, the use of the letter form argues for Richardson’s insistence on Pamela’s candor. Richardson’s first great epistolary novel is predicated on the assumption that the familiar letter is a direct window on the soul. Pamela may be taken at face value, and every letter carries what is supposed to be the free expression of the state of her soul.

Pamela is presented by the author as a collection of genuine letters, and he intrudes in his guise as editor to explain and provide transitions as well as to point out the moral at the end. In the opening pages, one finds complete letter circuits between Pamela Andrews and her aged, impoverished parents. These early letters introduce several of the major characters and establish the family’s virtuous character, as well as a critical facet of Pamela’s behavior. The favorable notice she had received from the lady whose death occasions the first letter had led her to take an inordinate interest in reading and writing, though yet very young (letter 4 gives her age as fifteen), and in general had raised her above her station in education and behavior. The first letter speaks explicitly of itself, drawing attention to rather than leaving in the background the epistolary pretext of the fiction: Pamela’s tears are blotting her paper. The means by which the letter is to be sent are discussed, and a postscript opens the theme of letters hidden from and discovered by Mr. B.

As the novel progresses and Pamela passes through a series of harrowing experiences, including lengthy captivity by Mr. B., the letter exchange with her parents cannot continue, and Pamela writes to them in the hope that one day they will read her words and understand the trials through which she has come. Even her early letters are written in the anticipation of preservation and rereading by her entire family. The letters become a sort of journal, although an outward-turning one, in which the destined readers are often mentioned, and their reactions to a particular scene or reflection are imagined. The entries in this letter-journal are dated according to the day of the week, at times even with the time of day. All circumstances of composition are referred to, including the supply source of the paper, pen, and ink, as well as their places of concealment. Some letters from Mr. B. are included in the form of copies, and any communication received by Pamela is closely analyzed in her subsequent writing. First-person narration and direct address are used throughout. Pamela comments constantly on her style, the effect of her circumstances on her composition, and her intention to set down each event as it happens.

The status of the growing body of manuscript is very important indeed and is given a large place in the consideration of the epistolary text. Pamela’s early letters are often intercepted and read by Mr. B. Her later journal is kept hidden from him by various expedients, sewn in Pamela’s petticoats or, on threat of physical search, buried in the garden. In an attempt to have letters carried to her parents by the parson Mr. Williams, Pamela compromises that gentleman and brings him into disgrace with his patron. As a consequence, she has the piquant experience of reading a misdirected letter meant for Mrs. Jewkes, her keeper, and may contrast the style with the letter meant for herself and sent mistakenly to Jewkes. The recopying of Jewkes’s letter serves a double purpose: to illustrate the severity of Mr. B. and to enter the text into the secret letter-journal. At last, when Pamela is dismissed from Mr. B.’s sight and is en route to her parents in disgrace, it is the story told by her letters, surrendered to him, which persuades him to change his resolution and marry her. The marriage restores epistolary commerce between Pamela and the elder Andrewses, and they learn the course of their daughter’s acceptance into noble society, ending in their reunion on Mr. B.’s estates. The collection of Pamela’s letters is left circulating among the family and friends of Mr. B. at the close of the novel, reconciling all to his choice of a wife.

While Pamela includes occasional letters from Mr. B. and other characters, the text is essentially univocal. Clarissa, Richardson’s next novel, employs correspondence of several different characters in presenting and maintaining a multivocal epistolary narration. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The New Héloïse, it is the love duet of Julie and her Saint-Preux that holds the central position. The letters are presented by the author as a collection of genuine letters, as the title of the 1761 translation announces: Eloise: Or, A Series of Original Letters. Letters are exchanged between inhabitants of a small town at the foot of the Alps and are collected and published by Rousseau. By linking his novel with the long-standing epistolary tradition of Abélard and Héloïse, Rousseau stresses the importance of letters as letters, as well as their aura of historic truth (since the first Héloïse was real, so is Julie), and the importance of the love intrigue, with its implication of suffering and sacrifice.

Letter form is given special weight in the first half of the novel, where, as the letters introduce the characters and lay the foundations for later narration, individual texts respond point-by-point to their predecessors. It is in answering Saint-Preux’s letters, written while the lovers are in close daily contact, that Julie enters into a romantic relationship with him. It is in a letter that she first receives his expression of affection and through the letters that they are bound together, even over long absences. The letters are written in the first person, directed to a very definite correspondent, and the mode of communication between the lovers is discussed at length. Themes treated within the letters vary widely and include philosophical discussions, in which cases Rousseau uses the prerogative of the epistolary form to digress from his plot much as Montesquieu did. Within the line of the main narration, letters are important as physical testimony of the loved “other,” substitutes for the loved one in absence, and as such they are kissed, caressed, preserved, and reread. Saint-Preux’s handling of Julie’s letters forces him to recopy them, since the originals are wearing out. This recopying in a certain sense establishes a prototext of the final letter collection represented in the novel. The time lapse between the letters is important, as is their method of transmission.

Letter 21 presents a highly dramatic scene in which Saint-Preux awaits and receives one of Julie’s letters from the hand of the mail carrier. This passage highlights all the details of transmission: the necessity of naming oneself in claiming the letter, the opening of the outer packet in which the letter has traveled with the correspondence of others, the confirmation that there is indeed a letter for the narrator, and finally the confirmation of the letter itself as a physical object carrying the imprint of the loved one’s hand in the superscription. Saint-Preux continues to recount in his own letter, in response to this one received with so much ceremony, the emotion he felt when he held the paper in his trembling hand and the conditions under which he finally opened and read it. The emphasis lies not only on the single letter so dramatized but also on the entire correspondence. In a text such as Voltaire’s Philosophical Letters, no attention is given to building or embroidering the fiction of the epistolary text as a physical reality. In The New Héloïse, the highly charged, emotional intimacy between Julie and her Saint-Preux is served by the attention lavished on the mechanics of a letter exchange through which the narration may proceed and by which it is colored. The identification of the reader is sought through the attempt to engage belief in the reality of the characters involved. Again, as in Pamela, letters serve as a “hot” medium, transparent to the emotions of the individual writers and immediate to the events which affect them.

The Sorrows of Young Werther, the first major work of Goethe, is brief and concentrated in its impact, in contrast to the voluminous works of Rousseau and Richardson. Again, the book is presented by the editor as a collection of “all I could find” of Werther’s letters. Almost all are addressed to Werther’s intimate friend, Wilhelm, with a small number written for the beloved Lotte and her husband, Albert. The personality of the correspondent is seldom given much weight within the individual texts, although there are very few letters in which Werther does not use direct address or in which the intended reader is not clearly designated. Wilhelm is almost always the intimate du (the intimate, informal form of the pronoun “you”), infrequently ihr (plural form of “you”) when in the company of Werther’s mother. Lotte alone is Sie (formal “you”), until the last letter, while Lotte and Albert together are ihr, combining formal address for Lotte with familiar form for her husband. Significantly, as in Persian Letters, each epistolary text is dated, and the rhythm of the narration speeds or slows with the ebb and flow of the fictional correspondence. When Werther is overcome by the flux of his emotions during time spent with Lotte, the letters to Wilhelm are dated every two or three days, sometimes daily. When bored and depressed by exterior circumstances, such as his position on an ambassador’s staff, the letters come only once a week or so. The infrequent letters may be seen as an attempt at verisimilitude, since, although there is no break in the narration during these periods, the editor notes that certain letters of this period have been withheld as indiscreet.

Unlike Rousseau and Richardson, Goethe devotes little attention to the technical aspects of the epistolary commerce. One knows exactly where and how Pamela gets her pen and paper, and how Saint-Preux receives and treats Julie’s letters, but there is no indication of how Werther’s letters are written or exchanged with Wilhelm. The references to epistolary style are few, but there are some direct responses to Wilhelm’s letters, with passages cited as they are answered. Beyond the faithful use of dates, which serves a dramatic purpose in emphasizing the speed with which Werther’s passion enfolds and destroys him, there are very few uses of set letter forms. The letters vary greatly in length, some quite long and others reduced to the briefest of paragraphs. No opening formulas are used, and the formal closings are sparse, with at most a simple Leb wohl (farewell) inserted at the end. This manner of closing, however, can be effectively dramatized, as in Werther’s closing to his suicide letter: “Lotte! Lotte leb wohl! Leb wohl!

Goethe uses the letter form as a painfully intimate reflection of the state of mind of his suffering hero. The fragmentary sentences (which would be out of place in another narrative form), the stringing together of dated paragraphs that gain weight from their status as letters addressed to an outer eye, the license to speak in the first person about all the secret movements of the soul—these are all possibilities inherent in the epistolary form. That Werther makes what amounts to an aberrant use of the form in his emphasis on one pole of the correspondence, his own, is in a way a facet of the characterization of the tragic hero, so locked in on his own suffering that suicide becomes his only escape. The letter form is also open to the many descriptions of Werther’s impressions of the people and things around him, yet even his sweeping pictures of the natural beauty he meets are transmuted into personal reflections. This is not the same use that Montesquieu, or even Rousseau, makes of the possibility of including material exterior to the story line within the narrative of a letter. The emotional impact of The Sorrows of Young Werther is concentrated and focused through this use of univocal, inward-turning letter form.

The last days of Werther’s life are chronicled by the anonymous editor’s voice in a curious text formed by the third-person reminiscences of Lotte, Albert, Werther’s servant, and other people who met or talked with Werther in that time. These bits of testimony are woven through by fragments of a last, undated letter addressed to Lotte and shorter bits directed to Wilhelm. This last attempt at writing anticipates the reactions of Werther’s loved ones after his death, and frequent reference is made to their reading the text after the writer’s burial. In it, Lotte changes from the formal Sie to du and is addressed in the most intimate and intense tones. The last words, addressed to her, are written immediately before the fatal shot. The impersonal editorial voice informs the reader that “From the blood on the back of the seat, one can determine, that he did the deed sitting before the writing desk.” The contrast between Werther’s own heated voice and the cold style of the editor is devastating, producing an impression of the “truth” of the fatal events and the finality of Werther’s death.

The Sorrows of Young Werther, The New Héloïse, and Pamela all depend heavily on the convention that personal letters are the vehicles of personal truth, open and immediate to the individuals who write them. This understanding plays a part in the characterization of the fictional protagonists and in the emotional effects elicited by their letters. In contrast to these novels, Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782, Dangerous Acquaintances, 1784; also known as Dangerous Liaisons) of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos takes much of its impact from the use made by the libertine protagonists, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, of this same convention to conceal their emotions and intentions and to seduce and destroy their correspondents. The author plays with several correspondences exchanged within a small social circle, changing styles with each writer and according to each addressee. The totality of the letters is revealed, through various stratagems, to Madame de Merteuil and her sometime ally Valmont, and each letter becomes the object of discussion and analysis between them. If the progress of the seductions by Merteuil and Valmont is one interest of the narrative, the change in their relationship through the course of the novel is another, a chance brought about in part through Valmont’s own surrender to love for his victim Madame de Tourvel. The terms of his letters to Merteuil are held as a contract, forcing him to the destruction of the loved object and himself.

Dangerous Liaisons is preceded by a double preface, the first by the “editor,” the second by the “writer.” Together they form an ironic gem. The editor writes a bit of social commentary, saying that in spite of the author’s attempts to make his work seem genuine, it must be a novel because the contemporary age is too moral for such events to take place. The writer produces the image of a pedantic hired hack who has pieced together the letters of the novel, chosen from a great body of possible correspondence, as the smallest number of texts necessary to tell the story. The writer complains that the third party, who commissioned him, did not allow him to change the grammar or style of the letters or to cut the chosen texts, “of which several deal separately, and almost without transition, with subjects altogether unconnected with one another.” His employers maintain that a variety of styles, even errors, and a diversity of themes are expected of personal letters. Such features, the writer thinks, may both attract and repel the public, and since all the sentiments, or nearly so, are pretended, the identification of the public with the characters will be impaired. The reader of both the prefaces will find himself in a position of ironic suspension, where neither introductory voice can be believed or wholly rejected, and thus he must approach the novel with suspended judgment.

The complexity of Dangerous Liaisons and the literary virtuosity with which it was composed have attracted a great deal of critical attention. One of the most interesting of such studies, both in regard to this individual work and in its general overview of the epistolary genre, is Jean Rousset’s “Le Roman par lettres,” included in his collected essays, Forme et Signification (1962). Rousset discusses the important factors that enlist the reader’s identification with the characters of the epistolary novel: the atmosphere of intimacy provided by the familiar letter form, the fact that the action of the novel is contemporary with the life and voice of the characters, and the seductiveness of the bipolar I-you structure that almost forces a reader to identify with the voices of the letters. Rousset further points out that, in the case of Dangerous Liaisons, the reader is, like Merteuil and Valmont, in possession of an entire epistolary text, thus knowing the stratagems employed by the libertines in the composition of their letters. In Rousset’s view, this knowledge renders the reader an accomplice of the libertines in their work of seduction.

What are the techniques used by Laclos to write these compromising letters that catch the reader in a dangerous liaison? Great importance is given to the individual letter and its ties with other letters. The names of writer and addressee are given, the dates of composition, and often the place. Frequent reference is made to letters received from the correspondent and other letters written or received by the writers. When Cécile de Volanges runs out of writing materials, Valmont smuggles some to her (letter 123). The mode of transmission of letters and where and how they are kept is a major motif, since so many of the exchanges are clandestine, and the various ruses of delivery and concealment are continuously under discussion.

In addition to the primary series of letters between pairs of correspondents, there is a secondary exchange within the letters of Madame de Merteuil and Valmont, of copies of letters to and from third parties, with detailed commentary and analysis of motivation and circumstances of character and composition. This commentary often completely changes the interpretation that must be given to individual passages or entire letters. One particularly titillating example is letter 48, written by Valmont to Madame de Tourvel. A naïve reader, such as Madame de Tourvel, sees in it nothing but Valmont’s agitated state of mind, owing to his professed passion for his correspondent. In letter 47, however, Valmont sends the letter to Madame de Merteuil, who will post it for him from Paris, to preserve a pretense of his remaining in that city. Merteuil and the outside reader are informed that the letter was written on the back of a prostitute, the composition interrupted for intercourse, and that it gives an exact accounting of Valmont’s situation and conduct in ambiguous terms. Thus when Valmont says, “The very table on which I write to you, consecrated for the first time to this use, becomes for me the sacred altar of love,” the meaning is changed beyond recognition by the added information.

The reading and answering of letters are stressed as acts of self-engagement in the relations of the characters. Valmont sees the future success of his seduction in Madame de Tourvel’s first reply to one of his letters; he sees its near accomplishment in the discovery that all his letters have been saved, even while the lady virtuously denies him any other sign of weakening. Several letters are dictated by one character to another, and the final letter with which Valmont must break Madame de Tourvel’s heart, in order to fulfill his agreements with Merteuil, is copied verbatim from a model supplied in Merteuil’s letter 141.

The chain of events by which all the letters are united in the hands of Madame de Rosemonde, thereby creating the novel text, is a chain of catastrophe. The production of the novel is the destruction of its chief characters. Of the victims, Cécile de Volanges enters a convent, the Chevalier Danceny goes into exile, and Madame de Tourvel dies of humiliation and a broken heart. Valmont is fatally wounded in a duel with Danceny, but as his last act he confides to the young man the packet of letters detailing his own relations with Madame de Merteuil, thus revealing the character of his beautiful and outwardly virtuous confederate. Danceny, after circulating some of these letters, passes the entire packet on to Valmont’s elderly aunt, Madame de Rosemonde, the close friend of Madame de Volanges (Cécile’s mother) and Madame de Tourvel. Madame de Merteuil herself is cast out of polite society, loses a court case that robs her of her entire fortune, suffers a severe case of smallpox that leaves her horribly disfigured, and finally flees the country, ill and utterly alone but carrying her diamonds with her. Laclos leaves no thread untied, as his bundle of letters is bound into a book.

Dangerous Liaisons opens with a quotation drawn from The New Héloïse. In its cynical use of letters as instruments of seduction and betrayal, it destroys the premise of emotional immediacy used to such advantage by Rousseau in his novel. For Saint-Preux, letters are a self-generating system by whose intervention he may always be in the presence of his beloved: “I can no longer separate myself from you, the least absence is unbearable to me, and it is necessary that I either see you or write to you in order to occupy myself with you without ceasing” (letter 11). For Madame de Merteuil, the letter is a tool to be used for definite ends: “What good would it do you to soften hearts with Letters, since you would not be there to profit from it?” (letter 33). Yet in the final analysis, it is through the letters united in the novel that Laclos paints compelling portraits of his characters, not in direct revelations but through the reflections and combinations of the continuing chain of correspondence. Valmont’s inner truth finally does correspond with the appearance of love in his first letters to Madame de Tourvel, and it is Madame de Merteuil’s letters that convince society of the evil character she had always before been able to conceal.

The twentieth century and later

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Epistolary novels passed into comparative disuse in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Late in the twentieth century, however, writers of experimental and avant-garde fiction and criticism found the letter form, with its constant self-reflection and accepted freedom from certain formal structures, a tempting medium. Certain writers still used the letter as a form suited for naïve confidences, but, in general, its innocence was lost. In fact, even French deconstructionist critic and philosopher Jacques Derrida toyed with epistolary form in La Carte postale: De Socrate à Freud et au-delà (1980; The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, 1987), a series of letter texts with dates, direct address, and personal tone—sometimes fiction, sometimes criticism, but never a simple story.

John Barth’s monumental work, Letters (1979), uses seven epistolary voices, one of them “John Barth,” to simultaneously explore personal letters—letters in the sense of literature and letters of the alphabet. Letters opens with a formal invitation to “John Barth” to accept the honorary degree of doctor of letters from Marshyhope State University. This formal text from the provost is accompanied by a rambling personal postscript; the provost is also Germaine Pitt, the only female voice of the novel. “Barth” declines the honor but nonetheless launches into a dizzying interweaving of texts, stories, and word plays. The first six letters introduce the separate narrative voices; the seventh (from “John Barth” to “the Reader”) belatedly announces the beginning of the novel.

The interrelations of the characters are complex, and this complication is mirrored by the complexity of their letter exchanges. Twice-married Germaine Pitt has been the mistress of a wealthy patron of Marshyhope. Her first husband, André de Castine, may be the alter ego of A. B. Cook VI or may simply be his cousin. A. B. Cook VI may be an extreme political conservative and the poet laureate of Maryland, or he may be André, the father of Germaine’s missing son, born to a family of underground revolutionaries. He presents a series of letters that may have been written in the early nineteenth century by his ancestor A. B. Cook IV, a similarly enigmatic character, who may have died in the War of 1812. Germaine is caught up in a passionate affair with Ambrose Mensch, professor at Marshyhope, friend of “John Barth” and adapter of “Barth’s” works for a motion picture. The film offers a stage for the novel’s actions and reactions, as well as a frame for a debate on the viability of the written word in contrast to cinema.

Letters are written from “John Barth” to all his characters and vice versa, from one character to himself, from Ambrose to an unknown correspondent reached by placing letters in bottles and setting them adrift, from A. B. Cook IV to his unborn children and, after his supposed death, to his “widow,” from a son to his dead father, and from “John Barth” to the reader. Letter conventions are scrupulously preserved in the date, salutation, direct address, and frequent reference to composition, means of transmission, and the physical particulars of each letter. One long, revealing letter from Germaine to “John Barth” tells about her affair with Ambrose. Later Germaine writes that a carbon copy of this letter has fallen into the hands of her college president. A digest is made from this carbon copy, and multiple copies are distributed to the trustees of Marshyhope. This doctored document is the pretext on which Germaine and Ambrose are fired from the university; Germaine is displaced for using the techniques of a professional writer on an all-too-personal letter.

In many cases readers are explicitly warned to distrust the identity of the letter writer. In no case are they encouraged to take anything at face value, not even the dates heading the letters or the names at their end. “John Barth” announces that he is writing a novel in which each of the characters is invited to participate; by this ambiguous invitation, he announces that those varied voices are all simultaneously imaginary constructs and separate “real” people. All the letter writers except Germaine are drawn from other works by the actual Barth, a theme that recurs explicitly in their letters. Each of the seven correspondents has a recognizable style and set of issues, and most events are told and retold through more than one narrator. The reader is never allowed to fully identify with the characters, for there is no consistent attempt to foster the illusion that these are “real” people. Few of the letters that form this novel are ever answered by other characters; in a work designed to test whether the epistolary novel can survive in the late twentieth century, the chain of direct response is lost.

The letters in Letters are built within an elaborate alphabetical and mathematical framework; value in advancing plot or revealing character is countered by arbitrary number and letter value. This relationship is emphasized by the comments of several characters about recurring events, number structures, and the “anniversary theory of history.” Ambrose writes program texts, letters that offer plans for romance to Germaine. His propositions are based on esoteric number and letter puzzles. The film in which the characters are participating, based on the writings of “John Barth,” in which they may or may not also have already appeared, repeats and distorts their lives. Letters from Germaine, for example, recount events in her affair with Ambrose that are reenacted for inclusion in the film. Their wedding day and costumes are planned to accommodate the filming of scenes in the motion picture, but Ambrose also enforces a strict schedule of copulation based on the number seven.

As the film spins out of control, the lives of the characters accelerate toward individual crises. In the traditional epistolary novel, the plot is knit together by the final letters; the collection of texts to and from the characters is enough to outline their fate. In Letters, the text ends while the most crucial questions remain unanswered. If the pregnant Germaine serves in some ways as a personification of Letters, her pregnancy and its outcome are important. However, the reader never learns the outcome of the pregnancy or even if Germaine is really pregnant or if the father is Ambrose or an ambiguous possible rapist. The only part of Letters that is satisfactorily brought to completion is the anagram of the title and subtitle built from the alphabetical letters that identify the individual letter texts. In the end, Barth’s Letters refuses to give an authoritative answer to its own question: Is the epistolary novel still a viable literary form? However, the exuberant complexity of the text, the extravagant experimentation with letter form, and its ambiguities make Barth’s work a convincing argument that there is still a long future for the novel of letters.

Indeed, several epistolary novels of note have appeared since Letters was published in 1979. Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple (1982) is perhaps the best-known example, told through the diary and letters of the protagonist, Celie, who grows from an abused teenager to a confident and empowered woman. As the novel progresses and Celie matures, the writing also becomes more mature, reflecting her growth. Canadian author Richard B. Wright used the form in Clara Callan (2001), about a woman in Ontario, Canada, in the 1930’s. Testing the boundaries of the form, Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable (2001) comprises letters and notes sent among the inhabitants of a fictional island, where the government forbids the use of one letter of the alphabet at a time until communication becomes impossible. In 2000, Matt Beaumont published what is considered to be the first “e-mail novel,” E: The Novel of Liars, Lunch, and Lost Knickers, made up of e-mail correspondence among workers in an advertising office. Love, Rosie (2005), by Cecilia Ahern, depicts the friendship between two women through their letters, notes, e-mails, and instant messages.

The epistolary form has also become popular among writers for young adults, adopted by writers including Avi (Nothing but the Truth, 1991), John Marsden (Letters from the Inside, 1991), Steve Kluger (Last Days of Summer, 1998), Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 1999), and Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, 2002, and The Beatrice Letters, 2006), Lenora Adams (Baby Girl, 2007). Beverly Cleary won the 1984 Newbery Medal for her 1963 novel Dear Mr. Henshaw (reprinted in 1983), which begins and ends with letters from the main character, Leigh Botts.


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Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982. Focuses on the nature of the letter text and how it is exploited in epistolary fiction. Examples drawn from the English and French traditions. Many key citations are in French only. Bibliography includes both epistolary works and critical studies.

Beebee, Thomas O. Epistolary Fiction in Europe, 1500-1850. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Covers the history of the epistolary novel from the Renaissance to the mid-nineteenth century, with a bibliography on major European epistolary fiction to 1850.

Bower, Anne. Epistolary Responses: The Letter in Twentieth Century American Fiction and Criticism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997. Innovative study of the letter form in novels and criticism of the twentieth century that explores the paradoxical quality of letters. Texts are analyzed through a feminist lens and include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, John Barth’s Letters, and Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card.

Bray, Joe. The Epistolary Novel: Representations of Consciousness. New York: Routledge, 2003. Argues that the eighteenth century epistolary novel represents consciousness in a way that influenced the later novel. Examines the works of Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Jane Austen, and others.

Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Multifaceted deconstructionist meditation on the letter form. Both a novel and a critical genre study, with texts using date, salutation, and signature in letter style. For advanced readers.

Gilroy, Amanda, and W. M. Verhoeven, eds. Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Argues for a reexamination of the “association between the letter and the private sphere.” Covering works from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth century, explores the intersection of the epistolary form with discourses on gender, class, politics, and commodification.

Goldsmith, Elizabeth C., ed. Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989. Critical look at women’s use of the epistolary form, especially as a means to give voice to often-silenced concerns and perspectives.

How, James. Epistolary Spaces: English Letter Writing from the Foundation of the Post Office to Richardson’s “Clarissa.” Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2003. Argues that the development in 1650 of a British post office led to the habit of letter-writing and then to the genre of the epistolary novel.

Kauffman, Linda S. Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Postmodernist and feminist perspective on seven writers, including Vladimir Nabokov, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker, and Margaret Atwood, who chronicle the study and dismantling of the epistolary form at the hands of powerful scholars and novelists.

Simon, Sunka. Mail-orders: The Fiction of Letters in Postmodern Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002. Analyzes the work of Peter Handke, Ingeborg Bachmann, John Barth, Friedrich Schlegel, and Jacques Derrida, with a special nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

Singer, Godfrey Frank. The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin, Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963. Dated but remains an excellent source for beginners. Explains the development of the epistolary novel, its wane, and its continuing influence on Western literature.


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