Dear Reader...

Posted on 5th August 2015 by Isabel Popple
Bookseller Isabel Popple on books told entirely in correspondence.

Dear Reader,

I have lately found myself thinking quite extensively about letters. This is most likely the result of a rather unusual book I recently read whose witty author, one Mark Dunn, has given it the subtitle A novel without letters. The irony of this is that, while it is a novel in which a number of letters are gradually removed from the alphabet, ultimately leaving just five for the author (and characters) to work with, it is also a novel written entirely in the form of letters and messages. Thus Ella Minnow Pea is both without letters yet simultaneously full of them, and is quite the fascinating construct.

Epistolary, my dictionary informs me, is “a type of novel in which the story is told entirely through an exchange of letters between the characters.” Ella Minnow Pea can be described as a polylogic epistolary novel as the letters contained within are written by more than two characters. In an age when so much communication takes places via the electronic form, I find it rather refreshing to visit a world in which pen and ink and paper are so vital. When, I might ask, was the last time you wrote a personalised letter by hand? The only person with whom I regularly continue to exchange news in this way is my grandmother. Is letter writing a dying art do you think? Well, of course they asked the same question of books and yet here we all are still adding to our ‘hard copy’ collections.

One of the most interesting thing about letters is that they represent a snapshot in time: their tone, language and style are all likely to encompass the age and society in which they have been scribed, as Simon Garfield’s history of correspondence, To The Letter can attest. And even if we don’t write so many of them on a daily basis anymore, there are still plenty of epistolary books making it onto the bookshelves. Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe was a roaring success last year; Annabel Pitcher won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2013 with her remarkable novel, Ketchup Clouds; and Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road is as popular as ever.

Despite the aforementioned dictionary definition, we frequently use ‘epistolary’ to describe novels which contain not just letters, but any form of writing which incorporates documents (i.e. primary sources) to tell or inform the tale rather just regular first, second or third person storytelling (‘I’, ‘you’ or ‘they’): diaries, newspaper clippings, court records, etc. etc. Carrie by Stephen King, Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula all employ a combination of these. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell nests a whole selection of different storytelling methods together, while Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary uses a straight forward time-old journal. If I take a breath and stop to think about it, there are in actuality quite a surprising number of novels that fall into the epistologic (is this a word, reader, or have I just invented it?) style, both classic and contemporary.

So where did it all begin? Scholars of the subject, I’m sure, could list a great history of epistolary-inclined writing through the ages, though it was in the eighteenth century that the style first established a true foothold. In 1740 the gentleman Samuel Richardson penned the work Pamela, which is oft credited as being the first mature novel written in the English language, encompassing as it does coherent characterization, plot and themes. A great number of popular titles were produced in the following years across Europe, such as Dangerous Liaisons by Chonderlos de Laclos. With literacy levels amongst the general populace beginning to rise at this time, novels became quite the thing, and epistolary novels were especially popular given that the style of writing allows a particularly intimate insight into characters’ feelings and actions.

And what of the future? With the digital age fully upon us, while letter writing might not be taking place as furiously as in bygone days, it is undoubted that all of this has opened up new pathways for epistolary fiction to explore: the twitter novel, the email novel, the blog novel. But will these perhaps come to represent an even shorter snapshot of time than the traditional letter novel? The technology changes lightning quick, the form moves on – instant messaging novels seem already a little passé, for instance, and has a twitter novel actually been published in a paper format?

Meanwhile, I feel that the letter itself takes on a new level of importance: they are a little more special, a little more personable, especially when used to tell us a story. Email novels such Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments or Katy Birchall’s It Girl may pepper the form, but letters and diaries remain unshakeable, even in the year 2015, do you not think? Either way, you really should read Ella Minnow Pea.


A Bookworm.

P.S. Whatever your taste in genre, should you wish to try any further epistolary works, dip perhaps into one of these. Or perhaps you can recommend another?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Marie Kalman

Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

The Screwtape Letters by C. S.  Lewis

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

World War Z by Max Brooks

Herzog by Saul Bellow

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Where Rainbows End by Celia Ahern


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