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A Novel Letter

I’ve been told many times that I write a good letter. Well at least I was told so back in the days when the fine art existed and we weren’t all reduced to the short speak of emails. I’ve always liked reading letters in books, but books written solely in letters? I’m not so sure they always work.

An epistolary novel is one written in letters, emails or diary entries. It can come through one or multiple viewpoints. Though the form originated well before, the genre only became popular with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela 1740 and Clarissa 1748 and continued to gain an avid readership up to the nineteenth century. I found myself checking out the background and popularity of epistolary novels after reading my latest Year of Reading challenge, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. There is much to like about Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ story set in post-WWII London and the Channel Island of Guernsey, featuring a fascinating backstory of the years the island was occupied  by the Germans during the Second World War. I’d not known previously that any part of England was occupied, so I gobbled up the history and wartime setting. TGL&PPPS is the story of writer Juliet Ashton who receives a letter from island resident Dawsey Adams and becomes intrigued with his tales of the occupation. Over time, she sets up a correspondence with other members of the GL&PPP society too with a view to writing an article on their experiences and eventually she visits the island to meet them.

I found the islanders’ wartime stories fascinating, particularly that of Elizabeth McKenna, and it is her arrest, deportation, and incarceration in a German prison camp that I believe drives the narrative tension in the story. The book worked on several levels for me including the historical aspects and setting, the authenticity and intimacy of a “lived” experience. The epistolary form works well to tell the war years’ backstory, a narrative that lived for me more vividly than the foreground story. One third of the way through the book, I found myself not as engaged and really wanting it to transform into prose. This set me to wondering; why wasn’t the story working for me when the book is so hugely popular? They’re even making a film next year with Kate Winslet starring as Juliet Ashton and directed by Kenneth Brannagh.

The Goodreads website features multiple reviews, overwhelmingly four/five stars and glowing: “Charming, lovely, delightful, great characters”. But a vocal polar response  exists too: “no voice, no plot, shallow characters.” I found myself agreeing with certain aspects of both. Yes, it’s got a great (potential) line-up of characters, an incredible (back) story, setting and promise, but the authenticity got lost somewhat because the letter writers’ voices did not differentiate enough to me and the reader could only see the one dimension of the letter writer’s point-of-view. I loved the part of the story that told of the occupation. The characters came to life during those sections. It was the protagonist, Juliet’s story that unravelled for me, or rather her love story. The set up was that she corresponds first with Dawsey, a tall, silent type. Little is revealed of Dawsey in his letters, so the reader can’t wait to meet him when Juliet travels to Guernsey. The anticipation is all there, except that for the rest of the novel, we are told about Dawsey, that he’s there, but we never hear direct from him. We miss all the nuances of dialogue and direct speech. The interaction between the pair is not explored and the excuse for the lack of interaction is attributed to Dawsey being so quiet. He was so quiet in the end that he failed to exist for me. His invisibility rendered the relationship incredible. (Dialogue is non-existent too, and reported dialogue  rare and brief.) The absence of letters from Dawsey in the latter half of the book means that his responses and attitudes are told rather than shown. I simply stopped seeing him as more than a shadowy figure on the page.
Words make up only 7% of communication. Tone of voice makes 38% and body language 55%. 

Words,tone and body language are things we show in prose writing. In letters, diary entries, telegrams, we lose opportunities to show the character’s physical responses, actions, body language or tone, unless we TELL. Or maybe that’s another crafting technique I need to investigate.

I think the biggest problem for me in the epistolary novel is that all the action occurs off-stage. Usually that’s a big no-no in novel but it seems inevitable in the epistolary form. I’m no expert though, so I did a little Googling and reading up to discover the pros and cons of writing novel in epistolary form.

Here’s a few findings and summations:

Epistolary novel Pros:

  • Easy way to compose a novel for a beginner
  • Manageable chunks – written one by one build into a whole story
  • Authenticity and brevity
  • All attention is on characters (this could be a con too if you lose connection to or miss out on building dramatic intensity in the story)
  • Glimpse different characters’ lives intimately
  • No viewpoint problems
  • Opportunity to share multiple viewpoints

Epistolary novel Cons:

  • No dialogue, miss the nuances of interactions
  • Hard to get to know characters in relationship context
  • Hard to show variances in characterisation unless done well
  • Can become narrowly focused
  • Difficult to show intimate moments i.e. sex (who writes to anyone about their sex life and, really, do we want to correspond with those that do?)
  • Action occurs off-stage leading to loss of dramatic immediacy
  • Never witness anything directly
  • Can result in lack of character variation – need to really mix up letter styles and voices
  • Not every character’s thoughts may interest the reader
  • POV can colour reader’s perspective (I can see this could work equally as a deliberate pro/device)

Maybe it all comes down to how well an author masters the form. I don’t think it’s a medium I could sustain throughout a novel-length, but I certainly found myself interested to analyse it from a critical point-of-view. And that can be the death of reading for pure enjoyment for writers. We tend to look at aspects a normal reader wouldn’t think twice about it. I thought I’d finish with a short list of epistolary novels across the centuries. Their popularity may be said to have waned a bit over the last couple of centuries but judging by the huge success of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and others such as We Need to Talk about Kevin and Bridget Jones Diary it holds a captive audience still.

So do you enjoy novels written in letters? Would you write one? Love to know your thoughts and favourites and what appeals or doesn’t about epistolary novels. Sorry this has turned into one of my typical epistles.  

A small selection of epistolary novels: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (2008) The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982) We need to talk about Kevin – Lionel Shriver (2003) Clarissa –  Samuel Richardson (1748) Dracula – Bram Stoker – (1897) The Diary of Ann Frank – Ann Frank – (1947) Bridget Jones Diary – Helen Fielding (1996) Feeling Sorry for Celia – Jaclyn Moriaty (2002) The Screwtape Letters – CS Lewis (1942) Poor Folk – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1846) Herzog – Saul Bellow (1964) The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte (1848)</div>

Book 5

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

Allen & Unwin 2009 ISBN: 9781741758955

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