Thursday, February 13, 2014

Epistolary Novel

An epistolary novel is one written as a series of documents, usually an exchange of letters between characters. That is what this week's review book, Les Liaisons dangereuses, is.

The first epistolary novel was the Spanish Carcel de amor (Prison of Love) published around 1485. It caught on fairly well, in other countries and languages.

The dramatic, romantic nature of the genre led to a great deal of ridicule, however. Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740) was closely followed by a parody by Henry Fielding: Shamela (1741) wherein the titular character pens her letters under unlikely dramatic circumstances.

Even Jane Austen gave the genre a fair shake with Lady Susan, but abandoned the form for her later work. Some people believe that First Impressions (her lost novel) was an epistolary novel that was redrafted into Pride and Prejudice because of the number of letters included in the latter.

While it fell out of popularity during the 18th century, it hung on by way of some of the 19th century classics, particularly Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula.

There has been a small resurgence of the epistolary form since the advent of email and IMs, but not in any major works.

There are three kinds of epistolary novels: monologic (one-way correspondence), dialogic (two-way correspondence), and polylogic (more than two people corresponding).

Les Liaisons dangereuses is a polylogic epistolary novel. My personal favorite epistolary novel is probably We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which is monologic. What's your favorite, and what kind is it?

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