In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Epistolatory Novel

  • Introduction

British and Irish Literature The Epistolatory Novel
Siv Gøril Brandtzæg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0079


The epistolary novel is a genre most closely associated with the 18th century. During this period, the genre was cultivated by the greatest novelists of the time, and it was a pan-European form appreciated by writers and readers in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and beyond. The rather abrupt withering of the genre at the turn of the 19th century has caused many scholars to speculate whether the epistolary novel merely represented the novel form in embryo—a nascent and formally awkward warm-up to the more sophisticated novel narrated in the third person. Increasingly, however, scholars have argued that it deserves attention as a genre in its own right. Since the 1960s, numerous studies of epistolary fiction have appeared, many of them reflecting prevailing theoretical trends within literary and cultural studies. Structuralist studies have shown an interest in the narratological patterns of the genre, emphasizing its intriguing formal peculiarities, affinities with drama, abilities to delineate consciousness—and the sometimes achingly artificial nature of its narrative techniques when seen alongside the third-person novel. Historical studies have traced the genesis of the genre in antique models of letter writing such as Ovid’s Heroides and have also given greater emphasis to the early epistolary novels of the 17th century, thus disrupting the traditional idea that the epistolary novel started in earnest with Samuel Richardson in the 1740s. Book history and other studies in material culture have shown how the genre is rooted in practical writings such as the journal, whereas works within cultural studies have pointed to the importance of seeing the genre in relation to the contemporary culture of letter writing. A new wave of interest for the genre in the postmodern period shows how the epistolary novel has adapted to new media such as the Internet and mail culture. Since the 1980s, feminist studies have emphasized the affiliations between women and letter writing, both in terms of topics, authorship, and readership. The 18th-century epistolary novel was, and still is, considered a feminine genre par excellence, with its often-sentimental depictions of courtship struggles, marriage, and damsels in distress. Nevertheless, the great epistolary canon of the 18th century is predominantly male, with Samuel Richardson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J. W. V. Goethe, and Pierre Choderlos de Laclos typically seen as the preeminent foursome; scholarship on the epistolary novel as a genre has consequently been dominated by studies of these authors. Research into the many forgotten, minor epistolary novels “by a lady” is still in its infancy; however, it is likely that with the digitalization of early modern texts, a wave of scholarship on neglected novels-in-letters by lesser novelists will emerge, revealing the rich prose tradition of one of the most important early modern genres.


The following sections present studies of the epistolary novel according to their different methodological approaches. Bibliographical Studies offers a survey of the books providing statistical data on the rise and fall of the epistolary novel in Europe. The Genesis of the Genre highlights scholarship that traces the genealogy and historical roots of the novel-in-letters, whereas the Culture of Letter Writing presents important contextualizing studies that explore the cultural and medial situation of epistolarity. Form and Narrative Technique is devoted to the scholarship concentrating on the formal and stylistic aspects of the genre. Finally, Women and Epistolarity presents a selection of the numerous studies of the gendered aspects of epistolary fiction.

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