Fiction notes: Epistolary stories make it real

15/05/2023 at 9:28 am | Posted in Fiction notes | 2 Comments
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Recently I’ve been reading two excellent books presented as a collection of letters and other correspondence. One, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows, was fiction. The other, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, was fact. And yet both come across in a remarkably similar way, which I would describe as warm-hearted and real. Both feature World War Two in their recent past. Against the darkness of conflict, the humour and kindness of the main characters shine out. 

The two books aren’t really that similar. But they both left me feeling moved and uplifted – and curious about the epistolary form.

When you start looking, the epistolary form – also known as a story made from a bunch of correspondence – is everywhere, all through the history of novel (and indeed non-fiction) writing. It’s a great way for an author to present multiple points of view. But until now, I didn’t realise that I was a fan, even though I’d read The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis, and felt it had a freshness, an immediacy, that in certain ways surpassed his wonderful Narnia tales.

Why are epistolary novels so readable? The Smithsonian National Postal Museum has some interesting thoughts on the subject, as well as a giant list  (even 84 Charing Cross Road manages to tiptoe onto it). The gist is that letters are often written for a small and intimate audience. That means that they’re personal, private and revealing. The reader of fictional letters is able to peer into that intimate world. 

Reading epistolary books has made me notice the use of correspondence in the stories I’m writing. In my current work in progress, for example, a sealed letter was discovered that seems likely to reveal secrets. I have a rough idea of those are, but won’t know for sure until I get to that chapter…

And now, over to you. Do you have a favourite letter that you’ve read, or written, in a novel? 

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