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What is the epistolary novel?

The epistolary novel is one of the most influential literary styles in history. In this type of work, the story is not told directly to the readers but is developed from letters.

It is among the earliest types of novels and was one of the most popular (at least until the 19th century).

In this article, you will find all the information you need about the epistolary novel, including its origins, characteristics, and some of the most representative titles of the genre.

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What is the epistolary novel?

An epistolary novel is a story told through letters. The word epistolary comes from the Latin epistolaris, which means “relating to the letter”.

Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the European narrative underwent an important development, so it was not uncommon for authors to incorporate fragments of documents into their stories.

Whether they are love letters or a police investigation file, the epistolary novel brings us closer to real life by giving us different narrators in the same story without the need to resort to the omniscient narrator.

This subjectivity-based approach inspired the modern psychological novel.

Due to its status as a documentary text, writers can develop the characters from their own language, incorporating psychological elements and realism to build the plot.

The documents included in epistolary novels are not limited to letters. Diaries and newspaper articles are also considered essential parts of the genre.

In recent years, the epistolary novel may include digital files, such as audio recordings, blog posts, and emails, among others.

Origin of the epistolary novel

There are a couple of theories to explain the origin of the epistolary novel and its subsequent development.

First, it is said that early epistolary novels contained fragments of letters that were interspersed with the third-person narrative. However, this gap gradually narrowed over time.

On the other hand, the second theory states that this type of novel developed from collections of poetry and letters, many of which were linked through a romantic plot.

Beginnings of the genre

It is said that the first totally epistolary narrative is The Prison of Love, written in 1485 by Diego de San Pedro. By that time, novels that included letters gained popularity in the narrative.

However, for many, who inaugurated the genre was James Howell (1594 – 1666), an English writer who became known for his family epistles.

The first literary work in which all the characteristics of the genre are included is Love-Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, written by Aphra Behn and published in 1684.

In this novel, each character shows their own point of view, leaving aside the moral analysis and the author’s voice.


The popularity of the epistolary novel came during the eighteenth century thanks to the pen of Samuel Richardson and Pamela (1740), his crowning work.

Montesquieu did the same in France with the novel Persian Letters (1721), as did Jean-Jacques Rousseau with Julie, or the new Heloise, published in 1761.

The Germans would also get into the game. Johann Wolfang von Goethe was the first to popularize the genre in the country with books like The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), as was Friedrich Hölderlin with Hyperion.

The Germans would also get into the game. Johann Wolfang von Goethe was the first to popularize the genre in the country with books like The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), as was Friedrich Hölderlin with Hyperion.

In North America, the precursor novel was Frances Brooke’s The History of Emily Montague (1769).

The epistolary narrative began to receive harsh criticism in the eighteenth century, specifically due to satire and parody. Shamela, published in 1741, is the most striking example of this.

Henry Fielding’s novel presents a narrator protagonist, who through her diary shows a dramatic and overwhelming reality to the reader.

In 1897, Bram Stoker would be responsible for bringing the genre to its pinnacle with the publication of Dracula.

This novel shaped forever the mythological belief of the vampire, and is considered one of the classics of world literature.

Essential characteristics of the epistolary novel

Narrative structure based on letters or messages

One of the main differentiating elements of this type of epistolary narrative is precisely its structure based on missives or letters of correspondence of any kind.

With the advent of the Internet and mobile technology, text messages and e-mails have also entered this classification.

In short, epistolary novels include any form of written communication between two or more participants.

While some authors differentiate it from monologue, others have written first-person epistolary books based on diaries. In any case, this genre requires a sender and a receiver.

Simple and practical language

The language code of epistolary novels is always linked to a specific community or society.

By making the content understandable and practical, the author managed to connect with the reader’s emotions and imbue the plot with a high level of realism.

Whether it is a formal or individual letter, the principle of simplicity is maintained.

Individual point of view or dialogue

Epistolary novels can be narrated as a kind of monologue or from a dialogic point of view, that is, as the communication between two people by means of a written message.

In fact, some writers of the genre mix different types of documents used by the protagonists.

If you are a writer and want to create an entertaining read for your audience, we recommend approaching the main character as an unreliable narrator.

This means that this character will tell the story only from his or her point of view, so we will only know what this character has chosen to tell us.

If you want to develop your skills as a writer, don’t miss our article How to be a Good Writer?

Predominance of thoughts and emotions

In epistolary novels, communication is not usually presented through dialogue. Here, the individual emotions and thoughts of the narrator or protagonist predominate.

Instead of prioritizing the action and the protagonist’s journey, the plot is shown through the memories or longings of the characters.

For this reason, the chapters are shorter than those of a traditional novel. This is particularly useful for children and young adults who are new to reading.

Most famous epistolary novels

The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe)

Goethe is the author of this autobiographical novel published in 1774. In this book, the protagonist is a young man who falls madly in love with an impossible woman.

Despite being unrequited, the main character creates a bond of friendship with his beloved. The story is shown as a collection of letters.

The book is part of the literature produced within the German Sturm und Drang movement and was one of the most influential books of the Romantic period in Europe.

You may be interested in: Romanticism: Characteristics, Works and Authors.

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Dracula (Bram Stoker)

Published in 1897, Dracula is probably the most successful book of the genre. In this book, Stoker gathers letters, newspaper articles, doctor’s notes, among other files.

It tells the tale of the famous vampire count, whose malevolent actions terrorize the residents of a British town.

Dracula is considered the “most beautiful horror story in the world”, it has been translated into more than 50 languages and its protagonist is considered the most recognized vampire in popular culture.

Count Dracula has been the basis for a large number of films, television series, plays and comics, among others.

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Lady Susan (Jane Austen)

Although it is not known exactly when Jane Austen wrote this novel (believed to be 1794), it was published posthumously in 1871.

The title consists of 41 epistles written between the main characters, especially Lady Susan, a widowed and very beautiful woman who is in search of a husband while trying to get her 16-year-old daughter to marry another man.

This book broke all the rules of the romance novel. It is about love that is lost and love that comes. Politeness is not the type of romance shown in this book, so it was revolutionary in its time.

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The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)

Written by Wilkie Collins and published in 1859 as part of the magazine All the Year Around, this issue is considered one of the best novels of all time and one of the first works of the mystery genre.

Some critics claim that The Woman in White can be considered a “precursor” example of the crime novel.

The book tells the story of Walter Hartright, who moves from town to teach drawing to Laura, his niece. Laura is also heir to the terrible and evil baron Mr. Fairlie.

A deep feeling arises between the professor and the pupil, which complicates the lady’s engagement to Percival Glyde, a man who doesn’t love her, but desires her fortune.

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The Color Purple (Alice Walker)

The Color Purple is one of the most successful epistolary stories of the contemporary era.

Published in 1982, the novel received the Pulitzer Prize in the fiction category (1983) and was later adapted to film and musical theater. In addition, the title received the national award for fiction in the United States.

This book is a classic of feminist literature and one of the bulwarks in the fight against racism during the 20th century.

It is the story of two sisters, one of whom works as a missionary in Africa, while the other lives in the midst of American Southern society.

For 30 years, the sisters send letters to each other and hope to meet.

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Dangerous Liaisons (Choderlos de Laclos)

Dangerous Liaisons is an epistolary work published in 1782, considered one of the masterpieces of French literature.

Although it was forgotten for some time after its publication, it stood out again in the 20th century for its extensive level of technical complexity.

The novel consists of an exchange of letters between the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil.

The man shows off his debauchery, while the woman needs to conceal her desires because of her status as a woman at the time and because she is a widow.

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