As a teenager, I was given Jean Webster’s delightful romance Daddy Long Legs and its sequel, Dear Enemy. It was my first encounter with a novel written entirely as a series of letters and it is a format I have liked ever since.
The first epistolatory novel, which I don’t suggest anybody try and read, was Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1745). It was the runaway three-volume bestseller of its day, but much too ponderous for the modern reader, even though its soap-opera plot will not be unfamiliar.
Pamela is of interest to me only because the NGV holds four of the twelve illustrations that Joseph Highmore did in 1762 for the second edition of the novel. They are very elegant engravings, depicting the costume of the time in great detail. Have a look at them next time you visit the NGV – they hang right near Highmore’s self-portrait.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver consists of letters from Eva, Kevin’s mother, to her husband Franklin. The reason they have to talk about Kevin is that he is in prison, having just shot and killed a number of classmates and teachers at his high school, a scenario that evokes the Columbine killings. This is a chilling novel that grips the reader’s attention right until the startling end.
Ladies of Letters by Carole Hayman gives us the entertaining correspondence between Irene and Vera: they are fiercely competitive and we learn all about their long-suffering families as they strive to outdo each other with their recipes, grandchildren and small-town dramas.
I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes is another WW2 story, but this time through American eyes. It is 1943 when Rita Vincenzo and Glory Whitehall start to correspond. They seem to have nothing in common except that both of their desperately missed husbands are fighting in a war half a world away from home. Rita is a professor's wife, middle-aged and sensible, Glory a rich, young and impulsive society butterfly. Their developing friendship and how their unwavering support of each other changes their lives, makes this a fascinating book.
WW2 is a rich vein to mine for epistolatory fiction – Joyce Dennys’ Henrietta’s War and its sequel are both charming and funny. Henrietta is a village doctor’s wife and writes regularly to her childhood friend Robert, who is Somewhere in France. As she chronicles the dramas and squabbles of village life, we meet a captivating set of characters and learn how they coped with wartime conditions.
The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer consists of letters written soon after WW2 by different members of the eponymous literary society. They are addressed to Juliet Ashton, a London writer, and gradually an intriguing tale unfolds of life under the recent German occupation of Guernsey, seen through the eyes of Juliet’s various correspondents.
Another Golden Oldie well worth re-reading is 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff: the letters she wrote over twenty years to Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks & Co, antiquarian booksellers in London. The book is interesting not only for the insight it gives into wartime conditions in New York and London, but also for the variety of books that Helene orders from the bookshop, and her potted reviews of the ones she read and enjoyed. I was introduced to many enjoyable books through Helene!
Reaching even further into the past than WW2, I have discovered a delightful epistolatory novel (complete with sequel) by Jane Dawkins. In Letters From Pemberley, Ms Dawkins gives us a glimpse into the married life of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, picking up the story where Jane Austen ended it. Elizabeth writes to her favourite sister Jane, now happily married to Mr Bingley and settled down at Netherfield Park. Jane Austen fans will devour these slim volumes at a sitting and wanting more, like Oliver!
Finally, a very slim volume indeed, but one that always makes me laugh out loud during the whole ten minutes it takes to read: The Twelve Days of Christmas by John Julius Norwich, marvellously illustrated by Quentin Blake. It consists of twelve thank-you letters written by a young woman to her fiancé who is sending her a series of romantic Christmas gifts. From the first enthusiastic thank you for the “charming, romantic little partridge in the lovely pear tree”, to the final solicitor’s letter threatening an injuction if the full percussion section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra is not removed from his client’s lawn forthwith, these letters are hilarious in their escalating indignation.