Who Is that Novelist, and Why Is He Writing Me All These Letters? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Who Is that Novelist, and Why Is He Writing Me All These Letters?

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Poster promoting National Letter Writing Week.

Dearest Reader1,

What do John Cleland's Fanny Hill, Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther, and Bram Stoker's Dracula have in common?

They're all epistolary novels, of course.

What, you may ask, is an epistolary novel? It's one made up of letters – well, strictly speaking, communications. Dracula uses telegrams, ship's logs, and even transcripts of wax cylinder recordings. Sort of like what you'd get if you made up a novel out of emails, say, or the blog from an online forum. It's an enduring way to tell a story, though a bit out of fashion these days, maybe because people don't write snail mail the way they used to.

Imagine a short story written in textspeak. It might even win a literature prize. Will Cohu, the writer of Two Bad Thumbs, might be on the cutting edge of communication technology, but he's also following a time-honoured literary tradition.

'I shall recall to view those scandalous stages of my life...'2

Literary historians think the first true epistolary novel was Cárcel de amor (Prison of Love), by Diego de San Pedro, published in Spain in 1485. The first epistolary novel in English may be Familiar Letters, by James Howell, but more people will be familiar with Aphra Behn, whose Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister, which appeared in three volumes between 1684 and 1687, was a real page-turner.

For one thing, Behn's Love-Letters was a roman a clef   – French for 'ripped from the headlines, names changed so that you can have fun guessing who did what, with what, to whom'. The audience guessed, and had fun. It's all juicy scandal from the court of Charles II, and if you like your gossip old but well-costumed, you may try your hand at deciphering it today, courtesy of Gutenberg.

The hottest English epistolary novel of all time, however, has to be Fanny Hill, also known as Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, published in 1748. Letters are by definition intimate and private. Fanny's letters were very intimate – so intimate that the author and publisher were arrested for 'corrupting the King's subjects'. The book flourished for a couple of centuries as an underground classic. It wasn't until 1964 in the US, and 1970 in the UK, that Fanny Hill could be legally published. A 1966 US Supreme Court ruling on Fanny's   First Amendment status affirmed that:

'Even under the prevailing view of the Roth test the book cannot be held to be obscene in view of substantial evidence showing that it has literary, historical, and social importance.'   –   Memoirs v Massachusetts.

Obviously, all you have to do to get your porn published is to let it lie around long enough for it to have 'historical importance'.

'My dear friend, what a thing is the heart of man!'3

What else can you do with an epistolary novel? You can be so dangerous you get banned in Frankfurt.

And everywhere else, probably. For contributing to delinquency and the suicide rate among the impressionable. Goethe was accused of this. His semi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, seemed to cause an outbreak of suicides among Romantic young men. The fact that these young men put on the same clothes as the hero of Goethe's novel, before sitting down at a desk and loading a pistol, just like Werther, rather clinched the deal for the authorities.

They concluded that literature was bad for public health.

In 1974, psychologist David Phillips coined the phrase 'The Werther Effect' to describe what he claimed was a known phenomenon: outbreaks of suicide caused by the spectacular deaths of pop-culture figures, real or imagined. Is this real? Debate still rages in academic circles.

'Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place.'4

The other reason epistolary novels are fun is that the writer can torture the reader. Think about it – in one letter, you can write, 'I'm planning to seduce Lady Julia tonight. Oh, I'm eagerly anticipating the rapture, etc, etc.' Then, in the next letter, you can start, 'Well, I suppose you heard what happened last week, and it's too painful to talk about, so I'll go on to more important matters. My King Charles spaniel has just had puppies...' Or you can abruptly switch correspondents, leaving the reader hanging for a while. Don't believe it? Try this on for size:

'Chapter Four:
'I am alone in the castle with those horrible women...I shall not remain alone with them. I shall try to scale the castle wall farther than I have yet attempted... At least God's mercy is better than that of those monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep, as a man. Goodbye, all. Mina!'

Chapter Five.
9 May
My dearest Lucy,
Forgive my long delay in writing, but I have been simply overwhelmed with work.
  – Bram Stoker, Dracula.

One minute you're on tenterhooks, imagining poor Jonathan Harker trying to get out of Dracula's castle and away from those blood-sucking (but sexy) brides, the next – you're reading about Mina's shorthand practice. Oh, the torment of it all. Epistolary novels allow lots of scope for pranks of this nature. They make the reader work, hard, at filling in the blanks, much as comic-book graphic-novel panels do. There's blood in that gutter, as Scott McCloud has pointed out.

Above all, epistolary novels engage the reader. Everyone has written a letter at some time or another – or at least an email. Person-to-person communication bypasses the polite fiction that we really care about a story related by an omniscient narrator. The characters in epistolary novels are pouring their hearts out, telling us about why they want to go to bed with that saucy wench/handsome coachman, shoot themselves in the head, or get away from that vampire.

Besides, we feel slightly naughty reading someone else's mail.

Yours in literature,

This Researcher.

1The reason for this unusual form of address in a Guide Entry will soon become apparent. Reader indulgence is requested.2This quote is from John Cleland, Fanny Hill.3This quote is from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, in English translation.4This quote is from Bram Stoker, Dracula.

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