I strongly suspect that my love for books composed entirely of letters between characters stems from a mildly voyeuristic strain. There is something deliciously and viscerally gratifying in reading exchanges that were meant only for the receiver’s eyes. Luckily for me, the genre, which grew up in an age when there was time to mull over words and handwritten letters, has mostly survived the storm of the Internet era and remained faithful to its form even while moving with the times
Perhaps the best-known epistolary novel is Daddy Long-Legs, published in 1912 by Jean Webster and a perennial favourite since childhood, as much for its simplicity and humour, as for the clear-eyed detailing of everyday life. Starting out as duty letters between an orphan and her benefactor, the book ultimately evolves into a coming-of-age tale and a wonderfully understated romance. While the writing is entirely one-sided, since the benefactor never responds, the relationship between writer and receiver shines through nevertheless.
Some years later came 84, Charing Cross Road. Comprising the real-life epistles between acerbic, eccentric American writer Helene Hanff and unassuming British bookseller Frank Doel, who runs a store on Charing Cross Road, London.
The correspondence springs up over Hanff’s love for old, rare literary editions, which Doel, with a true bibliophile’s love, attempts to procure. They are love letters, written over 20 years, but not romantic. There’s love of books, of writing, of the joy in discovering a kindred spirit. When Doel passed away, having never met Hanff, the latter decided to publish their letters as a tribute to their friendship. I loved that she wanted to share that slice of intimacy with the world, that the book was such a gleaming example of a love affair that comprised entirely of words.
Another beautifully composed novel that comes to mind is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society. Written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, this is a series of fictional letters between a writer, her editor and various friends during World War II. On the island of Guernsey for research and to avoid an over-ardent suitor, author Juliet Ashton finds herself the unlikely chronicler of the islanders’ stories during the German occupation. Delightfully gentle, humorous, yet never shying away from the horrors that befell the world at the time, the book is as much history as it is a champion of the power of story and words to heal the most stubborn of wounds.
Shuffling away somewhat from letters, are Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries and ‘The Boy’ series, which are composed mainly of emails and diary entries. While the former follows 14-year-old Mia Thermopolis, a teenager from New York City who discovers she is heir to the throne of a small European nation, the latter, comprising three different books, is the hilarious account of twenty-something women struggling to remain true to their ideals of work and love. The writing is sharper, snappier, as befits the Internet generation, but the form remains true to that of epistles.
So, what is it about the epistolary novel that sits so charmingly, stubbornly unmoving upon the literary world? Perhaps, the sheer intimacy of reading letters ostensibly meant for other people. Maybe it’s that the formality of language and expression fall away in letter-writing, making the author and reader as familiar to each other as the characters. For me, such books always seem more friendly, akin to a quiet talk with people I consider close. Also, it’s perhaps the most thoughtful way of rounding out characters as their letters bring out their perceptions on everything from George Bernard Shaw to blue pottery. Mostly, though, it’s the affection that pours through. Between writer and receiver, between author and reader, between author and character. Take, for instance, the closing line of 84, Charing Cross Road. Following Frank Doel’s death, Hanff writes to a friend going to London – ‘if you happen to pass 84, Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me. I owe it so much.’
I guess endearment such as that must always last.