The term epistolary, meaning “consisting of letters,” entered English in the 1600s from the Greek term for “message” or “letter.” An epistolary novel is a story told exclusively through fictionalized letters, emails, newspaper articles, and other primary sources. The form experienced a popularity surge in the mid-1700s, and has since structured some of the most beloved books in the English language.
Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson (1740)
Pamela is one of the earliest epistolary novels in English. Its heroine, Pamela, fights against her employer as he tries to seduce her. It was parodied in Henry Fielding’s 1741 satire Shamela.
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771)
Penned by Scottish writer Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker is a humorous picaresque novel told through letters written by six main characters. Though they experience the same plot points, each character has his or her own twist on the unfolding of events.
Evelina by Fanny Burney (1778)
Evelina follows the story of a teenager as she navigates the world of 18th-century society, making countless faux pas along the way.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Dracula tells the story of the vampire Count Dracula through journal entries, letters, newspaper articles, and ships’ logs, particularly between Englishman Jonathan Harker, his fiancée Mina Murray and their coterie of friends.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
This coming-of-age epistolary novel follows the shy Charlie as he progresses through the ups and downs of high school in suburban Pennsylvania. In the novel Charlie writes letters to a stranger about the traumatic and joyful moments in his life.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn (2001)
Ella Minnow Pea is not only epistolary, it’s also lipogrammatic. With each developing chapter, more and more letters of the alphabet are dropped from use thanks to superstitions overtaking the fictional island of Nollop. At one point, only the letters “L,” “M,” “N,” “O,” and “P” are allowed to be written or said.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (2010)
Set in a dystopic near future, Super Sad True Love Story tells the story of the romance between Leonard Abramov and Eunice Park through his diary entries and her e-mails. As the narrative develops, the United States of the future crumbles under totalitarian rule.