My love affair with the epistolary novel began with the discovery of the Dear America series - beautiful hardbacks with ribbon bookmarks and deckle-edged pages that were fictional diaries with young heroines set all over the United States from the first arrival of European settlers to the mid-twentieth century. Since then, I've sought out the best of the best epistolary novels. Here is the creme de la creme:
The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins established many of the fundamental tenets of the detective novel in The Moonstone, which tells the story of a precious diamond, stolen from a Hindu temple, belonging to Rachel Verinder, a wealthy English heiress. The diamond is stolen from her on the night of her eighteenth birthday, unleashing a complex plot tracing the efforts of Rachel's lover, Franklin Blake, to recover the diamond and earn her hand in marriage. The Moonstone is extremely suspenseful and beautifully written.
The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Collins's other great masterwork is The Woman in White. Walter Hartwright meets a mysterious woman in white on his way to a position as a drawing master at Limmeridge House. Once arrived, he notices that his student bears an astonishing resemblance to the white-clad woman he met on his way. Widely considered the best of Collins's novels, this early work of detective fiction is also notable for its condemnation of laws that committed married women to a state of extreme financial dependence and vulnerability.
Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Set in thirteenth century England, this Newbery Honor winner is one of the few children's books that can truly be regarded as a feminist work. Catherine is the daughter of a minor English lord and at fourteen she is inundated with potential suitors, the lion's share old, ugly, and lecherous, but Catherine has more than a few tricks up her sleeve and is determined to avoid a state of uncomfortable matrimony. As historical fiction, the novel is wildly successful, painting a detailed and nuanced portrait of medieval life, from the food to religious practice, sanitary habits to dress.
The Sorrows of Young Werther - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Goethe was only 24 years old when he wrote his best known and most beloved work, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel depicting the tragic and unrequited love of Goethe's alter ego Werther for the beautiful and engaged Lotte. The book is acutely romantic, in every sense of the word. Goethe famously said, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."
Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Francoise de Graffigny
Revolutionary in a number of ways, de Graffigny's critically renowned novel is about Zilia, an Incan princess kidnapped and brought to Paris, where she is viewed as an exotic curiosity. Zilia records her journey, from the terror of her first encounters with Europeans and the traumatic separation from her family, culture, and land, to a satire of French culture as seen from Zilia's point of view and her transformation into an independent and promising young authoress. Absolutely feminist and one of the earliest efforts at a sympathetic and humane portrayal of a non-European from a European author, this is one of the greatest novels ever written.
Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Laclos's novel is a salacious and deeply voyeuristic exploration of the sex lives of the French elite in the hedonistic days before the French Revolution brought the aristocracy (temporarily) to its knees. The perverse sexual intrigues of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil still have the power to shock, when they don't titillate. The 1988 film version based on Christopher Hampton's theatrical adaptation is excellent.
The Screwtape Letters - C. S. Lewis
In Lewis's brilliant satiric work of Christian apologetics, morality is turned topsy-turvy in the world of Our Father Below. Senior demon Screwtape addresses his letters to junior demon Wormwood, who has been assigned the task of aiding a man known only as the Patient to his irrevocable damnation in opposition to the Enemy, as the denizens of Hell refer to God. Most modern editions include Screwtape Proposes a Toast, an after-dinner speech given by Screwtape at the Tempters' Training College for junior demons.
Anne of Windy Poplars - L. M. Montgomery
The fourth book in Montgomery's eight-book series about the adventures of Anne Shirley, this novel covers three years of Anne's life during which she teaches at a high school. Her letters are addressed to her fiance Gilbert Blythe, a medical student. Anne writes to Gilbert about the trials and tribulations of teaching in a small clannish town and dealing with Katherine Brooke, a deeply embittered fellow teacher. As warm, funny, unpretentious, and heartwarming as Anne of Green Gables.
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Famously written for an informal contest to see who could write the best horror story, Frankenstein is one of the most influential books of all time, spawning dozens of films and theatrical adaptations, one of the first science fiction novels ever written, and also one of the most moving depictions of alienation and loneliness. An eccentric scientist named Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with discovering how to recreate life from dead tissues, but he rejects the creature he has brought to life, releasing him into an unfriendly and intolerant world.
Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Judy Abbott grows up at the John Grier Home, a tyrannically run orphanage, until she is fifteen, when an anonymous patron agrees to pay her way through college, provided that she write him monthly letters and make no attempt to discover the identity of her benefactor. The novel is gentle and funny and filled with witty pencil sketches. The 1919 film adaptation starring Mary Pickford is a wonderful adaptation and one of the most affecting of Pickford's many films.
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