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Epistolary Classics

By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce and Magali Prel

The epistolary literature form has remained popular throughout the ages. It describes a novel that is written through letters, diary extracts and other similar documents. Many current favourites follow this style like Stephen King’s Carrie. Comprising a novel out of letters allows for an engaging and investigative read by examining content from various characters to inform the plot. Indeed, perhaps an epistolary novel provides a more intimate read by having a personal insight to the characters as the plot progresses. One of the most forgiving forms in literature, the epistolary form follows a variety of characters and expression through letters to allow for true representation. The classics team have come together to detail some of our favourite epistolary classics.

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Synonymous with classic literature, this much beloved author has dabbled in various literary forms throughout her repertoire. Although never officially submitted for publication Lady Susan was written in 1794 and printed in 1871. This novella is a collection of letters detailing and following the life of the titular character, perfectly embodying the epistolary style. Austen uses this form to boldly instruct the schemes of the young widow as she embarks on an affair with her brother-in-law. This complicated, yet flirtatious endeavor will grip readers to follow the unscrupulous Lady Susan as she charms Reginald de Courcy.

As many Austen readers may come to expect, the author writes bold characters in this fun novella, although includes central themes of love, marriage and friendship, which differ in tone to previous Austen favourites. By utilising the epistolary form, Austen throws readers straight into the action and presents various narratives through complex and intense characters, which relates to the realism of the epistolary form and that real life can be intense and complex.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S Lewis

The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel written in defence of the Christian faith. These letters are written from the perspective of Screwtape, a senior demon, and addressed to his nephew Wormwood, a junior demon. Through his letters to Wormwood, Screwtape advises his nephew on how to corrupt a human being referred to as “The Patient,” as they attempt to distance him from his faith. Through commentary on human beliefs, Screwtape provides effective strategies to corrupt human beings. However, this fails when The Patient dies in the Blitz with his soul at peace. This satirical novel explores the arguments between good and evil.

Epistolary novels are effective at presenting an intimate view of a character’s thoughts and feelings without interference from a narrator or the author. For example, in contrast to addressing Wormwood simply by “My dear Wormwood,” in the last letter, Screwtape addresses his nephew with “MY DEAR, MY VERY DEAR, WORMWOOD, MY POPPET, MY PIGSNIE,” highlighting Screwtape’s frustration. Lewis uses sarcasm to present Screwtape’s dramatic character, as he learns that The Patient has died in the Blitz, meaning Wormwood has failed his mission.

This novel is about Christian morality but is written from the perspective of evildoers. Through Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood, the reader is made aware of potential pitfalls that could affect their path to Heaven and compromise their faith, therefore, ironically teaching them how to be a good Christian.

Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark by Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark was the final collection to be published in her lifetime. Wollstonecraft has been hailed as an early feminist writer and her works were heavily influential during and after the Romantic period. The letters are reflective and introspective as Wollstonecraft documents her journey and observations of Scandinavia. Wollstonecraft is travelling in hope to revive her relationship with the father of her child, but over the course of the three months of travelling it is apparent that it is doomed. The result is a collection of honest and carefully crafted letters which contain personal sorrow but also astute social observations of a different society. The form of the collection can be considered epistolary but also a travel narrative with a highly philosophical commentary on society. As with many texts produced during the Romantic era, this collection deals with the concept of the sublimity of the natural world. However, Wollstonecraft subverts the traditional masculine and aggressive elements of the sublime to the power of femininity and maternal strength. Wollstonecraft’s journey as an unaccompanied woman with a child was incredibly progressive and the countries she visited were largely unknown to readers of the collection. Wollstonecraft was an undeniably ground-breaking figure in women’s literature and her literary talents were passed on to her daughter Mary Shelley.


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