Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Reading Books Of An Epistolary Nature

"While I would have always classified myself as someone who likes to read,
it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really devoted myself to
reading as a true pastime and taken on the self-proclaimed title of reader as
a main component of my identity. Along the way, I’ve let other hobbies fall
to the back burner with no regrets, and as one thing has led to another, I’ve
really let myself immerse fully into the reading life."⁠

When the days get colder and crisper, I find myself burrowing into my all-time favourite pastime of reading. And like Nicole Bennett above, I tend to let other pursuits fall away with little regret as I immerse more fully into the reading life.

Last autumn, I read a handful of books that fall within what is termed the Epistolary literary genre. Although I'd never paid attention to it before, I had a vague idea the genre must have something to do with letters—the Dear Mary kind, not the alphabet—because what sprung to mind was the word 'epistle',  the word ascribed to several books in the New Testament which originally were letters written to the early church by people like Paul, e.g. the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.

According to Wikipedia, an epistolary novel is one that's written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings, and other documents are sometimes used. Both novelists and non-fiction authors use this literary genre with good success.

Whether it's a novel or a collection of someone's personal letters gathered in a book, I admit that the use of letters to tell the story creates a sense of being up close and personal to the characters or the author. It's a little like reading a box of old letters in an attic and finding yourself immersed in someone else's personal space, privy to comments and details of a life not available to just anyone. Letters create a bond between sender and recipient, and when letters are used to write a book they create a similar bond between a writer and her readers. What was it that John Donne once said? More than kisses, letters mingle souls. For thus, friends absent speak. 

I found an interesting article on Book Riot in which the author, Jesse Doogan, discusses her take on this literary genre and offers a great reading list of possibilities. If you are piqued, do check out 100 Must-Read Epistolary Novels From The Past and Present.

Now that I am more fully cognizant there's actually a genre for this kind of storytelling, I went in search of books and was duly surprised to find some epistolary novels and others on my own shelves. I share my finds below.

by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
“Dear Miss Ashton, My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin's Parish on Guernsey. I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you—the Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb. Your name and address are written inside the front cover.”
Being a person who reads books in her own time and space regardless of whether everyone else is reading it decades earlier, I admit to finally reading the 2008 New York Times bestselling novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I loved it and couldn't put it down. I then had the happy pleasure to watch the movie on Netflix and loved that too.

The novel is set in 1946 just after World War II. Writer Miss Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a stranger living in Guernsey, UK. Through a series of letters, the compelling story unfolds of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and its members who lived through the German Occupation on the English island of Guernsey during the war.

by Helen Hanff
“I wish you hadn't been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It's the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you'd decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.)”
84, Charing Cross Road is the delightsome collection of a twenty-year exchange of letters (1949 to 1969) between Helene Hanff, author in New York City, and English bookseller, Frank Doel, of Marks & Co antiquarian booksellers in London, England. These two people who lived an ocean apart developed a lasting friendship based on their mutual love of books. They never met in person.

I first became aware of the book of letters after I saw the lovely movie based on it which starred Anthony Hopkins as Frank Doel and Ann Bancroft as Helene Hanff. I've read and watched the movie so many times over the years, yet I never tire of it. Same with the book—sometimes it's just plain LOL delightful.

by Jean Webster
"It isn't the great pleasures that count the most; it's making a great deal out of the little ones—I've discovered the true secret of happiness, Daddy, and that is to live in the now. Not to be forever regretting the past, or anticipating the future; but to get the most that you can out of this very instant...I'm going to enjoy every second, and I'm going to know I'm enjoying it while I'm enjoying it. Most people don't live; they just race. They are trying to reach some goal far away on the horizon, and in the heat of the going they get so breathless and panting that they lose all sight of the beautiful, tranquil country they are passing through; and then the first thing they know, they are old and worn out, and it doesn't make any difference whether they've reached the goal or not. I've decided to sit down by the way and pile up a lot of little happinesses, even if I never become a great author."

Daddy-Long-Legs, published in 1912 by American writer Jean Webster, follows the story of young Judy Abbott who is about to be rescued from an impoverished life at an orphanage. A generous guardian pays for her education, complete with allowances for nice clothes, books and such, and in exchange for his anonymous generosity, she must promise to write him every month. And so she undertakes the task diligently, sending off lively and often humorous tales of school life, budding friendships, and other life enriching discoveries. She nicknames her benefactor based on a shadow she saw on a wall, and so many of her letters begin, Dear Daddy Long Legs. A charming coming of age tale that unfolds through a series of letters. 

I read the book for the first time just recently and enjoyed a delightful afternoon between its covers. I first saw the 1955 movie of it, the one starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. The movie really doesn't follow the book, but if you treat each as separate entities, both can provide an afternoon of old-fashioned entertainment.

by L. M. Montgomery
"It's dusk, dearest. (In passing, isn't 'dusk' a lovely word? I like it better than twilight. It sounds so velvety and shadowy and ... and ... dusky.) In daylight I belong to the world ... in the night to sleep and eternity. But in the dusk I'm free from both and belong to myself...and you. So I'm going to keep this hour sacred to writing to you. Though this won't be a love-letter. I have a scratchy pen and I can't write love-letters with a scratchy pen...or a sharp pen...or a stub pen. So you'll only get that kind of letter from me when I have exactly the right kind of pen. Meanwhile, I'll tell you about my new domicile and its inhabitants. Gilbert, they're such dears. ..."
Anne of Windy Poplars—published as Anne of Windy Willows in the UK, Australia, and Japan—is an epistolary novel by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery. First published in 1936, this novel features a series of letters Anne sends to her intended, Gilbert Blythe. She writes of her experiences as the new principal at the high school in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and her head-on encounters with the proud Pringle clan.  The book is fourth in the Anne series.

I read all the Anne books when I was young, but I still enjoy reading them all these years later. If I ever decide to reread this one, I like to wait until Autumn, the season in which the story opens. I like letting Anne's descriptions dovetail with what's going on outside my own window.


Others books I want to read that I think fit in this category include:

The Diary by Eileen Goudge is the novel of two adult daughters who discover their mother's diary in her attic and are stunned to find out that her first true love was not their father. I read this book a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. The surprise ending made it completely worth reading. I have the novel on my growing pile of books I hope to read or in this case, reread, in 2020.

The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne's Frank's father, Otto Frank, was the only surviving family member. At the end of the Second World War, the group who hid Anne and her family presented Mr. Frank with notebooks and papers in Anne's handwriting. He circulated copies of Anne's diary to friends as a memorial to his wife and daughters. Urged to make it public, Mr. Frank had an edited version published in 1947, and over the years this book has been translated into more than thirty languages.

I admit that I have never read this book. I tried over the years, but I was always a little afraid to. Yet so many people love the book and quote from Anne's writings that I'm finally taking myself in hand—I plan to read it in the new year.

My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G.B. MacMillan from L.M.Montgomery. Edited by Francis W.P. Bolger and Elizabeth R. Epperly. Miss Montgomery was a keen letter writer and this book is a collection of her letters written to George Boyd MacMillan over their thirty-nine year friendship. In this epistolary autobiography you'll catch a glimpse of her wide range of interests, "from domestic concerns, her cats and gardening, to her professional literary career as best-selling author".

I read the book years ago when I was consuming all things L.M.Montgomery. I really enjoyed reading her letters—they made me feel close to her. I'm looking forward to dipping into it after all this time to see if the same spots I once underlined or starred still resonate.

There's a question I have for you! Do you find yourself being drawn to those same spots you marked when you read the book, say, ten, twenty or even thirty years earlier? I surprise myself quite often to find myself still drawn to the same spots. Some things just are 'forever', aren't they? Although there are other occasions when I see I'm not that person anymore. I realize I've grown up or changed how I view certain topics or ideologies. I find that an interesting discovery and was wondering if you do as well.

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Reflections on the Intimate Dialogue Between Man and God by C.S. Lewis. Posthumously published in 1964, the book takes the form of a series of letters to a fictional friend, Malcolm, in which Lewis chats about various aspects and forms of prayer.

C.S. Lewis was always a favourite author when I was a young adult. I haven't read much of his work other than the odd Narnia story in more recent history, so I am looking forward to rereading this one too.

* * *

Well, dear friends, after working away on this most of the day, I look up to see that the afternoon is waning and snow crystals are fogging the air. It's going to be brrr cold tonight. I saw a little owl earlier sitting on our feeders. A complete surprise as I've never seen an owl so nearby. We think he might have been a Boreal owl but we're not sure. That's a first for us. Perhaps the frigid temperatures brought him forth for food. I know little mice dwell beneath the neighbour's shed which happens to be near our bird feeders, a spot where seeds freely fall. Perhaps his sharp eyes saw them scurrying about under the snowdrifts.

On that note, I wish you a pleasant rest of the day and a warm and cozy evening. Happy reading or whatever you are up to.



  1. I wish people still wrote 'real' letters...

    In the past, I have tried to do this... To write 'real' letters to those, wishing to do the same. But their idea of a 'real' letter, and mine, were not the same.

    To me, a 'real' letter is rather long. It is made up of thoughts, as well as happenings. It is not just a few sentences, saying not much more, than a weather report.

    It is what people now do, in blogs. -sigh-

    So I gave up. It was not enough, just to mail a letter, and wait for a reply. I wanted more substance, and this seems to have been lost, with all the technology of the World Wide Net.

    Sorry to be such a "downer." -smile-

    Letter writing, brought back memories, of my failed attempts at such. I do hope that some people, still enjoy exchanging 'real' letters.


  2. I've only read the first two books in your epistolary list, but both are lifetime favorites of mine. I do enjoy the genre. If it has to be so cold, extra time for reading is a true consolation!

  3. great suggestions on reading materials though i find myself more involved in writing at this time of my life and especially focused on poetry...

  4. How interesting. I know many of your book choices, but my favourite has always been the Guernsey Potato etc. I was so thrilled when dear Mary from 'A breath of Fresh air'sent it to me some years ago. And Helene Hanff..one of my favourites also. I look forward to hearing how you felt about your choices when you have read tthem.

  5. I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, both book and movie! I love Anne, too, and had forgotten this book was written in letter form. You've got my interest peeked now, Brenda! I want to read all the books you've mentioned!

  6. Dearest Brenda - I loved reading your book list. I have never read the Anne of Green Gables series and that is on my new year's plan for 2020. The Diary sounds good too. Thank you as always for your wonderful summaries of delightful reads. Take care and have a great day. Hugs!

  7. What a wonderful list of epistolary books! I've read many of them, and the Guernsey book has been read and re-read many times. I'll look for the letters from L.M.M. Montgomery, as I've not heard of them before. Do read Anne Frank's Diary - I've read it many times. It is full of hope and the realities of living in close quarters, of young love, and a young girl's thoughts. I think it becomes saddest when we realize Anne's fate, but of course she did not know the future when she wrote it.

  8. We have very similar tastes as I have read all the books you have mentioned, save a couple. Now I am off to check out that list of 100 must read epistolary novels, plus the couple you have mentioned that sound interesting. Happy reading, Brenda!

  9. I have bookmarked this post to refer to after I finish the pile of books on my side table from the library waiting to be read. One of the most interesting reads concerning letters were the letters my mother returned to me that I wrote her bi-weekly in the 1970s and early 80s. It took most of the 2-day drive home to read them all. When phoning became less expensive in the 80s she started calling me instead, so the letter exchange stopped. I hadn't saved her letters to me until my father died in 1978. I had, however, saved the 4 letters he'd written to me after I left home 9 years earlier which I was so glad to have. That is when I started saving my mother's letters and everyone else's. I have sat in my attic rereading some of these letters from the past and am so glad I saved them.

  10. I found some of my very favorite books in your epistolary list, dear Brenda. May I suggest another one? Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. I loved it.

  11. I have read and enjoyed several of the books you write about in this post, and as a Christmas treat bought myself Yours Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis, a book of his letters. Lewis answered pretty much every letter sent to him and often sent money when requested. He helped people with his writing income; I love this man.

    1. Oh Terra, I have that Yours Jack book too. Sweet! Enjoy it! I do love C.S. Lewis and was thrilled to recently go to Oxford, UK to see some of the places where he lived and studied. I love so much about this man too.

      Thanks so much for stopping by. Happy reading...

  12. Hi Dear Brenda, thank you for visiting us and taking time to comment after a long absence from the Haven House occupants. Life has carved into the time I used to devote to blogging and I miss it. Reading your post about making the time to read has resonated with me and like most lovely things, made me draw breath and ponder. I will make time to read more and write more and link more. Thank you X

  13. Dusk is one of my favorite words! I wrote down The Diary for immediate searching. I have many Goudge books and a list of a few I've missed but somehow I've never heard of this one. I discovered C.S. Lewis in my 30s and plowed through them. What is there about them? I look forward to meeting him above someday.

    I love whole books of letters between a famous person and others as well as all kinds of biographies. But I admit to liking novels to be either all letters, as in 84, Charing Cross Rd, or only occasional insert of letters. I am strange, I guess, in that I'm just not fond of authors using letters to advance the story. But...I haven't read some of the others you show and might love them. I love Daddy Long Legs the movie but have never read the book.

    I want so much to completely give in to Nicole's philosophy, used to be a bookaholic in younger days. Trying to give myself permission to be that again!

  14. I also enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

    My favourite epistolary book for kids is the Jolly Old Postman which has letters you can take out of the picture book!


To My Beautiful Readers,

Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same. ~ Franz Peter Schubert

Thank you so much for leaving your 'footprint' here in my comment box. I do appreciate you taking a moment to share your thoughts today.

Brenda xo