Epistolary Form: Personal Letters

Michael Fagence (University of Queensland, Australia)

Dictionary explanations of the epistolary form usually refer to an etymological origin that stems from the Greek word epistole, meaning "letter. Although that remains a core element, this form has embraced entries made in private journals and diaries and excerpts from newspapers and magazines, emails, blogs, and transcripts of broadcasts and recordings over time. The purpose for drawing from such sources as these, whether for fiction or non-fiction, is often to lend some credence to statements made in the texts and to incorporate in those texts what may well be purported to be verbatim statements as if a conversation was taking place as if there was an exchange between an author and an addressee. Some commentators see these exchanges as potentially revealing the character and social status of both the writer and the designated recipient.

The epistolary form of personal letters has the potential to be a core source for stimulating imagination, travel, and tourism, not least because, as a nuanced form of literature, it can communicate both information and the inner-most thoughts and feelings of an author without them being subjected to the common trials and tests for authenticity and corroboration that are often sought for other forms of literature. Whilst in many periods of history, travelling to and engaging with places associated with events and even the day-to-day happenings of people such as artists and composers, military leaders, novelists, professionals of many kinds, prominent politicians, and radical thinkers was a commonplace activity for some sectors of the population, the frequently-mentioned democratisation of tourism and travel that grew apace through the twentieth century capitalised on the seduction that lies in any sources that expose the intimate thoughts that are often conveyed through personal correspondence, and especially diaries, letters and memoirs. Such is the level and scope of interest that it may be conceptualised as a particularised form of secular pilgrimage.

Many commentaries about the epistolic form claim that the essayist, poet, and satirist Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the first writer to have his correspondence published, with many of the so-called educated middle class of artists, novelists, professionals, and politicians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attempting to emulate his style and approach. Whilst this may be so, communication using the formula of the letter has a long and deep historical pedigree, with literary scholars following a trail from the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and the "cradle of civilisation" through the classic civilisations of the Greeks and Romans, into the more recent periods of various European nations as they experienced the tensions and opportunities of various cultural, ecclesiastical, economic, industrial, and social revolutions.

The history of letter-writing acknowledges that the accredited author has not written some letters but dictated them in some form and then transposed by a helpful accomplice whose literary and calligraphic skill have been pitched at a higher level or whose social position would be considered to be more appropriate. Although there are many examples of personal messages, including some so-called "love letters", that have been catalogued and prepared for public consumption, the more usual compilations refer to matters of "state", to economic, political, and social strategy, to administrative, business, and legal matters. Rather than the intensely personal letters, these have tended to be particularly protected and assembled for the record of history in published form or as manuscripts held in public record offices, libraries or museums.

Historians have concerns about the efficacy of what letters purport to say. One of these concerns is that personal letters are unlikely to have run the gauntlet of tests for accuracy, authenticity, even-handedness, political correctness, and reliability. Because of this, they may not be as scrupulously wholesome as the writers often claim. In addition, it is sometimes asserted that as personal letters are often written as a substitute for an oral dialogue, the choice of what to tell and how to tell it lies at the discretion of the writer, most of whom will not have an expectation that one day the letters may be exposed to public gaze and scrutiny.

Amongst the generally well-regarded examples of the non-fiction epistolary form is the record of the personal correspondence of British immigrants to North America in the nineteenth century (Gerber, 2006), the "between friends" exchanges in the Machiavelli-Vettori letters of 1513-1515 (Najemy, 1993), and the correspondence between the Italian essayist and poet Giacomo Leopardi and other intellectuals and poets (Shaw, 1998). As examples of the epistolary form of writing in novels, the most common citations refer to Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), which incorporated fictitious letters, diary entries and excerpts from newspapers, and C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1942) nominally written by a senior demon in Hell to his nephew who was a junior Tempter.

Letters and heritage-based tourism

A strong general case can be made that letters written in the past may give some insight into cultural, economic, political and social considerations prevailing at the time they were written. The image they create might not be accurate, of course, and that is the concern of historians. Even so, personal letters may be used as companions and complements to other sources of evidence such as journals, manuscripts, newspapers, transcripts of speeches and interviews, "official" documents produced by government agencies, artworks of various kinds, memorials and monuments, audio and video recordings, films, and photographs. Within this diversity of sources of communication, nuances can be found in personal letters to enrich contributions to the record of history.

To contribute to heritage-based tourism, there are three opportunities that can be derived from letterforms. One of these is from their actual materiality; another is access to them, either at the site where they were written or, most likely, where they have been carefully conserved in public record offices or museums. A third opportunity is derived from places referred to in the texts, each of which may hold the potential for tourism attraction and may include references to places of birth, sites and settings of events and happenings, places visited by the author, and even commentaries on contextual and backgrounding cultural, economic, political and social circumstances.

By way of an example, some of the most significant aspects of the story of the nineteenth-century Australian folk hero Edward (Ned Kelly) can be told through the medium of six of his letters (Fagence, 2022). Although initially intended by Kelly only for particular recipients, all of the letters are now in the public domain, with the original hand-written copies available for consultation through the Public Records Office (Melbourne), with a facsimile of the famous Jerilderie Letter on exhibition in the State Library of Victoria (Melbourne) and with full transcripts accessible through the Internet site https://www.ironoutlaw.com.The six Kelly letters (totalling almost 16,000 words) were composed through the period December 1878 to November 1990. They reflected on the groundswell of opposition to the Colonial government, highlighting the challenging living conditions of rural communities, police intimidation, and of the extravagant sentences handed down by a prejudiced judiciary, and the case being made is leavened with particular references to the impact of these matters on the members of his family. Kelly had little formal education and probably had little enthusiasm for writing up his own story as an autobiography or a suite of memoirs. So, although he is credited with the authorship of the six letters, two were most likely transcribed from his dictation by an accomplice (Kelly Gang member Joe Byrne), and four by a warder while Kelly was awaiting execution in Melbourne Gaol.

The significance of the six letters for heritage-based tourism accrues from their personalised interpretations of the backgrounding circumstances that contributed to what has been referred to as "the Kelly Outbreak" (1878-1880) and from the commentaries they provide – often expressed in vituperative and vulgar language – about particular people, places, settings, and spectacular happenings. These have come to provide both substance and shape to a regional pattern of tourism attraction, embellishing an already colourful story with tangible touristic attractions such as where two bank robberies took place, where two small-scale battles and an assassination occurred, where Kelly and the gang members hid from police patrols, and where Kelly spent his final months incarcerated in Melbourne Gaol. The first letters were addressed to a State parliamentarian, and the other five to the State Governor. Not one letter received a response.

In an unusual variation to the general differentiation between the use of the epistolary form in fiction and non-fiction, Peter Carey (2000) composed his Booker Award Prizewinning novel in the language style used by Ned Kelly in the most famous of the Kelly letters, the Jerilderie Letter (1879).

How to cite this dictionary entry: Fagence, M. (2023). Epistolary form: Personal letters. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

  • Altman, J. (1982). Epistolarity: Approaches to a form. Ohio State University Press.
  • Carey, P. (2000). True History of the Kelly Gang. University of Queensland Press.
  • Earle, R. (2016). Introduction: Letters, letter writers and the historian, In R. Earle (Ed.) Epistolary selves: Letters and letter writers 1600-1945 ,1-15 Routledge.
  • Fagence, M. (2022). The Jerilderie Letter and others: Using personal letters to enrich heritage-based tourism. In R. Baleiro & R. Pereira R (Eds.), Global perspectives on literary tourism and film-induced tourism, 53-69. IGI Global. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-7998-8262-6
  • Gerber, D. (2006). Authors of their lives. New York University Press.
  • King, R.S. (2018). Writing to the world. Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Najemy, J. (1993). Between Friends. Princeton University Press.
  • Shaw, P. (1998). The Letters of Giacomo Leopardi, 1817-1837. Routledge.
  • Stanley, L. (2004). The Epistolarium: On theorizing letters and correspondences. Auto/Biography, 12 (3), 201-135.