10 Epistolary Novels Worth Reading

These famous epistolary novels from classic literature display some of the best and most interesting uses of this literary form. You can find epistolary fiction across all genres of literature, from horror to satire to coming-of-age novels. There’s something for everyone!

Copies of the epistolary novel Frankenstein with red and black covers against a white background

My favourite epistolary novel is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, a book whose existence I stumbled upon in high school. I had not read many epistolary novels before then, just Anne of Windy Poplars and a few “diary novels.” But I had read plenty of Victorian fiction, so I thought I knew what that period of literature was like.

The Woman in White was a whole different beast.

I was fascinated by the format of testimonials and letters, which gave the novel a sense of almost courtroom realism: everything was laid out with the purpose of reconstructing the chain of events, unbelievable as they may seem. Through their writings, some of the characters spoke with sincerity and urgency, others with reluctance, one in particular with triumph and arrogance. Reading the book probably had a similar effect on me as it did on its first readers. All hail Wilkie Collins.

As I discovered, epistolary novels give you a sense of intimacy with the protagonists as you hear their thoughts revealed. The format can also lend itself well to unreliable narrators; the letter-writer or diarist may be consciously curating the information they present, withholding and self editing for their own purposes.

Epistolary literature is a unique and powerful form when done well, and depending on the book it can vary dramatically from playful to ominous. I’ve got examples of both in this list of best epistolary novels, so let’s dive in!

If you’re participating in our 2024 Classics Reading Challenge (and it’s never too late to join!), April’s theme is to read an epistolary novel.

10 Examples of Epistolary Novels from Classic Literature

Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded (Oxford World's Classics)

Pamela by Samuel Richardson (1740)

One of the first English novels, Pamela is also an epistolary novel and was the sensation of its day–inspiring sequels, stage adaptations, paintings, and Pamela “merchandise” like fans and tea cups depicting scenes from the book.

The book is made up of Pamela’s letters to her parents as she navigates a tricky situation with her employer. Pamela is a maid at a grand estate, but her employer makes increasingly pointed advances towards her, and Pamela strives to stick to her morals under the pressure. Pamela remains a controversial novel to this day: it’s both feminist and–as might be expected from a 300-year-old novel–also problematic. Regardless of where you land on the message, it’s great entertainment and highly readable. 

Richardson followed up Pamela with another epistolary novel, Clarissa, which was also a huge commercial and critical success.

For a nice discussion of Pamela and its background, read this article (warning, it does contain spoilers for the novel’s outcome).

Dangerous Liaisons (Penguin Classics)

Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782)

Published just before the French Revolution, this novel is a collection of letters by members of the aristocracy, primarily the vengeful Madame de Merteuil and her partner in crime, womanizer Vicomte de Valmont. Together, the two wreak havoc on the lives of the virtuous and innocent around them, attempting to seduce, deceive, and ruin for the sake of revenge–or just for the sake of their own amusement.

If you read this, be prepared for despicable characters and scandalous drama with none of the Victorian restraint of later novels. But, it’s one of the most masterful and famous examples of epistolary literature, and I can’t not include it, doubly negative though the main characters may be.

The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (Oxford World's Classics)

The Wild Irish Girl by Sydney Owenson (1806)

The Wild Irish Girl is an Irish epistolary novel that quickly reached bestseller status, aided by the fact that England and Ireland had unified only six years previously. The primary letter writer, Horatio, is an English aristocrat and “bad boy,” who is banished to his father’s estate in Ireland to mend his ways. Once there, Horatio falls under the charm of the land–and under the charm of the erstwhile princess Glorvina. Unfortunately, Horatio discovers that his own ancestors are responsible for the demise of Glorvina’s family. His solution? Pose as a poor artist so Glorvina’s family won’t hate him.

Related: Here are more Irish classics by Irish authors.

Frankenstein (Pretty Books - Painted Editions) (Harper Muse Classics: Painted Editions)

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

This story of Victor Frankenstein’s quest to “unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” is actually a series of concentric narratives. At its heart, it is the Creature’s story, told to Frankenstein, who in turn is telling his tale to a sea captain, who is recording it all in letters to his sister.

This series of eye-witness, first-person narratives lends veracity to fantastical events, but also gives the reader more distance from the story, so you have the opportunity to do what you will with the information, and judge for yourself among the colossal issues the book raises: what responsibility does a creator have to their creation? What are the boundaries and ethics of humans using science to “play God”? How do we live with the tension of fate vs. free will?

The women in white

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1860)

Inspired by a real-life encounter that Collins had, protagonist Walter Hartright is walking along a moonlit road outside London when he meets a mysterious woman dressed all in white. He helps her on her way, but later learns that she has escaped from a nearby asylum. Walter can’t get the woman out of his head, little knowing that his future is inextricably tied with her past, and that he will be one of the chief agents in bringing a terrible crime to light.

The novel is made up of Walter’s testimony, as well as testimonies, diary entries, and letters from other characters caught up in the web of intrigue.

Related: Get more Gothic fiction recommendations in this post.

Dracula: Collector's Special Edition (Deluxe Illustrated Classics)

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Dracula is a literary successor to The Woman in White, and the two novels were often compared when Stoker published his masterpiece. Like the earlier novel, Dracula is composed of various diary entries and testimonies, but Stoker included additional mediums as well: newspaper clippings, telegrams, and even a ship’s log. Together, the documents tell a strange tale, beginning in the Carpathian mountains in the castle of the vampire Count Dracula, all the way to England, where a small team of people band together to stop Dracula from turning London into his new hunting grounds. 

Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy (Penguin Classics)

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (1912)

When orphan Judy Abbott gets a scholarship to attend college, she’s so thrilled that she doesn’t mind the one condition of the scholarship: she must write monthly letters to her anonymous sponsor, without ever expecting a reply in return. Judy once saw her sponsor’s long-legged shadow, so she nicknames him “Daddy-Long-Legs” and dutifully writes letters (illustrated with humorous stick drawings) which display her playful nature and–over time–her personal growth.

Related: I also feature this book in my list of Books Like Anne of Green Gables.

Farthing Hall (Pocket Classics)

Farthing Hall by Hugh Walpole and J. B. Priestley (1929)

This lighthearted epistolary novel is a collaboration between two author friends, who write as two fictional friends exchanging letters. Walpole writes as Mark, a young painter, while Priestley takes the part of Robert, a middle-aged Oxford academic. The men write about their love lives: Mark has fallen for a poor girl from the Lake District, while Robert is under marital strain with his wife. 

Walpole and Priestley were very popular writers in the early and mid 1900s, respectively, but they are hard to find in print now. If you want to read Farthing Hall, you’ll need to look for used copies online, put in an interlibrary loan request at your local library, or borrow online. (Find additional cataglogue listings here.)

Anne of Windy Poplars (Official Anne of Green Gables, 4)

Anne of Windy Poplars by L. M. Montgomery (1936)

The fourth book in the Anne of Green Gables series, Anne of Windy Poplars (also published as Anne of Windy Willows) has a very different feel from the others as it’s the only epistolary novel of the bunch. Anne is in her 20s in this novel, freshly graduated from Redmond College and now serving as the principal of Summerside high school. Her fiancé Gilbert is away at medical school, and the bulk of the novel consists of Anne’s letters to him, describing the people she meets and confiding her difficulties with the town’s less welcoming residents.

Interestingly, although the fourth chronologically, Windy Poplars was the seventh novel Montgomery wrote in the Anne series. My theory about the unique format for this novel is that Montgomery had a bit of Anne fatigue by then and simply wanted to try something a little different!

The Screwtape Letters (The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics)

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942)

Before writing his bestselling children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia in the 1950s, Lewis was already a prolific writer, and his epistolary novel The Screwtape Letters (definitely not a children’s novel) was his biggest hit. The book is a series of letters written by a demon named Screwtape as he mentors his nephew Wormword in the art of tempting a human man away from virtue, with the ultimate goal of feasting on him in hell.

Through this satirical lens, Lewis invites reflection on our own moral choices and our capacity for apathy and self-delusion but also resistance to temptation.

Related: Learn more about C. S. Lewis and his literary circle in this guide to the Inklings.

Blue feather quill pen on old-fashioned stationery.

Do you like the epistolary form as a literary technique? What epistolary novels would you add to this list?

P.S. Looking for a contemporary epistolary novel? The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is my favourite epistolary novel from more recent years. And Dear Mr. Knightley is a fun modern retelling of Daddy Long-Legs.

If you want a complete self-education in all types of classic fiction, my post on 101 Classic Books to Read Before You Die is a must-read!

10 Epistolary Novels Worth Reading

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16 Comments

  1. I really like The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L Sayers. I don’t think it’s one of her better regarded novels but I really did enjoy it. More modern, I enjoyed Ella Minnow Pea which was inventive and made me think about words in a different way. Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith was also good. And Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is on my short list. Unpopular opinion, but I did not like the Guernsey novel! I just don’t like the “Meg Ryan/ The Baxter” trope, but that is just me!

    1. I have not read that Sayers novel! I didn’t realise she’d done any epistolary novels, so that’s very interesting! Gilead is very good. There are a lot of nice turns of phrase in that one that I was writing down! I am not in a big rush to read the others in the series, even though I enjoyed Gilead…the characters did not particularly grab me. But I will probably return to the other books at some point. To be honest, I don’t really remember much about the romance in Guernsey, but what really won me over is the way those “ordinary” folk on the island were won over by great books, even though they hadn’t been readers before. Are you talking about the romance with the Meg Ryan/The Baxter trope? I haven’t seen many Meg Ryan movies, actually, so I’m not familiar with that, ha! I’ve seen You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle.

  2. Thank you, Elsie, for your interesting suggestions – from your list I read Daddy-Long-Legs and The Screwtape letters and loved both. I should probably re-read those; it’s been a long time!
    I’d like to suggest “Business as usual” by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford (1933) which is an illustrated epistolary novel about a young woman fresh out of university who is determined to support herself by her own earnings in London for a year, despite the resentment of her surgeon fiance. It is funny and has lovely stick illustrations.
    A modern addition would be “Love & Saffron” by Kim Fay which is a “novel of friendship, food and love”.

  3. I adore the epistolary genre!! And I’ve only read 4 of 10 on your list so I’m going to hunt these down immediately. 🙂 Thank you, Elsie!

    A deliciously light and fluffy, but satisfying YA epistolary novel is “Sorcery and Cecilia (or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot).” Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer each took on the role of a regency debutante and sent each other letters in real life. It’s so fun.

    1. Sorcery and Cecilia sounds really fun! I’ve added it to my library check-out list! (Are you the Shannon from Michigan, by any chance?? Because of course when I think of epistolary novels, I think of Guernsey and The Lunch Collection!)

  4. 84 Charing Cross Road (Helene Hanff) is a great non-fiction epistolary piece; a memoir of sorts. It consists of letters between booksellers in NYC and London, beginning in the time of WWII and spanning 20 years. A short read, but a treasure for book lovers and history enthusiasts.

  5. Thank you for mentioning this one. If you hadn’t, I certainly would have, as it’s my favorite!

  6. “This one” meaning 84 Charing Cross Road. The sequel, “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” is a straightforward narrative and has its charms, but “84” has my heart.

  7. Hi, first time posting.
    I’m finishing Frankenstein right now and loving it. This year was unexpected as I never thought I would like Gothic genre book, but, I love every one I’ve read so far

    1. Thank you for posting! I’m so glad you were willing to give a book a try that was outside your usual interest–and that’s awesome that it was a positive experience, too! I’m quite fond of the Gothic genre. The Woman in White and The Italian are two of my favourites, and although long, they are very readable and don’t feel like a slog at all! Oh, and Dracula is another favourite.

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