The word epistolary is derived through Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter. An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters. The epistolary form can add greater realism to a story, because it mimics the workings of real life
The founder of the epistolary novel in English is said by many to be James Howell (1594–1666) with “Familiar Letters”, who writes of prison, foreign adventure, and the love of women.
There are two theories on the genesis of the epistolary novel.
The first claims that the genre originated from novels with inserted letters, in which the portion containing the third person narrative in between the letters was gradually reduced. The other theory claims that the epistolary novel arose from miscellanies of letters and poetry: some of the letters were tied together into a (mostly amorous) plot.
The first truly epistolary novel, the Spanish “Prison of Love” (Cárcel de amor) (c.
1485) by Diego de San Pedro, belongs to a tradition of novels in which a large number of inserted letters already dominated the narrative
The epistolary novel as a genre became popular in the 18th century in the works of such authors as Samuel Richardson, with his immensely successful novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1749). In the novel Pamela, the female narrator can be found wielding a pen and scribbling her diary entries under the most dramatic and unlikely of circumstances.
The first North American novel, The History of Emily Montague (1769) by Frances Brooke was written in epistolary form.
There are three types of epistolary novels: monologic (giving the letters of only one character, like Letters of a Portuguese Nun and The Sorrow Of Young Werther), dialogic (giving the letters of two characters, like Mme Marie Jeanne Riccoboni’s Letters of Fanni Butlerd (1757), and polylogic (with three or more letter-writing characters, such as in Bram Stoker’s Dracula)