Epsitolary Joys

One of my favorite types of books to read (or write) is the epistolary novel. That’s a novel written as letters, in case you were wondering. It’s one of the few times present tense and/or changing tense doesn’t bother me when I read a novel-length piece of work.

As a writer, historical letters are a wonderful way for me to understand a period of time when I want to set something in another era. Reading collections of letters set in that time, by a wide array of individuals across professions and economic ranges gives me more of a picture of concerns, interests, and desires than a history book, or even a newspaper article. Because letters are about personal response to an issue or an event.

Diaries are another primary source I love to read when I’m researching an era. Of course, both diaries and letters are subjective, rather than objective. They were written from an individual’s point of view. But that’s what makes them so interesting. They’re not objective. You can see into the heart of the writer — even when the writer tries to obscure that heart, or put on a mask for others.

When I get stuck while writing a novel, I’ll often write a few letters between the characters, from different points of view. Those aren’t used in the novels themselves, for the most part, but they get me past the stuck parts, because I get to the heart of what’s bothering the characters. Then I can figure out what they’re trying to hide and why. I can build and move forward from there.

I had pen pals all over the world for many years. I loved it. In the third grade, our class in Rye, New York, wrote to a class in Rye, England. For years, I stayed in touch with my pen pal, and even got to visit her more than once when I was in England.

I admit, I don’t write enough letters now, although I’m trying to get back into it. I do write Christmas/Holiday cards. It’s one of my great joys of the season. Writing a personal note in the card makes me feel connected. It makes me feel I let each person know that they matter enough to take the time to find the card, to write the card, to mail the card.

Letters are about connection, which is why I like them so much in both fiction and non-fiction.

Some of my favorite collections that rely on letter writing and/or diaries:

84 CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff (non-fiction)
POSSESSION by A.S. Byatt
GRIFFIN AND SABINE by Nick Bantock
THE PULL OF THE MOON by Elizabeth Berg
THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova
LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (multiple volumes, non-fiction)
WORDS IN AIR (correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell, non-fiction)
JANE AUSTEN: LETTERS (non-fiction)

By far, the best book on diaries and their writers is A BOOK OF ONE’S OWN by Thomas Mallon.

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From the Stacks at Marstons Mills: LOOKING FOR ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

LOOKING FOR ANNE OF GREEN GABLES: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic by Irene Gammel. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 2008.

I loved ANNE OF GREEN GABLES as a kid, and was delighted to receive it in hardcover, along with its sequels, over a period of years. I found copies of the EMILY books, PAT OF SILVER BUSH, etc. in thrift shops, and gobbled them up, too. Yes, as I grew older, I recognized the idealistic/unrealistic environment of the books. I alternated between getting irritated by it and feeling comforted by it.

A few years ago, I added copies of L.M. Montgomery’s journals to my personal library of journals and letters. Five volumes of “Selected Journals”, edited by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, ordered out of Canada, and AFTER GREEN GABLES: L.M. Montgomery’s Letters to Ephraim Weber, 1916-1941 (which Strand Books tracked down to me). One of the things that surprised and saddened me was how unhappy Montgomery was in her diaries. What gets frustrating is her refusal to change what makes her unhappy. In 2008, the family’s revelation, via CBC that Montgomery committed suicide (link to article here) was another sad revelation. Gammel discusses this revelation in her review of Rubio’s biography of Montgomery that released in 2008 (link to review here).

On the one hand, it makes sense to whine in a diary. The diary is a place to deposit what stifles one’s soul, so that one can move on and make better choices. But in volume after volume, there isn’t an indication of making better choices — there’s a continued cycle of unhappiness and nasty comments about those around her. Since these are “Selected” journals, one has to wonder why these particular passages were selected — were they the most upbeat of the content? If not, why not choose a wider range of emotions? Choices?

Gammel’s book is much more upbeat. She doesn’t deny Montgomery’s sharp tongue or unhappiness, but she also reveals, through letters and journal entries marked as “unpublished” a much livelier, funnier, intelligent woman. Montgomery was determined to create her an identity for herself — ANNE allowed her to do it, although later in life than she would have liked. When Montgomery finally managed to travel to places like Boston, she was able to partake in intellectual and cultural events she dreamed of up in Prince Edward Island. The reader gets to see Maud taking and receiving pleasure from the reception of her work.

The chapter detailing the evolution and social context of “orphan fiction” is especially interesting. It traces inspirations for Anne and how other orphan girls named “Ann” set the stage for the beloved Anne Shirley, and places Anne in context with other popular characters of the time such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, the Pollyanna franchise, and Little Orphan Annie.

I consider setting as an additional character in well-written stories — if I read another Ye Olde Generic Scotland in a novel by someone who’s never visited Scotland or bothered to research properly, I am going to HURL — so Gammel’s exploration of the power of place and nature, and which settings inspired important locations in the book resonated strongly. Places such as Lover’s Lane, The White Way of Delight, the Lake of Shining Waters — all bring back fond memories both of the book itself AND memories connected with the experience of reading the books. That, I think, is one reason the books keep resonating, and people smile when they remember reading them.

The book is lively, well-written, thoughtful, and a good counterpoint to the sadder published journals. If you’re in the area, come by Marstons Mills Library yourself to check it out (and find other jewels in our collection), or order it via CLAMS network. I intend to track down and purchase a copy for my personal library, in addition to recommending it to library patrons whenever appropriate.

–Devon