Books that Make Me Want to Write Letters

June 22, 2011 @ 5:16 pm | Filed under:

The old-fashioned kind, with paper and stamps and fountain pens, even scratchy-nibbed ones.

You can blame this list on Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray, who recently compared John Hall’s Correspondence to 84, Charing Cross Road:

“…in that it’s an epistolary novel about books but it’s much more informative. A retired bank clerk finds a cache of letters from his great great grandfather from Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, etc and enters into an email correspondence with Christie’s about selling them. Over the course of the months that follow he not only learns more about his ancestor but the literary greats themselves. As someone who never spent time with literature before it’s all a bit of a brave new world and he enjoys seeing what he missed. I liked all of that – a lot actually – it was only in the end that it sort of dropped off a bit. I thought there was a real friendship between the retiree and Christie’s seller he’d been emailing but it’s almost like Nash wasn’t sure how to end it. (Of course CHARING CROSS ROAD is the model for perfect endings -sad but brilliant.) Still a good read but a bit shy of wonderful.”

—Which immediately and overwhelmingly filled me with nostalgic affection for Charing Cross Road and for my first year in New York City. I don’t remember how I came across Helene Hanff’s wonderful collection of letters, but I first read it right after I moved to New York, and my early experiences there were highly colored by Hanff’s book. I remember taking it to Central Park and attempting to identify all the flowers she mentioned in the passage about the Shakespeare Garden.**

After Colleen’s post, I simply had to read 84, Charing Cross Road again, but I couldn’t find my old copy. The new (used) one arrived today, and it’s a wonder I am here writing at all—the first page swept me right back in. 1949, Saturday Review of Literature, underlined typewritten titles, a request-by-mail to an overseas seller of out-of-print books: it’s impossible not to read the opening letter without a wry awareness of the difference between the way Miss Hanff seeks to obtain her yearned-for old books, and the way I rapidly and effortlessly obtained my copy of hers. Click, click, click, and two days later a man in brown places a copy on my doorstep. Marvelously convenient, but no hope of the slowly unfolding relationship between thoughtful and humorous minds like the one that develops between Miss Hanff and the London bookseller. What we have instead, today, is this—an online community of booklovers, a set of relationships that develop over time in comment boxes. And you know I relish it, am glad to live in this particular now.

But oh! just savor—


(It feels witless to keep writing “Gentlemen” when the same solitary soul is obviously taking care of everything for me.)

Savage Landor arrived safely and promptly fell open to a Roman dialogue where two cities had just been destroyed by war and everybody was being crucified and begging passing Roman soldiers to run them through and end the agony. It’ll be a relief to turn to Aesop and Rhodope where all you have to worry about is a famine. I do love secondhand books that open to the page some previous owner read oftenest. The day Hazlitt came he opened to “I hate to read new books,” and I hollered “Comrade!” to whoever owned it before me.

:::blissful sigh:::

Of course this got me thinking about other epistolary novels I have loved. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, obviously. Anne of Windy Poplars—not my favorite Anne book, and yet, for a certain stretch of years, one of my most frequently revisited novels. I loved Anne’s voice, given free reign in the letters, its warmth and humor. I know Montgomery went back and wrote Windy Poplars later, to fill in the gap between Anne of the Island (swoon) and Anne’s House of Dreams (the best Anne book next to Green Gables itself, not including Rilla of Ingleside in the comparison because that’s comparing apples and oranges, and they are both such delectable fruit)—but the sort of afterthoughtness of Windy Poplars in no way weakens it, and it’s inconceivable that P.E.I. could exist without a Rebecca Dew. (Who looks, by the way, in my mind’s eye, exactly like Guernsey Lit. Society‘s Isola. Or rather, Isola looks and sounds like Rebecca Dew—Canadian and British accents notwithstanding.)

What are your favorite epistolary novels?

Letter from New York

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38 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Charlotte (Matilda) says:

    Slightly off topic: Have you seen the 1986 movie of 84 Charing Cross Road? If you love the book, I think you will like the movie. It’s been a long time but I’m pretty sure they remained mostly true to the text. It stars a much younger Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, Judi Dench, and Ian McNeice. It used to be on Netflix instant watch, but isn’t anymore.

  2. Jennifer says:

    I was going to say the same as Charlotte — the movie is so excellent. Love the book, love the movie!

  3. Emily D. says:

    I suppose Dangerous Liaisons is not appropriate for a family website…but it is one of mine. 🙂 Also Jane Austen’s unpublished “Lady Susan.” So delightfully evil, these characters are!

  4. Mamalion says:

    You picked my top 2- Guernsey and 84. Love them both. Now I have to go dig up my copies….

  5. Colleen says:

    I third the vote for the movie – PERFECT casting and it stays 100% true to the book. It’s fabulous.

    Sigh. This book truly is perfect. I shall have to read it again right now as well!

  6. Karla @ Ramblin' Roads says:

    Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster has long been a favorite… and I recently discovered there’s a sequel, Dear Enemy, which I enjoyed just as much. They are both in the public domain and available free for Kindle!

    Anne of Windy Poplars is also one of my favorites in the “epistolary” genre.

  7. Melissa Wiley says:

    The 84CCR movie is now #1 in my Netflix queue. If it were instant view, we’d be watching it tonight. INSTANTLY.

  8. Susanne Barrett says:

    I adore 84 Charing Cross Road and Windy Poplars as well (although I agree, Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside rank right up there with the original Anne of Green Gables).

    I used to work as the correspondent at the old Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Bookstore in downtown San Diego (closed in ’92), typing letters (on a typewriter!) as I helped locate old HBJ books for customers around the world. So I always felt I lived 84 Charing Cross…so amazing!

  9. sarah says:

    I completely agree with you about Anne’s House of Dreams – and I love Anne of the Island too.

    Can I mention Dracula?

  10. priest's wife says:

    I just posted about some movies- I forget 84 Charing Cross Road- I must watch it again! (I’ve seen it at least 5 times, but years ago)

  11. Pam says:

    This is about your note in the postscript post: I think you might want her book on Manhattan- Apple of My Eye? I can’t remember the title exactly and our copy has disappeared, sadly. I think the garden could be in there.

    I loved all these books, and Windy Willows (as it is here in Australia) is maybe my favourite, except for Rilla.

    So glad someone mentioned Jean Webster!

    Oh and another lovely book in the public domain is Olive by Anna Buchan, or her pen name of O Douglas. She has others but I don’t think any are in letter form. Love this author, wish she was better known but not until I get all her books.

  12. Pam says:

    Oops, think it’s Olivia by Douglas.

  13. Gail Gauthier says:

    I was somewhat underwhelmed when I read 84, Charing Cross Road a few years back, but I can’t remember why. I thought it was nonfiction, though, and not an epistolary novel. Which means that either I was wrong then or I’m nitpicking now.

    This was a great post. I’ve tucked away in the back of my mind that I should try reading Daddy Long-Legs some day.

  14. Melissa Wiley says:

    No, Gail, I think you’re right in saying that 84CCR isn’t technically an epistolary novel—the letters are real, not fictional. I skirted this point in my post, lumping it in with epistolary fiction because it gives me the same feeling as Guernsey & Windy Poplars; I was too lazy, last night, to address the distinction. 🙂

    Susanne, what a fun job! You must have some terrific stories to tell!

    And now I’ve got to go look at this other Hanff book y’all have mentioned to see if it’s the Shakespeare Garden one.

  15. Karen Edmisten says:

    Oooh, we watched the movie awhile back — lovely. Isn’t anything with Anthony Hopkins? (Well, clearly that Hannibal guy isn’t especially lovely, but otherwise ….) 🙂 I should put it back in the queue for the girls.

  16. mary says:

    I found a great blog for kid’s books, reviewed by an 11 year old girl, that I wanted to share. Very cute site

  17. MelanieB says:

    Emily D. I slowly worked my way through Les Liasons Dangereuses in the original French some years ago (I was temping for a broker on the Boston Stock Exchange at the time, which was an experience in itself.) I think I love it in part because it’s one of the few books in French I’ve finished cover to cover though I read it because for some time I was very much obsessed with the film starring Glenn Close and John Malcovich. (Not sure why; but the story fascinated me.)

    It’s funny how some books really do take you to a specific time and place. That one for me is sitting on a high stool in front of a computer monitor with a yellow legal pad balanced under my book. The job was one where I had to rush, rush, rush to record data as transactions were made and then sit and wait wait wait until the next batch went through. The perfect job for struggling with a foreign language. Nowadays I don’t think I have the attention span to tackle a book in French.

    Other great epistolary books were the Griffin and Sabine series. Does anyone else remember them? They were picture books where you pulled the letters out of envelopes to read them. Gorgeous artwork with hand-drawn postcards and stamps. A sort of mystery story if I recall.

    I loved Guernsey & Windy Poplars. I think I must seek out 84 Charing Cross.

    I know there are other great epistolary novels but I can’t think of them just now.

  18. MelanieB says:

    Oh A.S. Byatt’s Persuasion, of course! One of my favorites. Though also not exactly family-friendly.

  19. Ellie says:

    Your comment about not being especially prone to writing letters made me laugh, and then I began a thoughtful reply, but pulled up Pages to write a lengthy post instead! Thanks for the inspiration, it’s rather amazing where one thought will lead (thus the beauty of writing prompts, no? Although, I don’t always like those …). 🙂

    One of my favorite books for years was … Oh, shoot, I packed it away, what was it called … No idea, my mind can’t call it up. Two American women living in different areas of Africa in the 50s (60s??) with their diplomat/doctor husbands. Anyhow. A fascinating glimpse into domestic life under what were for them, unusual circumstances. They later agreed to publish them.

    Also always loved Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s set of books of her diaries and letters. Again, not fiction, but that’s what comes to mind.

    Windy Poplars was never my favorite, I think because first person Anne wasn’t quite as forthcoming! I always find myself wanting the wider picture, as the reader gets in the other books.

  20. Leslie says:

    Thank you for yet another suggstion. 84 is on hold at the library. I loved Guernsey as well. Of course I know you are speaking of novels but I couldn’t help from mentioning one of our favorite picture books that is letters written between a lovely little girl staying with her uncle during the depression and her parents and grandmother. The Gardener by Sarah Stewart. Lovely, lovely!

  21. Melissa Wiley says:

    Melanie, I was hoping someone would mention Griffin & Sabine. I ran out of time to include it last night. Loved that book. 🙂

    More wonderful suggestions, everyone—thank you!

    Ellie, your post was so lovely. Hoping to comment later when I can. 🙂

  22. mamacrow says:

    I love love LOVE diaries and letters, fictional or real….

    I love The Diary of a Provincial Lady, E.M.Delafield and the sequals (one is set in WWII, which is particularly awesome),

    The 3000 mile garden which is letters between Roger Phillips and Leslie Land,

    Joyce Grenfell’s diarys, and her letters – to her mother (Dear Ma) and with her best friend Virgina.

    I’m sure there are more, will have to go and scour the book shelves!

  23. Veronica Mitchell says:

    Another vote here for Daddy-Long-legs. A definite favorite.

    And I love Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, heartbreaking as it is.

    And I don’t remember the name, but one of James Thurber’s collections has a series of (fake?) letters between himself and a publisher, I think, that makes me howl with laughter. I still can’t pass the town Murfreesboro without snickering.

  24. Veronica Mitchell says:

    “File and Forget.” The Thurber piece was “File and Forget.” Ant it is also about ordering books, so it fits even better with the delightful Hanff book.

  25. Amy @ Hope Is the Word says:

    Hmmm. . .thinking about books with letters now. I’m thinking about how letters in some kids’ books, Hattie Big Sky and Moon Over Manifest specifically, help flesh out the story more. I can’t think of any strictly epistolary kids’ books, though, right off the top of my head. I’ve never read 84, Charing Cross Road, but since you’ve mentioned Anne of Windy Poplars and Guernsey in this post, I think I must!

  26. Melissa Wiley says:

    Dear Mr. Henshaw (by Beverly Cleary) is an epistolary middle-grade novel—quite a moving story, too. A one-sided correspondence, in that case: a young boy’s letters to his favorite author.

  27. mamacrow says:

    OMGOSH how could I forget Daddy Long Legs & Dear Enemy?! Two of my favourtist books EVER!

  28. Amy C. says:

    I’m enjoying this thread, which is also sending me sailing back through time. I wrote about Dangerous Liaisons when I spent my junior year in Paris. It was my first “real” paper in French . . . 50 pages of stumbling and one nicely-turned phrase (how pleased I was when my long-suffering roommate, who spent weeks helping me edit the thing, suddenly exclaimed, “Here! This is a nicely-turned phrase!” It only happened once, but it sustained me through the whole project.) I’m still glad I spent time on DL . . . It’s a twisted story, but a fascinating one.

  29. Amy C. says:

    and, while on the topic of twisted, fascinating, and epistolary, I can’t forget to mention The Screwtape Letters.

  30. Fanny Harville says:

    The English professor side of me urges you all to read Frances Burney’s _Evelina_ (1778), a wonderful epistolary novel and one that kindred spirits of Anne Shirley will love (also an important influence on Austen)!

  31. Heather C says:

    I’m late to the party, but I love Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and felt it needed to make the list! I’m excited to find some of the favorites mentioned here. Thanks so much!

  32. Gina Ruiz says:

    OMGOSH! I adored that book as well as the movie. This is a beautiful post that has me both wanting the smell of old ink on yellowed pages, wistful for that anticipation of a letter and wishing I could find more epistolary novels. Love them. I loved March by Geraldine Brooks, while not epistolary it gave me the inside view on the old letters Marmee read the girls in Little Women. Another favorite is the Griffin and Sabine series by Nicholas Bantock. Not only epistolary, but you can take the letters out and touch and read to your heart’s content.

  33. Melissa Wiley says:

    I *adored* Griffin and Sabine. I was working in a children’s bookstore when it went viral. We stocked it even though it wasn’t our market—it was captivating. For the longest time that book had me yearning to write beautifully decorated letters….

  34. Gina Ruiz says:

    Yes, i wish I had artistic talent like that. I would have made beautiful books. Sigh.

  35. Melissa Wiley says:

    “If I had ever learned to draw cleverly realistic stamps of fictitious island nations, I should have been a true proficient.”