Musings + Essays


By: Jen Shoop

The form of the epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of letters or documents) gained popularity in the 18th century, especially among female authors and readers — a phenomenon I studied in graduate school in a course that examined the intersection of literary form and feminism in 18th century novels. I was thinking about this the other day, about the way we’d discussed epistolarity as a means to create a uniquely intimate and largely gendered space, one where a (often female) protagonist can speak directly to a specific, named audience, and usually in informal terms, by invoking shared points of reference and the personal lexicon one cultivates with dear friends. Women authors, readers, and protagonists tend to be more heavily represented in this form because women (for complex reasons) have historically tended to find themselves drawn or relegated to private, intimate, “inside” spaces, be it the home or the venue of the letter.

I think, too, the form of the epistolary novel makes visible the process of self-creation — that is, the way we as humans are always and forever engaged in the process of defining ourselves — because we see the protagonists in these novels at work, demonstrably putting pen to paper, in their self-presentation to another. What the protagonist chooses to include in her account, how she chooses to explain her reactions, why she leaves something out: all of these decisions force us as readers to inspect how she is defining and sharing herself, how she is shaping her identity for her reader’s consumption. And so, as readers of epistolary novels, we are asked to grapple with multiple layers of mediation, as the narrative arrives filtered through the voice of the author, the voice of the protagonist, the implied voice of the intended recipient of the letter. In this sense, the epistolary novel inherently interrogates the stability of identity as the form calls attention to the complex ways in which we veil and unveil ourselves through various signals, silences, and expressions.


That’s a lot for a Tuesday morning and I apologize for my regression into an academic patois. The phrase “makes visible the process of self-creation” brought me straight back to the stacks of Georgetown University library, to a kind of stick-straight, awkward-in-the-mouth jargon I adopted to keep pace with classmates and professors and the critical writings we were reading together.

But I felt compelled to foreground what I am about to say in a literary tradition because–

Sometimes I sit here at my laptop and reflect, with some measure of seriousness, on what I am doing. On one level, this blog is a creative space for me to configure and organize beautiful things with the ambition of designing a mindful, efficient, aesthetic-conscious life and sharing my findings with like-minded women. On another level, this blog affords me the room to engage in self-discovery — to write to know what I think — as I reflect on the various phenomena in my life. But on yet another level, this blog seems to me a nonfiction adaptation of the epistolary form. It is a uniquely intimate space designed by one woman for many other women (and maybe a few men? I see you, Eric.), and in the form of a series of digital letters. It is me, writing to you. Soliciting your input. Intuiting your reactions, and — occasionally — your opprobrium. Every comment and email I receive shapes the evolutionary form of this blog, providing me with authorial guardrails to grip (“ah, yes, they will like this!”; “no, they’ll slap me on the wrist for that!”) and enriching my own perspective in the wildest of ways. I have learned so much from so many of you, often on the topic of rearing children but also on subjects like what to read next and how to approach meal-planning and why we must cling to our mothers and words to strike from my vocabulary (thanks to you, will never use the phrase “forgiving to a postpartum figure” again — what’s to forgive?! — and now know I’ve been grossly misusing the term “coparenting” for some time). (I implore you to read all of the comments!)

Yes, when I sit back, I like to think of this blog as a string of letters to a tribe of super smart, highly motivated, extraordinarily empathic women who are navigating all the complexities of adulthood right alongside me, cheering me on, chastising me when I need it, passing along a gentle suggestion or a fervent tip — but usually head-nodding gamely and reminding me that I am not, ever, alone. Even if I don’t hear from you in the comments or via email, I feel your presence and think of you always when I am sitting down to write. When I edit my longer-form pieces, I read through the prism of your anticipated reactions. “But what would someone going through x think of this?” and “But if I were to play devil’s advocate here, what…?” It’s in a sense a peculiar way to understand myself and the world around me — sort of like journaling, in public — but it always, without fail, affords me perspective I desperately need as I engage in the serious work of self-definition as a 30-something woman, with all the roles that label entails.

And, well —

Grazie mille.


Post Scripts.

+More pearl hair accessories FTW — this one only $9.

+A lewk you need in your closet.

+Super love this pleated midi knit skirt.

+Pretty pearl earrings.

+These strappy sandals were ALL over fashion week. Y or N?

+Similarly, I saw a lot of “high-necked” ballet flats, i.e., ballet flats that don’t show any toe cleavage. I am not sure how I feel about the shape, but they are very on trend. I’m intrigued to the point of considering these Mansur Gavriels, which you can monogram with the coolest shadow lettering!

+This gown is $128 and SO CHIC for an autumnal evening affair.

+At the opposite end of the spectrum: this gown is also SO CHIC for an autumnal evening affair, but will set you back a cool $825.

+Ordering this shirtdress for mini.

+9 things that surprised me about having a c-section.

+UM, check out this dupe for the The Row Ascot bag I was obsessing over last week.

+Nine years with Mr. Magpie.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

14 thoughts on “Epistolarity.

  1. I loved the epistolary form as a child and young adult (Ann M. Martin – of Babysitter’s Club fame – and Paula Danziger wrote two together that were my absolute FAVORITE), but have lost interest in the genre since (I did not like Guernsey! Unpopular opinion, I know.)

    However, I love your noodling thoughts on the blog as epistle, and I must say I agree. The best blogs are the ones that have not lost the sensation that you are reading a sincere letter from a friend.

    I also love that you write “to know what you think” – how Didion of you! Her line in “Why I Write,” where she states that she writes to find out the “images that shimmer around the edges,” has stuck with me ever since I read it while training to be a writing assistant in college. You brought it front of mind this evening with your words.

    No other thoughts beyond these, other than this post resonated. Thank you for giving us these glimpses into your self-creation. What a treat.

    1. Ah! Annie. What a beautiful comment and set of observations. I have re-read it several times and, not knowing what line of work you are in, must convince you to consider adding writing to your daily activity set if it isn’t already prominent.

      I love that quote by Didion, too. Per usual, her writing is curiously dead-on-the-nail and yet evocative and rich with suggestion. I don’t know how she does it…

  2. Loved this post. I’m always amazed to find myself coming back here so often. I like the dialogue. I’m not a whole lot like you in many ways and gasp at many of your selections ($$$$) and ideas about what is necessary to have and do in this life. Yet the intellectual, open, real, and inquiring tone is one that pushes my comfort zone and makes me think. I often find myself writing almost-comments and almost-emails to you in my mind. It really does feel like an epistolary novel insofar as there is a lot of oblique communication and knowing…if that makes sense.

    And then sometimes I also find the jeans I’ve been looking for for ages!!!!

  3. Yes yes yes to the blog as epistle, even if its etymologic origin is in the ship’s log book. The funny thing is, the epistolary novel is one of my least favorite forms (all tell; no show), yet I love blogs that lean into this quality. Maybe because, as you say, the blogger is directly addressing the reader, while the epistolary novel’s characters tend to be addressing one another. Anyways — to the commenter asking for suggestions: I did like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Wicked fun, if not as nostalgia-inducing as Cruel Intentions.

    1. Oo, never read that! And love the etymology lesson — bring it, Claire. Can always count on you to further situate my thinking. That’s interesting about your distaste for the epistolary novel. I know what you mean, but I find the form so rich and complex. So many nooks and crannies to investigate, so much instability — you’re really reading between the lines (and the letters, ha).


  4. Any recommendations in this genre? I’m always looking for something new to read.

    On the lighter end, I really enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

    1. Hi Jen — Let me think on this a bit more but what immediately came to mind was Ruth Ware’s “Turn of the Key,” which I just finished last night and thought was an EXCELLENT thriller. I’m going to write more about this next week, but I found it exceptionally well-done, with the exception of the ending. But, it’s written as a series of letters and definitely worth reading. The form makes it ultra-intriguing and distabilizing.


      1. And PS – have heard good things about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society! Will add to my to read list.


  5. I love this thought. In high school & the early years of college, I used LiveJournal (ha!) and found it to have many of the same sort of epistolary qualities, in that I wrote and could always depend on either uplifting or critical feedback from my friends. I always love reading your writing and also love reading the comments from the other members of this community you’ve created! Thank you for fostering such a rich, thoughtful environment in which we can explore topics both serious and more fluffy.

    YES to the MG ballet flats. They have the perfect vamp that follows the trend without being too TOO, in my opinion. (I am also partial to anything they make, and the monogram option is just too good!) xx

    1. You are right — MG tends to walk the super-fine line between too out-there and just-wearable. I feel the same way about Loeffler Randall — I’m usually about a season behind in terms of trendiness and it takes me a little stretch of time to catch up. Ha.

      Thank you also for the incredibly sweet and supportive note! I agree — and I personally like the balance of lighter fare with heartier stuff.


Previous Article

Next Article