Epistolary novels are unique not only in structure but in the way they allow plot to develop. Some novels thrive in this form thanks in large part to authors that are especially adept at manipulating the letters to deliver information and plot without it appearing to be a story contrived and condensed merely for the written word. Writing an epistolary novel is more difficult today simply because there are more forms of communication. Today when any sort of distance separates people there are myriad ways to close that distance. Now it is rare to even receive a postcard and the only direct written communication are generally email and text messages. I refuse to count Twitter as a tool of legitimate communication. In addition to email and text messages we also have the ability to communicate by video chat or the less and less popular telephone. A modern epistolary novel would require an amalgamation of all written communication between characters in a story, which would be quite difficult. The only one I have read recently was in the form of a journal.
The most frustrating thing about an epistolary novel is the dialogue. In no letter or email or journal do you write extended dialogue that occurred. Not only does it make the narrator unreliable because it would be impossible to remember three pages worth of dialogue accurately but it just looks unrealistic. Thankfully Frances Burney’s epistolary novel Evelina benefits from being written before the advent of the telephone so there is not a dearth of information in each letter due to several contrasting tools of communication. Burney’s characters also wrote actual letters that told stories. A standard novel that is as lacking in dialogue as Evelina would be dry and would likely be hard to distinguish from an essay but because of the novel’s form and the fact that each letter has carries the distinct voice of its author it is not difficult to embrace the story and follow it like any other. Burney does utilize dialogue from time to time but they are generally small and isolated instances that are sunken in among large chunks of narrative voice that tells each story, as one would traditionally expect to read in a letter.
Point of view is extremely important in any novel but never more so than in an epistolary novel. While Burney’s novel is the story of Evelina it is told through various points of view instead of just Evelina in the first person. Establishing the individual voices in the points of view of each letter writer is a very difficult thing to achieve but it is successful nonetheless. Evelina’s voice is always the most distinctive and most present and the people she interacts with on a regular basis offset this. In crafting Evelina, Burney did an excellent job of distinguishing from whom each letter is coming from and who it is going to while still maintaining a focus on Evelina. This is evidence that this unique structure was well handled by Burney.