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Writing Activity: novels in the form of letters, inspired by Jane Austen’s childhood writing

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is one of the the greatest novelists to have written in English. Her novels are still widely read and have been adapted into movies and television series. Jane Austen began writing as a child, and now, finally, some of these childhood writings have been adapted into movies. Whit Stillman's 2016 movie Love and Friendship borrows its title from the work of the same name, written when Jane Austen was fourteen, but is actually based on Lady Susan, a novel that Austen probably wrote when she was nineteen although it was not published until much later. Both works are "epistolary" novels–novels written in the form of an exchange of letters. This form was common in the eighteenth century as the novel developed into a popular form of writing, and even one of Austen's more famous works, Sense and Sensibility, began its life as an epistolary novel. Another famous novel of the period, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) by Pierre Laclos, is also written in the form of letters, and in the end it is the discovery of one of the secret sets of correspondence that creates the climax of the story. That story, too, has been adapted into many theatre and movie versions including a version where the action is transported to a group of teenagers in New York City (Cruel Intentions, 1999).

Today, with the resurgence in correspondence through texting and email, the epistolary story is a format that once again makes sense for young writers.

One of the things that is exciting about a novel written in the form of letters is the scope it gives for the writer to unwittingly reveal themselves through the style and content of the letters the author has them write. There is no all-knowing narrator in the middle of the action ready to intervene to tell the reader who the characters really are, what the other perspectives might be, or what to look for. The writers of the letters (the characters) have to tell us everything themselves, without seeming aware that they are doing so. The characters who have to tell us, by telling the people they write to, where they are, what has happened, and how they feel–all of which might be different depending on who they are writing to (imagine: even if you are not inventing things, you would probably write a different letter to your best friend about how things are going and what you have been doing at summer camp than you would to your teacher or your grandparents). The skill of the author is, partly, devoted to giving the writers of the letters their own authentic voices, while at the same time making sure they (accidentally) give themselves away in the little hints they drop or the ways they tell their version of a story. It's a form that you can really have fun with.

Writing activity: Create a scenario with at least two characters and a problem, and choose a contemporary form of letter writing as your style: it could be text messages, emails, postcards, greetings cards, notes on school worksheets, or a combination of these and any other forms you can think of. Write at least 5 letters or messages from each of the characters to the others. Each one should reveal something about the action–carry it forward in some way–and reveal more information to the reader about the character, personality, and role in the action of the writer of the 'letter'.

Why not consult our pages on Juvenilia for links to some of the great authors' juvenilia, and watch some clips of the movies we have mentioned. You can also read some stories published in Stone Soup, such as "Kisses from Cécile" based on a real correspondence; a piece of historical fiction, "Julius's Gift", where letters are both part of the action and part of the narrative, and more recent ones like The Red and Blue Thread which incorporate text messaging great effect.

The full movie can be rented from Amazon.com and from Curzon Cinemas.

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