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Old 07-11-2012, 05:10 PM   #1
twowheels
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Classical Literature "Tropes"

Is it just me, or does it seem that a lot of the classics set the background by somebody writing letters while at sea?

Any other common tropes that people have noticed in the classics?
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Old 07-11-2012, 05:17 PM   #2
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I've never noticed that. They may have had characters write letters more, because that was the primary way people communicated before telephones and texting. But I haven't noticed that characters were especially likely to write letters at sea, they would only do this if they happened to be at sea already. Letter writing was common enough that no one at the time would have thought twice about it.
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Old 07-11-2012, 05:29 PM   #3
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The epistolary novel (a story told in the form of letters, newspaper articles, etc. - for example, "Dracula") was quite common, back in the day. Quite rare these days for a novel to be done completely in this style, though you can find ones that are partially told this way (such as the news reports acting as summaries of the aftermath in Stephen King novels like "Carrie" and "The Dead Zone").
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Old 07-11-2012, 05:40 PM   #4
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Ah, cool, a name for it! :-)

BTW, Dracula, and Frankenstein, (reading now, and also mentioned in that Wikipedia article) are two that I had in mind!
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Old 07-11-2012, 05:44 PM   #5
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And let us not forget Les Liasions Dangereuses Again, they certainly weren't at sea but they were definitely writing letters.
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Old 07-11-2012, 05:52 PM   #6
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Ah, cool, a name for it! :-)

BTW, Dracula, and Frankenstein, (reading now, and also mentioned in that Wikipedia article) are two that I had in mind!
Epistolary novels were very fashionable for a few decades ("The Moonstone" and "The Woman in White" are further examples), but I haven't noticed any particular trend for them to be set at sea, I have to confess.
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Old 07-11-2012, 06:24 PM   #7
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Is it just me, or does it seem that a lot of the classics set the background by somebody writing letters while at sea?
Can't say the thought has ever struck me, although I've read an immoderate number of classics.
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Old 07-11-2012, 06:31 PM   #8
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The epistolary novel (a story told in the form of letters, newspaper articles, etc. - for example, "Dracula") was quite common, back in the day. Quite rare these days for a novel to be done completely in this style, though you can find ones that are partially told this way (such as the news reports acting as summaries of the aftermath in Stephen King novels like "Carrie" and "The Dead Zone").
"Dracula" was pretty much the last mainstream novel to be written in epistolary form; they were considered rather passé by the time it was published in 1897, although I'm sure there must have been the odd one after that.
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Old 07-11-2012, 06:35 PM   #9
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Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia Wrede is an epistolary novel, as are the two sequels.
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Old 07-11-2012, 06:42 PM   #10
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Old 07-12-2012, 01:33 PM   #11
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"Dracula" was pretty much the last mainstream novel to be written in epistolary form; they were considered rather passé by the time it was published in 1897, although I'm sure there must have been the odd one after that.
I'm not sure what counts as mainstream, but I'd include "The Screwtape Letters" as a more recent epistolary novel.

I can't think of too many classic novels in which the background is set by writing a letter at sea, though. And it seems a little impractical - where would you mail the letter.

It's always interesting to read Trollope's bits about letter writing in his novels; Trollope used to work for the post office (in Ireland, I think) and there is occasionally a level of technical detail in them that wouldn't be out of place in a modern discussion of, say, iPads. In one instance, for example, a character who wants a letter to get somewhere sooner takes it not to the nearest post-box (because that will be picked up at time X by coach, and then taken to place Y, and won't make it to the station to be put on the mail train until the next day), but to a post-box a little farther on (because that mail will be picked up and taken directly to the station and will make it to the mail train on the same day).

In another case, he explains in great detail how a letter kept missing some people who were traveling to Switzerland...even though it was forwarded after them...which left the sender with the impression that they ignored the letter, leading to plot complications.

It's very interesting from out perspective how these people regard mail as the cutting edge of communications technology. I think there was some of this going on with epistolary novels from the 1700's, too; in addition to the advantages of the literary form, there is also the fact that people now live in a world where mail is fast and reliable enough that you can actually carry on a conversation by post.
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Old 07-18-2012, 03:57 PM   #12
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The epistolary format was extremely popular in the 18th century. Samuel Richardson's novels Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison were all "a Series of Letters," with the conceit that Richardson was the "editor." There were certainly prose novels being written during this time, as well (Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, for example). Les liaisons dangereuses has already been noted in this thread.

After Jane Austen's death, her sister left notes about the composition of Jane's novels. She noted that Sense and Sensibility was originally written (in the late 18th century, nearly 20 years before it was published) as a novel in letters, and later rewritten in prose. There is a theory that Pride and Prejudice was also originally a novel in letters (I don't think so; it is just a novel with a lot of letters in it). Of course Austen's novella Lady Susan is epistolary.

So yeah, it was a thing. But it became less common throughout the 19th century. Two contemporary epistolary favorites of mine: 84, Charing Cross Road (which was not even fiction) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

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Old 07-18-2012, 08:12 PM   #13
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Daddy Long Legs, by Jean Webster, is an epistolary YA novel published in 1912.
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