John Barth’s use of the epistolary form in Letters: A Novel certainly veers away from the form used by Samuel Richardson and Aphra Behn. Of course, the novel also owes its form to these early writers. Barth does honor Richardson with Lady Amherst’s labeling the author as Mr. B, the aggressor for Pamela’s virtue in Richardson’s novel; however, even this nod to the past has a reversal of roles with the aged woman attempting to circumvent the author’s laurels for her own benefit. The opening chapter is also Barth’s way of mocking the posturing he sees in academia, with its honorary degrees and political battles for power. Regardless of the motives behind his resurrection of epistolary narratives, Barth manages to honor the form’s origins throughout.
Unlike Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, in which the author uses the romanticized love letter, Barth uses the business cover letter to bring forth a story. The plot that Germaine unfolds to the author is full of the intrigue that Love Letters portrayed (and perhaps less dry too) with political power plays for University, and (local) congressional authority. The invitation, however, is perjured. It is an honest perjury since the writer admits her motives, but it is a perjury nonetheless because without the addendum of a postscript it was deceitful to offer the degree. By openly admitting the deception involved, it harkens back to stories like Behn’s, with Philander’s extramarital practices, the opening letter to Barth’s work admits the lack of felicity in letter writing.
Barth also hides references to Pamela, throughout the opening letter in the form of expectant puns. Aside from the obvious Mr. B moniker, Lady Amherst “must trust not to miscarry” (5) weaves a “tail like the spermatozoon’s far outmeasures its body” (11) and she “conceived [her] vow…to speak its own miscarriage” (4). The number of pregnancy references must relate in some way to Richardson’s Pamela, who frets over the dangers of birth in her own letters. The author then takes Germaine for his own creation, as Lady A, perhaps a 20th century Mr. B?
Barth not only honors and revives the epistolary novel, he also reminds the reader about its shortcomings. Barth makes the reader wait for 50 pages before he shows return correspondence to Germaine’s invitation. He reveals the extra level of perjury in his letter to the reader that epistolary novels will not necessarily have been written when they claim to be. Above all, Barth reminds that “every letter has two times, that of its writing and that of its reading, which may be so separated, even when the post office does its job, that very little of what obtained when the writer wrote will still when the reader reads” (44). Jack Spicer claims that “Time does not finish a poem” (162), so perhaps the question to end on is: Does time finish a letter?
Barth, John. Letters: A Novel. New York: Putnam: 1979. Print.
Spicer, Jack. “Imaginary Elegies I-IV.” The New American Poetry. Ed. Donald M. Allen. New York: Random House, 1960. 144-7. Print.