Few people write letters any more. Not all that long ago, certainly within my lifetime, this epistolary art form was key to the enrichment and maintenance of relationships . And it is a critical part of the communication in ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ between Isabel (Isa), in far-off Norway and Christina (Kirsty) in Scotland. Without these letters, the sisters could not share aspects of their daily life. We hear their voices spiraling upwards from the page: words, shaped by gnawing worries or the smallest of homely concerns: words, touched by a tiny glint of hope or tainted by fear; words that capture a rapturous smile or resurrect a shared memory.
Isa and Kirsty are reported to have written to each other. I imagined them sending their precious rolled parchments across oceans – stormy or still; passionate in their desire to reach out and be a living, breathing part of the other’s life – to connect, to be heard, to be understood. So it was important for me as a writer to give them a voice once more, albeit seven hundred years later.
Letters are the most personal of dialogue. Written from the heart and in the privacy of the moment, they can be free of restrictions – the indrawn breath, the arched brow or the chilled narrowing of eyes – which cause the spoken word to be filtered or silenced. Written words can take shape and flow like a river across time. They enable intimacy to flower and allow differing points of view to emerge quite naturally.
It seems there are three types of epistolic novel: the monologic, where one character carries the dramatic tension forward, perhaps with diary entries; the dialogic, where two people write to each other; and the polylogic, involving three or more in some form of written communication.’Sisters of The Bruce’ falls into the latter group for Isa and Kirsty are joined by Robert and another sister, Mathilda, as the events of war combine to restrict activities and personal freedom. These first person accounts bring realism and add flesh to history’s dry, old bones.
I love the word epistolary! It rolls off the tongue like ink off a quill. Derived from the Greek word, epistle, meaning a letter, it elevates a relatively ordinary physical act to an art form!
Many writers, past and present, have used the device of letters, diary entries or other variants to facilitate a more intimate level of communication. Here are just a few, but no doubt, there are lots more. It seems ‘Sisters of The Bruce’ is in fine company!
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
We Need to talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Maryann Schaeffer & Ann Barrows
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell