Why The Lightning Conductor?, Part I
My search for the next top public domain epistolary narrative
Like most of you (I assume), I have been obsessed with Dracula Daily. I have been especially charmed to receive letters as they occur within their story. I therefore sought out a list of novels with the following parameters:
Epistolary novel - primarily takes the form of ephemera such as letters, journal entries, newspaper clippings, etc.
Specific Dates - a lot of epistolary novels merely number their letters or start off with something like “Dear Diary” or “Dear God”, but I wanted ones whose entries had specific calendar dates attached to them
Common Domain - the book had to be out of copyright in the US so that I could freely share it
Fiction - because real-life collected letters of famous people tend to span many years and to be missing large chunks of time and of the narrative
Once I had collected 26 works (title and author) that fit these parameters, I added some further information to my list:
Dates - What are the begin and end dates of the narrative? Do they encompass multiple years?
Goodreads score - While I have some issues with Goodreads’ parent company Amazon, these scores make a good proxy for the all-important question, is this actually a good book?
1-paragraph synopsis - What is the book about?
The full list is at the bottom of this post, but based on this information and my own familiarity with a few of the titles and authors, I shortlisted several titles. “Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther” or “The Lightning Conductor: The Strange Adventures of a Motor Car” began soonest after Dracula ends (actually, on closer inspection, Fraulein Schmidt begins a few days before Dracula ends). Meanwhile, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, “Dangerous Liaisons” or “Clarissa” have the best name recognition (though none nearing Dracula). “Dangerous Liaisons”, “Daddy Long Legs”, “You Know Me Al”, “Letters From a Self Made Merchant”, “Set in Silver”, “Fraulein Schmidt etc” and “The Lightning Conductor” all have Goodreads scores over 3.80, with “Daddy Long Legs” the highest but taking place over 4 years (5 counting the sequel!).
Finally, I assembled a list that would allow my book club to read the works I was most interested in (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”, “Clarissa”, and “Daddy Long Legs” / “Dear Enemy”), with additional titles added to prevent any gaps of longer than a month in between narratives, beginning with Dracula (in between letters within narratives is another story).
The Lightning Conductor: The Strange Adventures of a Motor Car (Williamson) - November 12 to January 28
Time Grabber (Dickson) - February 16 to April 1
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe) - May 4 to December 20
Colonel Crockett’s Co-Operative Christmas (Hughes) - December 26, 1904 to Dec 28, 1905
Clarissa (Richardson) - January 10 to December 18 (at a rate of about 1.5 letters a day!)
Operation RSVP (Piper) - January 15 to October 30
Daddy Long Legs / Dear Enemy (Webster) - September 24 to mid October four years later / December 27 to January 31 one year later
If you stay for all of them (and no life events prevent me from continuing this newsletter), you will receive nearly eight years worth of epistolary narratives to your inbox! Though by all means, feel free to dip in and out based on interest and other time commitments.
It may seem that The Lightning Conductor is a bit of an afterthought in this process. A fair criticism, but it does have a high Goodreads score, a manageable length, and as I looked into it more, I became more interested in it. Stay tuned for Why the Lightning Conductor, Part II, where I discuss the elements of the Lightning Conductor that have caught my interest (and hopefully will catch yours too!).
Full List of Public Domain Epistolary Novels:
** Feel free to suggest more, as long as they meet the parameters listed above, or to start your own newsletter for any of the ones not on my schedule above - and let me know so I can subscribe!
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe) - May 4 to December 20 [novel]
Tells the tale of an unhappy, passionate young man hopelessly in love with Charlotte, the wife of a friend - a man who he alternately admires and detests. Greatly influenced later ‘Romanticism’ (referenced by Frankenstein, among others). *3.68
The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (Smollett) - April 2 to November 20 (plus two prologue letters, August 4 & 10 the following year, that might work better as teasers for the project) [novel]
Written as the letters of the five members of Squire Bramble's household sent as they journey around Britain, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker is a grouchy, very funny examination of how one story varies depending on who's doing the telling. Includes duels, imprisonments, failed romances and jealousies and an inconveniently overturned carriage, all recounted with coarse and satirical verve. *3.44
Dangerous Liaisons (Laclos) - August 3 to January 14 [novel]
Published in 1782, just years before the French Revolution, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a disturbing and ultimately damning portrayal of a decadent society. At its centre are two aristocrats, former lovers, who embark on a sophisticated game of seduction and manipulation to bring amusement to their jaded existences. While the Marquise de Merteuil challenges the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce an innocent convent girl, the Vicomte is also occupied with the conquest of a virtuous married woman. But as their intrigues become more duplicitous and they find their human pawns responding in ways they could not have predicted, the consequences prove to be more serious, and deadly, than Merteuil and Valmont could have guessed. *4.07
Letters of Two Brides (Balzac) - September 1823 (some letters only have months, not specific dates) to August 7, 1835 [novel]
The story concerns two young French women, Louise de Chaulieu (1805–1835) and Renée de Maucombe (born 1807), who become close friends during their novitiate at the Carmelite convent of Blois. When they leave the convent, however, their lives follow two very different paths. Louise chooses a life of romance, whereas Renée takes a much more pragmatic approach; but their friendship is preserved through their correspondence, which continues for a dozen years from 1823 through 1835. * 3.75
Poor Folk (Dostoevsky) - April 8 to September 30 [novel]
Makar Dievushkin Alexievitch is a copy writer, barely squeaking by; Barbara Dobroselova Alexievna works as a seamstress, and both face the sort of everyday humiliation society puts upon the poor. These are people respected by no one, not even by themselves. These are folks too poor, in their circumstances, to marry; the love between them is a chaste and proper thing, a love that brings some readers to tears. * 3.78
The Kempton-Wace Letters (Jack London & Anna Strunsky) - August 14 to December 18 the following year [novel]
The novel presents a discussion of the philosophy of love and sex, written in the form of a series of letters between two men, "Herbert Wace," a young scientist, and "Dane Kempton," an elderly poet. Kempton makes the case for feeling and emotion, while Wace proceeds "scientifically" and analyzes love in Darwinian terms. * 2.93
Daddy Long Legs / Dear Enemy (Webster) - September 24 to mid October four years later (not all letters dated to the day) / December 27 to January 31 one year later [novels]
When Jerusha Abbott, an eighteen-year-old girl living in an orphan asylum, was told that a mysterious millionaire had agreed to pay for her education, it was like a dream come true. For the first time in her life, she had someone she could pretend was "family." But everything was not perfect, for he chose to remain anonymous and asked that she only write him concerning her progress in school. Who was this mysterious gentleman and would Jerusha ever meet him?
Dear Enemy is the sequel. The story is presented in a series of letters written by Sallie McBride, Judy Abbott's classmate and best friend in Daddy-Long-Legs. Among the recipients of the letters are Judy; Jervis Pendleton, Judy's husband and the president of the orphanage where Sallie is filling in until a new superintendent can be installed; Gordon Hallock, a wealthy Congressman and Sallie's later fiancé; and the orphanage's doctor, embittered Scotsman Robin 'Sandy' MacRae (to whom Sallie addresses her letters: "Dear Enemy"). * 4.15 / 3.92
You Know Me Al (Lardner) - September 6 to November 19 two(?) years later [novel]
"You Know me Al" is a classic of baseball--the game and the community. Jack Keefe, one of literature's greatest characters, is talented, brash, and conceited. Self-assured and imperceptive, impervious to both advice and sarcasm, Keefe rises to the heights, but his inability to learn makes for his undoing. Through a series of letters from this bush-league pitcher to his not-quite-anonymous friend Al, Lardner maintains a balance between the funny and the moving, the pathetic and the glorious. * 3.81
Clarissa (Richardson) - January 10 to December 18 (at a rate of about 1.5 letters a day!) [novel]
Pressured by her unscrupulous family to marry a wealthy man she detests, the young Clarissa Harlowe is tricked into fleeing with the witty and debonair Robert Lovelace and places herself under his protection. Lovelace, however, proves himself to be an untrustworthy rake whose vague promises of marriage are accompanied by unwelcome and increasingly brutal sexual advances. And yet, Clarissa finds his charm alluring, her scrupulous sense of virtue tinged with unconfessed desire. *3.38
Persian Letters (Montesquieu) - 15th of Saphar, 1711 to 8th of Rebiab 1720 [convert from Persian calendar] [novel]
This richly evocative novel-in-letters tells the story of two Persian noblemen who have left their country - the modern Iran - to journey to Europe in search of wisdom. As they travel, they write home to wives and eunuchs in the harem and to friends in France and elsewhere. Their colourful observations on the culture differences between West and East culture conjure up Eastern sensuality, repression and cruelty in contrast to the freer, more civilized West - but here also unworthy nobles and bishops, frivolous women of fashion and conceited people of all kinds are satirized. *3.68
The History of Emily Montague (Brooke) - April 10, 1766 to Tuesday after November 19 (one prologue letter, March 22, 1769) [novel]
This charming love story captures the lives of Quebec City’s early English-speaking inhabitants, the Québécois, and the Native people, in the decade between Wolfe’s victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and the American War of Independence in the 1770s. First published in 1769, The History of Emily Montague, which brings the 18th-century novel into a New World context, is rightly called Canada’s – indeed North America’s – first novel. * 2.95
Letters from a Self-Made Merchant (Lorimer) - October 1 to November 11 two years later [novel]
A timeless collection of Gilded Age aphorisms from a rich man - a prosperous pork-packer in Chicago to his son, Pierrepont, whom he ‘affectionately’ calls ‘Piggy.’ (Response novel ’Letters from a Son to His Self-Made Father (Merriman) - October 10 to November 13 two years later and Sequel ‘Old Gorgon Graham: More Letters from’ etc. - October 4 to October 6 the following year) * 4.09 / 3.14 / 4.38
A Bundle of Letters (James) - September 5, 1879 to October 22 [novel]
Several people in a Paris boarding house write letters home filled with anecdotes about their fellow boarders. The characters' undercutting of each other's lies and pretensions provide much of the humor. * 3.45
The Stark Munro Letters (Doyle) - March 30, 1881 to November 4, 1884 [novel]
As an epistolary novel it takes the form of twelve long letters written by J. Stark Munro between March 1881 and November 1884 and sent to his friend Herbert Swanborough of Lowell, Massachusetts. Stark Munro is a recent graduate from medical school, and the letters detail his attempts to create a medical practice in partnership with the brilliant but unorthodox James Cullingworth. The novel is in fact a thinly disguised account of Doyle's experiences with George Turnavine Budd with whom he was in partnership in Plymouth, before finally setting up his own practice in Southsea, Portsmouth in 1882. * 3.72
Jane Talbot (Brown) - October 3 to February 12 (I believe over a year later. Timeline is confusing) [novel]
Jane Talbot unfolds as a series of letters between Henry Colden and the title character as they fall in love, travel the world, and resolve to marry despite the objections of family members. * 3.28
The Visits of Elizabeth (Glyn) - July 26 to Wednesday after November 16 / & response novel The Letters of Her Mother to Elizabeth (Trowbridge) - July 27 to November 19 / sequel Elizabeth Visits America (no fixed dates) [novel]
Everyone who has read "The Visits of Elizabeth," in which a girl of seventeen describes her adventures to her mother in a series of entertaining and clever letters, has instinctively asked the question: "What sort of woman was Elizabeth's Mother?" Perhaps an answer that will satisfy all will be found in the following Letters of her Mother to Elizabeth. *3.54 / 2.00 / 2.81
Time Grabber (Dickson) - February 16 to April 1 [short story]
Philton J. Bugsomer is a scholar of sociomatics in the 27th century. With the time-grabber he'll be able snatch some Christians from the 1st century before they are killed by the Roman Gladiators. Bugsomer, despite the possibility of a time paradox, decides to replace those Christians with some round heads. But things don't got exactly as planned. * 3.09
Operation RSVP (Piper) - January 15 to October 30 [short story]
Speculative fiction from Amazing Stories 1951 * 3.46
Colonel Crockett’s Co-Operative Christmas (Hughes) - December 26, 1904 to Dec 28, 1905 [short story]
Having spent an unhappy Christmas alone in New York City, Texas oil baron Col. Crockett vows never to repeat the experience. But when the following December finds him again bound for Manhattan, he decides to use his wealth to make the day brighter for a few thousand other lonely souls. * 3.59
The Diary of a Nobody (Grossmith) - April 3 to July 11 the following year [novella]
Mr Pooter is a man of modest ambitions, content with his ordinary life. Yet he always seems to be troubled by disagreeable tradesmen, impertinent young office clerks and wayward friends, not to mention his devil-may-care son Lupin with his unsuitable choice of bride. * 3.70
Set in Silver (Williamson) - July 4 to September 12 [short story]
Audrie, a young woman who has just taken up a post as music teacher, owes one of her students a favor for helping her get the job. The student, a 19-year-old girl named Ellaline, is an orphan and has never seen or communicated much with her guardian, who is just returning from some type of military post in Asia. Ellaline is prejudiced against him and has decided to elope anyway, but her fiance can't come for her right away, so in the interim, she asks Audrie (who is 21) to pose as her and keep the guardian off the track. * 4.04
Fräulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther (Von Arnim) - November 6 to February 4 the following year [novel]
This enchanting novel tells the story of the love affair between Rose-Marie Schmidt and Roger Anstruther. A determined young woman of twenty-five, Rose-Marie is considered a spinster by the inhabitants of the small German town of Jena where she lives with her father, the Professor. To their homes comes Roger, an impoverished but well-born young Englishman who wishes to learn German: Rose-Marie and Roger fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth: distance, temperament and fortune divide them. * 3.89
The Worn Doorstep (Sherwood) - August 25 to June 15 [short story]
The main character is an American woman, whose British fiancé is killed in the early days of the First World War. Following her loss she rents a cottage in the English countryside, writing about her everyday life, as well as her loss and feelings. As the war progresses she opens her home to some of the refugees traveling through the area. *3.75
The Lightning Conductor: The Strange Adventures of a Motor Car (Williamson) - November 12 to January 28 / sequels The Lightning Conductor Discovers America (Williamson) - March 15 to ??? (Quickly loses track of dates) / The Lightning Conductress / The Lightning Conductor Comes Back [novels]
The love story of a beautiful American and a gallant Englishman, who stoops to conquer. Two almost human automobiles, the one German, heavy and stubborn, and the other French, light and easy-going, play prominent parts. There is much humor. Picturesque scenes in Provence, Spain and Italy pass before the reader's eyes in rapid succession. * 3.81 / 3.00
Tabby (Marks) - April 18, 1956 to August 7, 1956 [short story]
An alien invasion short story from IF Worlds of Science Fiction magazine, involving suspicious government research, flying saucers, and a swarm of little green flies. *3.13
Bertha’s Visit to Her Uncle in England (Marcet) - June 17 to June 23 the following year [novel]
Comprising a variety of interesting information for Young Persons, arranged for every day in the year. Mainly observations on nature, with some discussions of history, philosophy, religion, and good conduct. *As far as I can tell, no one has read this book since the 1800s. A hidden gem or best-forgotten detritus?
Bonus: Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (Sancho) - February 14, 1768 to December 7, 1780 [non-fiction]
Born in 1729 on a slave ship bound for the West Indies, orphaned by the age of two and taken to England by his owner, Ignatius Sancho rose from servitude to become the most celebrated Afro-Briton of his time. Sancho's varied accomplishments include a number of Afro-British milestones, among them: first playwright; first art critic; first published correspondence; first direct attack on slavery; the only documented Afro-British voter during the eighteenth century; and the first Afro-Briton to be accorded an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. His thoughts on race and politics - including his criticism of British imperialism in India, the complicity of Africans in the slave trade, and the blatant racism that flourished in his adopted homeland - will be of particular interest to twentieth-century readers. * 3.44
Huzzah! When people started speculating about other works that could be done in this fashion, I immediately thought of Daddy-Long-Legs, but I would probably never have got around to actually doing it myself.