Paper Secrets: letters in novels from Julian Barnes to Tayari Jones

Course Dates: 10/01/23 - 28/02/23
Time: 18:00 - 19:30
Location: Keeley Street
Would you ever open other people’s letters? This contemporary fiction course invites you to read intimate correspondence over characters’ shoulders, to piece together the stories of long-forgotten letters, and to watch stolen letters set comic and catastrophic events in motion. We’ll study four absorbing novels in detail, exploring ideas about memory, time and communication, and discovering how letters are tangled up in them all. Includes
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011), Claire Fuller, Swimming Lessons (2017), Denis Thériault, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman (2017) and Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018).
Book your place
In stock
Full fee £139.00 Senior fee £139.00 Concession £90.00

Course Code: HLT35

Tue, eve, 10 Jan - 28 Feb '23

Duration: 8 sessions (over 8 weeks)

Or call to enrol:020 7831 7831

Lines open Monday-Friday 12:00-18:00

Please note: We offer a wide variety of financial support to make courses affordable. Just visit our online Help Center for more information on a range of topics including fees, online learning and FAQs.

What is the course about?

This literature course is about how letters and their secrets help to tell stories in four twenty-first-century novels. We’ll explore ideas about memory, time and communication in contemporary fiction – and the illicit appeal of reading other people’s letters…

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011). Memory is uncertain and can be surprising – as Tony begins to discover when a lawyer’s letter arrives. A subtle story from this highly-acclaimed novelist explores self-knowledge and coming to terms with the past.

Claire Fuller, Swimming Lessons (2017), the second novel from this award-winning writer. A missing woman leaves only letters, hidden in her cheating husband’s great library of books. He can’t know if she’s still alive, or if there are more letters to find. 'Swimming Lessons is so smoothly, beautifully written, and the human failures here are heartbreaking.’ (David Vann,

Denis Thériault, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman (2017). Bilodo, a postman in Quebec, secretly steams open envelopes to read the letters inside. When he comes across a note containing only a single haiku, he becomes caught up in a strangely poetic postal romance – but it can’t last. ‘Quirky and charming … brings to mind nothing less than a giddily lovesick Kafka.’ (Guardian)

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018). Roy, wrongfully imprisoned for assault, writes to his new wife Celestial as they navigate their relationship and the aftershocks of his sentence. Winner of the 2019 Women’s Prize, this is both a compelling love story and a searching exploration of racial injustice.

What will we cover?

We’ll cover a range of topics that draw on current literary study and research. These include: memory and its relationship to documentary evidence; twenty-first-century novels in the form of letters; plot devices; narrative and time; archives and found letters; and understanding letters as material objects. We’ll think too about ourselves as readers and writers, both on screens and on physical pages, and explore whether – in a digital culture – writing on paper still matters.

What will I achieve?
By the end of this course you should be able to...

• Discuss these four novels confidently, with knowledge of the novelists and their work
• Identify and describe epistolary form, and consider its possibilities for novels
• Discuss how letters and letter-writing feature in contemporary fiction
• Develop your understanding of narrative, including plot devices and structure
• Reflect on ideas about paper communications in digital culture.

What level is the course and do I need any particular skills?

This course is for everyone who is enthusiastic about reading and discussing contemporary fiction, and for those with an interest in letters and letter-writing.

How will I be taught, and will there be any work outside the class?

Teaching includes short presentations from the tutor, structured discussions, small group activities, close reading and analysis, and working with additional material including video and audio clips. Guided by the tutor, the focus is on participation and interaction, with opportunities each week for you to share responses and ideas. Work outside the class involves doing the reading for each week, with questions to think about in advance.

Are there any other costs? Is there anything I need to bring?

You’ll need to buy or borrow copies of these novels, which are all available in paperback:

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (2011)
Claire Fuller, Swimming Lessons (2017)
Denis Thériault, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman (2017)
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018)

The tutor will provide all other class materials and links.

When I've finished, what course can I do next?

For Literature courses please look on the web at under History, Culture and Writing/Literature.

Kate Wilkinson

Dr Kate Wilkinson teaches English literature and has a particular interest in twenty-first-century novels. Since 2015 she has taught at Queen Mary University of London, on courses ranging from Middle English to cultural theory. Her PhD and publications explore the vibrant life of letters in fiction, and what this can tell us about our contemporary world.

Please note: We reserve the right to change our tutors from those advertised. This happens rarely, but if it does, we are unable to refund fees due to this. Our tutors may have different teaching styles; however we guarantee a consistent quality of teaching in all our courses.