Jane loved receiving letters, especially those mingling gossip with wit. She enjoyed writing them. This included inventing them for her characters. Living in an age when many recent 'novels' had been constructed entirely of letters, she was naturally influenced by the epistolary form at the beginning of her career. She never forgot how helpful a letter could be in revealing a character or advancing a plot.
Jane Austen's writing indeed evolved from the eighteenth-century epistolary novels, such as Richardson's. After imitating them in her early parodies and burlesques, she continued with the epistolary form even when her writing became more mature. At about the age of seventeen, when writing Lady Susan, she discovered the limitations of the letter-form. Nevertheless, to the end of her career (even in the posthumous Sanditon), letters were keystones in the structure.
Epistolary novels are still occasionally found in modern times. A witty example, Capital Gains by Colin Johnson, was serialised in February 1996 on BBC Radio 4, with a sequel in July 1997. It demonstrated well the power of letters to reveal character through viewpoints and attitudes. A similar entertainment was Carole Hayman’s Ladies of Letters - broadcast also on Radio 4, in 2004.
Look at any of Jane Austen’s mature novels and you quickly notice how important the letters still are. In Pride and Prejudice, there is especially the pivotal letter of explanation from Darcy to Elizabeth, but there are also the amusingly pompous letters of Mr. Collins, the news of Lydia's elopement in letters from Jane, and Mrs. Gardiner's letters filling gaps in the narrative. These are only a few: twenty letters are reproduced in full or quoted, as well as others which are summarised. First Impressions (the original draft of Pride and Prejudice) may have been entirely in the form of letters.
It is impossible to deduce how the letters of the original novel Elinor and Marianne were adapted into continuous narrative. There are moments when a character gives a long account of an incident and one suspects an original letter has become direct speech. One such is in Chapter 37, where Mrs. Jennings describes after her own fashion the hysterical scenes at John Dashwood's house when Nancy Steele let slip that her younger sister expected to marry Edward.
Keeping the full text of a letter can be effective, so Jane has retained a few. For its curt and brutal nature to have full impact, the letter in which Willoughby casts off Marianne could be presented no other way: I am quite at a loss to discover in what point I could be so unfortunate as to offend you. He then informs her of his engagement to Miss Grey. (We learn that he wrote this letter at Miss Grey's dictation.) The three letters sent by Marianne to Willoughby in London recall, in their brevity, vitality and dramatic content, some of those from Jane's earlier works. (How surprised you will be, Willoughby, on receiving this... when you know that I am in town!; I cannot express my disappointment in having missed you the day before yesterday...; What am I to imagine, Willoughby, by your behaviour last night?... I have passed a wretched night in endeavouring to excuse a conduct which can scarcely be called less than insulting... If your sentiments are no longer what they were, you will return my notes, and the lock of hair which is in your possession.
The letter Edward receives from Lucy, informing him of her marriage to his brother, is appalling in both tone and content. It finally damns her.
In Jane's teenage novels, letter-writers spend much of their time analysing and commenting on the behaviour of others. It is unsurprising that this passion for understanding others is common to the heroines of her major novels.
In Northanger Abbey, letters to the heroine Catherine from her brother James and her false friend Isabella tell her of the break-off of their engagement. Isabella's letter is a transparent attempt to get Catherine's help to win James back. This hypocritical letter is a direct descendant of many in the teenage novels. It is one Jane Austen must have specially enjoyed composing.
In Northanger Abbey, typical of Henry's delightful teasing at his first meeting with Catherine are his comments on ladies' skills as letter writers. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is particularly female ... the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars ... A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.