Wednesday, 16 March 2016

The Writing of Letters in Jane Austen's Novels

In the age of e-mail and the Internet, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of letters in Jane Austen's day. She did not live long enough to see such advances in communication as the telegraph and the railway. Even the earliest wooden bicycle did not appear in England until after her death. How else than by letters could people communicate over a distance?

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. 

The first draft of the novel would have included the letters sent from London to her mother by Elinor (Chapter 27) and the replies (summarized in various subsequent chapters, notably in Chapter 32). These would have conveyed Elinor's concern for Marianne and shown how Willoughby had failed to continue his courtship. 

Letters often advance the narrative. In Pride and Prejudice, a significant part of the action occurs in Brighton and London. Lydia elopes with Wickham, who has to be bribed to marry her. Throughout these scenes, Jane Austen keeps the focus off the errant couple and on Elizabeth, who is miles from the events. The author not only avoids a direct narration of the shameful episode but also forces us to share the suspense with Elizabeth (who is the real centre of interest - not Lydia) as, scrap by scrap, the heroine is fed details of the story and becomes aware of Darcy's involvement. Letters carry all the narrative. Jane Bennet and then the Gardiners are correspondent-narrators. The last letter - the most exquisite to Elizabeth - is reproduced in full. Mrs. Gardiner in a letter of almost two thousand words completes the narrative about Wickham and Lydia, hints that Darcy loves Elizabeth and ends jokingly: I shall never be quite happy till I have been all round the park. A low phaeton with a nice little pair of ponies would be the very thing.... How skilfully the letter is used here to set up the happy ending of the novel! No wonder the letter threw Elizabeth into a flutter of spirits. Within seconds, her heart did whisper that he had done it for her

The first extant epistolary 'novel' Jane wrote (as a child), Amelia Webster, comprises seven very short letters. The eponymous heroine is too busy (or too lazy!) to write letters longer than two sentences each. With characteristic jests and incongruities, the story rushes towards news of three marriages. One of the correspondents, George Hervey, gets married on the strength of falling in love in this way: 


An humble Admirer now addresses you. – I saw you lovely Fair one as you passed on Monday last, before our House in your way to Bath. I saw you thro' a telescope, and was so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted human food. 

Jane's childhood story The Three Sisters handles the epistolary form confidently. An almost complete tale is told, with graphic detail and lively dialogue. Characters are strongly delineated. The theme, which was to concern Jane throughout her adult fiction, is the relative importance in match-making of love and money. Mary Stanhope sends letters to her friend Fanny, reporting that she has received a proposal from Mr. Watts but does not know whether to accept. She hates him; and he is old (thirty-two), ugly and disagreeable. But he is rich and, if she does not secure him, one of her sisters probably will. She could not endure that. 

In Volume the Second of Jane's childhood notebooks we have Love and Freindship. The conventions of contemporary fiction are parodied, especially the vogue for the sentimental and for the epistolary form. Jane Austen makes fun of conventional language, emotion, settings and plot. All the ingredients are here – insipidly perfect heroes and heroines, extraordinary coincidences, exotic names, tender philosophising in romantic settings, much swooning, and deathbed scenes. Though the novel is in the epistolary form, all letters from the second to the last (the fifteenth) are from the same person to the same recipient and in effect constitute a first-person novel. Laura, the heroine, tells her life story for the benefit of Marianne, the daughter of a friend. 

Another juvenile work, Letter the third, is not so much a letter as a miniature novel with a first-person narrator. It is a polished literary exercise from the author who was preparing to give the world Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Maria Williams relates how, just because she is poor, she has to endure impertinence from her wealthy neighbour Lady Greville. Her ladyship takes every opportunity to humiliate and mortify Maria, publicly criticising her clothes, her family and her poverty. She says, for example, that she assumes Maria's mother is at home eating 'Bread and Cheese' before going to bed early to save on candles. Maria does not quite display the spirit of Elizabeth Bennet in coping with such rudeness, though she has the excuse that her mother has instructed her to be 'humble and patient’. 

Lady Susan, an epistolary novel, is the next extant piece of Jane Austen's fiction. She wrote it at about the age of nineteen. It is entirely in letters apart from the final pages, when the author steps in as narrator to summarise the passage of twelve months and dispose of individuals in marriage. The transition here from the epistolary to the third-person is interesting. Jane is frustrated by the artificiality and clumsiness of making a story entirely out of mail and by the restrictions this imposes on tone and viewpoint. The artificiality in Lady Susan has to include correspondents reproducing in great quantities the exact words of recent conversations. And there are convolutions. For the reader to discover the contents of one particular letter, it has to be forwarded under cover to a Mrs. Vernon, even though it was posted by her brother from her own house. 

In a later novel, Jane Austen would have let us in on some of the scenes which, in the epistolary form, can only be reported at second hand - Lady Susan exercising her wiles on Reginald, for example. Lady Susan, despite being the villain, is the only character of real vitality. She writes sixteen of the forty-one letters. It would have helped if a wider range of entertaining correspondents had been recruited. The only other spirited correspondent is her confidante Mrs. Johnson (What could I do? Facts are such horrid things! she writes, when her friend has been found out) but she has a limited function in the novel: she is on hand mainly to receive letters which reveal Lady Susan's true feelings. 

Lady Susan represents a transition from the novel of the Eighteenth Century, with its coarseness and explicitness, to the decorous and discreet novel of the Nineteenth Century.

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. 

Letters do not only report action; they also provoke it. This is most notably the case when Jane Bennet writes to Elizabeth at Pemberley. An accurate picture of Lydia's elopement gradually emerges. What we witness is not the events in London but rather Elizabeth, in front of Darcy, reduced to tears by the news. She artlessly reveals that she has accepted the truth of all Darcy told her in his letter (about Wickham): I might have prevented it – I who knew what he was!... When my eyes were opened to his real character.... Darcy must realise that he has convinced her. For her part, she never had... so honestly felt that she could have loved him as now, when all love must be in vain. For him, the letter is a call to action. It provides him with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate his love for Elizabeth by extricating her family from its difficulties. 

Seemingly innocuous letters often prove essential to a structure. Caroline Bingley's letter unwittingly sets in motion events she comes to regret: out of boredom while the men are away, she invites Jane to Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet exploits the opportunity. Jane catches a cold. Lizzy visits her. The sisters are thrown into prolonged contact with Darcy and Bingley – hardly the outcome Caroline Bingley would have wished. 

The letter of greatest moment in this novel is delivered by Darcy to Elizabeth at Hunsford after she rejects his proposal. In two and a half thousand words reproduced verbatim (unlike his proposal of marriage), it explains his views of the relationship between Jane Bennet and Bingley (he believed Jane 'indifferent'), it gives his opinion of the Bennet family and it reveals the truth about Wickham. This letter puts so much in a new light that it triggers a total reappraisal of herself by the heroine. 

The wonderful first letter of Mr. Collins introduces us to a character whose absurdity is greatly to enrich the novel. The tone of the letter, combining synthetic humility and pomposity, and with its predilection for long words, perfectly conveys the character of its writer. The sense of humour shared by Mr. Bennet and his daughter is well demonstrated by their response to this letter. Elizabeth is chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying and burying his parishioners whenever it were required. Much later in the novel, Collins sends Bennet a letter which confirms our worst impressions and condemns him for ever: gloating with affected sympathy over the Bennets' disgrace, he says it would have been a blessing if Lydia had died rather than eloped. He urges Bennet to 'throw off' his 'unworthy child'. Such lack of charity from a Christian clergyman leads us to enjoy the revenge which fate will deal him when he hears of Elizabeth's engagement, especially as, in yet another letter to Mr. Bennet, he advises against Elizabeth's acceptance of Darcy, simply on the grounds that Lady Catherine would not approve. 

Jane Austen puts this last letter to good use. Mr. Bennet sees the prospect of Lizzy's marriage to Darcy as a great joke. Elizabeth, in dreadful suspense, has to laugh when she wants to cry. At the end of the novel, Bennet writes with relish to Mr. Collins: Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But if I were you, I would stand by the nephew

Lydia's letters are used to reveal her selfish irresponsibility. Her letter to Harriet Forster announcing her elopement shows no consideration for her family or thought for her future. She expects Harriet to 'laugh'. Her brazen letter to her family a few days later exposes her as ungrateful and unashamed. 

In Mansfield Park, letters are still important. While Fanny spends weeks with her parents in Portsmouth, momentous events happen in the Bertram family at Mansfield Park and in London. Tom is critically ill. Edmund is expected to marry Mary Crawford. Henry Crawford elopes with Mrs. Maria Rushworth and Julia runs off with Mr. Yates. Jane Austen makes us share Fanny's emotions and suspense, as she waits for letters and reads them (to us) when at last they arrive. In this flurry of letters, more is also revealed of the correspondents' characters: Lady Bertram proves that she can exert herself at least to the extent of writing (though she is typically unconcerned about her son's health until he is visible before her); Edmund reports as factually as possible, while having his eyes opened to the true character of Mary Crawford; and, in her own letters, Mary appears even more selfish than we had previously suspected (she hopes Tom is about to die, for Edmund would then inherit the estate and she could agree to marry him). 

In her letters, Mary Crawford is unsentimentally candid. Seen through the eyes of the virtuous Fanny Price, this trait is presented as evidence of a selfish and grasping character. However, the reader finds the letters no different from Jane Austen's own - playful and entertaining, if sometimes heartless in a way acceptable when communicated confidentially to someone of like mind. The following could have come straight out of a letter from Jane to Cassandra: 

I have seen your cousins, 'dear Julia and dearest Mrs Rushworth'; they found me at home yesterday, and we were glad to see each other again. We seemed very glad to see each other, and I do really think we were a little. ... From all that I hear and guess, Baron Wildenhaim's attentions to Julia continue, but I do not know that he has any serious encouragement. She ought to do better. A poor honourable is no catch, and I cannot imagine any liking in the case, for, take away his rants, and the poor Baron has nothing. What a difference a vowel makes! If his rents were but equal to his rants! (She is referring to Mr. Yates. She nicknames him 'The Baron' because he undertook to play the part of Baron Wildenhaim in the theatricals at Mansfield Park.)

A trick Jane learned from the gothic novels is that letters written years earlier can provide useful evidence to clear up present mysteries. In Persuasion, Mrs. Smith produces a letter written years earlier by William Elliot to her late husband. It reveals his true colours: Give me joy: I have got rid of Sir Walter and Miss ... my first visit to Kellynch will be with a surveyor, to tell me how to bring it with best advantage to the hammer ... I wish I had any name but Elliot. I am sick of it. This opens Anne's eyes to the truth and confirms her instinctive feeling that Mr. Elliot will never be the man for her.

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

Elizabeth Bennet expresses herself in the language of Jane Austen's letters. She responds to her father's arch advice that she should fall in love with Wickham because he would jilt you creditably by saying We must not all expect Jane's good fortune. Jane Austen's letters contain many such jokes. It is easy to imagine Elizabeth Bennet writing of a young M.P. she had met, as Jane Austen did: I like him very much. I am sure he is clever & a Man of Taste. ... He is quite an M.P. – very smiling, with an exceeding good address, & readiness of Language. – I am rather in love with him. – I dare say he is ambitious & Insincere (Letter 92). 

The epistolary element survives even in Jane's last novel. Tom Parker receives a letter of seven hundred and fifty words from his sister Diana, which he reads in full to the company. It is amusing, coming as it does from the doyenne of hypochondriacs. Diana claims she has been hardly able to crawl from my bed to the sofa. Her sister Susan has been suffering terribly. She tried six leeches a day for ten days together but then yielded to the idea of having three teeth extracted. Her nerves are so bad that she can only speak in a whisper. As for Arthur, I fear for his liver. It is out of the question for the three to travel to Sanditon: in my present state, the sea air would probably be the death of me. The irony is that they nevertheless go to Sanditon, that Diana busy-bodies vigorously and that she shows no symptom whatever of ill health. 

It would be difficult to find anywhere in literature a romantic moment giving as much satisfaction as that in which Anne Elliot is overwhelmed by the note she receives from Frederick Wentworth. On the contents of that letter depended all which the world could do for her! Reading it brings an overpowering happiness.