September 2015 Meeting: Letters in Jane Austen’s novels

Jane Austen's desk with quill

Austen’s desk, Chawton. (Courtesy: Monster @ flickr.com)

Last year, as we finished our discussion of Jane Austen’s letters which we’d done in sections over a few years, one of our members suggested we turn our thoughts to how Jane Austen used letters in her novels – and so we did, at our September meeting!

We only managed to touch the surface in our discussion, but we all agreed it was a wonderful topic for a meeting.

Why did Jane Austen use letters so frequently in her novels?

We started by discussing the epistolary novel as a form. Austen had written several of her juvenilia, including the novella Lady Susan (see our discussion), in epistolary form. It is also likely that Sense and sensibility (originally Elinor and Marianne) and Pride and prejudice (originally First impressions) began as epistolary novels. However, Austen, we believe, saw the limitations of the form, particularly in the difficulty of conveying a wider perspective and the inability to effectively use dialogue. Epistolary novels, too, were losing popularity by the turn of the 18th century.

A practical reason could be that letter writing was the major form of communication, in an era when travel was slow and expensive, and people spent long periods of time apart. We discussed how literature and, in modern times, movies and television, use whatever is the current mode of communications for various purposes. Remember when movies started featuring voice mail/messages left on phones? Then it was emails (most popularly in You’ve got mail), and now it is mobile phones.

How are letters used in the novels?

Then we moved onto the main topic of interest for us: the ways Austen used letters in her novels.

Characterisation

Letters of course tell us about the person writing them. Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne at the end of Persuasion is, a member argued, Austen’s best love letter. We learn of Wentworth’s love and constancy, and yet there’s a little criticism of Anne. Why does he expect Anne to have read his mind, though he couldn’t read hers?

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. […] You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in
F. W.”

Emma is surprised by the quality of Robert Martin’s letter of proposal (Emma):

There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman: the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling …

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

Various editions of Northanger Abbey

Indeed, she suggests that one of his sisters may have helped write it! This reminded us of Henry Tilney’s comment in Northanger Abbey that “Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female”, though Catherine does demur, thinking perhaps of her brother’s letters?

Characters’ responses to letters also tell us much about their “character”. For example, in Northanger Abbey we learn about Catherine, and her growth to maturity, from her reactions to letters from Isabella and her brother. Further, Eleanor’s request to Catherine for a brief letter advising her safe return home after being ejected from the Abbey conveys Eleanor’s sense of propriety and compassion. In Emma, Emma’s self-absorption is conveyed through her reaction to letters. She focuses on whether she is mentioned in them or on their relevance to her.

In Pride and prejudice, Mr Bennet and Elizabeth’s reactions to, for example, Mr Collins’ first letter, tell us about their shared values and sense of humour. And then, there’s Mansfield Park. Mary’s letter suggesting that she wouldn’t be sorry if Tom Bertram died opens, finally, Edmund’s eyes to her character.

Furthering the plot

Letters form bridges between characters, as one member put it, propelling the plot. Examples are Captain Wentworth’s declaration of love to Anne Elliot at the end of Persuasion, and Darcy’s letter of explanation to Elizabeth after his rejected proposal in Pride and prejudice.

Mrs Gardiner’s letter to Elizabeth, again in Pride and prejudice, in which she details Mr Darcy’s role in Lydia’s marriage completes Elizabeth reversal of attitude towards him.

Letters can play a seemingly innocuous role in setting events in motion, such as Caroline Bingley’s invitation to Jane Bennet in Pride and prejudice to visit her and her sister at Netherfield. She might have thought twice if she’d been able to crystal-ball the future!

Catalyst for action

Letters can provide catalyst for action. For example, Jane Bennet’s letter to Elizabeth in Pride and prejudice telling her of Lydia’s elopement not only causes Elizabeth to act, but, unbeknownst to her, it fires Darcy to act.

Clearing up mysteries/Providing information

Letters play a major role in conveying information. Frank’s final letter in Emma, for exampleclears up various mysteries, including who gave the piano!

And William Elliot’s letter, as shared by Mrs Smith in Persuasion, explains his behaviour. (Note Anne’s awareness of “proper” behaviour regarding letters: “She was obliged to recollect that her seeing the letter was a violation of the laws of honour, that no one ought to be judged or to be known by such testimonies, that no private correspondence could bear the eye of others…”). Blogger Pops Coffee suggests that Jane learned from Gothic novels the trick of using letters written in the past as evidence to clear up present mysteries.

It is through correspondence from Mary Crawford, Lady Bertram and Edmund Bertram that Fanny hears what is happening at Mansfield Park during her absence.

Social customs and manners

A recurring issue for us concerns what we know and don’t know about the customs of the times, and how this affects our reading of the novels. There are several issues relating to letters, such as the cost of paper, and of postage. Another has to do with etiquette. Sense and sensibility’s Marianne flaunts the “rules” when she corresponds with Willoughby, to whom she is not engaged.

Paradoxically, there is also, in the novels, secret correspondence between secretly engaged couples – Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill (Emma) and Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele (Sense and sensibility). Frank nearly gives the game away when he lets on that he knows about Mr Perry’s new carriage.

And then there’s the clandestine correspondence that is approved by Austen, that between Henry Tilney and Catherine at the end of the Northanger Abbey, as they waited for the time when the General might approve. Catherine’s parents, the Morlands, who are among Austen’s best parents, turn a blind eye:

Whether the torments of absence were softened by a clandestine correspondence, let us not inquire. Mr. and Mrs. Morland never did — they had been too kind to exact any promise; and whenever Catherine received a letter, as, at that time, happened pretty often, they always looked another way.

Austen, we see again and again, does not believe in slavishly following social “rules” – and challenges her readers to know the difference.

Business

Jane Austen Festival Australia 2016 (15-17 April).  Member Sally talked about the Chawton Years symposium to be held on the Saturday of the Festival. Five speakers have agreed to speak. She also told us of the Regency School for Ladies to be held on the Friday, at which there will be hands-on lessons and activities in the sorts of accomplishments expected of women: singing, playing harp, drawing, silhouette making, and croquet. There will also a session on the lost fabrics of Jane Austen. We agreed that closer to the time Sally will talk about the tasks we can help.

We finished the meeting as always with another dastardly quiz, and our quote-guessing game.

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