Beyond Drawing-Room Conversation: Letters in Pride and Prejudice.
by Laura Rowe
Conversation in Jane Austen’s world was much more formal than ours today. Propriety dictated strict limits on subjects of conversation and specific conditions under which a young lady could speak to a young gentleman. These binding codes of manners made it hard to know what people were actually thinking behind their masks of politeness. This is the central problem faced by Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. In order to choose the best husband and secure her future happiness, she must detect the true character and morals of her suitors, the smooth-talking Mr. Wickham and the taciturn Mr. Darcy. Her drawing-room conversations with them are too restricted to show her the truth. Throughout the course of the story, letters are presented as a more effective form of communication than ordinary conversation.
When members of genteel society meet in Austen’s times, polite small talk is required, such as inquiring after the health of family members and mutual friends, and commenting on the weather. In letters, however, Austen’s characters are able to escape this “code of manners [which] provides disguise as readily as expression” (Price, 166). When Jane journeys to London in the course of the book, the first letter that she writes to Elizabeth begins, “My dearest Lizzy will, I am sure, be incapable of triumphing in her better judgement, at my expense, when I confess myself to have been entirely deceived in Miss Bingley’s regard for me” (Austen, 101). She plunges in the first sentence into the main subject of the letter, omitting any fluffy small talk. Similarly, when Jane writes Elizabeth about Lydia’s elopement, she immediately informs her that “something has occurred of a most unexpected and serious nature” (Austen, 182). Mr. Darcy also ignores convention in the first paragraphs of his letter to Elizabeth, “If in the explanation of [my motives] I am under the necessity of relating feelings which may be offensive to yours, I can only say that I am sorry. – The necessity must be obeyed, and farther apology would be absurd” (Austen, 134). He provides only as much apology as is necessary for courtesy, and then gets down to business. He is able to do this in a letter because it is private, and he does not have to worry about what people would think.
Letters also permit more intimacy than polite conversation. When Mr. Darcy writes his letter of explanation to Elizabeth, he reveals to her much detail about private affairs that he probably would never have said in person (Austen, 133-138). He tells her everything that Wickham has done, including the shameful story of how he almost eloped with Darcy’s sister Georgiana – something that Darcy has never told anyone from whom he could keep it. This is extremely uncharacteristic of the Darcy revealed in conversation in the earlier half of the book. He is not the kind of man to tell everyone about his personal matters at the slightest provocation. During the first ball at Netherfield, Elizabeth hints at her acquaintance with Wickham, but Darcy brushes her off with a restrained comment about Mr. Wickham’s ability to make friends and then makes clear by his silence that he is not going to continue the subject (Austen, 63). Later, of course, he tells Elizabeth all about his relationship with Wickham, choosing to do so in a letter rather than in a conversation. According to Lloyd Brown, “It would be unnatural for a man of his reserve and sensitivity to make such intimate revelations in any other form” (Brown, 132). A letter is safer than a conversation, because no one may overhear or interrupt, as Darcy and Elizabeth were interrupted in their conversation. Sir William Lucas “stopt … to compliment [Mr. Darcy] on his dancing and his partner,” effectively breaking the train of thought (Austen, 63). A letter is safe from such intrusions.
It is also easier to say exactly what you want in a letter than in a conversation. When Elizabeth comes home from Hunsford Parsonage after Mr. Darcy has proposed to her, she waits several days before telling Jane about it, for fear “of being hurried into repeating something” she did not mean to say (Austen, 147). If Elizabeth had been able to write a letter to Jane instead of telling her in person, she would not have been worried about saying more than was wise. Conversation, however, hindered her in ways that a letter would not have. Darcy also does not tell Elizabeth the truth about him and Wickham immediately after she rejects his proposal (Austen, 132). He waits a night to put his thoughts together and then writes them to her. Instead of writing a letter, he could have sought her out again and told her face-to-face. However, like Elizabeth when she comes home, he is afraid of saying too much if he talks of delicate matters in person, so he doesn’t mention them at all in conversation, but saves them for letters. It is easier and safer for him to explain them in a letter.
Since in a letter you may say exactly what you wish, letters can be a more effective way of lying to someone, or of simply concealing information you don’t want to discuss. When Miss Bingley writes to Jane after she and her brother have left Netherfield for good, she attempts to deceive Jane into thinking that Mr. Bingley has left of his own desire and is soon to marry Miss Darcy (instead of Jane, as Jane had hoped.). She makes much of Mr. Bingley’s admiration for Miss Darcy and mentions nothing of the attention he had shown to Jane when he was there. She also gushingly refers to Jane as “my dearest friend” and claims to “depend on” Jane for “a very frequent and most unreserved correspondence,” though through the remainder of the book she makes no effort to keep in touch with Jane (Austen, 81). It is telling that Miss Bingley made no attempt to call on Jane before she left, but instead saved the news of her departure for a letter. She would not be able to give Jane such a convincing impression that things were as she told them if she had been talking to her face to face. In a letter all facial expressions, tones of voice, and involuntary reactions like blushes are eliminated, and she can pick and choose her words and content to give the impression she wants. This quality of letters is also seen in the letter Mr. Gardiner writes to inform Mr. Bennet that Wickham has consented to marry Lydia on surprisingly low terms of compensation. The truth is that Mr. Darcy has contributed a large amount of money to bribe Wickham, but Mr. Gardiner omits this fact. Mr. Bennet is skeptical that Wickham would be convinced with so little money, but he contents himself by supposing that Mr. Gardiner has contributed more (Austen, 202-203). If Mr. Bennet were having a conversation with Mr. Gardiner, his questions would have brought the facts out, but since it is a letter, it is not convenient to clarify, and Mr. Gardiner gets away with his small subterfuge.
The last observation about letters is that they entail more commitment than a verbal opinion or promise. When one has written something down on paper, it is there in black and white. It will not change and the writer can be held to it. Elizabeth realizes this while she is reading Mr. Darcy’s letter, and it is one of the major reasons she believes it, though it goes against all her preconceived notions. Mr. Darcy has committed himself to the account written down; there is no opportunity for him to equivocate and pretend he did not say what he said. At the end of his letter he states, “For the truth of every thing written here, I can appeal more particularly to the testimony of Colonel Fitzwilliam” (Austen, 138). While Elizabeth is debating whether to believe him, she realizes, “Mr. Darcy would never have hazarded such a proposal, if he had not been well assured of his cousin’s corroboration” (Austen, 140). Now that Mr. Darcy has committed himself in a letter, there is a clear account to be confirmed or not by those who know the facts. A contrast to this comes from Mr. Wickham. When Elizabeth first met him, he recounted a tale of woe. Mr. Darcy’s father had bequeathed a living to Wickham, but when the living became open, “There was just such a legal informality in the terms of the bequest as to give me no hope from law. A man of honour could not have doubted the intention, but Mr. Darcy chose to doubt it,” and Wickham was not given the living. (Austen, 54). There is no mention of anything other than clear right on Wickham’s part and shameful behavior on Mr. Darcy’s. Later on Elizabeth learns the facts, and she confronts Wickham with them. “I have heard from authority, … that it was left to you conditionally only, and at the will of the present patron.” Mr. Wickham at once replies, “Yes, there was something in that; I told you so from the first, that you may remember.” (Austen, 220). He had done no such thing! However, since he did not commit himself in a written letter he cannot be held to account.
In the end, Elizabeth realizes that behind the mask of manners Mr. Wickham is a rake, and that Mr. Darcy, though not adept at manners, is a true gentleman. What finally brings her to this realization is looking beyond the drawing-room conversation, to Mr. Darcy’s letter, “his personality under hand and seal” (Brown, 133). She has cracked the code of manners, and done so with the help of letters: the best way to tell a person’s true thoughts.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Dover Publications, 1995.
Brown, Lloyd. “Letters in Pride and Prejudice.” Readings on Pride and Prejudice. Ed.
Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999.
Price, Martin. “Austen: Manners and Morals.” Modern Critical Views: Jane Austen. Ed.
Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.