jane Austen’s lovers write few letters, and even fewer memorable letters. Readers cite only two pieces of correspondence as truly unforgettable in her novels: the defense Darcy addresses to Elizabeth Bennet after she has rejected his offer of marriage in Pride and Prejudice, and the soul-piercing declaration of love Captain Wentworth composes for Anne Elliot in Persuasion. In its own particular way, each missive is remarkable because it courts its respective recipient not with the stock expressions of amorous language, but with the promise of the thing each woman desires most. Darcy’s letter shows that he respects Elizabeth and desires her good opinion despite his insulting proposal, since he trusts her with an important piece of family scandal. Wentworth’s letter demonstrates that he will indeed supply the passionate ardor Anne longs for so as to be able to recover from a youth that has almost been destroyed by her own excessive prudence. In its appeal to Elizabeth’s powers of perception and her capability for mercy, Darcy’s letter, despite its profession to the contrary, is, in fact, another bid for Elizabeth’s favor, and superior to his first proposal because it is designed to heal her pride, which Darcy had wounded. Similarly, Wentworth’s letter corrects Anne’s mistaken assumption that he has become indifferent to her and fulfills her need for a proof of his lasting tenderness and steadfast devotion. The eloquence, passion, and refinement of each of these documents vividly demonstrate the intelligence, honesty, and feeling propensities of their authors. Although as love letters these documents are highly unconventional, they are masterpieces of amorous epistolary fiction.
Apart from these famous exceptions, however, we look in vain for letters from Austen’s lovers. The scarcity of written communications of an amorous nature in Austen’s fiction is all the more startling when one considers that the young Austen came of age as an author just after the epistolary novel was experiencing its heyday at the end of the eighteenth century. A popular genre because it catered to the reigning fashion for a personal, sentimental style, and because its subjects were love and seduction, the “novel of letters” found its most famous representatives in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1740) in England and in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) in France. These novels, in turn, might have inspired the budding writer to compose some of her novels in the epistolary style, among them Lady Susan, and the now lost Elinor and Marianne (1796) and First Impressions (1797). However, as Tomalin states, when Austen in 1797 first revised Elinor and Marianne, the novel that would be published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility, she decided in favor of a single, narrative voice (120). When after 1810 the mature Austen returned to the works she had conceived as a woman in her early twenties, she obviously remained determined not to employ the epistolary form in the books she intended for publication. Moreover, she kept to a minimum the number of letters exchanged between the principal lovers in her books. Thus, it could be argued that her novels mark the end of the era of epistolary fiction and ring in the age of the new novel, distinguished by a more controlled, centered, and authorial perspective, coupled with the recreation on the page of a natural-seeming, realistic depiction of human communication.
It is interesting to speculate on the reasons why Austen moved away from the epistolary genre. There are several, among them the possibility that this genre was going out of style, but her major motivation, to be seen in her novels, was her ambition to create a literature in which genuine, diverse human voices and viewpoints could be directly and colloquially presented, as on stage. True, letters in epistolary novels often contained dialogue, but their representation appeared artificial and laborious. Few letter writers in real life would ever quote direct speech verbatim and at great length, as they did in the literature of the time. In addition, the reader of a novel of letters must have been aware that words supposedly “spoken” were in truth only recounted, and in a style that was far more formal and stilted than the one used in direct personal exchanges. That Austen shared this concern becomes clear when one looks at her published novels; her most accomplished letter writers, Darcy and Wentworth, write their letters in their own narrative voices and do not recite other people’s conversations. As a consequence, their letters read like truthful, thoughtful testimonies to their state of mind and condition of the heart; and their realistic lengths make them seem as if they were real letters transported from life on to the page. The absence of recitations also makes these letters sound much more personal than those found in the epistolary tradition of Austen’s forebears.
Another reason for Austen’s break with the traditional novel of letters was her favoring of an omniscient, third-person narrator who presided over the plot and depicted a variety of perspectives and positions, while being able to weave in and out of the private thoughts and public conversations of her characters. In the process, Austen helped transform the novel from a form that favored the highly stylized, individualized artifice to one that gloried in the diversity of natural human expression. Of course, Austen did not neglect to show the inner life and spiritual struggles of her heroes. Indeed, the finest passages in Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion are dedicated to the depiction of the complicated cerebral processes taking place within the principal characters as a result of their experiences. As a consequence, Austen has been credited with pioneering the interior monologue or stream of consciousness style in the modern novel (Cohn 113).
Her departure from the epistolary form also enabled Austen to advance a kind of writing that showed the interconnectedness between the growth processes of her thinking, feeling protagonists. Thus, the narrative form of Pride and Prejudice supports the depiction of the development into maturity of both Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy as a result of their encounter. Although the novel is told predominantly from Elizabeth’s point of view, the technique Austen employs allows the twin images of two intelligent, interesting partners to emerge who, the reader knows, are well matched because they are depicted as individuals with different, yet related complexities of thought and feeling. It adds to our fascination that we see Darcy mostly through Elizabeth Bennet’s less than perfect lens, so that we share her initial dislike and perplexity as well as her eventual enlightenment. This intricacy of novelistic construction thus prevents either character from being reduced to a one-dimensional, moral representative of human fallibility (“pride” versus “prejudice”) and from functioning merely as a foil to the other’s education, as had frequently been the case in epistolary novels. Like Elizabeth, we are forced to readjust our prejudice against Darcy when reading his letter alongside her. The plot of Pride and Prejudice thus turns on an interesting historical idiosyncrasy. Although the novel itself presents a firm rejection of the epistolary tradition, its turning point hinges on a letter. It is Darcy’s letter that changes not only Elizabeth opinion about him, but her idea of herself, breaking down the barrier of her prejudice against him by appealing to her pride, and so paving the way for their union. What is more, it accomplishes this feat by employing the language of reason, not of love. It speaks to the recipient’s (Elizabeth’s) appreciation of truthfulness by expostulating the writer’s (Darcy’s) claim to authenticity in his own personal voice. It is therefore a thoroughly modern document, anticipating the interior monologue found again only in the novels of the early twentieth century.
Despite its unromantic content, Elizabeth treasures Darcy’s letter as women in epistolary fiction do written declarations of love, reading it again and again and learning it by heart. In fact, Elizabeth’s treatment of Darcy’s letter allows the document to take on iconic proportions and enables Darcy to assume an almost uninterrupted presence in the second half of the novel. The appreciative attention Elizabeth pays Darcy’s letter and the way in which she reasons and argues with the written words on the page in his stead give the appearance of her bestowing upon it the status of interlocutor in a sort of Socratic dialogue. As we witness Elizabeth’s highly cerebral and simultaneously emotional interaction with Darcy’s letter, we can be in no doubt that the novel in front of us differs from other novels of the preceding century. To this recipient of a letter, it is no longer a medium for sharing sentimental self-indulgences, but a serious form of expression and exchange that continues, adds to, and deepens the connection and understanding between two partners, who are attracted to one another not only physically, but intellectually.
The stress in Austen’s novels on the equal importance of the intellectual and emotional affinity of her protagonists explains further why she would have felt compelled to distance herself from the epistolary tradition of writing. The novel of letters had long been associated with the “cult of sentiment” dominant in the eighteenth century, and its history had been closely associated with the subject of women in love corresponding, then dying tragically of a broken heart. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, a novel that described in letters the story of a woman who is ruined because she exchanges letters with a rake, was its iconic text. There are obvious points of comparison between Clarissa and Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. Both Richardson’s Clarissa and Austen’s Marianne Dashwood are creatures of feeling. They defy convention by corresponding with the men they love and thereby put themselves at risk. However, Austen must have felt that the earlier story had used letter writing to such a heightened effect as could never again be equaled, since Clarissa dies as a result of her epistolary love affair with Lovelace. In contrast, Sense and Sensibility subverts the sentimental tradition and tragic determinism associated with the heroines of epistolary fiction; Marianne is allowed to survive and to fall in love a second time with a loving and decent man. She can do so for the same reason that reforms Elizabeth Bennet, who also undergoes a period of introspection as a result of a letter. Like Elizabeth, Marianne persuades herself into loving the right man, in her case Colonel Brandon. Sense and Sensibility lacks some of the neat symmetry of Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet comes to love the author of the letter that brings about her change of heart, Darcy. However, given that Marianne is almost destroyed by letters, it is perhaps best that she marries a man who pays visits, rather than writing letters.
Colonel Brandon’s reluctance to write love letters points to his acquiescence to Regency etiquette, which forbade unmarried people to correspond unless they were related or engaged. Not coincidentally, the plot of Sense and Sensibility largely revolves around the contemporary taboo placed on epistolary lovemaking. Throughout Austen’s novels the propriety of love letters is intricately bound up with the propriety of engagements, and as a rule, only the partners in clandestine, less than perfect unions, such as Edward Ferrars and Lucy Steele, and Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, correspond without the official sanction of society. When looking closer at the novels, however, we realize that the matter does not rest here. Darcy and Wentworth, Austen’s most passionate lovers, also correspond with women who have rejected their offers of marriage – although Wentworth has reason to believe that Anne has changed her mind about him, and Darcy obviously writes in the hope that Elizabeth will do the same. Thus, in contrast to Frank and Edward, it could be argued that both Darcy and Wentworth write their letters in extreme despair and as a last resort. At the point that they address their respective recipients, Elizabeth and Anne, all other avenues of communication are about to be cut off. These are few enough opportunities in a society where lovers of different social backgrounds are rarely allowed to meet, much less, be alone. Class prejudice, Darcy’s own fierce apprehension of his family’s disapproval and Wentworth’s acute knowledge of Sir Walter’s snobbery, so tweaks the lovers’ need to communicate that for once, they throw caution to the wind. Both possess the courage to break with tradition when they are convinced that a breach of etiquette is not only appropriate but necessary, since a lack of initiative would lose them the respect (Elizabeth) or love (Anne) of the women they admire.
The defiance of social mores practiced by Darcy and Wentworth when standing in the way of true understanding between lovers commends their letter-writing to us, even if the act in itself constitutes a rebellion. It is important to notice, however, that both men make the decision to write on the spur of the moment, without a hint of premeditation. True, Darcy’s letter is a finely honed piece of eloquence that takes him an entire night to craft, while Wentworth’s is a hastily scribbled, passionate declaration of love; but neither man has planned this act by long hand. The spontaneity of their daring thus stands in sharp contrast to another lover, who also writes to a woman who is not his social equal, Frank Churchill. The difference between his letter-writing and that of Darcy and Wentworth becomes clear when we read Mr. Knightley’s commentary on Frank’s letter of apology, which he sends to Mrs. Weston after Mrs. Churchill dies, and he is free to make his engagement to Jane Fairfax public. Mr. Knightley condemns in particular the “finesse” and premeditation of Frank’s plans which placed Jane in a situation in which “[s]he must have had much more to contend with, in carrying on the correspondence, than he could” (446). Perceptive as always, Mr. Knightley reveals that in this arrangement between Frank and Jane, Frank ventures nothing. He keeps his engagement and his correspondence to Jane a secret because he desires to endanger neither the pleasure of her company nor the privilege of his inheritance. Darcy and Wentworth, by contrast, risk the displeasure and enmity of established society by writing, but they do so gladly because they care only about the women they love.
In terms of rhetorical skills, Darcy, Wentworth, and Frank Churchill differ greatly. Both Darcy and Wentworth are strong, but reticent men who explode into speech only when they experience a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and do so mostly with disastrous or, at best, middling results. However, both find their true voice in the letters they write to the women they love. By contrast, Frank Churchill, and Austen’s other “bad boy” lovers Wickham, Willoughby, and Henry Crawford are accomplished talkers and excel in the fine art of eloquence. Interestingly, they also (apart from Frank) follow decorum when it comes to writing love letters. Yet, while they refrain from communicating with the women they are (supposedly) courting, they can hardly be commended for this observance of contemporary manners, since their so-called reserve advances their nefarious purposes. Neither Willoughby nor Wickham in truth intends to marry the lady with whom he is flirting. Henry Crawford, too, who had introduced himself to Fanny Price by breaking a basic rule of good behavior – making love to Maria Bertram although she is engaged to Mr. Rushworth – only abstains from corresponding with Fanny in order to lend credibility to his newly acquired role of virtuous suitor.
The epistolary arrangements between Henry and his sister Mary in Mansfield Park are worth examining because they show that the taboo imposed on the correspondence between young, unattached people could be circumvented. A lover could, after all, ask a sibling or a family member of the same sex to correspond in his stead with the object of his attentions. This is exactly what happens in the novel that tells the story of Fanny Price’s lonely battle with Henry Crawford. Mary, Henry’s devoted sister, serves as his intermediary in his courtship of the woman he has decided to make his wife against her fierce opposition. In much the same way that Mary finessed her bother’s chain around Fanny’s neck, she writes letters in Henry’s stead that plead his cause far more eloquently than he possibly could, even when it is evident he has resumed his flirtation with Maria Rushworth, née Bertram. What further makes these letters a trial to Fanny is Mary’s own reason for writing, her wish to cement her relationship with Fanny, since Fanny has the confidence of Edmund Bertram, the man Mary eventually hopes to marry.
Mary’s letters to Fanny are perhaps the most poignant examples in Austen’s novels of the extent to which the epistolary etiquette imposed on lovers could be subverted and perverted. In a manner reminiscent of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Mary “tempts” Fanny with the (false) idea of Henry, the breaker of hearts, reformed by true love. She also seeks to manipulate Fanny by claiming to be her true friend and by insinuating that Fanny would rejoice at the prospect Mary and Edmund happily ensconced at, or in the vicinity of, Mansfield Park. Mary obviously feels confident that Fanny shares her opportunistic concept of marriage as a woman’s way to title and fortune, and with these inducements hopes to prompt Fanny to collude in the fiction that she has created – Henry’s miraculous transformation from libertine to loyal husband. Only when Henry elopes with Maria does Mary reveal the ice-cold superficiality of her own and her brother’s feelings. She clearly states that she fully expected Fanny to have tolerated Henry’s adulterous affair with Maria.
Mary’s frigid equation of love, flirtation, and adultery, as well as her implicit belief that Fanny shares her cynicism and superciliousness, demonstrates Austen’s awareness of the crucial issues at stake in love letters written by a formidable persuader. Because of her ability to attract and entice, Mary is indeed a powerful interlocutor, her writing rendered all the more compelling because of her unassailable position as “friend.” In addition, she possesses intelligence, eloquence, and urbanity, qualities that have already bewitched Edmund and that Mary hopes will win over Fanny, as well. Mary knows how to employ the power of words so as to allow sexual intrigue to parade as virtue, and self-indulgence to appear as the performance of duty. She is a true sophisticate who twists simple human truths into artificial complexities. Mary’s invitation to Fanny to join her and her brother in a union of persons who place pleasure above honor and sexual gratification above morality would indeed be a powerful inducement to young women who are less steady than Fanny. Mary’s worst offense, though, consists in her attempt in her letters to pass off her profligate brother as a steadfast lover to Fanny. Making conscious use of the intimacy created by the tone of her correspondence, she passes on only such information as to make Henry appear to best advantage. As a result, her letters are utterly misleading as to the truth about Henry.
Only one other correspondence equals the underhandedness of Mary’s letters: the note Willoughby sends Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, a novel whose epistolary complications are almost as intricate as those in Mansfield Park. On the surface, Willoughby appears to be a lover who flouts convention and writes to his beloved, but only to put an end to his affair with her. To complicate matters, this letter involves a third person, Willoughby’s fiancée Sophia Grey who, he claims when he confesses the truth about his love affair with Marianne to Elinor, dictated to him the text of this missive. Although Elinor has her doubts about Willoughby’s disclaimer, his story lays bare more dangers inherent in epistolary communications: the puzzling nature of authorship, the problem of reception, the uncertainty of meaning in written exchanges. As a rule, Austen’s novels center on the problem of “reading character” in a society where a fine rhetoric may hide a multitude of sins. Consequently, her protagonists continuously attempt to go beyond the limits of language and to discover the truth about others through their looks, gestures, and manners. By contrast, the letters sent by Mary and Willoughby attest to the difficulty of decoding personality with the sole aid of written documents. The potential for misinterpretation is much greater, as is the more disquieting possibility that a letter might be lost, get into the wrong hands, or even be ghostwritten. It is not clear how Miss Grey could have seized Marianne’s letters or forced Willoughby to write his infamous rejection without his collusion, but the story he tells in Sense and Sensibility shows Austen’s critical awareness that a letter, once it has left the author’s hand, is subject to misappropriation, and that a letter which purports to be from one person might have been written by another. Here, Austen’s novels clearly move away from the sentimentality of the epistolary credo, which revered letters exclusively as genuine writing from the heart and ignored the possibility of deceit. In Sense and Sensibility as in Mansfield Park, Austen seems instead to be looking forward to modern fiction and Poe’s Purloined Letter, where letters are used as tools of fraud and blackmail and even feature in criminal plots. In addition, Willoughby’s argument that his letter originated with his fiancée anticipates twentieth-century discussions about the difficulty of establishing authorial authenticity once a text has been released into the public sphere.2
Marianne anticipates Willoughby’s defense by explaining that his letter was instigated “by all the world, rather than by his own heart” (189). Interestingly, Elinor echoes her statement after she hears Willoughby’s confession. “‘The world had made him extravagant and vain,’” she says (331). Although the sisters find some manner of excuse for Willoughby, they finally conclude that he is a man of weak character who has allowed society to corrupt him. As a consequence, Willoughby stands in contrast to those of Austen’s heroes who have withstood the worldly assaults on their good character, Darcy and Wentworth. Since Willoughby disowns his communication, but Darcy and Wentworth write, and stand by theirs, it can be argued that only they, the strongest, most defiant lovers in Austen’s novels, are allowed to distinguish themselves as writers of love letters. As a rule, Austen’s weaker heroes do not write “billets-doux,” but even if they do (e.g., Edward Ferrars, Frank Churchill), it is implied that these are unimportant, since they are never reproduced. No, the privilege of writing and having read one’s most profoundly felt, deeply intimate, and utterly honest expressions of the heart is only given to those most perfect lovers, Darcy and Wentworth. In all of her novels, Austen allows only their two love letters to appear; and for that reason, in addition to the transforming power of their diction, their effectiveness is heightened in a way that remains unparalleled in literary history. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth is in part so impressive because it is the one message he writes to her, and it forever changes her outlook and her life. Similarly, Captain Wentworth’s note, which he composes while Anne believes he is jotting down a commission, transforms her from a sad spinster into a radiant mistress of her destiny. What distinguishes the love letters in Austen’s novels is thus not only that they are so rare, but that they are rarefied; and so beautifully written that they stand on their own as true works of art.
1. When Frank Churchill leaves Highbury after his February visit, Emma daydreams about a possible proposal and “invent[s] elegant letters” (264). In the course of this activity, she realizes she is not in love with Frank.
2. See also Mary Favret 145-54.
Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1986.
Cohn, Dorrit. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.
Favret, Mary. Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1998.