Though Jane Austen’s letters have been exhaustively studied and mined by biographers, as the richest depository we have of information about her life and her response to daily events, they have somewhat languished for want of critical analysis. There has been no book devoted to them, and even essays and articles are few and far between. But the 2005 JASNA conference in Milwaukee, on “The Letters in Fact and Fiction,” has opened up the letters for fuller study than ever before. And in the present essay I hope to explore Austen’s artistry in her many epistolary writings.1
We know that Jane Austen’s letters, like her novels, sustain and repay scrutiny as conscious works of art. She would make no claim to elegant architectonics of structure in her intimate letters to her siblings and friends, nor for the decorative aspects of rhetoric. But her masterly touch in throwing off brilliantly economical and suggestive phrases is unequalled. “[A]ll my important nothings” (15 June 1808); “The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!” (20 November 1814); “a very genteel, portable sort of an Invalid” (22 May 1817). For such vivid locutions, the Aristotelian critic George Whalley called her “Jane Austen: Poet”; and he elaborated memorably on her metaphoric power:
These short phrases, that come suddenly into view and hover for an instant like a dragon-fly or a humming-bird and are gone . . . are also symptoms of strong poetic potential that hums like a fiddle-string below the surface of her apparently decorous prose. (Whalley 117)
Jane Austen exercises this imaginative power in her familiar communications as well as in work for publication.
The “Letters in Fiction” will be my main concern here. But for the moment I want to pause on another category of Jane Austen’s letters that deserves consideration.
“The earliest Austen letters we have,” writes Rachel Brownstein authoritatively, “are dated 1796” (125). Sure enough, the first letter in both Chapman’s and Deirdre Le Faye’s editions of her letters is to Cassandra, and dated January 1796, when Austen was twenty. But what about the letters of dedication in Jane Austen’s juvenile works? (It was perhaps predictable that I’d get to the juvenilia, since they have been so important to my own darling child, the Juvenilia Press!) Listen to this dedication to “Frederic and Elfrida,” which Brian Southam dates around 1787 (Southam 16), when Austen was only about twelve:
To Miss Lloyd
My dear Martha
As a small testimony of the gratitude I feel for your late generosity to me in finishing my muslin Cloak, I beg leave to offer you this little production of your sincere Freind
The Author (MW 3)2
Doesn’t that sound like a letter? It is to a real person, a friend of the writer; it begins “Dear Martha,” it mentions actual incidents and objects—the finishing of the muslin cloak—and it has the proper sign-off by the “sincere Freind.” It’s a genuine production of Jane Austen’s hand, and the manuscript is extant. Joan Ray reminded us, in her video presentation with Deirdre Le Faye on Austen’s letters, “If it looks like a letter and smells like a letter, it is a letter.” But do you find this letter in either Chapman’s or Le Faye’s editions of the letters? No! They presumably consider this series of letters of dedication to the various items in Volumes the First, Second, and Third to be merely “fictional letters.” I beg to differ. In those grandly named three volumes of juvenilia, many of the individual items are epistolary, letters in fiction. But most of the dedications, like the one I just quoted, are letters in fact, and they deserve recognition as such.
Among Austen’s adult letters, we particularly prize those where she writes about her art: that “little bit . . . of Ivory” (16 December 1816) or those “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” that are “the very thing to work on” (9 September 1814). These early letters of dedication are likewise by a delightedly self-conscious writer, who gleefully signs herself “The Author,” and we should value them similarly. In these youthful letters, the self-styled “Author” speaks in propria persona about her creations, and she also athletically exercises her rhetorical muscles. In her letter of dedication for “A Collection of Letters,” to Jane Cooper, she tosses off a tour de force of alliteration:
. . . with Caution & Care I Commend to your Charitable Criticism this Clever Collection of Curious Comments, which have been Carefully Culled, Collected & Classed by your Comical Cousin
The Author (MW 149)
Here we find the young writer frisking and gamboling in her delight in language, laying it on with a trowel, Chortlingly Comical. “A Collection of Letters” is indeed “a Clever Collection of Curious Comments,” and pregnant with promise of the novels to come.
The letters of dedication are instinct with mischief and irony. “My dear Neice,” the teenage author writes to Anna Austen on June 2nd 1793,
Though you are at this period not many degrees removed from Infancy [Anna was seven weeks old!], Yet trusting that you will in time be older, and . . . be able to read written hand, I dedicate to You the following Miscellanious Morsels, convinced that if you seriously attend to them, You will derive from them very important Instructions, with regard to your Conduct in Life. (MW 71)
Needless to say, this heralded Conduct Book contains nothing particularly uplifting in the fragments that follow. The first begins,
We all know that many are unfortunate in their progress through the world. . . . To seek them out to study their wants, & to leave them unsupplied is the duty, and ought to be the Business of Man. (MW 71)
The “pictures of perfection” purveyed in the conduct books of the day evidently already made Jane wicked, if not sick.
Phrases like “this little production” and “this Comical Collection,” it seems to me, suggest real objects, the original copies of “Frederic and Elfrida” and “A Collection of Letters,” which would have been literally given to the dedicatee, and of which the versions we have in Volume the First and Second are merely the fair copies. I imagine a series of little hand-made books, not unlike those of the Brontë children, and I hopefully dream that one day, perhaps in the attic of a descendant of one of the Austen brothers, one or more of them may be rediscovered.
Jane Austen dedicated several of the gems among her juvenilia to Cassandra—“The Beautifull Cassandra,” “A History of England,” and “Catharine.” And since these works form a series—and she clearly expected Cassandra to remember each of them vividly—the young author could be humorously self-referential. The formal tone of the letter of dedication for “Catharine” is in playful counterpoint with the real intimacy that subsisted between the sisters; but nowhere do we find a clearer expression of an authorial fantasy of success—success beyond wildest dreams:
Encouraged by your warm patronage of The beautiful Cassandra, and The History of England, which through your generous support, have obtained a place in every library in the Kingdom, and run through threescore Editions, I take the liberty of begging the same Exertions in favour of the following Novel, which I humbly flatter myself, possesses Merit beyond any already published, or any that will ever in future appear, except such as may proceed from the pen of Your Most Grateful Humble Servt
Steventon August 1792— (MW 192)
“Humble”? I don’t think so! The expression of such a fantasy is a healthy corrective to the old representation of Jane Austen as the quiet unambitious spinster who humbly squeezed her novels into the intervals of her knitting and her baking of rhubarb pies.3
All these personal letters of dedication to the early writings predate the first letter in the current standard editions of Austen’s letters, and all are the expressions of a cheerfully self-confident author. So, when I get around to editing Jane Austen’s letters, these will take pride of place at the beginning of the volume, recognized now as letters in fact rather than fiction. R. W. Chapman must be trembling in his grave, and Deirdre Le Faye will be shaking in her editorial shoes! Seriously, though, I hope that when she comes to another printing, Deirdre will consider adding these letters to the 161 in her present admirable edition of Austen’s letters.
To turn from the letters in fact, these early dedications, to the letters in fiction: a notable number of the juvenilia—by no means all—are epistolary. In these early fictions the young author is clearly thinking hard and critically about the pros and cons of telling a story through letters; and she jokingly rings the changes on the conventions she inherited from Richardson, Burney, and others.
“Amelia Webster,” two pages long in Chapman’s volume of Minor Works, is an uproarious parody, highlighting the various problems of plausibility in epistolary narration. In “The Three Sisters” young Austen rejoices in creating the individual voices of her characters, especially that of the greedy eldest sister. Mary longs to marry well for the sake of the status and the pin money, but she isn’t sure she can endure the disgusting husband who is unfortunately attached to them. “He has a large fortune & will make great Settlements on me,” she reflects; “but then he is very healthy” (MW 58). But each character writes letters to a correspondent outside the story, and we see no replies; so that the plot elements disperse, and we miss the inter-penetration of consciousnesses that can be so fascinating in epistolary fiction.
“Love and Freindship,” which is a parody of a forgotten novel in letters or of 1784,4 is nominally epistolary. But though we are taught that the chief virtue of the novel in letters is its immediacy, or what Richardson called “writing to the moment,” the teenage author cheerfully throws that principle to the winds, and delivers Laura’s adventures of some thirty years earlier in arbitrary chunks, a letter at a time. It’s Austen’s own joke about the epistolary convention.
“Lesley Castle” marks a large step forward in her use of the convention, for her correspondents write to each other, rather than to someone off-stage, and we get much on their impressions of each other. For instance, the petite Lady Lesley calls her newfound step-daughters, who are tall and stately, “‘tremendous knock-me-down figures’”; and they call her “an insignificant Dwarf” (MW 126, 122). Such matching and opposed commentary helps to fix characters, and advance the interaction between them. Also, Austen has given the different letter-writers very distinct and individualized voices. The food-obsessed Charlotte, for instance, writes in culinary metaphors: “my Sister came running to me into the Store-room with her face as White as a Whipt syllabub” (MW 113). Jan Fergus, in her Juvenilia Press edition of “Lesley Castle,” even discovered that the characters practice their own idiosyncratic punctuation (xiv)!
“A Collection of Letters,” another early epistolary fiction, consists of five different letters, each belonging to a different character and situation. They vary considerably in tone, from the satiric to the realistic. Clearly the young author was testing her powers in different modes. The first two letters are humorous and parodic. But the third reads as though it might be an early version of a letter in “First Impressions.” A disadvantaged young woman receives the patronizing attention of the domineering Lady Greville:
“So Miss Maria (said her Ladyship as she saw me advancing to the door of the Carriage) you seem very smart to night. . . . Have you got a new Gown on?”
“Yes Ma’am,” replied I with as much indifference as I could assume.
“Aye, and a fine one too I think—(feeling it, as by her permission I seated myself by her) I dare say it is all very smart—But I must own, for you know I always speak my mind, that I think it was quite a needless peice of expence—Why could not you have worn your old striped one?” (MW 156)
Sound familiar? You will remember that Mr. Collins advises Elizabeth not to dress too smartly when she dines at Rosings, because Lady Catherine, like Lady Greville, also “‘likes to have the distinction of rank preserved’” in matters of dress (PP 161). Below the surface of the young author’s prose the mature artist’s voice “hums like a fiddle-string.”
The writer’s voice in this letter is somewhere between Jane Eyre, who tells her own story, and Elizabeth Bennet at Rosings, who is our center of consciousness but not the narrator. The letter was the vehicle whereby Austen could experiment with voices and weigh the relative merits of epistolary narration, which provides only the words of the characters, and third-person narration, which allows more authority but loses some immediacy.
Since “Elinor and Marianne” and “First Impressions,” which were probably epistolary, are lost to us, our best example of Austen in epistolary mode is “Lady Susan” (issued by the Juvenilia Press for the Milwaukee conference in a brand-new edition by Christine Alexander and David Owen). “I am proud to say,” Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, “that I have a very good eye at an Adultress” (12 May 1801). And her wicked and seductive adulteress Lady Susan is the living proof. Here young Austen is fully in control of her epistolary narrative, and her artistry is finely developed. The exchanges express and advance character and intricately unfold the plot. Lady Susan, consummate hypocrite and manoeuverer, is brilliantly in control of language, and she smoothly adapts it according to her correspondent. Her first letter is to her moral brother-in-law in the country, inviting herself to stay. She gushes:
I impatiently look forward to the hour when I shall be admitted to your delightful retirement. I long to be made known to your dear little Children, in whose hearts I shall be very eager to secure an interest. (MW 243-44)
The “delightful retirement” of the first letter doesn’t sound so palatable in the second, written to the wily urban confidante in London, to whom she appears in her true colors:
I take Town in my way to that insupportable spot, a Country Village, for I am really going to Churchill. . . . [I]t is my last resource. Were there another place in England open to me, I would prefer it. (MW 245-46)
Her penchant for “dear little Children” is likewise replaced by exasperation with her own daughter: “Frederica . . . was born to be the torment of my life” (MW 245). These different voices of the same character writing to different correspondents are testimony to Austen’s developed power in rendering characters through their own words: a power that we continue to marvel at in her six novels, where she moves from their written language to their speech in dialogue.
Jane Austen participated fully in a Culture of the Letter, a culture that we with our e-mails and telephones and cell phones are rapidly losing sight of. When a developed postal system made the exchange of letters affordable to the middle classes, the familiar letter came into its own, and during the eighteenth century the epistolary novel developed alongside the publication of actual letters by real people like Pope and Johnson and Mrs. Thrale. (Austen occasionally parodies Mrs. Thrale’s style [11 June 1799].) The whole century offered abundant examples of letters in fact and fiction.
Part of the pleasure in reading Jane Austen’s own letters is her high degree of self-consciousness as a letter-writer. Letter writing, for her, was clearly an art form, though with her humor and her light touch she is never pretentious about it. “I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter,” she writes to Cassandra, “for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument” (14 January 1796)! She allows us to picture her often with pen in hand: “Distribute the affecte Love,” she ends one long letter, “of a Heart not so tired as the right hand belonging to it” (9 December 1808). She discusses the “Epistolary powers” of Cassandra and other correspondents (9 December 1808). She boasts, “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter” (3 January 1801). Her sense of letters as dialogue at a distance feeds into her mastery of dialogue in the novels. Written or spoken, her characters’ words are their signature, as she captures the mind in the act of articulating itself.
What is a letter? The notion of speech at a distance is useful. But let me break up a letter into its component properties, and consider the sort of attention Austen pays to each, both in her characters’ letters and her own. These are my headings, and I’ll return to them:
I. Materials and physical properties: pens, paper, ink, desk, handwriting, et cetera;
II. Composition, including both the process of writing, and the consciousness of tone and style;
III. Content, the facts and opinions being communicated;
IV. Transmission, the means of sending, by hand, by post, and
so on; and finally
Fully committed to the culture of the letter, Austen pays sharp attention to all these elements, and makes narrative out of epistles.
To begin with Materials, then. Austen makes fun of the formula “I take up my pen” and gives it to Lady Bertram, who writes to Fanny “very comfortably about agitation and anxiety” (MP 427). Shenstone parodied Richardson’s Pamela for the triviality of the frequent reference to the process of writing: “So I sat down and wrote thus far: Scrattle, scrattle, goes the pen—why, how now? says I—what’s the matter with the pen?” (qtd. in Watt 200). In her own letters Austen jokes about her writing process: “Your letter is come; it came indeed twelve lines ago, but I could not stop to acknowledge it before, & I am glad it did not arrive till I had completed my first sentence . . .” (1 November 1800). It is the kind of intense consciousness of medium and of writing as process that we find in Tristram Shandy. She also comments on her handwriting, and wishes it were as neat and compact as Cassandra’s. Such epistolary self-consciousness is enjoyable, because it keeps us in touch, so to speak, with her present absorbing activity. She has a strong sense of the letter as a document, which may be shared (as speech may not) and stored in an archive as a lasting physical repository for passing moods and news. A letter preserved is not just a communication between two people; it can become a communication from the past to the future: and that’s what her own letters are to us.
But too devoted an attention to these physical properties of the letter comes in for its share of satire and parody. Remember Miss Bingley’s persistent flattery as Darcy writes to his sister: “‘You write uncommonly fast. . . . I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. . . . How can you contrive to write so even? . . . [D]o you always write such charming long letters . . . ?’” (PP 47-48). Miss Bingley’s own letter to Jane Bennet announces itself by its materials: “The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot pressed paper, well covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand” (116). The high-fashion materials notwithstanding, the professed affection amounts to nothing, as Miss Bingley is effectively dropping Jane.
In “Amelia Webster,” the send-up of the epistolary convention, the material aspect of the letter looms large. This is the whole of Letter the Third:
Beleive me I’m happy to hear of your Brother’s arrival. I have a thousand things to tell you, but my paper will only permit me to add that I am yr affect Freind
Amelia Webster. (MW 48)
One is left wondering whether the paper is a tiny scrap, or the handwriting so large and flowing that it occupies a whole sheet.5 The letter is effectively nothing but material.
Now for Composition. Of course the main creative effort in letter-writing is the composition itself, especially for a writer with a sense of style. Austen herself was certainly such a writer. She savours the process of effective self-expression, and her correspondents know she does.
I am gratified by [Fanny’s] having pleasure in what I write [she tells Cassandra]—but I wish the knowledge of my being exposed to her discerning Criticism, may not hurt my stile, by inducing too great a solicitude. I begin already to weigh my words & sentences more than I did, & am looking about for a sentiment, an illustration or a metaphor in every corner of the room. Could my Ideas flow as fast as the rain in the Storecloset, it would be charming. (24 January 1809)
Weighing her words and sentences, of course, is precisely what she does when she paints with her fine brush on that little piece of ivory. But her self-referentiality here also shows how fully she participates in the culture of the letter. She knows her letter is a document read and commented on by other members of the family. She suggests the readers bring to bear a fine critical intelligence in the analysis of her letter, as indeed she shows her characters doing with their letters. And in “looking about [her] . . . in every corner of the room” for some decorative stylistic effect like a metaphor, she literally draws her metaphor from the store closet, wittily mingling the literal with the figurative, and compares the flow of ideas on the page to the leaking closet roof.
Part of composition is the adaptation of the tone to different correspondents; and the tone is formally signalled by the opening address and the sign-off. In a formal context the eighteenth-century letter, especially, could require the writer to be on his toes to end the letter with the correct flourish and with a self-descriptor such as “your humble servant” to stand in apposition to the signature. The most famous example is Johnson’s brush-off of Lord Chesterfield:
for I have been long wakened from that Dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,
Your Lordship’s Most humble,
Most Obedient servant,
Sam. Johnson. (February 1755)
In other words, “Not bloody likely your humble servant any more!” Jane Austen performs her own variation on such a closer when she signs off to the Regent’s Librarian, James Stanier Clarke:
I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible Vanity, the most unlearned, & uninformed Female who ever dared to be an Authoress.
Beleive me, dear Sir,
Your obligd & faithl Hum. Servt.
J. A. (11 December 1815)
Among her fictional sign-offs I like those between the disillusioned hero Reginald and Lady Susan herself, when he has detected her in lying and adultery:
My Understanding is at length restored [he writes to her], & teaches me no less to abhor the Artifices which had subdued me, than to despise myself for the weakness, on which their strength was founded.
R. De Courcy (MW 306)
But Lady Susan, as usual, gets the last word:
I flatter myself with the hope of surviving my share in this disappointment.
S. V. (MW 306)
To perform these conventions with style and appropriateness was one aspect of successful composition.
Next, Content. This is the most obvious element of the letter, of course, and may be as various and complex as the information of the writer will allow. But for the reader—of either an actual letter or a fictional one—to get hung up on content alone is to demonstrate a certain limitation of attention. When the Bennet family are discussing Collins’s first letter, it is Mrs. Bennet who is effectively softened by Collins’s proposal to “make amends” to the Bennet daughters; “‘There is some sense in what he says about the girls however,’” she says; while Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet, who are closer readers, recognize there’s actually very little sense in Collins (PP 63-64). In her own letters Austen can be quite cavalier about content: “Expect a most agreable Letter,” she promises Cassandra; “for not being overburdened with subject—(having nothing at all to say)—I shall have no check to my Genius from beginning to end” (21 January 1801). The fun begins when the business part is done.
And now, Transmission. The means by which a letter gets from the writer to the recipient may seem a mere matter of technology, but those who belong in the culture of the letter pay attention to it. Anthony Trollope, who worked in the Post Office for thirty-three years and was partly responsible for the installation of pillar-boxes all over England, is another novelist who had “steeped [himself], as it were, in postal waters” (Trollope, Autobiography 244). It’s no accident that both Chapman and Deirdre Le Faye wind up their introductions to Austen’s letters with references to Trollope; for even more than Jane Austen, Trollope in his novels pays close attention to the mailing of letters as well as the composition and content of them. He reminds us of that irrevocable moment when “the envelope slip[s] through [his] fingers” into the pillar-box, and the sender has “now bound himself to his fate” (The Eustace Diamonds 121). He traces a letter from the London pillar-box to its delivery at a country breakfast table, and he makes a consideration of issues of timing and reception an essential part of his narrative. Although Trollope never wrote epistolary novels, like Austen he builds his letters deeply into his narrative; and she is clearly a model for him. Among Jane Austen’s own models was Samuel Richardson, who also devotes considerable page space to the matter of the transmission of his hundreds of fictional letters. For instance, a post-box that Pamela devises for her secret correspondence when she is imprisoned is between two tiles, near the sunflower, in a garden.
Austen pays satirical attention to this improvised postal system. This is the longest letter in “Amelia Webster”:
I have found a very convenient old hollow oak to put our Letters in; for you know we have long maintained a private Correspondence. [Now he tells her!] It is about a mile from my House & seven from yours. You may perhaps imagine that I might have made choice of a tree which would have divided the Distance more equally—I was sensible of this at the time, but as I considered that the walk would be of benefit to you in your weak & uncertain state of Health, I preferred it to one nearer your House, & am yr faithfull
Benjamin Bar (MW 48)
At the end of Lady Susan Jane Austen abandons the epistolary mode and delivers closure in the author’s voice. Nothing wrong with this: Richardson did the same at the end of Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison, and so did Fielding at the end of Shamela, which I believe was in many ways a model for Lady Susan.6 But it’s Jane Austen who chooses to take wry notice of the mode of transmission of all these letters: “This Correspondence, by a meeting between some of the Parties & a separation between the others, could not, to the great detriment of the Post office Revenue, be continued longer” (MW 311). Many of us may regret the detriment of the Post office Revenue by the reunion of Jane and Cassandra, since their being together for most of their lives deprives us of further letters!
And finally we come to Reception.
[W]hen she entered the breakfast-room, her first object was a letter, held out by Henry’s willing hand. . . . Catherine had not read three lines before her sudden change of countenance, and short exclamations of sorrowing wonder, declared her to be receiving unpleasant news. . . . They went to breakfast directly; but Catherine could hardly eat any thing. Tears filled her eyes, and even ran down her cheeks. . . . The letter was one moment in her hand, then in her lap, and then in her pocket. . . . (NA 201-03)
Such a full and detailed account of Catherine Morland’s response to her brother’s letter tells us a great deal, not just about his broken engagement to Isabella, but also about Catherine’s sincere affection for James, her inexperience in social situations, the conventions of the Tilney social circle, the sympathy and attention of her young hosts. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, the letter sends ripples outwards from the individual to her immediate circle and beyond. “‘Isabella has deserted my brother, and is to marry your’s!’” she blurts out to Henry and Eleanor Tilney (NA 204). Through such detailed accounts of reception, Austen makes us recognize that the letter may be considered as the outside world knocking on the individual’s door.
Reception goes beyond the emotional to the critical. The discerning reader must read between the lines to get the subtext, or deduce various kinds of deceit, or assess the character and competence of the letter-writer. Austen doesn’t write her characters’ letters for such dull elves / As have not a great deal of interpretive power themselves.
Pride and Prejudice recurrently provides scenes in which letters are received, analyzed, discussed, and sometimes found to contain the very opposite of their apparent meaning. Miss Bingley’s letter to her “dearest friend” Jane suggests Bingley is falling in love with Georgiana Darcy. But after close reading, Elizabeth delivers her own interpretation, which turns out to be pretty accurate: “‘Miss Bingley sees that her brother is in love with you, and wants him to marry Miss Darcy’” (PP 118). It is perhaps partly because the third-person narrative provides opportunity for this close observation of the reception of letters—as opposed to their texts without commentary—that Austen chose to move on from the epistolary narrative.
Well, where have I got to in my consideration of Austen’s letters in fact and fiction? I’ve tried to persuade you that the letters of dedication in the juvenilia should be re-categorized as factual rather than fictional; I’ve romped through the some of the epistolary works in the juvenilia; through examining her artistic self-consciousness as a letter-writer, I’ve demonstrated that Austen, like her characters, was deeply committed to the culture of the letter. And I suggested a taxonomy of the letter, its properties of materiality, composition, content, transmission and reception—to all of which Austen pays close, if often comic, attention.
To demonstrate further, let me turn now to a more detailed consideration of a few of the salient letters in the novels. Frank Churchill says fervently, “‘Oh! the blessing of a female correspondent, when one is really interested in the absent!—[Mrs. Weston] will tell me every thing. In her letters I shall be at dear Highbury again!’” (E 261). So Cassandra in receiving her sister’s letters may have felt herself back in dear Chawton. But let’s hear instead from the gentlemen: Willoughby, Darcy, and Wentworth.
Willoughby first: his infamous letter to Marianne after the ball in London. We hear nothing of the materials. The transmission is by hand: Marianne has sent a servant to deliver her agonized note to Willoughby, written in the early hours of the morning, and the servant brings his reply. And the composition? The style, as responding to Marianne’s frank and generous note in which she shows she is unwilling to believe ill of him, is heartless, insulting. After all their cherished intimacy, he writes with withering formality: “My Dear Madam, / I have just had the honour of receiving your letter, for which I beg to return my sincere acknowledgments” (SS 183). This formal guff in response to her confiding notes! The ending is even worse than the beginning: “It is with great regret that I obey your commands of returning the letters, with which I have been honoured from you, and the lock of hair, which you so obligingly bestowed on me” (SS 183). We heard earlier how in happier times he begged for the lock, when her hair was “‘all tumbled down her back,’” snipped it off, and kissed it, and folded it away as a precious memento (SS 60). This piece of Marianne’s body stands for the body itself. To write that she “obligingly bestowed” it is to suggest something like prostitution. This from a man who writes of “honour”! It is an unforgivable composition.
Of course we learn later that this is not actually Willoughby’s composition at all; it was dictated by his spiteful fiancée, Miss Grey. But Willoughby has put his hand to it, and is responsible. His attempt to shrug off the blame only exacerbates his guilt.
Cheer thee, Marianne—you’re well rid of the bastard!
As for reception, we get detail enough on Marianne’s “death-like paleness” as she receives it (181), Mrs. Jennings’ misinterpretation, Elinor’s solicitude, Marianne’s anguish. Tony Tanner identifies her “muffled scream” of agony at the center of the novel as the epitome of the pain and sickness that haunt Sense and Sensibility (75). If the hour of the reception of this letter is Marianne’s deepest pain, it is also the occasion of the closest sympathy between the sisters. The content of the letter is important enough, but the reception—information on which can’t be included in the letter itself—is more important still. I believe this is one reason why the epistolary “Elinor and Marianne,” which could provide the text of the letter but not describe the circumstances of reception, moved on to become the third-person narrative Sense and Sensibility.
Darcy next. Here we have the agonized pronouncement of a proud man in love, who has to humble himself by justifying his conduct to the woman who has rejected him. He writes, he admits later, in “‘a dreadful bitterness of spirit’” (PP 368). “Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter,” he begins stiffly, “by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you” (196). His own proposal of marriage considered “disgusting”! He writes bitterly indeed. In point of composition, we may agree here with Bingley on Darcy’s letter-writing style: “‘He studies too much for words of four syllables’” (48). Sure enough, besides the highly formal syntax, this one sentence contains two four-syllable words and six three-syllable ones. In the novel we don’t hear much about Darcy’s process of writing, but the A & E screen version can show Colin Firth in agonized throes of composition, and writing through the night.
The content of the letter, we know, is crucial, because it must induce a sea-change not only in Elizabeth but in us, the readers. The transmission is by hand, outdoors, where Darcy seeks out Elizabeth in her favorite walk to deliver his letter in person. Any such personal delivery is fraught with tension. If you are going to see the person you address in your letter, why write it at all? Darcy has to resort to written composition, because he can’t trust himself to speak his account in person, nor Elizabeth to listen to it.
The narration of Elizabeth’s reception of the letter occupies a whole chapter, during which Austen traces in detail the incremental stages of her response, from angry rejection, to hesitating attention, to rueful acceptance, accompanied by self-blame. “‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’” (208). That is what a letter can accomplish. And in tracing this process of psychological metamorphosis Jane Austen needs not just the text of the letter, but the facility for tracing its affect. Late in the novel, when Darcy and Elizabeth are happily united, they are still discussing his letter, and measuring what it accomplished for the writer, and what for the receiver.
And last, Wentworth. Here the process of composition is up close and personal. The scene has been set carefully. Wentworth was supposedly writing a different letter, about the setting of a miniature of Captain Benwick. “Materials were all at hand, on a separate table,” and he is seated there at work (P 229). He seems to be deeply engaged, until on the mention of imprudent engagements, his “pen ceased to move . . . and he turned round the next instant to give a look—one quick, conscious look at [Anne]” (231). As Anne and Harville proceed in their discussion of constancy in men and women, Wentworth’s attention, we can deduce, has shifted from his official commission. He has heard Anne claim that women’s attachments are “longer-lived” than men’s; and he drops his pen. Anne suspects he has been listening, and lowers her voice.
“I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach,” he writes, “speaking” with his pen. And his written words come in counterpoint with her spoken ones. “Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman,” he challenges her. “You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice, when they would be lost on others. . . . You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men” (237). Speech and written response come together. This is “writing to the moment” with a vengeance.
This letter too is delivered by hand. On a pretext of having forgotten his gloves, Wentworth returns and “placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty” (236). Just as well, because we hear “the direction [is] hardly legible”! After transmission comes reception. “The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression. . . . On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her!” (237). It’s one more reminder of the crucial significance of the letter in Austen’s fiction.
Through her juvenilia Jane Austen had trained herself in the epistolary mode, and the culmination of this training—besides the lost “Elinor and Marianne” and “First Impressions”—is her brilliantly plotted novel Lady Susan. In her own letters she develops her own epistolary artistry. She makes these documents a kind of self-expression that exercises and confirms the individual’s relation to sister, family, a network of correspondents, postal and logistical arrangements, publishers, and even royalty. A letter, she knows, is much more than itself. And as she moves in her writing from epistolary narration to third-person narration that embeds letters in crucial places, she enables us to read not just the letter itself, but all round the letter.
1. This paper was originally delivered as the Joan Philosophos Lecture at the 2005 JASNA AGM in Milwaukee. Joan had consulted with me about a theme for a Milwaukee conference, which she wanted to be on Austen’s letters; and together we came up with a title, “The Letters in Fact and Fiction,” that would allow presenters to discuss both Austen’s own historical letters, and the many letters she incorporated in her fiction. Joan did not live to see her brainchild come to maturity. But the conference was dedicated to her memory. I was honored to give this lecture named for her.
2. In this and other quotations from the letters of dedication, I haven’t preserved Chapman’s capitalization of “MY DEAR MARTHA” and “THE AUTHOR,” which I find distracting, and which does not appear in the manuscript.
3. In “The Lesson of Balzac,” Henry James famously (and regrettably) wrote of Austen’s “unconsciousness” as an artist: she “sometimes, over her work-basket, . . . fell a-musing, lapsed too metaphorically, as one may say, into wool-gathering, and her dropped stitches . . . were afterwards picked up as little touches of human truth, little glimpses of steady vision, little master-strokes of imagination” (116).
4. See my article “From Laura and Augustus to Love and Freindship.”
5. I am indebted for this suggestion to Michael Londry, the student editor of the Juvenilia Press edition of “Amelia Webster” and “The Three Sisters” (McMaster et al., n. 16).
6. The parallels between Lady Susan and Fielding’s wicked parody of Richardson’s Pamela are manifold. Both have outrageously self-seeking heroines who get their way by feigning a delicate morality (or “Vartue,” as Shamela calls it). Both reside in the country, and each has a wily and experienced confidante in London to whom she reveals her true self: for Shamela her mother in Drury Lane, for Lady Susan Alicia Johnson in Edward Street; both prefer a profligate lover (Parson Williams and Manwaring) to their more moral suitors. As writers, both rejoice in the “sentiment,” or abstract moral pronouncement, which in Shamela’s case is signaled by italics. “O how foolish it is in a woman, once she has got the reins into her own hands, ever to quit them again,” writes Shamela sententiously (Fielding 335). “Consideration & Esteem as surely follow command of Language, as Admiration waits on Beauty,” Lady Susan philosophizes (MW 251). And the same expression of using language “to make Black appear White” occurs at crucial moments in both epistolary works (Fielding 337; Austen, MW 251).
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