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Epistolary Culture in Emma: Secrets and Social Transgressions

CONVERSATIONS INVOLVING ANTICIPATED MAIL, the contents of letters, handwriting styles, and even the postal system abound in the Jane Austen canon, and especially in Emma.  The term “post-office” appears seven times in the novel.  The word “letter” itself is mentioned 148 times, suggesting the prevalence of letter writing as a cultural practice, a daily habit, and a necessary utility for residents of Highbury, at least those of Austen’s social class.  Austen describes Highbury as a “large and populous village almost amounting to a town” (7).  Yet its residents are linked by the Royal Mail not only to the rest of Britain but also to the world beyond England’s shores.  George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse use posted letters to stay in touch with John and Isabella Knightley in the city of London.  The Campbells, while in Ireland, write to Jane Fairfax during her stay in Highbury.  Jane Fairfax herself walks to the local post office in the rain in order personally to retrieve her mail.  Though her actions draw unwanted attention from Highbury’s nosy residents, Jane has a compelling reason to persevere in the endeavor.  The mail, we later discover, connects her to her secret suitor, Frank Churchill.  In Emma, as in real life, gossip, rumors, news, information, and personal secrets travel through the social networks both by word of mouth and by postal correspondence. 

The Georgian and Regency eras saw the maturation of national postal systems on both sides of the Atlantic.  People like Austen thought of themselves as letter writers and participants in far-flung networks of epistolary correspondence.  As Jo Modert has written, “By January 1796, . . . Jane Austen [was] writing on a regular, day-to-day schedule to absent family members, friends, and distant relatives” (“Letters” 271).  For example, her surviving letters indicate that in 1813 she wrote at least twice to her brother Francis while he commanded the HMS Elephant faraway in the Baltic Sea (3-6 July; 25 September). 

In Emma epistolary culture manifests itself in the form of unspoken codes, convention, rhetoric, and practices of letter writing and letter reading.  These habits suggest how Austen’s characters perceive their relationships to a wider world of familial, social, professional, and commercial contacts.  Letter writers maintain an ongoing and oftentimes private conversation with absent and distant lovers, friends, and family members.  In short, the mail allows Emma Woodhouse and her social set to acquire news, share gossip, conduct courtship (both public and clandestine), and construct communities of belonging that extend beyond their immediate vicinity. 

A brief history of the postal system 

Large-scale communication systems have long pedigrees reaching back into antiquity.  The Persian and Roman Empires possessed extensive relay systems that carried official dispatches throughout their territories.  A message could travel the length of the Persian realm, from the Indus Valley to Macedonia, fifteen hundred miles, in a little more than seven days (Fuller 3).  However, for most of recorded history, private individuals had to rely on various other means to deliver messages.  Not until the 1400s did the German Emperor Maximilian I create the first state-run postal system accessible to the general public. 

The British can trace their mail system to Edward IV, who in the late fifteenth century established the first postal station in Scotland.  Though a regular government postal service operated under Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century, it was not until 1657 that Parliament passed the first act establishing a post office (Wheeler 38).  The eighteenth century saw significant advances in the postal service throughout the Anglo-American world (John 3).  The imperial mail service grew alongside the British Empire.  Indeed, the mail functioned as a powerful instrument that tied together the empire and its people (Jokic 111).  Mail sent by Sir Thomas Bertram from Mansfield Park to his estates in the Caribbean, for example, would have utilized the imperial mail.

Even small villages like Highbury had postal stations, though rates rendered the mail beyond the reach of the majority of the population.  Only the middle classes and those above could afford to send letters on a regular basis.  As David Wheeler puts it, “In Austen’s time the cost of mailing a single sheet letter no farther than fifteen miles would be four pence, a shilling if it traveled 300 miles, costs prohibitive to the popular classes” (Wheeler 37; Modert, “Post” 345).  Even with her limited resources, however, Jane Fairfax can still send letters to Miss Bates and Frank Churchill.  Indeed, the loftiest praise of the British mail system is spoken by Jane during a conversation between her and John Knightley. 

The post-office is a wonderful establishment!” said she.—“The regularity and dispatch of it!  If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!”  (296) 

Only later in the novel does the full import of Jane’s appraisal of the post office become clear, when everyone finds out the “astonishing” service the mail has provided for her and Frank.  Jane and many of the inhabitants of Highbury have every reason to speak well of a postal establishment that operates with such “regularity and dispatch” in connecting their hamlet to a wider world. 

Privacy and the mail 

In early modern England the control of postal communications by the state served to protect the secrecy of official correspondence; no such protections, whether based in constitutional law or cultural norms, extended to the mail of private persons.  Under Oliver Cromwell, Parliament proclaimed a monopoly over the mail, all the better, as Cromwell saw it, to keep under surveillance potential troublemakers to the Commonwealth.  Under Charles II, government officials proved accomplished hands at the stealthy task of opening and resealing letters without leaving a trace to make either sender or receiver suspicious.  Even after the Glorious Revolution, successive British administrations in the eighteenth century, in one historian’s words, “routinely treated the post office as a convenient depot of intelligence, by detaining, opening, copying, and when necessary deciphering ‘private letters’ in transit” (Bannet 13). 

Not surprisingly, the lack of legal and cultural norms protecting private correspondence from government surveillance discouraged private individuals from using the government post for personal correspondence (Adelman 719).  The idea of the sanctity of personal mail rose in tandem with the Enlightenment and the notions of inalienable rights of the individual.  By the early nineteenth century the political and institutional changes rendered the mail a relatively safe place to record and share one’s private thoughts and confessions.  Thus, the advent of a state-run postal system accessible to the entire population and pledged to maintain the privacy of personal correspondence stands out as both relatively modern and decidedly revolutionary.  Jane Austen and her generation, then, benefited from centuries’ worth of steady improvements not only in the systems of mail delivery but also in the institutional and legal protections afforded the mail.  Jane Fairfax, known for her quiet reserve and few words, is uncharacteristically effusive when pointing out this most vital feature of the mail service. 

So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears!  So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong—and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost!  And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder!”  (296) 

Wonder, indeed.  Of all the characters in the novel, Jane has the most to lose from a letter “carried wrong” due to “negligence or blunder.”  Given her predicament, she could ask for no better ally than a postal delivery system that was affordable, professional, diligent, and, most of all, confidential. 

Distance and space 

Austen situates Highbury sixteen miles from London.  The distance proves short enough for Frank to ride there under the pretense of getting his hair cut.  Emma possesses her own carriage, yet nowhere in the novel does Austen offer any suggestion or even a hint that Emma regularly travels to London for the season or has ever left England.  Emma does not travel at all.  At one point in the novel, she admits that she has never been to the coast or even visited Box Hill, a mere seven miles from Hartfield (352).  If anything, the disaster that is the Box Hill expedition seems only to reinforce Emma’s predisposition never to leave her village, at least not until her wedding trip to the seaside. 

Indeed, by the novel’s end, the original residents of Highbury hardly have moved at all.  Miss Taylor has relocated from Mr. Woodhouse’s residence to that of her husband, Mr. Weston.  Harriet moves from Mrs. Goddard’s school to the house of her husband, Mr. Martin, a farmer living on Mr. Knightley’s estate.  Granted, Mr. Knightley does travel regularly to London to visit his brother and sister-in-law.  Like Mrs. Weston, however, Mr. Knightley moves into the household of his spouse, and for both Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, their respective former residences remain but a short stroll down a village lane.  Not surprisingly, since she can’t bear to leave her elderly father, Emma stays in her home of Hartfield.  Highbury’s established residents seem to view the outside world in the manner of the hero of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:  like Bilbo Baggins, Emma is surrounded by all the comforts of home, is quite wealthy, and has little desire to venture beyond the borders of the shire.

In contrast, the characters from outside of Highbury show far greater movement across the spatial terrain.  John and Isabella Knightley move to London, from which they visit Highbury; the Dixons move to Ireland, and the Campbells visit them there; Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax first move to London (483) and will then live in Yorkshire (Preus 208).  Jane Fairfax, with far fewer resources than Emma, desires to visit Ireland and has seen other parts of the British Isles.  The reader has good reason to suspect that after her marriage to the now wealthy Frank Churchill Jane Fairfax would have no objection to traveling a bit more widely than Emma ever has or will.  Emma, as Beth Lau suggests, may be about “an alternative restlessness and rejection of the closed world of small villages and landed estates” (97).  If so, it is up to the secondary characters like Jane Fairfax or Frank Churchill to reject an insulated life bounded by the borders of a bucolic country village. 

Republic of letters

Highbury’s proximity to London, the administrative, social, and economic heart of England, most likely makes postal service more regular, compared to services to or from other small villages in more isolated regions of the British Isles (Modert, “Post” 345).  Austen likes to set her novels in relatively enclosed settings, “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village,” as she puts it in one letter (9-18 September 1814).  Through the mail, the members of a small social circle like Highbury’s are connected to a much larger world of gossip, news, and events involving a cast spread across England and even overseas to every British colony and vessel of the Royal Navy.  Jane Austen and her contemporaries could claim membership in their own version of what scholars call a “republic of letters.”  These communities of belonging were bound together not by political geography but by correspondence and by the institution of the mail that made such correspondence feasible and affordable.  According to Deborah Kaplan, Austen wrote letters “to provide relatives with news of family, friends, and neighbors.  She also wrote to solicit news from others.  Letter writing thus helped to develop and maintain networks among families and branches of a family” (213). 

The world of Emma, like the actual world of the rural gentry that Austen inhabited, is full of letter-writing and letter-writers.  Recipients routinely shared letters with members of their social circle (Wheeler 36).  Behind such actions was the assumption that letters were public property.  Even someone as esteemed as Mr. Weston expects to access the contents of a letter not addressed to himself (305). 

Throughout the novel, characters scrutinize the handwriting and composition of other characters, hoping to discern something of the author’s nature from a visual inspection of the letter and multiple readings of its contents.  Mr. Martin proposes marriage to Harriet in a letter.  When Harriet foolishly allows Emma to inspect the proposal, the latter expects to see a subpar epistolary performance, fitting for a tenant farmer of humble pretentions.  Instead, 

She read, and was surprized.  The style of the letter was much above her expectation.  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.  (50-51) 

Emma’s sharp mind cannot deny the superior merit found in Mr. Martin’s letter and by extension his character.  Still, her snobbery prevails, and she persuades Harriet to reject the proposal.


Admiring Jane’s Handwriting,
by C. E. Brock (1909).

Emma and Mr. Knightley differ not only in what they observe of other people but also in the depth of their apprehension.  Consider their contrasting views of Frank Churchill’s handwriting.  Emma claims that “‘Mr. Frank Churchill writes one of the best gentlemen’s hands I ever saw,’” while Mr. Knightley says, “‘It is too small—wants strength.  It is like a woman’s writing” (297).  Austen introduces both Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax to the reader through letters to their respective relatives in Highbury.  We, like the residents of Highbury, develop opinions of Frank and Jane before they appear.  Even before their appearance in the novel, they exist in our imagination, connected to the main stage of Highbury by the postal service (Wheeler 35). 

The letter acts as the ambassador or stand-in for the absent person.  Frank Churchill enters the plot not in person, but through a “‘very handsome letter’” he sends his new stepmother in the first volume of the novel (18).  This “highly-prized letter” gives her “a very favourable idea of the young man.”  Indeed, Frank’s letter is “an irresistible proof of his great good sense” (18).  Frank’s letter, once passed around, makes his character and presence known among the members of his parents’ social circle (Wheeler 37).  Indeed, it can be argued that Frank Churchill is the chief letter-writer in the novel (Knoepflmacher 646).  Not coincidentally, to “frank” in the early nineteenth century, as now, “meant to dispatch a letter, duty-free, by signing the sender’s name on its outward wrappings” (Knoepflmacher 656). 

The novel fittingly pairs Frank with Jane Fairfax, a well-practiced hand at the epistolary arts.  Before her arrival in Highbury, Jane writes weekly to Miss Bates, a grateful and eager recipient:  as Emma complains, “‘Every letter from [Jane] is read forty times ove’r” by Miss Bates. (86).  Jane’s physical and emotional health is signaled by her letter-writing.  After the fiasco at Box Hill, when Emma seeks to make amends with Miss Bates and Jane, Emma is told that the latter is suffering from a “‘dreadful headach,’” the result of “‘writing all the morning:―such long letters, you know’” (379).  Jane’s distress over Frank’s removal from Highbury manifests itself in “a verbal message” to Emma’s invitation to spend the day at Hartfield:  “‘Miss Fairfax was not well enough to write’” (389). 

How Jane and Frank make use of writing paper reveals the differences in their economic and social standing.  To double the space in which she could transcribe her messages, Jane superimposes vertical lines across the horizontal writing on the page.  Jane makes a virtue out of a necessity; she hardly has any income, after all, and must squeeze every bit of utility out of every last square inch of precious writing paper.  Frank Churchill, with money to spare, can afford the luxury of being careless.  Further, until the middle of the nineteenth century postal policies required the recipient, not the sender, to pay for the postage.  Unlike Jane, who economizes for herself and for the sake of her aunt and grandmother, Frank takes advantage of this practice by having his correspondents, the Westons, pay for the postage of the handsome letters that he sends them (Knoepflmacher 642-43).

The post office

Although home delivery of mail appeared in London as early as 1680, it was not available nationwide until a generation after Austen’s death (Wheeler 40).  In order to stay connected to her secret lover, Jane Fairfax must venture by herself to the post office, “a public place for gathering and exchanging gossip” (Wheeler 36).  Jane’s regular trips to the local post office, even in the rain, must invoke curiosity and invite scrutiny, and she comes under friendly interrogation by John Knightley regarding her “‘daily errand’”:  “‘The post-office has a great charm at one period of our lives,’” John Knightley says to Jane Fairfax.  “‘When you have lived to my age, you will begin to think letters are never worth going through the rain for’” (293).  Jane’s “little blush” at John Knightley’s comment suggests not only that she wishes her friendly and unwitting interrogator had not hit the nail on the head but also that she takes a not insignificant delight in her own agency.  The regular letters from Frank give Jane joy; one suspects that she also takes delight in operating her clandestine epistolary missions under the noses of Highbury’s gossiping residents.  Jane replies, “‘I cannot expect that simply growing older should make me indifferent about letters’” (293).  Emma, with her wealth, need not take such risk; Emma, like everyone else, enjoys writing and receiving letters, but she has not staked her future on a distant lover who can only communicate with her through secret letters.  Unlike Jane, Emma will never know the thrill of such operations.

bui post office

The Post Office, by Edward Villiers Rippingille (1820).
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Lotherton Hall).

Speaking to John Knightley, Jane makes a spirited defense of what postal correspondence means to somebody in her situation: 

“You have every body dearest to you always at hand, I, probably, never shall again; and therefore till I have outlived all my affections, a post-office, I think, must always have power to draw me out, in worse weather than to-day”  (294) 

John Knightley argues that business correspondence “‘may bring money,’” but friendly correspondence “‘hardly ever does’” (293).  Although the epistolary traffic between Jane and Frank allows them to maintain the ties of affection across time and space, Jane knows full well that marriage to Frank offers her the best and only hope of both financial security and upward social mobility.  For Jane, the hoped-for payoff outweighs the risk of being seen venturing to the post office in the rain, or even the risk of being caught with one of Frank’s letters in her hands. 

Austen’s unease about the postal age 

In Emma, secrecy protects Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, as public disclosure of their engagement would jeopardize Frank’s standing with his rich aunt.  The medium of the private letter offers space where their communications, sentiments, opinions, and feelings find expression with candor.  But can the world of Highbury tolerate such romantic negotiations and dealings taking place outside the public limelight?  A generation after Austen’s death, the Victorians saw “the increased accessibility of people and businesses to each other via the Penny Post” not as a blessing but rather, “as an invasion of privacy and domestic sanctity” (Golden 246). 

Austen’s novels speak to what Beth Lau calls the “anxieties about major developments of the age,” namely “the increased physical and social mobility brought about by industrialism, war, colonialism, and tourism and the erosion of traditional hierarchies brought about by new ideologies of democracy, meritocracy, and individualism” (96).  Yet, while Austen’s heroines inhabit a relatively confined geographic setting, the letters written and received personify exactly those forces of change that were remaking the face of England and the rest of the globe.  Even Emma, which appears to embrace stasis, contains elements that communicate or suggest revolutionary changes encroaching upon the seemingly hermetic, semi-feudal world of the eighteenth century.  The provincial village of Highbury, closed to outsiders, is defined by neighborhood gossip, social gatherings, and face-to-face communication.  For Highbury to function as a cohesive social unit, the public space demands that letters be shared.  “The unshared private letter,” says David Wheeler, “disrupts such a society” (46). 

The reader learns of the contents of many letters in the Austen canon.  Indeed, letters appear in their entirely at crucial moments in the plots of both Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.  The bonds of trust between Darcy and Elizabeth and between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth appear as both romantic and satisfyingly realistic precisely because Austen shares their most private letters with the reader.  We become emotionally invested in these characters’ respective courtships when Austen makes us privy to their written declarations.  We cheer when they finally prevail over the elements holding them apart.  While Austen does create sympathy for the plight of the orphaned and penniless Jane Fairfax—and by extension for other young women caught in Jane’s predicament—the relationship between Frank and Jane, at least for the reader, lacks the open discourse we see in Emma and Mr. Knightley’s relationship.  The reader, like the residents of Highbury, can only speculate as to what exactly has transpired in the exchanges of letters between Jane and Frank.  At novel’s end Jane and Frank ride off into marital bliss after having successfully utilized the post office to carry out their clandestine courtship.  There is strong indication that Austen disapproves of their conduct.  Certainly Mr. Knightley looks unfavorably on both of them for their lack of transparency and disregard for the social norms. 

Does Austen then acknowledge the accessible, affordable, and potentially secretive mail as a threat to the orderly world of Highbury and the social environment of its citizens?  Would she disapprove of a future in which revolutionary advances in communication practices, technologies, and institutions would allow and enable illicit, possibly immoral acts by individuals chaffing under the norms of propriety?  Austen’s treatment of the romantic intrigues of Frank and Jane reveals her discomfort with, or at least her ambiguous attitude towards, the increasing social demands for privacy as English society in the early nineteenth century raced towards an industrial, more impersonal modernity (Wheeler 46).  If so, then Emma burnishes Austen’s credentials as a conservative who preferred the old social order, untouched and undisturbed by revolutionary impulses.

Works Cited
  • Adelman, Joseph.  “‘A Constitutional Conveyance of Intelligence, Public and Private’: The Post Office, the Business of Printing, and the American Revolution.”  Enterprise & Society 11.4 (Dec. 2010): 711-54.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.
  • Bannet, Eve Tavor.  Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688-1820.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005.
  • Fuller, Wayne E.  The American Mail: Enlarger of the Common Life.  Chicago: UCP, 1972.
  • Golden, Catherine J.  Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing.  Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2009.
  • John, Richard R.  Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
  • Jokic, Olivera.  “Commanding Correspondence: Letters and the ‘Evidence of Experience’ in the Letterbook of John Bruce, the East India Company Historiographer.”  The Eighteenth Century 52.2 (Sum. 2011): 109-36.
  • Kaplan, Deborah.  “Representing Two Cultures: Jane Austen’s Letters.”  The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings.  Ed. Shari Benstock.  Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1988.  211-29.
  • Knoepflmacher, U. C.  “The Importance of Being Frank: Character and Letter-Writing in Emma.”  Studies in English Literature 7.4 (Fall 1967): 639-58.
  • Lau, Beth.  “Home, Exile, and Wanderlust in Austen and the Romantic Poets.”  Pacific Coast Philology 41 (2006): 91-107.
  • Modert, Jo.  “Letters/Correspondence.”  The Jane Austen Companion.  Ed. J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz, and Brian Southam.  New York: Macmillan, 1986.  271-78.
  • _____.  “Post/Mail.”  The Jane Austen Companion.  Ed. J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz, and Brian Southam.  New York: Macmillan, 1986.  345-46.
  • Preus, Nicholas E.  “Sexuality in Emma: A Case History.”  Studies in the Novel 23.2 (Sum. 1991): 196-216.
  • Wheeler, David.  “The British Postal Service, Privacy, and Jane Austen’s Emma.”  South Atlantic Review 63.4 (Fall 1998): 34-47.
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