Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is widely acknowledged as a timeless love story and a candid portrait of nineteenth century English society. Austen’s omniscient narrative voice is enhanced by character dialogue and correspondence. Austen came of age as a writer shortly after the rise in popularity of the epistolary novel (Lenckos, 2005) and, given that Pride and Prejudice was first written in epistolary form under the title First Impressions, it is apparent that letters serve a specific purpose in Austen’s novels. In Pride and Prejudice, letters contribute to character development, plot advancement and to the creation of social setting.
Much is learned about characters in Pride and Prejudice through correspondence. Jane Austen uses letters to allow her characters to speak beyond the boundaries of the novel’s dialogue and, therefore, implicitly distinguish themselves from other characters. Jane Bennet's letters are tactful and mostly devoid of judgment; Lydia writes with glib disregard. Mr. Gardiner’s letter strives to offer good news and solutions. (Austen, 2001) The most notable juxtaposition is that of Darcy and Mr. Collins. Through their letters, Darcy and Mr. Collins emerge as stark opposites. Mr. Collins relies on the patronage of others while Darcy has earned his wealth and status. Darcy confronts accusations but Mr. Collins assumes his benefit to society pardons his transgressions. Mr. Collins writes of his intention to wed one of the Bennet daughters as if he is doing the family a great favour. (Austen, 2001) Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth 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. (Lenckos, 2005) Remarkably, Darcy’s single letter contains more substance than Mr. Collins’ multiple ramblings, allowing Darcy to emerge as a romantic hero in the minds of readers.
Letters are the reliable medium of the day, the source of much-anticipated invitations and sought-after news. “The most anxious part of each was when the post was expected.” (Austen, 2001) Jane Austen employs letters in the novel to advance the plot, to take readers on a journey through high society life and love. An invitation to Netherfield, and a verbose letter announcing a visit from Mr. Collins, causes a flurry in a household of unmarried daughters and their anxious mother. Further letters temper the excitement as word arrives that the Bingleys are leaving for London and, later, that Lydia has eloped. In true epistolary fashion, it is fitting that the turning point in Pride and Prejudice is Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, “a faithful narrative of every event in which we have been concerned together”, (Austen, 2001) where two major points of contention are resolved. Darcy admits to his part in “detaching” (Austen, 2001) Bingley from Jane and he enlightens her on the history he shares with Wickham. (Austen, 2001) After the reading of this letter, it is as if walls have fallen and the love story can proceed unhindered. The flood of congratulatory letters (Austen, 2001) confirms a happy ending.
Pride and Prejudice is a love a story set against a tradition-driven nineteenth century society. Amid the clash of old money and new money, there is the middle-class struggle to secure the futures of unmarried daughters. Deirdre Le Faye explains that letter-writing was an essential part of social life. (Nixon and Penner, 2005) In her novels, Austen aimed “to create a literature in which genuine, diverse human voices and viewpoints could be directly and colloquially presented.” (Lenckos, 2005) Letters are an intimate expression of human thought and the letters in Pride and Prejudice serve to impress upon readers the formality of communication during hat time. Jane does not take it upon herself to visit Netherfield; instead she waits hopefully for a written invitation. Invitations to other social functions follow the same rule. Family members feel obliged to write one another when they are apart. Jane and Elizabeth correspond frequently when Jane is away. Darcy writes his sister despite Miss Bingley’s distractions and the Bennets’ relatives keep in touch as well. (Austen, 2001) Correspondence reinforces a strong sense of social belonging; to be the recipient of a letter means that one is informed and included. Lydia's elopement causes alarm because she drops out of touch, except for her letter to the Gardiners and waiting for news via mail becomes a ritual. When Mr. Collins writes Mr. Bennet discouraging Elizabeth's marriage to Darcy, Mr. Bennet demands an explanation from his daughter. Although he is unaware of the details of her relationship with Darcy, Mr. Bennet perceives Darcy’s communication with Elizabeth as an intention of marriage.
Jane Austen includes letters in Pride and Prejudice to create real characters with believable trials. In a rime before telephones, waiting for an invitation to Netherfield would have been excruciating for Jane. The cloud of dishonour hangs over the Bennet family until they receive conformation that Lydia and Wickham are to be married. Elizabeth endures a torment of mixed emotions until she reads Darcy’s letter. (Austen, 2001) Although readers do not experience their suspense in real time, the letters act as a dramatic device, mounting and releasing tension.
c) Kristy Kassie, November 24, 2008
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice, A Norton Critical Edition (Third Edition). W. W, Norton and Company Inc., 2001.
Lenckos, Elizabeth. “…[I]inventing elegant letters,” or, why don’t Austen’s lovers write more often”. Persuasions Online V.26, NO.1 (Winter 2005).
Nixon, Cheryl Land Penner, Louise. “Writing by the Book: Jane Austen’s Heroines and the Art and Form of the Letter”. Persuasions Online V.26, NO.1 (Winter 2005).
The Republic of Pemberley. 2004-2008. The Republic of Pemberley. 14 November 2008. http://www.pemberley.com/.