The Importance of Letters
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;
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
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,
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
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
and Wickham are to be married.
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
c) Kristy Kassie, November 24, 2008
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice, A Norton
Critical Edition (Third Edition). W. W, Norton and Company Inc.,
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).
2004-2008. The Republic
of Pemberley. 14 November 2008.