Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

Portrait of a young woman gilbert stuart

Portrait of a Young Woman, writing a letter, by Gilbert Stuart, c. 1802 -1804. Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. I am sorry to have interrupted her; she is rather lovely, rather to be loved and written about than briefly employed as a cover girl.

All roads in this land lead to Pemberley. Jane Austen, the prosaic revolutionary, waits quietly, with gloves and bonnet on, at the crossroads of 18th century and modern novels. The bonnet conceals the expression in her eyes, which isn’t quiet at all.

Audio: Till this moment, I never knew myself

Pride and Prejudice, which seems so fresh and spontaneous on every reading, took eighteen years to evolve, from the first draft written in 1796-97 to publication in 1813. It had a gestation period almost as long as the heroine’s life at the stage when we first meet Elizabeth Bennet, aged 20. And which of us remembers anything before we are two, anyway?

Poor Clarissa Harlowe was only eighteen when her ordeals, recorded in epistolary form by Samuel Richardson, started.

Clarissa is an articulate, morally courageous young woman, not immature at all, whose fortitude and capacity to forgive her abuser overcomes adversity far more severe than any suffered by an Austen heroine – and yet she has martyr written all over her, which Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Elinor Dashwood, even Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price and Anne Eliot, do not.

Their creator gave them autonomy. They step off the page. They walk into our minds, and they get transplanted into other times and places. They dress and speak differently in all these reincarnations, their education and professions and leisure pursuits vary, but they are still recognizable, except, perhaps, when attacked by zombies.

They are not social rebels; they don’t demand equal rights. They would have been deterred by the violent excesses of the French Revolution which had just rocked Europe. The only revolutionary changes that take place are in their own heads.

They are not submissive and they refuse to be victims. They are paragons of self-improvement, never blaming other people or fate for their shortcomings.

They are intelligent young women, articulating a life of the mind richer and more independent than offered by ribbons, posies and billets-doux.


 The Love Letter by Fragonard, 1770s. Image: WGA.
Arch, erotic and epistolary – the Rococo melted away with the advance of more demanding, independent-minded literary heroines.

Jane Austen began writing novels on the conventional epistolary model, and quickly abandoned it after Lady Susan (c. 1794), and the first draft of Sense and Sensibility (c. 1795). Her decision was probably partly prompted by her sense of the absurd. A lot of 18th century readers marvelled at how characters in desperate straits still managed to find opportunity, paper and pens to settle down and write long letters describing everything that had just happened to them, which would be superseded by the time of delivery. We have enough trouble communicating nowadays with disrupted connectivity and batteries running out. To tell a story realistically, you need a less realistic technique.

Drama-documentary is usually distractingly inauthentic; nothing recalls history less than people dressed up in their farthingales or periwigs, sharpening their quills, and speaking into camera on the eve of their executions. Jane Austen’s primary interest was in people’s self-delusion. She knew that most of us no more tell the truth in our letters and private diaries than we do in conversation and public statements.

The truth is too often revealed accidentally, rather than deliberately, by what we try to conceal rather than show. We cannot expect people to read the tone of our letters in the same tone we heard in our heads when we were writing.

The third person narrative gives more power to an ironic, benevolent authorial voice, more information to the reader, and, paradoxically, more freedom to the characters. They don’t have to stay up all night to write their letters after an exhausting day; they don’t have to apologize and explain and lie about themselves the whole time. They are accountable to the god-like narrator, from whom they can still occasionally hide their feelings and motives, until the final reckoning.

Jane Austen’s heroines are well-brought up ladies of the Tory gentry, but they are part of the Romantic generation, and they have their wild side, particularly Lizzy Bennet, who runs and scampers about the countryside, with untidy hair, and laughs spontaneously at conventional society’s vanities and absurdities. 461px-Sally_Siddons_by_Thomas_Lawrence

Sally Siddons by Thomas Lawrence c 1795. Sally had sense and sensibility in equal proportions and had her heart broken by an inconstant lover in whose real character she was deceived.

Pride and Prejudice bears traces of epistolary origins. Letters are used like messengers in classical drama, informing the Bennets and the reader of events far away from the main action, or advance warning of tragi-comic developments, like the arrival of Mr Collins. He does not realize that his letters are transparent, their wheedling pomposity showing his snobbery and self-interest. First impressions are sometimes right.

A letter prises open the deadlock since the moment during the ball in Chapter 3 when Elizabeth overhears the tallest, handsomest, most arrogant man in the assembly-room say of her: “She’s tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me“.

Mr Darcy, deeply hurt by Elizabeth’s rejection and misinterpretation of his motives, comes over as haughty in his letter telling her about the true character of Wickham. His epistolary account alone is not enough to persuade her. Realistically, no letter should be taken as an absolute truth, not even one written by Darcy, whom we’ve all been in love with since Chapter 3.

Elizabeth turns every phrase, every word over and over, every which way, testing it all against her prejudices, memory and sense; she is accuser, judge and jury weighing the documentary evidence against Darcy. Rereading the letter makes her re-examine her own conscience. She goes from condemning him for pride and insolence to being “absolutely ashamed of herself”.

hammershoiInterior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor, 1901 by Vilhelm Hammershøi. Image: SMK

Like another mortified young woman, Emma Woodhouse, a few years later, she puts herself on trial; like every heroine in Jane Austen, she grows to know herself. And instead of just taking her word for it, we are privileged real-time witnesses of the enlightenment taking place in her mind as she unfolds and rereads the letter, while “wandering along the lane for two hours.”

We can overhear Lizzy’s confession: “‘How despicably have I acted!'” here



5 comments on “Epistolary (Half) Eschewed

  1. […] sense of anxiety reached into the heart of middle England where Jane Austen’s heroines  embarked on perilous journeys of self-examination, and where Marianne Dashwood is driven to nervous […]


  2. […] Some letters are too personally important to be read in front of witnesses; their content penetrates your mind so deeply that you feel your axis shift. The minutes you spent physically reading a letter like that are preserved in your mind for ever. You will never be quite the same again. Till this moment I never knew myself. […]


  3. Regarding Mr Darcy “whom we’ve all been in love with since Chapter 3”: Preach it, sister. That is the best, most succinct appraisal.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. erickeyswriter says:

    “nothing recalls history less than people dressed up in their farthingales or periwigs, sharpening their quills, and speaking into camera on the eve of their executions.”

    I hate that! I see so many TV documentaries that do that these days. It’s incredibly jarring and I have no idea why people do it. Does anyone really appreciate that sort of thing?

    “Jane Austen’s primary interest was in people’s self-delusion. She knew that most of us no more tell the truth in our letters and private diaries than we do in conversation and public statements.”

    It’s interesting to see why this shift in genre occurred. Now I’m wondering what prompted to move from 3rd person omniscient back to a non-epistolary 1st person. I suppose in some sense you retain an immediacy and intimacy that is missing from 3rd person but you also avoid all the “overhead” of giving the characters a time and opportunity to write all of these letters! And I think writers have become more sophisticated in indicating when a narrator is being unreliable – which is most of the time it seems.

    I’m rather glad that “Pride and Prejudice bears traces of epistolary origins.” I think certain horror writers – H. P. Lovecraft comes to mind – have managed to revive to some degree the epistolary novel in ways that make a bit more sense and perhaps draw on Austen’s technique. Usually the letters are written and read in a larger frame story where it makes sense that the only peak we’d have into those events is through these sorts of reports. For example, a narrator is trying to reconstruct an event and his sources are limited to letters and other written records. Often the story includes the narrator trying to piece together the reality from the letters, reports, press clippings, etc. The combination of first person narrative with injected epistles is often quite powerful. Some day I hope to figure out why this technique is as effective as it is.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. beetleypete says:

    Confirmation that you have ‘the voice’ for Austen. Undeniable.

    Perhaps we are always destined to read of the period with modern sensibilities in our minds. We transplant 20th and 21st century values and emotional reactions, never really being able to understand the rigid class system of the day, and how it affected all life.

    I like the Hammershoi painting. The depiction of white on canvas is an art in itself.
    Best wishes as always, Pete. x

    Liked by 1 person

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